Everyone has been buzzing lately about Leon Wieseltier’s nasty review of Daniel Dennett’s new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I haven’t read Dennett’s new book yet, but having read and been impressed by his previous book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea–and, furthermore, finding Wieseltier’s take to be extremely nasty–I must confess my suspicion that the current review is unfair.
But on at least one point, Dennett is getting what he deserves, I think. Wieseltier writes the following:
If you disagree with what Dennett says, it is because you fear what he says. Any opposition to his scientistic deflation of religion he triumphantly dismisses as “protectionism.” But people who share Dennett’s view of the world he calls “brights.” Brights are not only intellectually better, they are also ethically better. Did you know that “brights have the lowest divorce rate in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest”?
From this, I gather that Dennett is persisting in his unfortunate idea of labeling religious unbelievers “brights”–which, in turn, is having the entirely predictable effect of pissing off a reviewer (who is presumably a believer of some sort or other). Dennett has claimed that he didn’t intend the “bright” label to signal arrogance, but in my opinion, he is largely responsible for others taking it in this way. How could the “brights” label do anything but reconfirm the stereotype that atheists think they’re smarter than anyone else?
What the “Brights” espisode shows is that would-be defenders of science, like Dennett, really need to attend the Matt Nisbet school of framing ASAP. No one trained in political communication techniques could possibly have come up with a label as damaging, as counterproductive, or as stereotype-reinforcing as “brights.”