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Self-Brighteousness

by Arnell Dowret


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 1.


Imagine that, in order to promote a greater regard for those of Irish ancestry, it was proposed that Irish people stop calling themselves "Irish," and instead substitute the word Lush. Instead of saying, "I am Irish," they would say, "I'm a Lush!" No doubt the proponents of this audacious public relations coup might face the objection that Lush is a poor choice of word, as it could easily be misunderstood as reinforcing the existing negative stereotype of the Irish as alcohol abusers. "Oh, no!," Lush enthusiasts would dismissively insist. "Not at all! When we say 'I'm a Lush,' it should be clear that we are referring to the bucolic beauty of the Irish landscape."

The inanity of basing a public relations campaign on such a flawed premise is obvious. Yet somehow, many otherwise brilliant freethinkers have gotten enthused about a new self-description for atheists and naturalists that is, in my opinion, equally ill-advised. The term being touted to help atheists and naturalists gain ". . . social and political power in a society infused with supernaturalism" is Bright, as in "I'm a Bright!"

In the tried and true profession of public relations, a series of important steps is involved in launching a successful campaign. Step 1 is to determine our goals. With regard to this "bright" idea, the goal is apparently to provide a new way for people to encounter atheism that might engender greater public acceptance.

Having defined our goal, our next step is to identify the obstacle we must overcome in order to achieve it. In this case, the obstacle is that the general publicólet's not mince wordsóreally hates atheists. There are many reasons for this. Some people are so deeply immersed in faith and worship that they assume that anyone who doesn't truckle before their deity is a rotten sinner.  Trying to change their minds is most likely a wasted effort.

As for the rest of the public, even a cursory overview of why average folks dislike atheists should steer us away from any proposed solution that smacks of intellectual elitism.

Members of the public who aren't obsessed with God and the Bible do nonetheless regard a number of personal qualities as important in other people. These include warmth, passion, sincerity, and a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself. Many theists assume that atheists neither possess nor value these qualities; they regard atheists as cold, heartless, arrogant snobs who look down on the "ignorant masses." Unarguably, some atheists are short on warmth, passion, and humilityóbut the same is true of some among the faith-based. Still, the perception that atheists are less likely than people of faith to be warm, passionate, humble, and able to appreciate their relative smallness in a boundless and awesome universe is common and widespread. That perception needs to be challenged.

This brings us to the final step of planning a public relations campaign: determining our course of action. Is it reasonable to think that widespread erroneous beliefs about atheists could be challenged by adopting some clever upbeat word? Some have argued that the widespread use of the word gay for homosexuality has been instrumental in facilitating greater public acceptance of homosexuals, but this seems fairly dubious. Without decades of militancy (remember Stonewall?), exhaustive legal wrangling, and a social revolution in attitudes regarding sex for pleasure, I sincerely doubt whether homosexuals' describing themselves as gay, happy, or even downright hysterical would have made any difference in the way they are perceived.

It should also be noted that, unlike offensive words such as faggot or dyke, which should be replaced by the far more neutral, yet equally casual word gay, the word homosexual is not supposed to suggest a positive or negative connotation. It provides a unique function as a purely descriptive word, not unlike words such as atheist, agnostic, and skeptic. For this reason homosexual continues to be used not only by opponents but also by advocates of the rights of same-sex-oriented individuals and couples.

Even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that popular perceptions of atheists as lacking humility and heart could actually be changed by adopting a new word, given its inescapable ring of self-importance, that word certainly would not be Bright!

Why, then, has the Bright campaign (which its founders are seriously considering labeling "The EnBrightenment") sparked such extraordinary enthusiasm? Obviously some of us lack awareness of how we are perceived by people of faith. Still, it is encouraging that so many freethinkers have articulated concern for developing a better relationship with the faith-based world that surrounds us. If only we could approach it in a manner that might actually be effective.

How should we proceed? We could begin by recognizing that many people who are faith-based are nonetheless sufficiently reason-oriented and open to science to recognize that, when people are properly supported by their society, every human has the greatest chance of realizing his or her full potential; but when deprived of their basic needs, there is no limit to how damaging humans can be to themselves and the world around them. We should inform those believers that we regard their understanding of the human journey, through the rational lenses of science and history, as the most important departure from ancient religion-biased and supernatural thinking that anyone could make.

Perhaps this could be achieved if we find more ways of stressing that, like them, we recognize that our universe is filled with vast mystery and wonder. Perhaps, we can find a way to explain why we see the scientific method as the most intense and passionate way to engage that mystery; and why we believe that hanging on to a dualistic natural/supernatural worldview simply acts as an obstruction, preventing a full appreciation of the solid interconnectedness of everyone and everything that modern science reveals.

If we succeed at informing the general public that these ideas are of paramount import, and that those who hold them stand at the vanguard of freethought, many among the general public will realize that a reason-based worldview is something they already subscribe to. If we do this we will truly experience a major advance.

Rather than latching on to some silly, self-important word that can do little but antagonize, we must make it known that we who embrace science and reason are filled with a desire to experience our world and each other with passion, openness, humility, and equality. When that happens, things will indeed begin to look bright. Or even lush!


Arnell Dowret is a freethought activist, a writer, and the facilitator of "Secular Connections" an alternative, experiential workshop for freethinkers. He is an associate producer and co-host on the WBAI radio program Equal Time for Freethought in New York City.


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