Three years later what has become of the ‘Brights Movement?’

I was surprised to realize that the attempt to come up with a new name for non-religious people—The Brights—was launched some three years ago. The reason I’m surprised is because I’ve been trying to formulate an entry on my feelings about the effort ever since I first heard about it so it still seems like a relatively new thing to me. Yes, that means I’ve had a topic I’ve been trying to come up with something coherent to say about for the past three years. Ain’t ADHD grand?

Anyway, there’s an interesting article over at the Institute for Humanist Studies website that asks The Brights: Where Are They Now?.

In summer 2003 the noun “Bright” burst into the lexicon after it appeared in a column by Richard Dawkins in the London Guardian and in a column by Daniel Dennett in the New York Times. The coiners of the term, Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, defined a Bright as “a person whose worldview is naturalistic (free of supernatural and mystical elements).”

Despite the term’s auspicious introduction by two world-renowned scientists, I’m still looked at quizzically by members of the general public when I use “bright” as a noun. Such confusion prompted me to research the current state of the “Brights Movement.”

After a bit of a discussion on the ideas behind the movement the article goes on to explain that since the concept was first put forward around 21,000 people have registered themselves as Brights with the organization and the growth rate of new members is about 4,500 people a year. The author goes on to wonder why, despite the steady growth, the general public aren’t familiar with the movement:

Why doesn’t the general public recognize Bright as a noun? I believe that there are two reasons for this lack of awareness. The first is the very term itself –- “Bright”—that was chosen to represent a category of people. The Brights website states “One long-term goal is to change the vocabulary of mainstream society such that bright is used in a new way, somewhat analogous to the use of the word gay.”

Unfortunately, co-opting the word “bright” has different implications than co-opting the word “gay.” The original meaning of “gay” is happy or joyous, so if you were not gay before about 1965, you were sad –- not exactly an insult. If you were gay, it simply described your temporary emotional state and made no comment upon your value as a person. However, if you are not bright in the traditional sense of the word, then you are…dumb. Describing someone as bright makes a positive statement on his/her intellectual capacity; therefore most people will not call themselves bright for fear of appearing arrogant.

I have to admit that my initial reaction when I first heard the term “Bright” used in this way was that it was kind of stupid and would only cause problems when non-Brights assumed that Brights were essentially saying they were idiots. Now I have no qualms telling people when I think they’re an idiot, but I tend to do so in a very direct manner because one of the problems with their idiocy is that indirect or sly references to their lack of mental capacity are often beyond their ability to recognize. The few of them who manage to draw the logical implication of being a non-Bright—that they’re an idiot—would probably be even more incensed by the perceived attempt at a clever insult than if I just flat out told them they were an idiot in the first place.

I understand what the folks who came up with this idea were trying to accomplish. There’s a lot of negative baggage associated with words such as “atheist” or “humanist” and there are a lot of non-religious people who aren’t necessarily agnostic or atheist. The attempt was to come up with a positive label that included all people with a naturalistic worldview that was free of the negative baggage. Alas, as is often the case with such attempts, it hasn’t exactly worked out as well as some have hoped:

Despite Futrell and Geisert’s insistence that the word as a noun has a different meaning than its use as an adjective, you cannot erase the public’s lexical memory (the Scientologists have discovered this in their effort to use “clear” as a noun to describe themselves). Therefore, many who fit the definition of a Bright have been reluctant to identify themselves as such, and those who have are often viewed as arrogant and pretentious. Brights thus face the same problem as those who identify themselves as atheists or liberals –- public opprobrium due to their use of a word that other segments of society have managed to turn into “dirty” words.

But it was this very problem –- having to use words loaded with cultural baggage –- that the term “Bright” was coined to escape! Will Brights be able to create a more positive view of the word so that others will proudly identify themselves as Brights to the public to create the awareness that is necessary to gain social and political influence?

Which brings me to my objection to using the term myself: If it’s going to take all this extra work to give the term “Bright” a more positive view among the general public then we may as well skip it altogether and work on ridding words like “humanist,” “godless,” and “atheist” of the negative implications those words have. In short, why bother with a new term if it’s going to take as much work as any of the old terms? Sure, it has a certain Big Tent appeal to it in that it refers to a wider range of people, but if no one has a friggin’ clue what you mean by it and are likely to get insulted if you use it then there’s probably not a lot to be gained by using it.

The second problem with creating awareness of the Brights as a distinct category is the frequent lumping together of Brights and atheists. Much of the public that is aware of the term believe it to be a synonym for atheist. An article in Science and Theology News that stated “These anti-religious atheists, who want us to call them “brights….” required Futrell and Geisert to reply in the magazine that “There is a rather startling spectrum of people who are Brights…atheists, agnostics, ethical culturalists, humanists, secular humanistis, freethinkers, rationalists, naturalists and skeptics….There are plenty of ‘nones’ –- the individuals who, when confronted by a questionnaire that asks ‘Religion?’ will state ‘None.’”

What seems to be getting overlooked here is the fact that, among many believers, there’s already the impression that there’s not much difference between “atheists, agnostics, ethical culturalists, humanists, secular humanistis, freethinkers, rationalists, naturalists and skeptics” to begin with—they’re all nasty evil people out to destroy America—so lumping them all under the rather pretentious sounding label of Brights is just an attempt at obfuscation in their eyes.

By the definition offered at their website I’m most definitely a Bright, but I’ve not signed up with them and I don’t use the term myself. I do consider myself to be bright in the adjective use of the word, but I don’t see much point in using it as a noun. Sure some folks are offended when I say that I’m an atheist, but the problem lies with them, not me, so I don’t see the need to try and come up with a new term to try and avoid offending those people. Especially when that new term is just as likely to offend them by implication anyway.

34 thoughts on “Three years later what has become of the ‘Brights Movement?’

  1. I feel the same way; ‘Bright’ sounds painfully self-congratulatory, in a PZ Meyers, “Religious people are all too stupid to breathe” kind of way.

    The great majority of the religious people I know personally are kind, decent people and certainly as ‘bright’ as I am (not that it’s a great accomplishment).  So why invent a label that conveys an insult?

  2. The new naming campaign sounds more like an effort to avoid the obvious or escape true accountability for ones beliefs/convictions.

    Or maybe just a “Lets start are own club” thing that was popular in HS.

  3. I agree with DOF and Mrs. SEB.  To me it’s just another label.  Another way to separate us into groups so we can all be different from one another.  So we can have a reason to bicker, to fight, and to yell at each other. 

    People need to learn that we are all different and don’t necessarily want to be like you.  And if they don’t understand that, well… just as Les said, “The problem lies with them, not me.”

  4. While the term ‘Bright’ sounds appealing, I have never identified myself with that label. It does sound a bit arrogant. I felt that if I told my friends I was a ‘Bright’, that it would imply that they were the opposite… dumb.

    I’m pretty comfortable with the term ‘Atheist’. To be honest, I never felt the need to call or think of myself as anything else.

  5. I’ve actually wondered on more than one occasion why you haven’t mentioned this subject. The funny part is that I already kinda knew how you felt without you even saying it. grin In the interest of full disclosure, I am on the mailing list, but more to keep track of their progress than to use the term. I find it a little uncomfortable to use for the reasons already stated here.

  6. I may end up signing up for the mailing list for the same reason, Brooks. I’m not necessarily opposed to the concept and I wish them good luck in their endeavor, but I’m not going to refer to myself as a Bright anytime soon. I’d still like to keep tabs on how they’re doing though.

  7. Another example that just occurred to me is the label; “Pro-Life”, which implies that everyone else is anti-life. 

    Yeah, I think our time and credibility would be better spent rehabilitating the descriptive words ‘atheist’, ‘humanist’, and such.

  8. Yep, “bright” is a lead balloon.  My preferred terms are PZ Myers’ “natural” and JK Rowling’s “muggle”, although the oldfashioned “freethinker” has a nice ring to it.  But if we don’t establish atheism as something at least as honorable as theism, pretty names will get us nowhere.

  9. I don’t think the term ‘bright’ will take off because it is specifically antagonistic.  My eyes tend to glaze over when someone starts preaching about God, but they also tend to glaze over when people start saying religion a silly myth.  True or not, the term makes the majority of the population “outsiders”  That is why it’s not catching on.

    Anyhow.. I’m not a big fan of labels in general.  I am a thinking human being.  That is the only thing you may assume.  If you want to know more, talk to me.  Any label you’re likely to come up with is probably going to be wrong.  I’m sorry.  I can’t wish “the Brights” well.  I hope they fail.

  10. I’m on the mailing list. I used to be a member until they totally frecked up their database/website and lost everything, and I never bothered to re-register. I don’t use the term, I don’t identify myself with the term. Atheist works just fine for me (as does progressive liberal).

    What struck me with the last newsletter (which I will post below if it fits) is they seem to be working now on coming up with a Bright, well, theology. They’re recruiting people to come up with a scientific basis for morality (and you have to qualify to participate!), which is interesting but so, well, defensive. See for yourself:

    BrightenOp – 2006, 9, 15
    Reality about Human Morality: Action Arena #1
    Invitation to Join Morality Project Team, Phase A.1
    The Brights’ Network is initiating one specific aspect (A.1) of the Morality Project and seeking persons who, along with some knowledge to offer regarding this particular aspect, have substantial interest. Be prepared to participate in online collaboration (hopefully) using a Wiki – (see “What is a Wiki”) to reach a draft “team product” (A.1) by February 1 2007.

    To see the brief outline of all the project areas (A through F), go to:

    Project A (Overall)
    Process: Draw from what is “known” (using credible source material), and generate a draft of statements justifying the fact that human morality came about through natural (and not supernatural) means.

    Outcome: A listing of statements expected to hold up under scrutiny. [The listing collectively fashions a narrative summary account of the development of morality in the human species, ready to be subsequently authenticated (or corrected) by scientific experts in Project B.]

    Project A.1
    This mini-project (the first of three) involves a focus exclusively on the period of time preceding the most primitive appearances of religion* in the human species. This venture takes in awareness not only of humans, but also of such other primates as inhabited this time frame.

    *[For the purposes of starting out on this project, religion is loosely and operationally defined as codified ethics, values, or beliefs, as well as any identifiable practices or conventions that today are widely associated with religion. Members who engage project specifics may modify with cause.]

    Overview of Task A.1:
    Use a Wiki to jointly craft online a set of consensus statements about the development of morality confined within the limits of the assigned period of time. In doing so, members will:

    target sources deemed likely to be advantageous to overall project goal
    propose statements for the set, having independently (or jointly) surveyed sources of information
    react to others’ proposals in order to correct errors or size, shape and raise quality of the product
    The team should

    draw information only from resources perceived to be accurate
    communicate succinctly and stay on target
    keep track of source citations, not only to substantiate to team members their proposed assertions, but also so that these can be made available later to experts engaged to authenticate the team’s final set of statements (Project B).
    Task Team, A.1
    The size of the drafting team will be determined by response. If more qualified people volunteer than can be appropriately accommodated, a random selection will be used to select those on the panel.

    To apply: Email a summary of your interest and background, not to exceed one page. (Please list any related credentials you may have earned that qualify you for this undertaking, and also any experience that would enable you to take on a role in steering the project.) Please put MTASK A1 in capital letters in your subject line and email to by October 2.

    Questions? Contact Paul at

    Seems somebody spent a lot of time padding out the babblespeak which could probably be reduced to:
    Hypothesis – morality is a natural, not supernatural, development. Now prove it using scientific method.

    I can’t quite say why, but reading about developing this “Baltimore Catechism” for Brights is creeping me out—like somebody is trying way too hard. Haven’t read so much poker-up-the-ass stuff since I was in grad school.

  11. Anyhow.. I’m not a big fan of labels in general.  I am a thinking human being.  That is the only thing you may assume.  If you want to know more, talk to me.  Any label you’re likely to come up with is probably going to be wrong.

    “Political tags – such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth – are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.”
    -Robert A. Heinlein

    That says quite much.

  12. [Editor’s Note: Tony apparently is too busy praying to his God to understand the concept of “Copyright Violation” so the entirety of his comment, with the exception of the link to the article he cut and pasted, has been removed as a result. Tony isn’t capable of putting forth his own argument so here’s the link he left that did his thinking for him.]

    Unhealthy skepticism

  13. Seeing as Tony’s too dumb to think for himself and has to resort to cutting and pasting an entire article that is copyrighted by someone else, I’ve taken the liberty of trimming his comment down to the one single thing that wasn’t a flagrant violation of the law: The link to the original article.

    Tony, once you’ve managed to put a couple of comprehensible arguments of your own together feel free to come back and share them.

  14. Tony, the article that thinks for you thinks that Darwin fish are “arrogant”?  What do people who display the Darwin fish arrogate to themselves?  The right to believe things that are supported by evidence without being called evil?

    It’s entirely possible to be moral even if you are religious, despite many examples that might lead an uncritical person to believe the contrary.  Also true if you are an atheist.  Over the years I have become convinced that good people will be good people regardless of the frame they put around themselves.

  15. My question for Tony is why does anyone have to parade themselves as being moral?  That to me is Bullshit!

  16. Good grief, Les

      Way to jump to a wrong conclusion! I was in a hurry, but thought this article would be of interest to you and your readers. I’ve posted here many times, often in agreement with you about how ridiculous the fundies are. In many ways, you’ve helped me focus my own views by insisting on logical arguments. It’s insulting that you think I’m one of those “praying to his God to think for himself” people just because I post an article that is well-thought out even if it disagrees with you. I was hoping for an interesting and well-though out response, surely not this!

  17. decrepit –

      The author’s point was that the Fish symbol had nothing to do with creationism – or at least originally didn’t, until the “other side” (including me) turned it into a evolution v. creationism icon. By not asking what the symbol stood for, the author suggests that those who opposed it did so without knowing anything about it and making arrogant assumptions about anyone who displayed it. (Does being a Christian prevent one from believing in evolution?)

      At worst, I thought it was an insightful criticism.


  18. The author’s point was that the Fish symbol had nothing to do with creationism

    Right from the get-go, creationism had everything to do with Christian fundamentalism and their literal interpretation of scripture. The Darwin fish, on the other hand, isn’t really a synonym for atheism, but a mockery of a symbol that many of these fundamentalists display.

    It’s not that I’m fond with the term “bright”, but the author completely missed the arrogance of Christians displaying their fish – it screams “We’re right and everybody else is wrong.” The author is also quite wrong in his hasty generalization of equating all atheists with “brights”.

    The skeptical movement in the United States has been an abject failure. It’s done nothing to prevent the election of an anti-science fundamentalist to the White House

    Blame the victim, eh.

    I don’t see the article as insightful criticism. It tars both the atheists and the religious with too broad a brush, is overly optimistic about the chances of success of appeasement, and has a few more flaws that I can’t be bothered to enumerate.

  19. the author completely missed the arrogance of Christians displaying their fish – it screams “We’re right and everybody else is wrong.”

    Some displaying the fish may actually believe that Elwed, but the display of the fish itself, that doesn’t scream that.  One has to infer that into the display of the fish.  Making such an inference screams a few things in and of itself.

  20. Some displaying the fish may actually believe that Elwed, but the display of the fish itself, that doesn’t scream that.  One has to infer that into the display of the fish.  Making such an inference screams a few things in and of itself.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on that score. I see the fish as an affirmation of a religious faith. Anybody who feels strongly enough about that to stick a fish on their car is not likely to send a message of “this is just what I believe, but it’s okay if you subscribe to another belief system.”

    If you can point me to demographics that prove that the majority of fish stickered are tolerant Christians and not the other kind, I’ll back off my position. Otherwise, infer what you will.

  21. You’re right, Tony, I did jump to a conclusion, but given we just finished up dealing with a cut and paste Creationist I think such a jump is understandable though not justified. My apologies for my hastiness. I too had little time given I’m back to work (though at a meager job).

    Incidentally, I’ve seen the article before. Several people forwarded to me back when it was published. I didn’t think that much of it at the time.

  22. The fish was originally political – way back when it was invented – as it was an easy-to-draw graphic reminder of the mnemonic ΙΧΘΥΣ which stood for (allowing for my memory, been a while) ιησου χριστου, θεοσ υιοσ σωτηρ or “Jesus Christ, Son Of God, Savior”.  Due to the short life expectency of Christians who were out of the closet, the ichthus was an underground symbol that connected a disliked minority.  It was grafitti, the first and second-century equivalent of a bumper sticker.

    One can do a sort of simple poll by correlating bumpers with the ichthus on them, with cars that also have various right-wing dominionist messages on them.  To say the least, those are intersecting sets.  So it is not entirely out of line to infer political baggage along with the pure message of faith in the carpenter.

    So the Darwin fish is a rejoinder, perhaps not the kindest possible one but it does package a number of ideas rather economically as the original ichthus does.  One can be rancorous about it, or not.

  23. I didn’t think that much of it at the time.


    The author argues from the profoundly wrong premise that all atheists are “Brights” and that all religious believers are of the charitable and tolerant kind.

    For what it’s worth, I believe anybody who self-identifies as a Bright is full of it. Likewise, I believe that the self-professed fundamentalists are full of it, too. We can argue how much of a middle ground is left, what room there is for a dialog, and how much clout that middle ground has.

  24. If you can point me to demographics that prove that the majority of fish stickered are tolerant Christians and not the other kind, I’ll back off my position.

    *cough* *cough* Switching the burden! *cough* *cough*

  25. Consi, I’ll humor you, though, and rephrase what I originally said to remove any ambiguity:

    the author completely missed the arrogance of Christians displaying their fish – to me, it screams “We’re right and everybody else is wrong.”

    The burden of precisely what?

  26. the author completely missed the arrogance of Christians displaying their fish – to me, it screams “We’re right and everybody else is wrong.”

    I can’t quibble with that.

  27. Consi, you aren’t one of those funny (peculiar not ha-ha) people with a fish on your ve-hicle, are you?
    I didn’t picture you that way.
    I sorta pictured you as a fairly free young man with verrrry few remaining catholic tendrils holding one of your mind’s feet firmly in the superstitious terracotta of antiquity.  wink

    Switching the burden!

    Ida thought only theists carry a burden because they must continuously justify to themselves the existence of the invisible man.
    Being an atheist frees one of quaint delusional burdens.  smile

  28. LJ,

    No fish on a vehicle that I own. 

    Ida thought only theists carry a burden

      Not to fear, you are not alone in that mistake.  Sometimes Elwed gets confused that way too.  wink

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