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  • Not So Bright, Not So Liberal

    Posted by Jonathan on June 29th, 2003 (All posts by )

    There’s been some discussion on blogs about this column by one of the Anglosphere’s deep thinkers. The idea is that atheists should call themselves “brights” as a way to distinguish themselves and to intellectually one-up those benighted believers.

    This is a bad idea and won’t fly. Many Americans are religious and would reasonably take offense at the clear implication of the word “bright” as used in this way: that religious people are stupid. This point, and the likelihood that even many atheists would prefer to avoid conveying such sneering disrespect for alternative views as use of this word, in this context, conveys, are going to make a lot of people reluctant to use it. And if it doesn’t catch on here it isn’t likely to become a standard term in the way that “gay” has.

    But I understand why people who hate religion would try to convince everyone else to use a term such as “bright.” Its use forestalls argument by assuming a conclusion — a conclusion that it asserts up front as though it were as obviously valid as someone’s name, and how dare anyone challenge it. (Are atheists bright? Yes, they tell us so themselves.) You have to wonder about the judgment and intellectual confidence of people who try to gain adherents to their position by using verbal sleight-of-hand rather than rational persuasion.

    “Bright” has been compared to the aforementioned “gay,” but I think a better comparison is to the word “liberal” as it is used in the U.S. to describe political orientation. Americans who call themselves liberals are really socialists. But socialism doesn’t sell here, so American leftists play word games to avoid defending their positions via straightforward arguments in which they would be at a disadvantage. They use “liberal” in the same way as Dawkins uses “bright” — to avoid dealing with opposing views on the merits. Ask what liberals believe, and why, and you are likely to receive a circular response asserting that since the word “liberal” implies tolerance and love of freedom, people who call themselves liberals must favor these things, and therefore (it is implied) if liberals support something it must be favorable for tolerance and freedom. Thus, for example, the American Left favors racial discrimination as long as leftists are in charge of it and do it out of self-declared good motives. This doesn’t seem very liberal to me, but they keep telling us that it is, and since they are “liberals” who am I to object? This is a neat trick, and lots of people still fall for it (though less so over time, as leftists’ increasing use of the word “progressive” in place of “liberal,” presumably in response to how their own actions have discredited liberalism, suggests).

     

    11 Responses to “Not So Bright, Not So Liberal”

    1. James R. Rummel Says:

      “But I understand why people who hate religion would try to convince everyone else to use a term such as “bright.” Its use forestalls argument by assuming a conclusion — a conclusion that it asserts up front as though it were as obviously valid as someone’s name, and how dare anyone challenge it. (Are atheists bright? Yes, they tell us so themselves.) You have to wonder about the judgment and intellectual confidence of people who try to gain adherents to their position by using verbal sleight-of-hand rather than rational persuasion.”

      So what about the way that people of faith refer to their belief as “Truth” (example: “I’ve been working on spreading the Christian Truth”)?

      My position is that I can see natural forces at work right in front of me that seem to make supernatural creatures impossible. They appear to be omnipresent, and I can easily see them for every second that I’m paying attention. So far no one has been able to provide even a shred of proof of the supernatural, let alone a diety.

      So calling a belief that, it would appear, is disproven any number of times every day “Truth” seems to me to be rather……surreal.

      The problem lies with the evangelical, either from the ranks of the religious or from the atheists. Both are trying to save people, one from ignorance and the other from hellfire. If someone insists to a crusading atheist that they have faith they’ll be viewed with pity and dismissed as an idiot. If someone asks a religious person for concrete physical proof of their diety they’ll be viewed with pity and dismissed as a morally repugnant sinner.

      Looks like the same thing to me either way, except that the faithful have been going on about “Truth” some decades longer than this “Bright” thing. I also notice that the religious keep trying to alter the subjects taught in public schools so they can teach their creed to children as fact, even with a profound lack of evidence.

      James

    2. Val Says:

      “Progressive” won’t do either, Jon, as it is connected to the inevitable forward march of History, remember?

      You’re right on the money about people like Dawkins (and Dennett), who look down on us from their brightly lit towers of wisdom. Wittgenstein would have destroyed their metaphysics in no time.

      Hmm, food for a post.

    3. Jonathan Says:

      James wrote:

      So what about the way that people of faith refer to their belief as “Truth” (example: “I’ve been working on spreading the Christian Truth”)?

      This behavior is comparable to what some atheists do.

      I was most interested in pointing out that political “liberals” have long practiced, indeed relied on, the same kinds of rhetorical games for which atheists are reasonably criticized.

    4. Lex Says:

      Is this a clever ploy to divide the always troubled political marriage between anti-socialist/leftist conservative religious people and anti-socialist/leftist libertarian atheist people. These groups have never really gotten along, and whenever the common enemy looks weak, they fight each other.

      God willing, this diabolical plot will fail.

      Anyway, “bright” won’t catch on since Americans are practical and it is not practical to gratuitously insult everyone who doesn’t agree with you by adopting some label. Saying you are “bright” because you are an athiest, means everyone else is stupid. This kind of smug view is best reserved for private use, if it must be indulged in at all. “Gay” does not mean that everyone else is somber, it means everyone else desists from practicing homosexual acts, something non-gays freely concur with. So, it is not really analogous.

      Mr. Rummel seems to have gone down a side road. Let’s assume his depiction of religious people and their views is reasonably fair and complete, which it isn’t. Even so, they have not adopted a label like “bright”, which I thought was the issue. Yes, they claim to have the truth, with or without a capital “T”. Mr. Rummel objects to this and seems to resent it, which is fine. Most athiests I have met will also claim the same thing, i.e. that they possess the truth, i.e. no God, no soul, no sin, no Heaven, no Hell, no Purgatory, no Saints, no Angels, none of that. One of these positions is wrong. But asserting that one is wrong is not going to persuade the other side to agree that it is wrong. So, you are stuck with the existence of these people and you can either avoid them or try to get along when you have to come into contact with them. As a Catholic I get it both ways — the athiests think you are the most benighted of all, and the evangelicals or whatever they are, know for a certaintly that you are the Antichrist.

      The question is: What interest is served, what is to be gained, by athiests adopting this self-description? I don’t see any benefit to them. The whole thing seems juvenile. I predict it will not catch on, or if it does it will be among teenagers or undergraduates, i.e. juveniles.

    5. Omnibus Bill Says:

      I think it’s a great idea, actually.

      I’ll be happy to lump myself in with the Fools for Christ (St. Paul); the Dumb Ox (Aquinas); or perhaps that silly hippy carpenter from Bethlehem.

      The nice thing about slurs — like the “bright/dull” dichotomy suggested by this, is that they win no new converts for the cause. They only serve to preach to the intellectually foreclosed, and they alienate everybody else.

      I would be all in favor of atheists adopting the term, if they wish; it won’t hurt us deists, christians, jews, moslems or hindus in the end.

      I don’t have a problem with atheism, but has anybody else noticed that most of the folks you come across who gladly label themselves “atheists” don’t seem so much to be non-believers, but to be anti-religion, to the extent that they get into high dudgeon at the idea that anybody else might believe?

      I have a few friends who are atheists of this sort, and they get really upset at the idea that an otherwise rational person like me might actually believe in the existence of a Supreme Being… On the other hand, as a I point out to them, if it was good enough for Descartes, Burke and Kant (not to mention most all of mankind until quite recently) who am I to lightly disregard the work of these great thinkers, who were right about so much else?

    6. Ralf Goergens Says:

      Hmm, the German word for bright is “hell”. Is that where the brights are headed?

    7. Chris Says:

      Egad, I’m tired of people who think that anyone who doesn’t share their attitudes (not their ideas, because most of them don’t think hard enough to have ideas) must be some kind of knuckle-dragging cretinous rustic. The Darwin-in-the-fish bumper ornaments are a dead giveaway of the mentality. Let Dawkins go ahead and promote calling his clique’s mindset “bright”. It’ll just make their obnoxiousness all the more obvious.

    8. James R. Rummel Says:

      “Yes, they claim to have the truth, with or without a capital “T”. Mr. Rummel objects to this and seems to resent it, which is fine.”

      I thought that one of the points to the post we’re commenting on is that it’s insulting and demeaning when atheists claim that they’re “Bright” (and I certainly agree with that sentiment, BTW).

      Wouldn’t atheists find the assertion from religious people that they are plugged into some cosmic truth through their faith to be smug, arrogant and insulting?

      But I suppose it’s only a sin if the other side does it. If you do it it’s just assering the obvious.

      James

    9. Russ Lemley Says:

      I can’t remember the moment exactly, but a while back I was listening to the Marketplace radio show, which had Robert Reich as a guest. The host first stated that many conservatives consider him a socialist, and he asked Reich for his reaction. He answered with a bemused and haughty tone that while he certainly is a liberal, he simply can’t see how anyone would call him a socialist. He then complained that Bush’s proposed tax cuts would lead to less money for education, job training and public housing.

      I realized right then and there that irony was alive and well.

    10. Sylvain Galineau Says:

      The Left in France has been calling itself ‘progressive’ for more than a decade , and it’s worked pretty well at forestalling argument and forcing a conclusion. Best marketing ploy they ever came up with. Granted, the Left is infamous for its ability at exploiting the electorate’s idiotic impulses.

    11. Moira Says:

      Jonathan – I do get your point, but I’m going to babble off topic a bit.

      James, you seem to be arguing against two views –

      1) Believers are never smug, arrogant and insulting
      2) It’s arrogant simply to believe one is right about something

      – that no one has asserted or implied.

      Chris, I like your statement, “Egad, I’m tired of people who think that anyone who doesn’t share their attitudes (not their ideas, because most of them don’t think hard enough to have ideas)”. It’s truer in many debates than most of us acknowledge, and I say that fulling including myself in the ranks of those who babble on about this or that without really having thought hard about it. But don’t be so hard on those Darwin-in-a-fish folks. My 10-year-old has developed a passion for reading about evolution and its critics, and she really wants one of those. Then again, she’s 10 years old.