Not Too Bright
Posted on June 25, 2003 Posted by John Scalzi 31 Comments
Some people are wanting to euphemistize (and no, I’m not sure that’s a real word) atheists and agnostics with the word “bright.” So instead of saying “I’m an atheist” or “I’m an agnostic,” like you do today, you’d say “I’m bright,” and everyone would know that you have what these people would term a “naturalistic worldview.” And also, one assumes, you’d continue to get the benefit of the word’s current association, which means “intelligent.” So what you’d really be saying is “I don’t believe in God, and I’m pretty smart to think that way.”
This is a pretty dumb idea, on several different levels. To begin, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either “atheist” or “agnostic.” Both are widely understood, and as an added benefit, both are etymologically descriptive. Taken down to its roots, “atheist” clearly states that the person described does not believe in a god or gods; likewise “agnostic” means “unknowable,” which fits in with the agnostic world view that the existence of god is unknowable. “Bright,” on the other hand, does not have anything to do with god (it ultimately comes down from a Sanskrit word which means “it shines”). It is not descriptive of the things these people wish for it to describe.
Now, in many languages and especially in English, we attach new meanings to old words all the time (“cool,” “hip,” “gay,” etc); this is obviously what these people are trying to do (they make the assertion that they’re breaking new ground by claiming “bright” as a noun, which will come as news to the detergent industry, which has been trying to get my brights their brightest for years). But as purveyors of words, one should ask why it’s necessary. It’s not necessary for an etymological reason — as noted, “atheist” and “agnostic” perfectly describe their condition, while “bright” confuses it. And we’re not borrowing a word to describe a previously unnamed condition or phenomenon.
There’s only one reason to use “bright,” as far as I can see, and that would be as a euphemism. But I’m not very keen on euphemisms. Euphemisms are basically pleasant ways to describe unpleasant things — or, more accurately from a sociological standpoint, things a society deems to be unpleasant. This is why homosexuals are called “gay.” So implicitly, the people pushing “bright” are saying that it’s unacceptable in society to be known as either atheists or agnostics — that it’s better to hide your thoughts behind a nice happy word than to just be what you are. This is nonsense, and I think it shows a certain level of self-loathing, and a desire to foist that self-loathing on other people.
(Does this mean that gay people, or other people who use common euphemisms, are self-loathing? No. For one thing, in the specific case of “gay,” the euphemism is so common that it’s not a euphemism anymore — “gay” when referring to a person means “homosexual” to the exclusion of all other meanings. Call someone “gay” and no one will think you mean they are sunny and cheerful; they’ll think you mean that like having sex with people of their gender. Go on, try it.
The word’s been in that usage for longer than today’s gay people have been alive; indeed, “gay” as a word describing homosexuality predates the actual word “homosexual,” which was coined at the turn of the 20th century. Be that as it may, initially people didn’t start using the word “gay” because they wanted to celebrate the happy dispositions of the homosexual men they knew.)
I’m agnostic, which I feel is the intellectually honest thing to be as regards god; in my opinion, I sort of doubt a god exists, particularly one that spent any time raising plagues or smiting people with boils. But I could be wrong, and I’m perfectly fine with that. As an agnostic, I’m happy to be known as an agnostic; my own self-image does not need to sugarcoat my belief (or lack thereof), and I certainly don’t feel the need to sugarcoat my beliefs for anyone else. So I won’t be calling myself “bright” in this context.
Nor do I think should any atheist or agnostic with the slightest bit of personal courage. The people pushing the word call it “fresh, free, and unencumbered.” On the contrary, it’s arbitrary, self-loathing and encumbered with assumptions about the words whose meanings its promoters intend it to cover, all of them bad. It goes to show that while many bright people are atheists and agnostics, not all atheists and agnostics are that bright. In the accepted sense of the term, of course.
I think that “bright” does have religous connotations- specifically in Genesis, where God creates light and seperates it from the darkness, and there is something about Jesus and light, and of course the term “I saw the light”
I just wanted to comment that I think it is interesting that agnostics and athiests are grouped together. It is really an inaccurate coupling.
To state that you are unsure of the existence if God is honest, and leaning one way or the other is understandable.
To state conclusively that “There is no God” is actually a leap of faith, and not based on any sort of empirical evidence- which might also characterize unquestioned belief in God.
Athiesm and Thiesm are both based on non scientific intuitive assumptions and should therefore be grouped together.
Or as James Joyce said (and I’m paraphrasing as I can’t remember the precise wording) “It’s not that I believe in God but that I’m afraid there might be a god.
I would have thought that bright would have been a better description for a gnostic. Not too many of those around however.
On atheism requiring its own leap of faith, Terry Pratchett has an interesting take on that. In his discworld he has a few athiests (Sgt. Simony is one). They have true faith in the non-existence of god(s) even when confronted with the various gods of the discworld. This can be very funny at times.
One nitpick: they would *not* say “I’m bright”, they would say “I’m a Bright,” explicitly using it as a noun and repeatedly discouraging uses which would make it sound like the adjective.
One more example of the increasing inaccuracy of modern American English (I make the distinction because I don’t know if a similar phenomenon is occuring in other English-speaking countries). Beginning with the PC movement in the 80s, we’ve been trying to eliminate “unpleasant” words in favor of warm ‘n’ fuzzy expressions that don’t make anyone feel bad and yet are often less descriptive than their objectionable predecessors. African-American bothers me because most people who are described in that way have never set foot in Africa and are generations removed from anyone who has. I don’t identify myself as an English-Norweigian-American, although I certainly could under the current paradigms used to express ethnicity. I also dislike the trend towards pompous, overblown job titles that try to hide what a person really does. Sorry, but in my book there’s no such as a sanitation engineer, there are only garbage collectors. But at least those examples are intended to alleviate some potential hurt caused by older terminology. This “bright” thing seems to be intended to produce a subtle superiority for the people who label themselves as “brights.” I hope this movement dies a rapid, miserable death…
Dave: “Athiesm and Thiesm are both based on non scientific intuitive assumptions and should therefore be grouped together.”
I guess this group also includes anyone who either believes in or denies the existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and any of the Lord of the Ring characters.
Some group; it includes everyone. But thanks for the laugh.
“Some group; it includes everyone.”
Actually, it excludes agnostics.
“It’s not that I believe in God but that I’m afraid there might be a god.”
I used to work with a “just-in-case” Christian, who openly admitted that she only went to church for that reason (i.e. that there *might* be a God). I hope God wasn’t listening when she told me that :-)
Agnosticism (is that a word? who knows?) suits me fine, if only because I don’t see why the existence or otherwise of an omnipotent deity should make any difference to how I live my life.
And to the other Andrew: Terry Pratchett rocks :-)
Kind of apprehensive about hitting “Post” here – first post nerves… ah, what the heck.
As an atheist, I agree that this is a really stupid idea.
Of course, agnosticism isn’t actually a position on the theistic question (is there a god); it’s a position on the gnostic question (can we know whether there is a god). Atheism can be a positive believe that there are no gods, but it can also be a simple lack of belief in any gods (covering anything ranging from the person who’s never heard of the concept of a deity, through the person who doesn’t feel the question has any meaning, through your average inanimate object which is, obviously, incapable of theism, and must default to atheism as a result).
In other words, theism is pretty much binary: you’re either a theist, or you’re not. But there are degrees at both ends; you might be a monotheist or polytheist on one side, you might be a positive “I believe there is no god” atheist or a negative “I have no belief in a god or gods” atheist on the other side.
Agnosticism is entirely compatible with both atheism and theism; it describes what you believe can be known, rather than what you believe or don’t believe.
Anyway, that little rant aside, this is a bit sillier than trying to push the name “childfree.”
Sunny beach and dirty basket! What a terrible euphemism. Where did this come from anyway? Is there a website to promote the movement?
Sorry if using the word “Therefore” sounded obnoxious. I was just saying- that being uncertian (agnosticism) might appropriately be a seperate grouping from being certian (atheism or theism), in reference to things that have never been proven.
All I know is that John Scalzi wrote a book on the nature of the universe, and even he refered to himself as an agnostic- I defer to science.
But, in response to Kafkaesquí, the person who equated belief in God to a belief in “Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and any of the Lord of the Ring characters.”:
A. No adult I’ve ever met has observed presents appearing in their house that they couldn’t account for- it is a story they tell their children; Reindeer are not built to fly; and nobody lives at the north pole.
B. Nobody even claims that LOTR might have been real (except for you, I guess.) It was a fictional story written in the 1940’s by JRR Tolkein. There are people alive today who were around then, if you still don’t believe me.
C…. I guess you’re right- there just might be an Easter Bunny.
Another religious connotation for “Bright”:
Lucifer is latin for “light-bearer”.
Thanks to our Constitiution, we have freedom of speech in this country, and people have a right to call themselves whatever they want. If a group of agnostics and athiests wish to describe themselves as “Brights,” well, I guess they have that right. Likewise, if someone were to label themself a “Bright” in my presence, I would have the right to counter-label them as an “idiot.” Again, my right under the Constitution. It’s merely an attempt to control a debate by defining vocabulary terms.
And for the record, I’m an agnostic polytheist: I have a belief in more than one god, but I know that it is impossible for humans to have concrete knowledge of deity.
As an agnostic…I too think this is a really stupid idea.
Bill – I’ve never heard the argument phrased this way – I generally don’t participate in the Agnostic vs Atheist types of discussions as I usually find them a waste of my time. I consider myself an agnostic according to the standard interpretation of that word and I’ve never really bothered to dig deeper. But since you have presented such an interesting twist I think I have to delve in.
I wonder where you have come up with the gnostic question phrased as “Can we know whether there is a god?”. (let me know if you have a source, I’d really like to read it) But from my knowledge of the terms. I would think a better phrasing of the gnostic question would be “Is there a spiritual truth?”.
If gnosis is knowledge of spiritual truth then the gnostics are those who believe in spritual truth whether it is truth A or truth B. The agnostics are those who deny spiritual truth or have no belief in spirtual truth. Again it’s basically binary, if we are to use gnostic/agnostic this generally. In this way, it would still be possible to be an agnostic and atheist but it would not be possible to be an agnostic and a theist. The differnce I can discern is that the gnostic question is simply more general not fundamentally different.
To take a look at it another way we can use different but equally valid meanings for the terms. Sometimes when people refer to gnostics they are refering to people who believe in an almost Manichean dualism with the good focused on the platonic ideals as oppossed to the material or, even more specifically, followers of early christian sects.
According to this definition of gnostic, agnostic could mean a realm of different things. It could be someone who believes in Manichean dualism with the good focused on the material, for instance. Or even more specifically, one who is not a follower of an early christian sect. This definition would even make it possible to be an agnostic southern baptist.
I’m not sure any of these formulations clarify the issues. Generally when people say atheist they are referring to the person who would state “I believe there is no god” while the agnostic is the person who would state “I have no belief in a god or gods”. I find those definitions to be the most clear and helpful.
Dave – Quit making Kafkaesquí’s point for him. He was saying of agnostics that if they cannot take a position of the existence of God even with all evidence pointing to unlikely they likewise cannot take a position on the existence of unicorns, fairies and Santa Clause. He is right, of course, though that does nothing to diminish the agnostic position. One cannot know with certainty that there are no unicorns or fairies. I can state with certainty that Santa Clause has not delivered presents to my house but I cannot prove that he doesn’t exist. Nor would I try to.
“Generally when people say atheist they are referring to the person who would state ‘I believe there is no god’ while the agnostic is the person who would state ‘I have no belief in a god or gods’.”
That’s pretty good, I like that. I’ve never felt right about using any particular label for myself- both words have implications to me that I don’t care for, although under that definition I’d be an agnostic.
Looking at this website makes me think, “Don’t these people have anything better to do?” Damn. What the hell kind of person wakes up in the morning and decides that the world needs a movement like this?
“Generally when people say atheist they are referring to the person who would state ‘I believe there is no god’ while the agnostic is the person who would state ‘I have no belief in a god or gods’.”
Doesn’t work too well for me. It’s not terribly precise.
Most atheists I know don’t take the position, “I know there’s no god.” They instead take the position, “the existence or non-existence of a deity isn’t something that can be proven,” making them agnostic, “but in the absence of proof of the existence of a deity, the reasonable assumption is that there isn’t one,” making them atheists as well. The “continuum” categorization — theist-agnostic-atheist — while certainly the more common usage, doesn’t allow for this type of atheist, which seems to make up a big honkin’ proportion of atheists. Instead, we think of two separate axes: theism and gnosticism. This allows for a whole lot more precision. (I refer you back to John’s entry about homophiliacs, just for kicks.)
I didn’t just make this up; all these terms are included at religioustolerance.org, and discussed in some depth at (I believe both) infidels.org and atheists.org.
“He is right, of course, though that does nothing to diminish the agnostic position. One cannot know with certainty that there are no unicorns or fairies. I can state with certainty that Santa Clause has not delivered presents to my house but I cannot prove that he doesn’t exist. Nor would I try to.”
The question isn’t proving or disproving santa claus, or god. The question is more “how likely do I think this is?” The problem a lot of people who self identify as atheists have with people who self identify as agnostics is that frequently agnostics seem to use their insistance upon scientific precision to obscure their actual position. A person who thinks the question of god’s existance or non existance is an unanswerable mystery and the person who thinks that, technically speaking, the idea of a god cannot be disproven scientifically, but in the weight of the evidence is the most absurd thing they’ve ever heard, can both call themselves agnostics if they choose. However, many from the second category pick the term atheist to describe themselves because they feel it is more likely to accurately describe them to other people. Their position is often that, although scientifically a negative can never be proven, it is still possible to draw conclusions based on likelihood. So, it is just as unnecessary to continually concede the possibility of the existance of god based on a tiny, tiny chance that he might exist as it is necessary to continually attach a disclaimer to Newton’s Laws.
Great reference. I suppose I’ll still refer to myself as Agnostic but I now have a more nuanced appreciation for the term. I especially liked reading about the etymology of term. Turns out my references to gnostics and gnosis was way off base. These terms are more like sisters and brothers of the term agnostic having their root in the greek gnostic meaning knowledge. Great stuff – thanks.
Patrick – Great points. I can be refered to as an Atheist in these ways but I still call myself agnostic. One reason I express this lack of surety in religous discussion while not generally expressing it in scientific discussion is because of the audience I am speaking too. When speaking in a scientific context the lack of certainty is generally taken as an understood. When speaking in a religous context this is not generally understood and often has to be made explicit. As an example, Kafkaesquí’s statement implied Santa Clause’s non-existence as an absolute. I had to point out that this could not be proven.
after reading their FAQs, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea overall – the implied goal seems to be grouping unbelievers into a coherent constituency that can serve as a counterweight to the Religious Right, which i’d certainly like to see. i just wish they’d pick a different term, because ‘Bright’ is awful. And it bothers me that “Why ‘bright’?” isn’t on the FAQ, since it must surely be asked of them most frequently and i can’t find any explanation of why they chose it.
So, supposing that we did need a new term for ‘someone with a naturalistic worldview’, what would you guys suggest?
>> “Some group; it includes everyone.”
“Actually, it excludes agnostics.”
Actually, it doesn’t. Unless you can show that agnostics carry this level of uncertainty to all possible beliefs, no matter how extreme, they too are part of this “group” of Dave’s. It’s the rare esoteric swami who can accomplish such an absolutist philosophical fence-sitting. And I bet he still won’t write Santa come December.
I’ll go a little further than on what Rich commented upon.
A. Yet children in the million accept the theology found in the gospels of Saint Nick. A fairy tale no adult would take seriously? Jesus Christ is responsible for keeping grandpa from being mangled in a car crash, and the goddess Bhagawati is incarnated in a girl born with four eyes, two noses and two mouths. When compared to these adult world views, what’s to ridicule in the flight capabilities of reindeer or Santa’s choice in real estate?
B. We obviously don’t hang in the same social circles. Yes, LOTR is a fictional tale, created by a British author. Thanks for pointing that out. At issue is not the reality of Bilbo Baggins or the Easter Bunny.
Rephrasing around what Patrick has said, did Hobbits once exist? Is there an omnipotent and omnipresent being we owe our devotion to? Answering in the affirmative to the former is laughed at. Yet such a judgment in both cases is similar, in that — in the end — it stands on faith alone. And if it wasn’t clear, I don’t accept the argument that atheism is akin to theism. Lacking a belief in gods is not about working an assumption they don’t exist. I also don’t believe in Santa, but not because I find the idea of him foolish; it’s that I see no evidence that leads me to accept him as real.
Humanist? Yeah, I know. Brings along a lot of baggage.
I’m a bit confused. I looked at the website a bit. Granted, I did not read every inch of it and mostly just skimmed what I did read. I don’t see that they are trying to create a euphanism for atheists and agnostics such as “gay” is for homosexuals. It sounds to me like they are trying to get a bunch of people who hold what they call “naturalistic” world views, in which atheist and agnostics may or may not be a subgroup, together to have some sort of social and political constituency, or even, for lack of a better word…religion? To call themselves “Brights” is a little pretentious, but I guess if you are going to try to start a group to bring people together with common beliefs, you have to call them something. They even say that the word, “Bright” is their umbrella term to collectively bring like minded people together. I didn’t get John’s take on it at all. But, maybe I missed something. It sounds like a Unitarian Universalist knockoff but without the chalise lighting and the word “church” after the name.
Another thing I’m confused about. Am I completely tripping tonight or did I read somewhere, John, that you were (and I’m paraphrasing) fine with all religions as long as they included Jesus Christ. Not that it makes a difference to me what religion you are (well, I may draw the line if you were sacrificing kitties to Satan), but thought it was just a departure from what you said here. Maybe it was a satirical comment. Maybe I should do a google search and see if I have you mixed up with someone else??? I could have swore I read that from you somewhere. Just curious…
“Another thing I’m confused about. Am I completely tripping tonight or did I read somewhere, John, that you were (and I’m paraphrasing) fine with all religions as long as they included Jesus Christ.”
Hmmm. Doesn’t sound like me, unless I was being sarcastic. Girl, you must be trippin’!
Henry, yes. It was described in a Guardian column by Richard Dawkins: http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,981412,00.html
And the movement has a website at http://www.the-brights.net/
Andrew, your friend was describing Pascal’s Wager: that the horror you’ll be subjected to if you *don’t* believe in God is so great and the inconvenience of being a practising Christian so small that you may as well be religious, Just In Case. Personally, I don’t think much of that argument, because: what if you choose wrong? I’m reminded of the South Park episode where it turned out that the religion which turned out to be 100% correct about the whole God issue was the Mormons. Er, that’s a pretty hazy memory, actually.
Terry Pratchett actually addressed the issue of Pascal’s Wager in one of his Discworld books (alas, I forget which one). The philosopher who made the argument discovered, upon his death, that he was encircled by a large group of Gods armed with sticks with nails in them, saying “here’s what we think of Mr Smartarse then”.
The atheist issue was mostly brought up in his Greatest Discworld Book Ever (and second-greatest *book*, first going to “Good Omens”, co-authored with Neil Gaiman), “Small Gods”, which featured Sgt Simony. Simony’s belief in the nonexistance of gods was so great that he even stood before the Great God Om (modelled on the horrible, selfish God of the Old Testament) and declared that his existance wasn’t proof of his existance (“This isn’t over! Don’t think you can get around me by existing!”). Simony’s hatred of gods (for the sin of not existing) was so strong that it filled the role of belief. Also, several characters in “Small Gods” said (to the point where it stopped being funny, alas): “the gods love atheists; gives them something to aim at.”
Ahem. I’m a geek.
This is an interesting sentence:
It’s the rare esoteric swami who can accomplish such an absolutist philosophical fence-sitting.
I don’t really think it’s that rare – of course I could be wrong but it is my impression most people adopting the agnostic viewpoint aren’t simply being lazy. Rather they adopt an ultimate philosophical uncertainty which combines well with the scientific world outlook. It certainly isn’t esoteric – esoteric having a very explicit meaning in the english language. And I doubt, though I obviously cannot know, that anyone holding this position would feel comfortable with the title of Swami.
But I love the term “absolutist philosophical fence-sitting”. I will not move from the top of the fence if we are discussing issues within the context of surety. This doesn’t mean I won’t acknowledge which argument is more likely. The question “Can you prove god exists?” doesn’t preclude the question “Is it likely god exists?”. We can ask both, they have different meaning. My answer to the first is no, my answer to the second is also no.
OK, (not that I expect any responses at this late date)
Maybe theism isn’t the right word- maybe we need to compare athiesm to a specific religon. Basically, these people both agree that “All belief systems are wrong but mine” and would disagree with the majority of God believing people (meaning a Christian could think that jews, muslims, hindus, buddhists, etc are being silly. while an athiest could think that christians, jews, muslims, hindus, buddhists, etc are being silly.)
Why does “I don’t believe in God, but there is a possibility that he exists.” qualify both athiest and agnostic,
But “I believe in God, but there is a possibility that he doesn’t exist.” not qualify as both theistic and agnostic?
I’m saying they are analagous.
100 years ago, Newton’s Laws were taken as the truth (specifically his theories about the relativity of motion) now, only some of them are on account of Einstein, who postulates the consistancy of the speed of light.
And Einstien’s theories have been adjusted since then as well- if not as profoundly.
“Is there a God that we owe devotion to?” is an agnostic question, and is compatable with the idea that there is a God in the same way that it is compatable to the idea that there is not.
My point is that to feel that the ultimate nature of the universe is unknowable is agnostic.
To feel that the underlying nature of the universe is knowable (There is a specific kind of God) or(There is not a God) is the opposite-
– and by underlying I don’t mean “gravity makes things fall” underlying is more like “the grand unifying theory of the four forces,” or more accurately, the questions that that theory would then pose.
An agnostic doesn’t necessarily claim that it’s impossible for anyone to know whether god(s) exist(s) — it can merely claim that such evidence has not been presented to the agnostic.
Also, if the gods are taking aim at me, they either have very subtle effects or lousy aim.
Jeez, I should be working instead of this…. what an impratical discussion- but for some reason it compells me.
I’m not saying that agnostics say its impossible to know- I’m saying that agnostics say that they don’t know.
…. I’m the one who’s saying it’s impossible to know.
….”Also, if the gods are taking aim at me, they either have very subtle effects or lousy aim.”… good one.
This first thing this reminded me of, actually,
was the way that some Scientologists refer to
themselves as ‘Clear’.
And what’s wrong with Skeptic? It’ll probably
suffice even if you don’t strictly fall within
the school of Pyrrhonism.
Also, following the lead of Spike Lee vs. Spike
TV, maybe Poppy Brite will sue.
“Why does ‘I don’t believe in God, but there is a possibility that he exists.’ qualify both athiest and agnostic,
But ‘I believe in God, but there is a possibility that he doesn’t exist.’ not qualify as both theistic and agnostic?”
That’s not exactly how I’d word either of the two statements (rather than saying “there is a possibility…” I’d say “it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to prove the case either way”), but otherwise: It DOES qualify as both theistic and agnostic. You can be a gnostic theist, a gnostic atheist, an agnostic theist, or an agnostic atheist. And that pretty much covers it.
I’ll leave with a quote I’m particularly fond of, from a guy named John McCarthy:
“An atheist doesn’t have to be someone who thinks he has a proof that there can’t be a god. He only has to be someone who believes that the evidence on the God question is at a similar level to the evidence on the werewolf question.”
I’m so bright my mother calls me ‘Sonny’, and even I think it is a stewpid idea.
Correcting a misunderstanding in Rich’s comment:
Appreciate the appreciation of my phrase “it’s the rare esoteric swami who can accomplish such an absolutist philosophical fence-sitting,” but it was not aimed at agnostics; at least not in the specific. The ‘rare esoteric swami’ would be an agnostic who is…agnostic in ALL system of beliefs, religious or not.