How Bright are You?

Most people are rather proud to be Unitarian Universalists. After all, it is said that one has to be pretty bright to be part of such a non-traditional religion – if for no other reason than one has to be pretty bright in order to understand the sermons of the Unitarian Universalist Minister. And, of course, one has to be reasonably bright to write sermons that are difficult to understand unless you are as Bright as the average Unitarian Universalist. So – how Bright are you?

Daniel C. Dennett, philosophy professor at Tufts University, is the author of an article appearing in the New York Times in which he follows up on the term “Bright” as coined by a couple in (where else) California. What is a “Bright?” A “Bright,” says Dr. Dennett “is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We Brights,” Dennett says, including himself in good company, “don’t believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter bunny – or God.” “We disagree about many things,” he goes on, “and hold a variety of views about morality, politics, and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic and life after death.”

Well, that certainly sounds like Unitarian Universalists to me.

And there’s more.

Brights, says Dennett, are all around us: Brights are doctors, nurses, police officers, schoolteachers, crossing guards, and military people. Our colleges and universities “teem” with them, he says. Among scientists, Brights are a sound majority. Brights, he says, are the moral backbone of the nation. They take their civic duties seriously. They don’t trust God to save humanity from its follies. More and more like Unitarian Universalists. No wonder we are so proud of ourselves! Brights even have a web site. Just type “Brights” into your web browser and you’ll find it. If you are a joiner, you can sign up on the web site and become a card carrying member of something called “The Bright Network.” Why would you want to do that? Well, you probably wouldn’t. There’s a lot about all this that is tongue-in-cheek – particularly when Brights get to comparing their oppressed state to that of people of color and homosexuals.

But there is a serious side to the “Bright’s Unite!” battle cry. Professor Dennett refers to a Pew Forum survey on Religion and Public Life conducted last year that suggests that about 27 million Americans are atheists, agnostics, or have no religious preference. He suggests that the 27 million number may be low, since many non-believers are, in fact, “closeted.” Many Americans are afraid that going public with their unbelief would be to their social disadvantage. Do your neighbors know what your religious beliefs are? Do your fellow workers, your boss, know you are an atheist? Dennett says, “We don’t play the aggressive atheist role. We don’t want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion and we don’t want to offend our friends and neighbors and so we maintain a diplomatic silence.” The serious side of all this is that that the price of being a closet Bright is political impotence and, in the minds of politicians, political insignificance. Politicians from the president on down play to an audience of true believers. Worse – part of their “playing to the audience” is the disparaging of “godless, secularist, humanist, and unbelievers.” One has only to listen to the ravings of Chief Justice Moore of Alabama to understand that “Brights” are not his audience. Brights surely didn’t elect him and they surely are not a constituency he feels he needs to consider in his theatrics.

Susan Meyers, a former Journal Constitution editor, wrote in a current county weekly, “Bravo to Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. He understands where our country came from and where the rule of law originates. He understands that in times of strife or times of prosperity, we are no nation if we are not one nation under God.”

Of course, what Chief Justice Moore understands is what side his bread is buttered on – and it’s not the side of non- or a-religious constituents. As for Ms. Meyers, she makes it clear that anyone who does not believe that our nation is under God has no validity as part of the nation. Clearly, that is the dominant view in contemporary American culture. America has a civic religion composed of simplistic Judeo-Christian beliefs intermingled with civic icons, rituals, and holy places and, from the point of view of the vast majority, anyone who doesn’t love that culture and its religion or support its proclamations and policies can leave it.

The local opinion column writer, Susan Meyers, presses a really hot button when she invokes September 11. “Look back to September 11,” she writes, “Was there anyone that day that did not believe in God or did not pray to a higher authority?” Well, yes, according to the Pew Forum survey, there were at least 27 million people who did not believe in God or pray to a higher authority – even on September 11.

There are millions of people in the world who believe neither that God caused that horrific event nor that God could have prevented it. Even if there is a God, some would say, it is not a God that makes falling buildings go up again.

Professor Dennett is right, though. For the most part, the Brights, the atheists and agnostics, kept their opinions to themselves on September 11. The mind went blank and the tongue twisted when the preachers proclaimed that the tons of rubble and the thousands of bodies were the fault of the humanists and the homosexuals.

And about this business of same-sex marriage – again, every politician desirous of re-election, even the supposed liberals among them, righteously proclaim that marriage is ordained as between men and women. Ordained by whom? By nature? What does nature know of marriage? I have two male dogs neither of whom have any more interest in marrying the pretty female cocker spaniel next door than they have in marrying the mail carrier’s leg.

Ordained by God? Aha! There you have it. America is one big church with one big amorphous God and if you don’t believe marriage begins with Adam & Eve you don’t belong in America’s church and if you are one of those atheist/humanist/probably-pervert Brights the candidate isn’t talking to you anyway because his or her speeches aren’t written for you and you don’t count.

There was a flurry of letters to the Times in response to Professor Dennett’s article. A few prominent people, including a Nobel scientist in Britain, have picked up the term and publicly proclaimed themselves as “Brights.” But whether the term “Bright” will take its place with such terms as “liberal,” “fundamentalist,” or “conservative” remains to be seen – remains, I think, doubtful. Still, there’s a lot to be said for the banding together of people whose beliefs – or, more rightly, whose “non-beliefs” – are not taken seriously in society or culture.

There are a lot of Brights in the world – a lot of people who fit the definition; but, like the Unitarian Universalists they resemble, they tend to be individualists, not joiners. They write letters. Yes, they march. Occasionally, they hang out the window and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” But they don’t host nationally-syndicated talk shows. There are more Thomas Sowells and Maggie Gallaghers than there are Molly Ivins.

After the removal of Justice Moore’s monolith, there were a few sign-carrying Brights here and there but there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of true believers standing and literally lying around Moore’s courthouse praying for God to strike down the infidels. If the fundamentalists and the people of the political and religious right are able to continue to believe that they live in one homogenous god-fearing, theocratic, bible-believing nation it is due, in part, to the fact that the rest of us are usually pretty quiet about what we believe and don’t believe. So, banding together under some sort of banner with a name we will recognize when we are called might not be such a bad idea.

But I have a couple of caveats. I have some difficulty with the term “Bright” and with the description of “Brights.” “Brights,” says Professor Dennett, “Do not believe in ghosts, or elves, or the Easter Bunny – or God.” Bundling people who believe in God together with people who believe in elves and the Easter Bunny is arrogant, ignorant, and off-putting. To put everyone who believes in God in the same box is to live by the same fallacy as those fundamentalists who box all skeptics, atheists, and agnostics together. The person who believes that God cares or will ultimately determine who wins the next Braves game or even, more seriously, who wins a war, is not in the same category of believer as, say, Albert Einstein. If I wanted to call myself a Bright, and I thought that believing or not believing in God has something to do with education or intelligence, I would be well advised to avoid finding myself in debate with, let’s say, the Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, or the Roman Catholic theologian Carl Gustav Jung.

One of the problems with the term “Bright” – for all the denials its coiners proclaim – is that it carries the baggage of its opposite; that is, if non-believers are “Bright,” then believers must be “dim.” Assuming that people who do not think the way we think are “unenlightened,” dim, not as “Bright” as we is a truly silly, unintelligent, and uninformed assumption. I find, for example, that too often people who rail against religion in general (as if there were such a thing as religion in general) are uninformed about the significant differences between “religion,” “faith,” and “belief” and use the terms as if they are interchangeable.

Given this lack of understanding, it is easy to assume, as Professor Dennett does, that a person of faith believes in God, Elves, and Ghosts. To the best of my knowledge, the Dalai Lama, whom I truly revere as a figure of powerful and transforming faith, and whose picture is on the wall of my office, does not believe in elves.

It has occurred to me that part of the problem of what I call “liberal arrogance” may be that many ‘Brights,” religious liberals, and Unitarian Universalists have only experience two realms of the religious spectrum, traditional religion and liberal/humanistic religion. This lack of knowledge and understanding among some self-identified religious liberals sometimes results in what amounts to a liberal fundamentalism as impervious to reason as the fundamentalism of the right.

As for me, I guess that, according to the definition, I would not qualify for membership in the Bright Network. I believe in God. Oh I don’t believe in the fire-breathing, flood-rising, miracle-wroughting God of the Hebrew Scriptures. I don’t believe that God is supernatural. I believe that God is the very core and essence of the natural. I believe that God is the ground of being that (not who) urges all things toward the greatest fulfillment possible for them.

Of course, I can’t prove that such a God exists and, frankly, I wouldn’t be interested in such an exercise. But I believe that the faith that such a God does exist makes a difference, and so I attempt to live as if God Is. Not very Bright of me, I guess. After all, it has required the work of four academic degrees and sixty-six years of study and experience to come to this possibly indefensible position.

Professor Dennett also identifies Brights as being “the moral backbone of the nation.” That is supreme arrogance and, I would think/hope off-putting to serious citizens considering joining up. Not believing in elves, ghosts, the Easter Bunny or God cannot be equated with moral backbone or with morality one way or another for that matter. My faith development as a child was in the hands of a spiritualist grandmother turned Jehovah’s Witness and a father who can only be described as “pagan.” Elves, fairies, angels, and a loving God were all part of my worldview and experience. I can say without hesitation that my sense of morality, my sense of “do unto others and to everything” as I would have done unto me, is firmly rooted in that development.

One respondent to Professor Dennett’s article wrote to the Times, “The world’s faiths have much to atone for, but Daniel C. Dennett should pause before equating non-belief with ‘Brightness.’ “For most of the 20th century,” the writer continues, “officially atheistic regimes ruled a large part of the world. I don’t think that the prisoners of the gulag saw much that was Bright.”

Personally, I think much of the morality of the Christian right is antiquated, stifling, insupportable, and even cruel. And, to some extent, their morality is based on their beliefs. On the other hand, like the writer of the letter to the Times, I see no historical evidence that secular convictions are inevitably the ground of a more humane morality.

Furthermore (and perhaps this underscores the need for “Bright Voices” to be heard) the voices that are raised for a more humane reality particularly in the realms of social justice, are not often, in fact, the voices of “Brights” but the voices of committed people of faith. It is the Episcopalians, after all, who have recently elected an openly-gay bishop.

Two responses to the “Bright” side come to mind, then, for us to consider: First, a caution – that we must be always on our guard lest we perpetuate the tendency toward liberal arrogance in which it is assumed that left means right, that non-belief is somehow a Brighter and more clever stance than belief of any sort, and that God is dead.

Second is a call to action. The leaders of this nation proceed on the assumption of a homogenous mass of traditional true believers. They are supported in this assumption by the relative silence of those who think otherwise. It is clearly not enough for people of liberal faith to gnash their teeth in the solitude of their liberal lairs. The Christian, theist, Unitarian Universalist theologian, James Luther Adams, proclaimed that the individual can only make a difference in community, can only move the world by moving its institutions. I close with one of those letters to the Times responding to Professor Dennett’s article about the Brights:

I regret the use of the term “Brights” to refer to people “with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist worldview.” It smacks of smugness and intellectual elitism, and separates atheists, agnostics, and nonbelievers from inquiring minds within a religious community who, like them, seek to answer the perplexing questions of human existence. As a Unitarian Universalist, I find more useful the dialogue that can occur when people of diverse philosophical and religious beliefs come together in a mutual quest for meaning.

I say amen.