The Brights was a movement in the 00s to rebrand atheists as “brights”. It immediately fizzled, as everyone laughed it out of the room. Can you imagine calling yourself a bright?
I first heard about brights in 2007, but apparently it was coined some years earlier, by Paul Geisert in 2003. He and his wife Mynga Futrell founded The Brights organization, whose website still stands today. The word was initially supported by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, but was immediately mocked by both conservative columnists and skeptical authors (not all articles are publicly available). Nowadays, nobody ever bothers to remember it except as a hilarious object lesson in how constructed labels can go wrong.
“Bright” is a funny word, but I will discuss it earnestly. I will deconstruct its motivations, analyze the arguments for and against it, and investigate where it ended up.
Atheist activists have been around for a very long time, but what we call “new atheism” refers to an upsurge of interest associated with the aftermath of 9/11, the rise of the internet, and the emergence of popular atheist books like Dawkins’ The God Delusion or Dennett’s Breaking The Spell. But both of those books were published in 2006, years after “bright” was coined in 2003. So, in fairness to Dawkins and Dennett, they were speculating on the direction of a movement that had barely gotten started.
One problem that loomed large at the time, was that there wasn’t a great name for the thing they were talking about. Dawkins was enthusiastic about “atheist”, but understood that it was kind of a dirty word that most people were scared of, or disidentified with. People commonly felt, sometimes fairly, that “atheist” did not describe them. Or else “atheist” fit them, but they preferred not to emphasize it. “Atheist” eventually became the label that people would rally around, but a collection of alternative labels persists to this day.
“Bright” was an attempt to resolve this problem, and may have even been effective, if the word itself weren’t such a turn-off. “Bright” was a new positive word, and thus did not (yet) suffer from the dirtiness of the “atheist” label. Furthermore, “bright” was defined in terms of naturalistic belief, rather than a lack of belief in god. I imagine this might have rendered moot the arguments about atheism vs agnosticism, since most agnostics have a naturalistic outlook. (On the other hand, would they have just been replaced with arguments over the meaning of naturalism?)
In the end, I think “atheist” converged on a similar meaning, describing the naturalistic viewpoint, rather than disbelief in gods per se. There are people with new age spiritual beliefs, and adherents to religions that have no analogue to the Christian “God”, but it’s just quietly assumed that we’re not talking about them when we talk about atheists. Even people who argued that “atheism” strictly referred to lack of belief in gods would hold as an unspoken assumption that atheists also avoid religion and do not believe in miracles.
And so, what stood out about “bright” was not the fact that it referred to a slightly different group of people from “atheist”, but that it had a dorky name.
Arguments over brights
The problem with “bright” is immediate and visceral. Seeing the problem is easier than explaining the problem. We expect self-identification labels to be somewhat positive, but “bright” steps over the line into being outright self-congratulatory.
As early critics put it, doesn’t the word imply that people who are not brights are “dims”? Later, “super” (short for supernaturalist) was proposed as an antonym to “bright”, but I feel like that doesn’t quite address the problem.
The Brights webpage insists that once “bright” becomes established, we will learn to easily distinguish the new meaning from the old one by its context. Until then, “Brights must exercise prudence in how they use the word, particularly until the neologism’s meaning becomes established.” This advice was not followed by Richard Dawkins, who titled his article, “The future looks bright“. He repeated this pun at least three times throughout the article. Daniel Dennett exercised more discretion than Dawkins, but that wouldn’t stop critics from using “bright” puns to repeatedly say that brights were not.
I think building a wall between the new and old meanings of “bright” might be harder than they are making it out to be. I mean, it could happen, but think the puns are too powerful for people to resist.
Defenders of “bright” also leaned heavily on an analogies to the word “gay”, another identity label with a positive second meaning. Quoth Dawkins (and yes, the entire article is as cringe as this):
A triumph of consciousness-raising has been the homosexual hijacking of the word “gay”. I used to mourn the loss of gay in (what I still think of as) its true sense. But on the bright side (wait for it) gay has inspired a new imitator
You know what I say about arguments from analogy being terrible?
First of all, the use of “gay” to refer to homosexuality is a bit too complicated to treat like a model example. This meaning arose gradually throughout the early 20th century, and grew out of an earlier sexual meaning. It was not necessarily a positive and happy word. And as far as people in the early 20th century were concerned, I do not think the present success of “gay” as an identity label has any bearing on whether it was a good idea at the time. Nor can we prove that another label would have done any better or worse in its place. If someone told me that “bright” would eventually become successful after a hundred years, I would not be impressed.
Second of all, there are critical differences between “gay” and “bright”. “Gay”, I would say is mostly unrelated to anti-gay stereotypes. There’s sort of a “sad gay” stereotype I guess, so it vaguely counters that, but that’s about it. In contrast, “bright” feels like a live demonstration of anti-atheist stereotypes. The stereotype of atheists is that they are arrogant, that they think themselves smarter than they are. The “bright” label seems to prove the point. And not in a “oh yeah I’m arrogant, deal with it!” kind of way, but in an oblivious self-unaware way.
So the best thing that atheists could do to prove that they weren’t that arrogant, was to loudly reject “bright”. And so we did, not that we ever got any credit for it.
The fate of the brights
Although it seemed to me that “brights” was universally rejected, maybe it only had to do with who I was hanging out with? Surely at least some people thought it was a good idea. So I took to google to find more recent mentions of brights.
Mostly I found a bunch of articles referring to that embarrassing atheist idea from a decade ago. Creationists are particularly fond of it. The only reference I found to real brights was a 2014 news story about The Freethought Books Project, which distributed books about atheism, humanism, and science, to prisoners who wanted them. A vocal member of the Brights organization got involved, since he was already distributing newsletters and knew who wanted books. That sounds… wholesome.
All other evidence of recent brights activity seems to be on the Brights website itself. They have a list of 40+ “brights community clusters” around the world, although based on my experience with similar lists, I bet many of them are inactive. There’s a newsletter, which still gets new issues several times a year. Finally, there is a forum, which I would describe as not completely dead, but was obviously more active before 2018.
If you’re me, you’re excited to learn about this obscure atheist subculture, apparently so disconnected from the rest of the atheist movement that they seemingly didn’t get the memo that “bright” is an uncool word. I have visions of a distant island that might have escaped the war unscathed.
So I skimmed the newsletter. It’s unobjectionable mainstream secular stuff. I suppose you could object to the absence of interest in “social justice” topics–the first relevant article I found is from over a year ago, and seems to be explaining to an older white audience why they should be “woke”. They’re clearly not an island, and interact with atheist orgs. They did in fact get the memo that they are uncool, and they don’t really care. I also learned that Paul Geisert died last year of COVID.
The forums… well they’re a bit more objectionable. I saw people endorsing Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind, the “Intellectual Dark Web”, and Boghossian’s Sokal hoaxes, and it kept going and going along those lines. If I’m being charitable, maybe those are just the sort of people who gravitate towards the political parts of the forum.
Still, I’m happy to shut the book on this community. It turns out that adopting a different word with a slightly different scope didn’t make much of a difference one way or another.