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A brights idea

A California couple thought that "nonbeliever" was too negative when it came to describing their religious views. Their desire for a constructive term led them to "brights" and this definition: People who have a natural world view.

SHARON TUBBS
Published July 20, 2003

If you say something long enough, and somebody else says it and their friends begin to say it, then their friends' friends . . . well, that something might just develop a meaning all its own.

Take the word "gay," for example. It started out meaning lively or joyous. But in the 20th century, homosexuals decided that they would rather be called gay. Today people say gay to identify sexual orientation more than a happy mood.

Which brings us to "bright."

Not "bright" the adjective, meaning shiny or intelligent. A new bright, a noun that refers to a person who doesn't believe in the supernatural, doesn't believe in God or doesn't care whether God exists.

Several months ago, a couple in Sacramento, Calif., decided that they were tired of being described as atheists, or as "godless," or faithless people.

They'd rather be called "brights."

They fashioned a definition.

Brights: People who have a naturalistic world view. Their hope is that the word becomes an umbrella term for people who have similar philosophies but often operate independently. Atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers fit under the brights label. Grouped together, they become a bigger force in the national scheme of things. Politically and socially, their combined voice would be more powerful in advancing the rights of nonbelievers.

Nonbelievers.

They hate that. They hate it when people describe them as "non" or "anti." Those labels put a negative spin on everything, they say, which is how this "brights" idea started in the first place.

Last November, Paul Geisert and his wife, Mynga Futrell, heard about atheists who were planning a march in Washington. Geisert and Futrell, freelance writers who live in Sacramento, liked the intent: to make the increasing number of people who don't subscribe to religious beliefs clear to the media and government. The number of people who do not identify with a religion has doubled since 1990, to 29.4-million, or 14 percent of the adult population, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the nation's leaders sought to console Americans through religious vigils and Scripture-laden speeches. Talk of using government money for faith-based programs continued. Geisert and Futrell saw all this as overstepping the lines of church-state separation.

But the name that organizers gave the march made Geisert cringe: the Godless March on Washington.

"I went just about ballistic," he said. "I was just steaming under the idea of being called godless." He didn't want to be described as a negation of God, he said.

He went to the march but started thinking about a new name for people like him. One day he was brainstorming names at the kitchen table, and "bright" came to mind.

It is a positive word. It fits, at least tangentially, with the word "enlightenment," the name given to the 18th century philosophical movement that focused on scientific reason rather than dogma.

He ran to the other room to tell Futrell. "I've got the word, and this is going to be big!"

The couple bounced the idea off a few friends and decided to unveil their thoughts at the Atheist Alliance International convention, which was in Tampa in April. They called organizers and asked for space on the weekendlong agenda.

Ed Golly, vice president of Atheist Alliance, gave it to them.

The couple have been involved in the alliance for some time, so Golly worked them into the schedule. "I didn't know what they were going to come up with," he said.

Golly was too busy to watch their presentation, but about 150 to 200 others did.

Some signed their names to a list of brights supporters.

Carolyn Davis, a 30-year-old data management specialist from Temple Terrace, was among them.

When she tells people that she's an atheist, they think negatively. "They think they know all about you," she said.

"The word "bright' is new. It worked for the gay community to call themselves gay instead of homosexual. It worked for them, maybe it'll work for us."

Jim Peterson of Largo watched the presentation closely and liked what he saw.

"I thought it was another way to reach the public," said Peterson, who is president of Humanists of the Suncoast. The brights have no agenda, per se, he said. "It's just hope that promulgating a new name, a different name, will bring philosophical positions related to naturalism together," he said.

It could take some time, and perhaps some oomph, for the word to be embraced.

Peterson introduced the term to members of his group. Some liked it. Some were a bit on the "diffident side, as you might expect," he said.

Some well-known names in scientific and free-thought circles were in the audience, including Oxford University science professor Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett, an author and philosophy professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Dawkins wrote about the brights movement in "The Future Looks Bright," an article published in June in the Guardian, a daily London newspaper. The Guardian posted the article on its Internet site.

People from all over the world contacted Geisert and Futrell after the article appeared.

This month, the New York Times printed an opinion piece by Dennett, "The Bright Stuff," in favor of the brights movement.

Now, the couple said, there are thousands of brights in 47 countries. They won't give a specific figure, saying that they don't want their numbers to be compared with the number of atheists or humanists, for example.

"We don't want to get into the comparison game," Geisert said.

The brights term is not intended to replace other terms that describe naturalists, he said. A person can be an atheist and also describe himself as part of the larger brights movement.

He said that several rabbis have jumped aboard the brights movement. Even a man who calls himself a Christian says he, too, is a bright.

A person can believe in the historical Jesus, in his philosophies, yet not believe that there is a God controlling the universe from a heavenly throne, Geisert said.

That would satisfy the brights definition, which says only that you don't believe in the supernatural.

The brights movement is not a membership organization but an Internet organization, Geisert said. He said that users must be careful to avoid using the term to imply that they are smarter than others. A bright does not seek to belittle those who believe in God, he said. The couple give a brief lesson on proper use of the term on their Web site, www.the-brights.net: Perhaps you'd like to think of the "constituency of Brights" as a community of fellow travelers in life. If so, then you will refer to us all together as a community. How best to describe that community? We suggest that, while "The Community of Brights" or "the Brights' Community" are appropriate, "the Bright Community" is problematic. In the last reference, "bright" is an adjective, and so it can have dual meaning. The plural form helps to delineate the term as a noun.

Kathleen Hunter, a registered nurse and a consultant in Lithia, plans to use the term.

"I think it gives people a more open mind when you say, "I'm a bright,' " she said.

Hunter didn't go to the Tampa convention; she learned about brights while reading a humanist newsletter. She went to the Web site and filled out a form saying that she supported the idea.

Davis, from Temple Terrace, said that she hasn't worked brights into her daily conversation, but she will, "even though I did think the name was goofy." It's still a great idea, she said: "I'm going to call myself that."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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