During the first decade of the twenty-first century, atheists and agnostics
have gone on the offensive against theists, writing numerous popular books
defending non-belief in religious matters. These books include Sam Harris’s
The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion,
Christopher Hitchens’s god is not Great, John Allen Paulos’s
Irreligion, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. During this
time a new word has been coined to describe religious non-believers: they
are brights. The use of the term, however, has been controversial.
Some religious people think that the term is derogatory towards them, and
even some of those who have written the books are unhappy with the term.
This paper will focus on whether the general use of the term to describe
religious non-believers is appropriate. I shall argue that such a use of
`bright’ is not appropriate because it risks confusion, it’s unfair, it’s
counterproductive, and it’s off focus.
What is a bright? According to Dennett, “A bright is a person with a
naturalist world view. We brights don’t believe in ghosts or elves or the
Easter Bunny --- or God.”
In 2002, after the “Godless Americans March on Washington,” Paul Geisert
and Mynga Futrell, two Californians, looked for a more positive way of
describing this group. They wanted a term that could “unite the `community
They came up with the term `bright’.
If 'non-believers’, however, already describes the group in a fairly neutral
way, why introduce a new term to describe it? Paulos mentions a 2006
University of Minnesota study revealing widespread mistrust of atheists.
Around 48% of the 2000 people interviewed said they would disapprove of
their child’s desire to marry an atheist. At the same time, there are about
27 million atheists, agnostics, and people with no religious preference in
America, according to a 2002 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll.”
That means a sizeable minority of the American public has an image problem.
Geisert and Futrell, among others, think that a new name could help
improve the bad image, since words have a strong influence on how people
view the world. Dawkins puts the point this way: “Words are not trivial.
They matter because they raise consciousness.”
Religious nonbelievers seek a word that they can appropriate in the way that
homosexuals have appropriated `gay’. As Dawkins puts it, “Gay
is succinct, uplifting, positive: an “up”
word, where homosexual is a down word; and queer, faggot and pooftah are
insults. Those of us who subscribe to no religion … 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’).”
Thus Geisert and Futrell propose the term ‘bright’.
Believing that the image of the non-religious will be improved by this
positive sounding word, Dennett thinks that as a result those in power
will be more likely to take the demands of the non-religious seriously and
less likely to treat the group contemptuously. He says, “Politicians
don’t think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn’t
be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don’t hesitate to disparage
the “godless” among us.”
Given the widespread prejudices against non-believers, politicians see
bashing them as a low risk way to get votes. Dennett regards an improved
image for non-believers as a way to secure their rights and increase their political influence. He says,
“what we want most of all: to be treated with the same respect accorded to
Baptists and Hindus and Catholics, no more no less.”
Dawkins, Dennett, and company are stipulating a new meaning for `bright’ in
an attempt to influence attitudes and improve the image of non-believers.
Even though it is desirable to defend equal opportunities for non-believers
and protect them from discrimination, that does not, however, mean that the
use of the term `bright’ is appropriate. `Bright’ like `gay’ is a
euphemism, a pleasant sounding word. Euphemisms are sometimes appropriate.
For instance, saying that someone has passed on softens the reality of
death and spares feelings. But some euphemisms are not appropriate since
they misleadingly conceal the truth. Thus when military briefers first
spoke of collateral damage, their listeners may have wondered whether there
had been a fender bender, since the words don’t clearly signify civilian
casualties. Mercenaries using brutal tactics to defend the unjustifiable
privileges of rich landowners might also be euphemistically called freedom
fighters. Saadam Hussein euphemistically referred to his western hostages
as guests. When words are used euphemistically, the risk is that they are
concealing something, and in that way, they can be misleading. This may be
why Paulos says he does not like `bright’ and prefers “more honest”
Would using `brights’ to refer to non-believers be misleading and therefore
inappropriate? There is reason to think so.
Logicians such as Stephen Barker maintain that stipulating a new meaning for
a word that already has an established meaning in the way that Dawkins,
Dennett, and company have done is something that should be avoided because
it so easily leads to confusion.
Consider the word `poverty’ for instance. Given its usual meaning,
`poverty’ signifies lacking basic necessities. But if it is stipulated
that `poverty’ means `making less than the minimum wage’, then people not
lacking basic necessities may still be in poverty. In that case,
discussions regarding poverty, in its new sense, would constantly be subject
to misunderstanding, since its old sense could so easily be confused with
its new sense.
Consider further Humpty Dumpty’s re-definition of `glory’ as `nice knockdown
In this case, `there’s glory there’ could easily be misunderstood to mean
`there’s praise and honor won by notable achievement there’. Nigel
Warburton says that “Words are stubborn: they resist having their everyday
meaning wrenched from them … “
Given this feature of words, stipulating new meanings for words that already
have an established meaning risks confusion. Since the use of `bright’
would too easily lead to confusion, its use is not appropriate.
There’s another way that confusion can arise from the term as well.
Connotations of its old meaning may persist. Besides having a literal
meaning, a word may suggest or imply associations. These are its
connotations. For example, mystery is one connotation of the word `Orient’
and outdoor worker is one connotation of the word `redneck’. Sometimes a
connotation is just a pro or con feeling toward the object denoted. Most
Americans, for example, are in favor of free enterprise. But if free
enterprise is re-defined to mean looking out for number one by any
means, then even though people may not support such free enterprise, the pro
attitude associated with the original meaning of free enterprise may still
persist. Warburton says that “It is important to realize that words in
common use are difficult to rid of their typical associations.”
This point lies behind some of the criticism of `bright’. Critics, such as
Dinesh D’Souza, fault the term for what it suggests, namely that “Brights
are the smart people who don’t fall for silly superstitions.”
Here the suggestion is that if the brights (non-believers) are the smart
people, then the non-brights (believers) are not smart. Such a suggestion
may be why Hitchens regards using the term `bright’ as conceited.
At this point one may think that Dennett’s view has been distorted, since in
speaking of `bright’ in his “Bright Stuff” article Dennett explicitly says,
“Don’t confuse the noun with an adjective: `I’m a bright’ is not a boast
but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view.”
Thus Dennett is saying that `bright’ is a noun, not an adjective, and so
classifying oneself as a bright is not saying that one is bright, i.e.
smart. Dennett clarifies his remarks further in Breaking the Spell.
He acknowledges the criticism that `bright’ may seem to imply that others
are not bright, and then he adds, “But the term, modeled on the highly
successful hijacking of the word `gay’ by homosexuals, does not have to have
that implication. Those who are not gays are not necessarily glum; they’re
straight. Those who are not brights are not necessarily dim.”
But Dennett’s response does not take into full account the importance of
what a word suggests. He can legislate a new meaning for `bright’, but it
is hard for him to legislate new connotations for the term. `Bright’ as an
adjective connotes `smart’. Even if Dennett makes `bright’ a noun, the
connotations of `bright’ as an adjective may still be in play. Richard
Robinson puts the point this way in his book Definition: “it is not
possible to cancel the ingrained emotion of a word merely by an
To see how connotations can still be in play even after an old term has been
re-defined, consider these examples. Suppose I dub a political party the
“Freedom and Equality Party” even though it stands for neither of these
ideas. Steven Cahn points out that in that case “the positive connotations
of these words will present the party in a favorable light.”
Again if I stipulate that a reactionary is someone who disagrees with the
party in power, then the negative connotation of `reactionary’ depicts the
out-of-power party in an unfavorable way. Such examples show that
connotations may make it very difficult for old terms newly defined to be
used in non-misleading and non-prejudicial ways.
`Bright’ is no doubt a positive sounding word. But it’s just because it is
so positive sounding that its emotive aspect may be so hard to ignore. This
emotional part of it makes being a bright a good thing and not being a
bright not a good thing. One can say it just means this, but its emotional
connotations may still survive and continue to influence attitudes towards those
to whom the term is applied even if that is denied and even if those
attitudes are not justified.
To see why `a bright’ is misleading and its general use would be unfair,
consider the analogy between it and `a bad’. Suppose someone said that
President Obama is a bad. When asked what that means, he says `that means
he’s not a Republican’. A likely complaint in this case is that the name
suggests that President Obama is bad, not just a bad. The response may be
that the language isn’t meant to imply that, that `bad’ is a noun, not an
adjective. The trouble is that the negative connotations of the word `bad’
may not be that easy to shut down. They seem to be there even if one maintains they’re not.
To accept the term prejudices the discussion in favor of Republicans. The
Republicans, after all, can count themselves as not among the bad. Just as
the negative connotations of `a bad’ stack the deck of discussion in favor
of Republicans, so too, the positive connotations of `a bright’ stack the
deck of discussion in favor of non-believers.
Calling the President `a bad’ would not just be unfair; it would also be
misleading. There is already a term to describe the President’s political
affiliation. Bringing in a word that already has a clear meaning and giving
it a new, unusual meaning sets up a situation where its old meaning can too
easily be confused with its new meaning or where the connotations of its old
meaning are likely to continue to be in play even if the definition-givers say they are
not in play. Similarly, `a bright’ is also misleading, since there is
already a term to describe what `bright’ is introduced to describe. The
term is `non-believer’. Re-defining `bright’ as `one with a naturalistic
world view’ unnecessarily risks confusion. Its old meaning or its
connotations of smart and good may too easily be confused with its new
Defenders of `bright’ may respond that the
old meaning of `gay’ might also have easily been confused with its new
meaning but that did not make its new use inappropriate. But the case of
`gay’ and the case of `bright’ are importantly different, since `non-gay’
does not have the same negative associations as `non-bright’. Because of
these negative associations, the use of `bright’ is objectionable even if
the use of `gay’ is not.
In an attempt to defuse this charge, Dennett suggests taking the contrast
between `gay’ and `straight’ as a model. He says that `bright’ could be
contrasted with `super’.
But it is not clear that he avoids the uncomplimentary comparison in this
way. Since a straight is a non-gay, a super would be a non-bright. And
again `non-gay’ does not have the same negative associations as
It might also be objected that ‘bright’ is not misleading or likely to cause
confusion after all, since the non-religious tend to be more intelligent
than the religious. In this case, the claim is that since being highly
intelligent is correlated with being non-religious, the term ‘bright’
accurately describes non-believers. Some empirical studies do provide
evidence of a link between high intelligence and religious non-belief.
At the same time, however, some have criticized these studies as simplistic.
But even assuming that the highly intelligent tend to be non-religious, does
that show that it’s not misleading to call non-believers brights and
believers non-brights? No, it’s still misleading and liable to cause
confusion because it creates a derogatory contrast which suggests that the
non-religious are bright and the religious are non-bright. The fact is,
however, that even with the mean difference in levels of intelligence
between believers and non-believers, there will still be many intelligent
people among believers. The stark contrast between brights and non-brights
gives a wrong impression by suggesting otherwise.
It’s a problem for the stipulated meaning of `bright’ if it is misleading
and likely to cause confusion, as I believe I have shown. It’s also a
problem for the proposal that `brights’ be generally adopted as a way of
referring to non-believers if such a proposal is unfair, as I believe I have
also shown. A further problem is that the use of the term `bright’ is
The term is introduced to try to influence attitudes and improve the image
of non-believers. Presenting themselves as brights, with the implication
that they are smarter than religious people, however, is not likely to give
non-religious people a better image with religious people. Instead the term
would provide further support for a negative image of non-believers as
rational people who regard religious people as simple-minded. Thus,
introducing the term is not likely to have the desired effect of improving
the image of non-believers. Chris Mooney puts the point this way: “When
people – most of whom are religious believers—hear that word (`brights’),
the vast majority will likely revert to the stereotypical
atheists-as-arrogant frame, which has already been burned into their
psyches. That means the “brights” label will have failed.”
Therefore, the term would not achieve the desired result. Instead of
creating a positive image of non-believers, it would reinforce a negative
one of them.
Besides being counterproductive, the `brights’ campaign is mis-focused. It
puts the focus squarely on using a positive-sounding label to improve the
image of non-believers. Thus it puts the focus on marketing instead of
argument, as it makes no attempt to show why people should have a better
image of non-believers.
The problem is that when the focus is put on a positive-sounding label
instead of good evidence, reason is de-valued. Such de-valuing of reason
conflicts with an ideal of rational decision-making that many non-believers
hold dear. After all, many non-believers think it is reason which justifies
their non-belief, and the term `brights’ is supposed to encompass the
community of reason.
If believers decided to take a similar public relations approach, they would
be de-valuing reason as well. Suppose they said the following: “Let’s call
ourselves right-mindeds. The word right-minded in this case is
a noun, not an adjective. The term shouldn’t be taken to mean that we
have right beliefs and attitudes. It just means we’re people who believe in God. Since
the image of believers has recently been damaged by the suggestion that we
are not smart, we think the term right-minded should be generally
adopted to describe believers. It’s such a positive sounding word it is
bound to improve the image of believers. That’s why we need to call
With brights and right-mindeds both focusing in this way on a public
relations campaign, we would be left with the
having a pep
rally on one side of the street and the brights having a pep rally on the
other side of the street. Each side waves placards saying `Hurray for our
side’ and `Phooey on the other side’. Emotional manipulation is the focus,
not rational discussion. Hence, there is no advance in the discussion, no
greater understanding is achieved, and reason is not the basis for deciding
between the sides.
In that case, we would be left with the brights and the
working hard to have a good image. But rational discussion between them
hasn’t gotten off the ground because it’s no longer the focus. If the focus
is on using positive words to describe one’s group in the hope that the word
catches on and as a result people are more favorably inclined towards one’s
group, the approach undervalues reasoned, evidentiary discussion instead of
encouraging it. It downplays a way of deciding that has a proven track
record of leading to the truth.
The trouble is that reasoned discussion should be exactly what those in `the
community of reason’ would call for in such a context. The `brights’
campaign is off-focus precisely because it de-values reason. Should
non-believers reject reason in this context? If they would use reason and
evidence to decide whether to be a believer or a non-believer, why should
they not also use reason and evidence to try to improve the image of
How could that be done? Non-believers could try to find out why believers
have negative ideas toward them. If believers think non-believers are not
good people, non-believers can answer this charge by presenting examples of
non-believers who have been philanthropists and humanitarians.
Non-believers might also explain how people can reasonably be moral even if
they are not religious. Non-believers could also present themselves as real
people, not as smug and conceited people.
They can present themselves as human beings, as everyday honest people doing
their best to give reasoned answers to difficult questions.
No doubt many believers will be intolerant of non-believers because they
think that their religion teaches them to act in that way. At that point,
one might want to talk about the grounds for tolerating people who have
different religious beliefs and then try to extend those grounds to cover
people who are not religious at all.
One could try to justify freedom of conscience by saying that religion is a
matter between God and the individual, not something to be dictated or
compelled by others. Attempting to give the other side a fair hearing, one could
consider whether concern for the ultimate welfare of one’s fellows could
justify using a combination of force and instruction to “correct” their
beliefs. This would lead to the question of who would be determining what
beliefs are correct. Suppose non-believers were the ones trying to
“correct” beliefs. One could also point out the importance of toleration
for a peaceful, orderly, and unified pluralistic society. Civics classes
and toleration campaigns could highlight the socially damaging effects of
non-toleration by reviewing the history of religious persecution and
religious wars. By pursuing such an approach, those who profess an
inquisitive world view, those who profess themselves members of the community
of reason, can remain true to their rational ideals in their attempt to
improve the image of non-believers.
In this paper, I have given four reasons why I believe that the general use
of `brights’ to refer to religious non-believers is inappropriate: it risks
confusion, it’s unfair, it’s counterproductive, and it’s off-focus. It risks
confusion because it’s too easy to mix-up its new meaning and its old
meaning, and it’s too difficult to rid the word of its suggestion that those
to whom it applies are smart and those to whom it doesn’t apply are not
smart. It’s unfair because, due to the way it positively depicts
non-believers, it prejudices discussion in their favor. It’s
counterproductive because its general use would be likely to reinforce
negative stereotypes of non-believers. It’s off-focus because, in its
attempt to change negative attitudes towards non-believers, it downplays
reason and adopts a public relations approach which emphasizes
positive-sounding words. Other ways of trying to change negative attitudes
are more in keeping with `the community of reason’.
John Allen Paulos, Irreligion (New York: Hill and Wang,
One may think that Dennett, Dawkins, and company are reporting on a
meaning that ‘bright’ already has instead of stipulating a new
meaning for it. But this seems wrong. In “The Bright Stuff,”
Dennett speaks of the term’s recent coinage, and in “The Future
Looks Bright,” Dawkins endorses appropriating ‘bright’ in the way
that homosexuals have appropriated ‘gay’ -- as a means of
consciousness-raising. In each case, however, the appropriated word
is turned into a noun and given a new meaning.
Stephen F. Barker, The Elements of Logic, 4th ed.
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985) 225.
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
(Canada: Grosset and Dunlap, 1982) 229.
Nigel Warburton, Thinking from A to Z, (London: Routledge,
Dinesh D’Souza, “Not So `Bright’,” Wall Street Journal,
October 12, 2003, accessed September 30, 2009,
Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great (New York: Hachette,
Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell (New York: Viking,
Richard Robinson, Definition (London: Oxford, 1972) 77.
Steven M. Cahn, A New Introduction to Philosophy (New York:
Harper & Row, 1971) 26.
Dennett, Breaking, 21.
Wikipedia, s.v. “Religiosity and intelligence,” accessed May
26, 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religiosity_and_intelligence.
Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for Thinking About Religion
for his/her helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.
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