once read a science fiction story in which astronauts voyaging to a
distant star were waxing homesick: “Just to think that it’s springtime
back on Earth!” You may not immediately see what’s wrong with that
comment, so ingrained is our unconscious Northern Hemisphere chauvinism.
Unconscious is exactly right. That is where consciousness-raising comes
I suspect it is for a deeper reason than gimmicky fun
that, in Australia and New Zealand, you can buy maps of the world with the
South Pole on top. Now, wouldn’t that be an excellent thing to pin to
our classroom walls instead of the Ten Commandments? What a splendid
consciousness-raiser. Day after day, children would be reminded that North
has no monopoly on up. The map on the wall would intrigue them as well as
raise their consciousness. They’d go home and tell their parents.
The feminists taught us about consciousness-raising.
I used to laugh at “him or her,” and at “chairperson,” and I still
try to avoid them on aesthetic grounds. But I recognize the power and
importance of consciousness-raising. I now flinch at the phrase “One
man, one vote.” My consciousness has been raised. Probably yours has,
too, and it matters.
I used to deplore what I regarded as the tokenism of
my American atheist friends. They were obsessed with removing the recently
inserted “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, whereas I cared
more about the chauvinistic nastiness of pledging allegiance to a flag in
the first place. They would cross out “In God We Trust” on every
dollar bill that passed through their hands, whereas I worried more about
the tax-free dollars amassed by bouffant-haired televangelists, fleecing
nice gullible people of their life savings. My friends would risk
neighborhood ostracism to protest the
unconstitutionality of Ten
Commandments posters on classroom walls. “But it’s only words,” I
would expostulate. “Why get so worked up about mere words, when
there’s so much else to object to?” Now I’m having second thoughts.
Words are not trivial. They matter because they raise consciousness.
My own favorite consciousness-raising effort is one I
have mentioned many times before (and I make no apology, for
consciousness-raising is all about repetition). A phrase like “Catholic
child” or “Muslim child” should clang furious bells of protest in
the mind, just as we flinch when we hear “One man, one vote.” Children
are too young to know their religious opinions. Just as you can’t vote
until you are eighteen, you should be free to choose your own cosmology
and ethics without society’s impertinent presumption that you will
automatically inherit those of your parents. We’d be aghast to be told
of a Leninist child or a neo-conservative child or a Hayekian monetarist
child. So isn’t it a kind of child abuse to speak of a Catholic child or
a Protestant child? Especially in Northern Ireland and Glasgow, where such
labels, handed down over generations, have divided neighborhoods for
centuries and can even amount to a death warrant?
Catholic child? Flinch. Protestant child? Squirm.
Muslim child? Shudder. Everybody’s consciousness should be raised to
this level. Occasionally a euphemism is needed, and I suggest “Child of
Jewish (etc.) parents.” When you come down to it, that’s all we are
really talking about anyway. Just as the upside-down (Northern Hemisphere
chauvinism again: flinch!) map from New Zealand raises consciousness about
a geographical truth, children should hear themselves described not as
“Christian children” but as “children of Christian parents.” This
in itself would raise their consciousness, empower them to make up their
own minds, and choose which religion, if any, they favor, rather than just
assume that religion means “same beliefs as parents.” I could well
imagine that this linguistically coded freedom to choose might lead
children to choose no religion at all.
Please go out and work at raising people’s
consciousness over the words they use to describe children. At a dinner
party, say, if ever you hear a person speak of a school for Islamic
children, or Catholic children (you can read such phrases daily in
newspapers), pounce: “How dare you? You would never speak of a
neo-conservative Republican child or a liberal Democrat child, so how
could you describe a child as Catholic (Islamic, Protestant, etc.)?”
With luck, everybody at the dinner party, next time they hear one of those
offensive phrases, will flinch, or at least notice, and the meme will
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, which is the climax of this
article. Gay is succinct, uplifting, positive: an “up” word,
whereas homosexual is a down word, and queer, faggot, and pooftah
are insults. Those of us who subscribe to no religion; those of us whose
view of the universe is natural rather than supernatural; those of us who
rejoice in the real and scorn the false comfort of the unreal, we need a
word of our own, a word like gay. You can say, “I am an atheist,” but
at best it sounds stuffy (like “I am a homosexual”) and at worst it
inflames prejudice (like “I am a homosexual”). Paul Geisert and Mynga
Futrell of Sacramento, California, have set out to coin a new word, a new
gay. Like gay, it is a noun hijacked from an adjective, with its original
meaning changed, but not too much. Like gay, it is catchy: a potentially
prolific meme. Like gay, it will offend sticklers for punctilious
rectitude such as me, but it might be worth it nevertheless. Like gay, it
is positive, warm, cheerful, bright.
Bright? Yes, bright. Bright is the word, the new
noun. I am a Bright. You are a Bright. She is a Bright. We are the Brights.
Isn’t it about time you came out as a Bright? Is he a Bright? I can’t
imagine falling for a woman who is not a Bright. http://www.celebatheists.com/
suggests that numerous intellectuals and other famous people are Brights.
Brights constitute 60 percent of American scientists, and more than 90
percent of those scientists good enough to be elected to the elite
National Academy of Sciences are Brights. Look on the bright side: though
at present they can’t admit it and get elected, the U.S. Congress must
be full of closet Brights. As with the Gays, the more Brights come out,
the easier it will be for yet more Brights to do so.
Geisert and Futrell are very insistent that their
word is a noun and must not be an adjective. “I am bright” sounds
arrogant. “I am a Bright” sounds too unfamiliar to be arrogant: it is
puzzling, enigmatic, tantalizing. It invites the question, “What on
earth is a Bright?” And then you’re away:
“A Bright is a person whose worldview is free of
supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a Bright are
based on a naturalistic worldview.”
“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 freethinkers. But all Brights have a worldview 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
“What do you suggest?”
Of course, even though we Brights will scrupulously
insist that our word is a noun, if it catches on it is likely to follow
gay and eventually re-emerge as a new adjective. And when that happens,
who knows, we may finally get a bright president.
You can sign on as a Bright at http://www.the-brights.net/.
Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of
Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. An evolutionary
biologist and prolific author and lecturer, his latest book is a
collection of essays, A Devil’s Chaplain (Houghton Mifflin,