It was a sunny Saturday in June and I was sat in my flat in Dundee enjoying a leisurely leaf through the Guardian when I noticed an article by Prof. Richard Dawkins entitled 'The future looks bright'. It instantly grabbed my attention, I admit to being a big fan of Dawkins but this was something different, and I duly noted down the website for further investigation. At the time I had no notion of where this would lead, and I guess, along with my travelling companions, I still don't. In fact, despite having a history of involvement with campaigning, I'd never envisaged doing anything in relation to my worldview as a secular atheist.
Two Californians, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, have changed all that by sparking a united global movement of people who are no longer prepared to hide in the shadows cast by organised religion and theist-influenced governments. The enBrightenment is underway.
It all started in Washington D.C. in November 2002. A group of several thousand non-theists, including Paul and Mynga, attended a demonstration under the banner 'Godless Americans March On Washington'. Although the aims of the demonsstrators were no doubt worthy and well-intentioned, what a consummately negative slogan to choose! One simple sentence that embodies two of the most common brushes with which atheism is tarred: negativity, as in 'without God'; and the assertion that atheists must always describe themselves in relation to religion. Thankfully it at least gave Paul the big idea: adopting a unifying word to describe all those who hold naturalistic worldviews (i.e. free of the supernatural and mystical), Bright.
Adopting a word to mean something new or, to put it correctly, inventing a neologism, is not a new idea at all. We've all heard of gays and Greens and the principle here is the same taking a word that is not currently a noun and using it as one. Of course the chosen word must be positive and memorable in order to give it 'life'. This takes us back to Dawkins and his idea of memes (or 'living ideas') which are words, phrases or concepts that, through widespread use, become so ingrained in consciousness that they effectively become information-based entities in their own rights. 'Gay' is probably the best example since, although its original use was as an unrelated adjective, most people hearing it or using it today will do so in the context of homosexuality. Furthermore, in doing so it has both raised awareness of discrimination against the gay community and provided a positive descriptive term for use by all. Its originators, whoever they are, are to be applauded and those who are now 'coming out' as Brights can only hope that our neologism is equally successful.
The Brights movement became truly international with the launching of the website www.the-brights.net aided by hard work from Paul, Mynga and our webmaster Kevin Schultz; and articles in the media the most significant being Dawkins in the Guardian and Daniel Dennett in the New York Times. We have grown from a fledgling idea struggling to get out of the nest to an entity that now spans the world. Our 'members' (those who have signed up on the website) already number in the tens of thousands, and are currently spread over 104 countries. All this in little more than a year from the launch of the website on June 4th 2003 aand the movement gaining recognition as a not-for-profit entity that August.
Anyone who visits the website, and I strongly recommend you do, will find all they need to decide whether or not they wish to identify as a Bright: a succinct definition; three clear aims; the nine principles on which the movement is based; details of how and why the word was chosen; how we intend to use it as an umbrella term (I'm still a secular atheist but I am also a Bright); frequently asked questions; links to online articles (criticisms are welcome where they are constructive); details of famous Brights; comments on Brights by Brights; and a sign-up sheet to register as a member of the constituency. Registered constituents also receive a newsletter by e-mail, and these are also available for viewing on the website.
The next stage saw the formation of task teams, groups of individuals wishing to play more than a passive role in spreading the meme. I duly joined the newsletter task team, charged with getting a simple pre-agreed article to as many potential interest groups as possible, whilst others worked on other aspects, such as the development of the online Brights' forums. By chance this coincided with my move to Leicester and therefore becoming a member of Leicester Secular Society was another logical thing to do.
Since then we have continued to expand, with a current goal of reaching one hundred thousand supporters by the end of this year. The use of the MeetUp website is enabling groups of Brights around the world to get together in cities supported by that website (the number of UK cities listed is limited but growing) whilst the official forums (at www.the-brights.net/forums not currently linked from the main site) provide a space for growing numbers of Brights to discuss Bright-related action and ideas, as well as anything else that happens to be on their minds. Proposals for action or articles to be attributed to the movement (as opposed to an individual) go through 'the process', a simple consensus-building method developed and updated by forum facilitators. Paul and Mynga can occasionally be found lurking around online but the forums are effectively a subset of the Bright constituency and outcomes from the process are not binding to the whole movement. However, they do serve to highlight the key issues we need to address at each stage and provide a straw poll of opinions which are used to inform and suggest action for the wider community. Additionally, The Brights' Net is now a US-registered not-for-profit public benefit educational organisation.
Perhaps I should add a couple of notes on semantics at this point, especially for anyone who reads this and decides to join the forums. There is the little problem of the 'B' or 'b'. In this essay I have been careful to write 'Bright' and not 'bright' to me there is a distinction but others may disagree. The general consensus is that a 'Bright' is someone who has signed up and/or actively descibes themselves as such another way of saying this is that that someone has 'memed' whereas a 'bright' is someone who can be said to agree with our ideas but is either unaware of us or chooses not to use the word. This convention will probably stick but is not always adhered to on the forums please don't be afraid to tell us off for it as it's another good consciousness-raiser! Also, there is no opposite to Bright despite what some scaremongers in the media have claimed 'darks', 'dulls', 'shadows', etc have no place in our definition and serve as yet another unwelcome way of labelling us in relation to theists.
So how does being a Bright fit with secularism? I personally find no conflicts. Brights vary in many respects, and there is no pressing for conformity on a manifesto of beliefs. people retain their individuality while working on the overall aims of the movement. However, as I see it, supporting the complete separation of religion and state is a basic principle of the movement ü. As is supporting the rights of children to be free of religious indoctrination (like many non-theist groups we are careful when dealing with under-16's) ü. As is non-discrimination and tolerance (except maybe when up against zealots) ü. As is seeking equality with theistic groups (not superiority over them, although we are all entitled to our own opinions!) ü. We both advocate and practice free speech ü. We may not, by definition, be a pro-republic movement, but then not all secularists are either. In short, if you ascribe to the weak version of secularism then, as far as I can see, you should find no conflicts, and if you ascribe to the strong version of secularism you will find many existing Brights agreeing with you.
Nor are we trying to replace any existing non-theist groups, in fact we actively encourage Brights to join other organisations. Remember we're an umbrella movement aimed at societal acceptance and civic involvement, encouraging people to be pro-active and make their voices heard is of foremost importance and getting every Bright to agree on every issue that concerns us would neither be possible nor do us any favours in terms of appealing to our target audiences. Our media of choice, the internet, has allowed us to proliferate at a rate that is probably unequalled by any other non-theistic group, and if in the process of doing so we have swelled the numbers of other non-theistic groups then so much the better. Whether we can provide an ultimate answer to uniting and mobilising brights around the world remains to be seen, but we're a young movement, we're having a go at it, and we're not going to go away. Even if you object to the choice of name at least take some time to consider whether you agree with our aims and aspirations and let us know your views, rejecting us on the grounds of a word ignores the wider scope of what we are trying to achieve.
What if we fail? Well I guess we become another case study for Prof. Dawkins and hopefully those that follow will learn from our mistakes. I don't see any harm in that but I think we can, and will, achieve more. Already, in a short period, we have raised the consciousness of countless persons, launched new connections between individuals and organisations, put people who had felt they were alone in their social settings in touch with one another, prompted countless discussions of civic involvement and strategy, drawn the attention of mainstream media in many areas, aand interested families and younger people in what had been a rather aged demographic profile.
If we succeed, in whatever form and under whatever name, we will have done something to be truly proud of. Paul, Mynga and Kevin have provided the spark, and others of us have responded by lighting our own fires and helping spread and shape the movement. But a fire needs fuel to keep it alight and more sparks to help it spread, and they can only be supplied by individuals who no longer wish to live in the darkness of theistic dominance. Please help us carry a torch into the future and keep its fire burning Bright.
Disclaimer: The author's views are individual and do not necessarily represent those of Paul Geisert, Mynga Futrell, Kevin Shultz or other specific individuals within the Brights constituency. Further information and contact details are available at www.the-brights.net.
Keith J. Baker 02/03/04 (revised 25/10/04)