Were the ‘Brights’ really the worst idea?

The suggestion in the early 2000’s that atheist rebrand themselves as ‘Brights’ is generally remembered as a short-lived embarrassment of incredible hubris. Is that a little unfair, and are there positive lessons to learn from the idea?

When researching my article on the history of different symbols used by various atheist, humanist, secularist and similar (AHS+) groups I was surprised to learn that The Brights were still around. Brights was an idea dreamed up by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell in 2003. It was to be an identity label and social movement to appeal to the growing atheist community but identifying by a naturalistic worldview, rather than the negative lack of belief. Many prominent atheists gave the idea varying levels of support.

What is a Bright?

Looking at their small but seemingly still active online community is a bit like taking a trip back in time to the start of the last generation or two of the atheist movement. Like reading a teenage diary: incredibly cringy and embarrassingly self-serious, but also endearingly naive and hopeful.

They defined a “bright” as “a person whose worldview is naturalistic (no supernatural and mystical elements)” and a “Bright” as “a bright who has registered at this website in support of the egalitarian civic vision of the Brights movement.” Both nouns.

Among those who remember it a narrative has taken hold that Brights was always an evidently awful idea, an example of extreme hubris with a silly name that was always going to fail, not with a bang but a whispered pun. That may be a little unfair.

The more I looked into the Brights, the more I wondered maybe just a little bit if rather than failing because it seems silly, might it simply seem silly, because it failed? Through two decades in the atheist and wider AHS+ movement, I’ve seen every positive idea, whether it worked out or not, dismissed as silly by large parts of the movement. Including the idea of there even being a movement. How silly would a humanist naming ceremony be, if people didn’t decide to invest meaning in them? How easy would it be to make fun of ideas like Camp Quest and Sunday Assembly if they hadn’t caught on when they did and been successful?

Fair criticism?

The biggest criticism of the Brights idea was that it was arrogant, that it played into all the worse stereotypes of arrogant atheists. Obviously, there are many atheists who fit those stereotypes. But I have never seen any sort of identity label, organising or any other activity by the atheist movement that isn’t criticised as arrogant. Many atheists have internalised the idea that criticising religion is de facto rude or arrogant. Brights sounds horribly self-aggrandising. But might that be intrinsic in any positive identity label? It was mercilessly mocked by conservative anti-atheist columnists. But could those professional trolls really have been placated by another word?

One criticism is that Brights was uniquely arrogant, because it suggested that anyone else was dim. The Brights even suggested addressing this critique by calling people who did believe in the supernatural ‘Supers’. On the other hand, you could make this same criticism of almost any identity label used in the broad atheist and AHS+ space. “Rationalist” could imply others are necessarily irrational, “skeptic” could imply everyone else is credulous, “freethinker” or “woke” could suggest others are unthoughtful or mindless, “humanist” could dehumanise outsiders. The problem isn’t the relative arrogance of the word, but the way it is used.

Another criticism is that the term was destined to fail because it was consciously invented rather than evolving organically from the group it was meant to describe. That’s definitely a big part of the cringe factor. But it reminds me of a lot of the anti-social justice movement’s obsession with language they consider new or invented. In order for an idea to begin circulating, someone needs to have and suggest it.

There is something slightly comical about Paul Geisert brainstorming ideas then running into another room to tell his wife “I’ve got the word, and this is going to be big!” But the word secularism has a similar origin. As relayed by author Ray Argyle: In 1851 George Holyoake, having been imprisoned for blasphemy, wanted a new word to describe the political ideas he sought to promote. The new word Holyoake wanted would capture the essence of the ideas of separation of church and state and challenging the establishment power. Holyoake thought that atheism would never be accepted because of its negative connotations. So he sat up with a dictionary and created the term based on the Latin saecularis, meaning “worldly”.

A Bright legacy?

It’s interesting how many people who made fun out of the Brights idea supported Atheism Plus – an attempt to refresh the modern atheist movement as it entered its second decade, with more of a focus on social justice and humanism than anti-theism. Like Brights, the Atheism+ label was endlessly mocked by its critics long after it was no longer being actively promoted. Like Brights it failed to catch on as a label. But the legacy of Atheism+ can be seen in the large parts of the movement committed to a social justice-oriented atheism. Is it possible that the Brights idea has had some under the surface legacy in encouraging debates around positive atheist identification?

Debates over what WE should call ourselves have never disappeared from the atheist and wider nonreligious movement. Perhaps Brights failed because it was an attempt to treat identity as a singular noun, rather than an evolving process, with interconnected concepts and labels that come to the fore in different circumstances. The same criticisms could be made of those particularly evangelical about trying to make humanism THE definitive umbrella term and make humanist the primary identity noun.

I don’t think it’s likely, but perhaps someday Brights will be picked up again and incorporated into many people’s descriptions of their identity. Or atheists and others may gravitate towards some other label that hasn’t been (re)invented yet.

Photo information: Defocused Image of Lights, Miguel Á. Padriñán

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