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Saturday, October 18, 2003

Bright vs. bright.

Remember the brights? Cullen Murphy notices a religious dimension to the proud-to-be-free-of-religion movement — and predicts a schism!

Meanwhile, Chris C. Mooney, a fine writer on science and politics, thinks the rebranding effort could have used some polling and message testing first. Writing for the "Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal" Web site (as reputable a group of skeptics as you could ask for — and prime candidates for the "bright" movement), Mooney says:

[T]hough [Richard] Dawkins and [Daniel] Dennett may know a lot about evolutionary biology, the packaging and marketing of ideas — what we might call the science of "framing" — might not be their strongest suit. A basic lesson of framing is that you have to avoid promulgating messages that reinforce negative stereotypes, because these stereotypes tend to be too deeply held to defeat head-on. . . .

It doesn't matter whether Dawkins or Dennett or anyone else actually is claiming to be super smart. Simply by announcing the label "brights," the damage has already been done. When people — most of whom are religious believers — hear that word, the vast majority will likely revert to the stereotypical atheists-as-arrogant frame, which has already been burned into their psyches. That means the "brights" label will have failed. In fact, it will have backfired, making the anti-atheist stereotype even harder for future atheists to defeat or dislodge in the future.

Mooney says Dawkins and Dennett were naive to think you just launch a "meme" and watch it catch on. That's certainly true. But Dawkins wasn't naive; he was deliberately provocative. Here's the key passage in his original column on the subject:

"I am bright" sounds arrogant. "I am a bright" sounds too unfamiliar to be arrogant: it is puzzling, enigmatic, tantalising. It invites the question, "What on earth is a bright?" And then you're away: "A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view."

"You mean a bright is an atheist?"

"Well, some brights are happy to call themselves atheists. Some brights call themselves agnostics. Some call themselves humanists, some free thinkers. But all brights have a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism."

"Oh, I get it. It's a bit like 'gay'. So, what's the opposite of a bright? What would you call a religious person?"

"What would you suggest?"

Oh, I don't know. How about "a dim"? That oughta win friends and influence people.

And what was so awful about the "humanist" brand? Oops. The American Humanist Association wants to be bright, too. I thought they were focused on disseminating their new manifesto, "Humanism and Its Aspirations."

Mooney is focused primarily on the most effective way to guarantee the civil rights of nonreligious Americans, an agenda I fully endorse. (See also fellow-atheist Kevin Drum's comments.) But as a religious person in a denomination that already embraces and promotes the dignity of people who don't believe in God, the issue isn't only whether "bright" is the best way to make religious people respect irreligious people. You can be smart, committed to science, and religious — a combination that seems to baffle Dawkins and Dennett.

You can read the rest of my commentary on the "bright" campaign in my UU World review of Mary Midgley's The Myths We Live By and Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature. The magazine is in the mail now, and I'll add a link when the review is on-line next week. [Done!]

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 18 October 2003 at 7:27 PM

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