The Intersection

Slamming Dennett

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.”

Comments

  1. #1 John Farrell
    February 22, 2006

    If I’m not mistaken, isn’t Wieseltier an atheist? Which makes the review even more biting. But I think your take is exactly right, Chris.

  2. #2 Sean
    February 22, 2006

    It is somewhat ironic that a self-described “bright” would do something as dumb as choose that word to describe liberal secularism. Apparently Dennett claims that he received a tremendous amount of positive feedback about the name. Personally, I was wondering whether Pat Robertson had secretly ghost-written the op-ed piece in which the name was first promulgated; it’s hard to imagine a publicity strategy that does more damage to the cause, and I was surprised to hear that Dennett was sticking with it.

  3. #3 Chris Mooney
    February 22, 2006

    I could be wrong about Wieseltier…..

  4. #4 David Wilford
    February 22, 2006

    Wieseltier as far as i can tell adhers to Judaism, and is not an atheist.

  5. #5 polliwog
    February 22, 2006

    Much as I have learned from reading some of Dennet’s books, I have to agree that he seems to have a predilection for commiting the “genetic fallacy”, criticising opponents views as manifestations of,say, “a yearning for skyhooks” before he even gets dpwn to refuting them. His treatment of Stehen J. Gould in DDI was a very special narrative all its own.

  6. #6 Matthew Heaney
    February 22, 2006

    I’m reading Dennett’s book now, and he hardly even uses the term “brights,” except to say that the positive response to his brights op-ed in the NYT is what motivated him to write this book. The fact that Wieseltier even brought it up says more about Wieseltier than the substance of Dennett’s book. Wieseltier’s screed is exactly the kind of tremulous response Dennett predicated would come from the left-wing literati.

    Memo to Leon: evolution happened. Evolution explains religious belief. Get over it.

  7. #7 Julie Stahlhut
    February 22, 2006

    I’ll stand up for “brights”, which I find humorous. As I read it, it’s meant to be analogous to the word “gay”, used for self-description by a group of people who were tired of being treated badly and so adopted an appealing word to describe themselves. Whether we web users can engineer the adoption of a slang term into the language on our own terms remains to be determined, but will be interesting to find out.

  8. #8 P.M.Bryant
    February 22, 2006

    One hardly needs to be trained in political communication techniques to realize the pretentious, arrogant, and antagonistic nature of the term “bright”.

    On a higher level, picking a fight between religion and science (as I gather this book by Dennett does, though I have not read it) is certain to be detrimental to the advocacy of science in this country.

    This is far more unfortunate than occasional use of the misleading term “bright.”

  9. #9 Chris Mooney
    February 22, 2006

    Right but it’s part of the same big picture…..

  10. #10 David Roberts
    February 22, 2006

    Everyone is an expert on how bad everyone else’s framing is — as far as I can tell, that’s Lakoff’s main legacy.

    So, all you critics, what’s a better term than “brights”? Obviously “non-believers” isn’t that great, since it defines us in the negative.

    If you just say, “I don’t know, I’m not a framing expert,” well, can you point me to one? As far as I can tell, Lakoff sucks at it. So who else? Does Nisbet have an alternative term?

    This whole concept of framing has given blog denizens a chance to do what they love doing: talk about talking. But somebody actually needs to get out of the meta-dialogue and venture out into public. Dennet’s trying. It’s easy to criticize him, what what’s your alternative?

  11. #11 Chris Mooney
    February 22, 2006

    It would require study to really come up with an alternative term. Precisely what *obviously* didn’t go into the process of coming up with “brights”

  12. #12 RSA
    February 22, 2006

    I think “bright” is a silly term. I think a more ironic term would have been more effective, such as “skeptic”, “disbeliever”, or even “barbarian” or “heathen”. On the other hand, look at the success of the Moral Majority. Talk about an arrogant name. . .

    As for Dennett’s picking a public fight with religion, well, the opposite hasn’t worked very well. A couple of years ago, Peter Beinart (if I remember correctly) cited a post-9/11 survey showing that Americans trusted atheists less than they did Muslims. It’s possible to spin that result as showing religious tolerance, but it still leaves atheists out in the cold. The “bright” movement seems to be trying to convey the message, “Hey, you too could be a member of this cool in-crowd,” however ineffective that message is likely to be.

  13. #13 pough
    February 22, 2006

    Perhaps “Bright” sounds better to an older generation. I’ve heard Dennett and Randi mention it, but to me it sounds too dorky. I will admit, though, that it has a great “seen the light” connotation to it that IMO reflects (no pun intended) how I feel about my conversion to athiesm…

    But I also have agree it has a definite, “I’m a Bright so I guess that makes you not quite so bright,” quality to it.

  14. #14 cm
    February 22, 2006

    Ok, how about these more politically strategic alternatives to Brights?

    Genius Overseers
    Talosian Brainmen
    The Masters
    The Lords of Reason
    Godless Smartboys
    The Better
    The Unholy
    Team Nothing

  15. #15 Chris Mooney
    February 22, 2006

    I am partial to “Godless Smartboys” myself.

  16. #16 David Roberts
    February 22, 2006

    What kind of “study”? And when is someone actually going to do the alleged study? How come no one ever does them? And how come when someone actually does them they come up with stuff like, “America, together we can do better”?

    I’m not a huge fan of the term “bright,” but I suspect half of the negative reaction it gets is just from being new. New terms tend to sound fake and false to our ears — they are pulled out of their normal context and connotations and stuck in a new setting. If people started using “brights” and it spread around, soon it wouldn’t sound like much of anything strange. That’s how framing is supposed to work — people adopt the language and make it part of the vernacular.

    In practice, framing seems to work this way: Somebody goes out in public and tries to change public sentiment. And then legions of bloggers descend on that person, ridiculing their attempts.

    So I’m serious: What’s a term that describes secular, atheist, methodological naturalists in positive rather than negative terms? Does anyone even have a non-snarky candidate?

  17. #17 polliwog
    February 22, 2006

    Um,…

    de-zeusified atheniacs?

  18. #18 Chris Mooney
    February 22, 2006

    polling, focus groups, etc. Cultural Logic describes one possible methodology:
    http://www.culturallogic.com/whatwedo.php

    Although this assertion is not based on research, I find “humanist” and “unitarian” to be relatively positive terms. “secular humanist” is not because it has “secular” attached to it.

  19. #19 Laurie Mann
    February 22, 2006

    Chris, I may be godless and smart, but a boy???

    Please!

    I prefer the term “realist” to “non-believer” or “bright,” but I can see where that, too would antagonise people. However, I do find atheists/agnostics tend to have more realistic attitudes about life and death than “god-believers” do.

  20. #20 David Koprovic
    February 22, 2006

    How about Self-Determinist.

  21. #21 Niobe
    February 22, 2006

    What’s wrong with the ol’ tried-and-true “free-thinker?”

  22. #22 RSA
    February 22, 2006

    I like “freethinker”. Only one step away from “libertine”.

  23. #23 plunge
    February 22, 2006

    If one doesn’t explain how religious belief arises, they get accused of not being able to account for it. If they provide some plausible explanation, they get accused of the genetic fallacy. Damned if you do… damned if you don’t.

  24. #24 P.M.Bryant
    February 22, 2006

    Brainstorming is all that should be needed to come up with a suitable term for religious non-believers. Chris already suggested a couple reasonable, non-antagonistic ones a few comments above.

    I don’t see the relevance of this, though, for defenders of science. Science is separate from religion, not its opposite.

  25. #25 justawriter
    February 22, 2006

    But then again a label can be useful as a banner for creating a community, like these people are trying to do.

    I find the bright/dim comparison a red herring, for the most part. I see it brought up much more often by nonbelievers than believers, or supers. After all, how many heterosexuals go around calling themselves “morose”?

    Besides the beauty of a self-determined label is that you are free to reject it. I am sure there are homosexuals who abhor the term gay because of its social connotations. Even if you are a bright, you don’t have to call yourself one.

  26. #26 Jon Winsor
    February 22, 2006

    I think “humanists” is a good name, and it’s the traditional one too, and one that has good historical connotations. What does the word “brights” do that “humanists” doesn’t?

    By the way, I haven’t read Dennet’s book either, but this line struck me as the typical assumption that someone like Dennet would make: “all our ‘intrinsic’ values started out as instrumental values.”

    There’s something impoverished about this kind of statement. It treats values (and I assume, states of mind and consciousness) as nothing more than accidents of evolution. Do I feel good about helping the guy next door? That’s only because this kind of feeling helped my ancestors get together and beat the next tribe over the head at the watering hole. So therefore I don’t labor under the premise that my values, etc. are anything more than some sort of sublimated selfishness in the primal struggle.

    Why the rush to assume this sort of thing? Isn’t it possible that values, etc. exist apart from this sort of mess? Why the compulsion to insist, dogmatically, that they don’t?

  27. #27 cm
    February 22, 2006

    I wonder if it is a good idea to create a label at all. It has some advantages of convenience, such as when you want to Google an idea and find a community represented online or a list of famous brights or whatever it might be. And there are times when I might feel a touch of pride in being able to say I am of the same group as Dawkins or Dennett or other intellectual heavyweights.

    But the discussion here is about sociopolitical change and in that regard I think one could argue that creating a set identity as a group may be counterproductive. When a motivation gets crystallized in the form of a group, it’s opponents can begin to attack it in a broad-brush sort of way which the public often, unfortunately, gets taken in by. This happened with the term “atheist” (really a rather innocuous description at face value) in the 1950s Red Scare times, since it got conflated with communist. (have you seen your parent(s) flinch when you use the word to describe yourself? I have).

    In the same way, “brights”, “freethinkers”, “humanists”, etc. could serve as handles by which opponents can manipulate and distort the associations to them. An analogy would be a wrestler who wears his hair long and in a ponytail–it’s giving a huge advantage to one’s opponent because it is a grasping point, a handle.

    Perhaps it would be better to promote rational, evidence-based thinking not as some special group practice but as the common sense default. And when it applies to specific policy decisions, the standard line should not be (implicitly) “as a bright I would say…” but instead “well, just looking at the best evidence it would seem to me…”

    I am not sure about all this though. Thoughts?

  28. #28 Ginger Yellow
    February 22, 2006

    Given that Dennett claims (and I agree with qualifications) that brights are intellectually and ethically “better” than theists, I don’t see that changing the name is going to get rid of perceptions of arrogance or make the thesis more palatable to God-botherers. I think his campaign is doomed politically, but I like the honesty of “bright”.

  29. #29 Carlie
    February 22, 2006

    I have thought from the first time I heard the label “bright” that it was condescending and horrible for all the reasons mentioned. But it is a real point of discussion – is there something we can call ourselves? Part of the image problem atheists have is that “atheist” is a black hole to most people. They don’t think they know any, and have a preconceived idea of what an “atheist” is. This is not entirely unlike the issue with fundamentalists and gays: if someone doesn’t know any, they feel free to think homosexuals are horrible people until they find out a friend actually is one. I’m not making my point well, but here’s an example.
    Christians are fully content to use their label when doing good deeds. What is the alternative? I shoveled the driveway of an elderly woman across the street last week, and she said “Oh, what a lovely Christian thing to do!” What could I say back? “No, ma’am, I’m a godless atheist?” We can’t get a critical mass of examples that we’re decent human beings without some kind of universal label to throw on it all.

  30. #30 Joanna Bryson
    February 22, 2006

    I thought the weird thing about Wieseltier’s review was that once you get into the heart of it, he pulls out examples of text that actually make sense, whereas his objections do not. For example:

    “‘But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science.’ Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back.”

    Well, neither do I. Everything in the world is in the world, just like everything on a computer is ultimately a 0 or a 1. You can be theistic and still think that’s true. But of course, I’ve read the original line in context since I’ve actually read the book. Maybe it makes less sense wrenched out of context.

    I do agree Dennett often comes across as a little pleased with himself, but it’s still an amazing read. There are some very smart smug people in the world.

    By the way, you can get the review off the IHT without subscribing (unlike the NYT). Note the URL! :-)
    http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/02/17/features/IDlede18.php

  31. #31 David S
    February 22, 2006

    The people involved in the Brights movement have gone out of their way from the beginning to explain that they don’t intend the word to imply that non-Brights are less intelligent. Nobody thinks gays are implying that heterosexuals are unhappy because they’re not gay. It is exactly the same thing.

    It’s not worth worrying about offending theists anyway. The term “freethinker” has been around for a long time and it offends the hell out of theists. So what? They will be offended by any label for a non-theist that does not have a negative connotation. And the terms that they feel do sound negative will just be used against us.

    Even the traditional words like atheist and infidel, which most people feel have negative connotations, have a tendency to offend theists. Most theists are offended by the very existence of atheists! No matter what word we use.

    On top of all this, the fact is that Brights ARE typically more intelligent than theists. Why pretend that we don’t know it?

  32. #32 Chris Mooney
    February 22, 2006

    Folks,
    Matt Nisbet agrees with me about the way the “brights” label backfires, and explains it well here:
    http://framing-science.blogspot.com/2006/02/frame-device-opposite-of-bright-is-dim.html

  33. #33 Joanna Bryson
    February 22, 2006

    “Gay” came into common usage as an insult that got coopted (like “yankee”). Unfortunately, the last time I heard “godless atheists” used as an insult it was to describe the Sept 11 hijackers, I believe it was by our beloved president. “Theists” is I think the term he was actually looking for. But anyway, I have never heard anyone call anyone except themselves a “bright”.

    I don’t understand why people can stomach calling themselves “brights” but not “atheists”, but the latter term gets people all religious about their agnosticism… Still, I think it took quite a while for “gay” to get accepted in the homosexual community too. The easiest thing is to ask people to call you what they want to call you anyway, that’s the real less on of the “gay” movement.

    I would back atheist over agnostic because the religious are always trying to tell me I’m actually agnostic, because for them that means I know about God but just haven’t come to terms with it yet. They can’t find another explanation than that for how I can be a moral individual. So I like to make it quite clear that I’m well informed, atheist and apostate.

  34. #34 Jon Winsor
    February 22, 2006

    I’m an agnostic, does that make me not as “bright” as you folks? I don’t know, I think it takes some intelligence to have the “negative capability” not to draw conclusions I know I can’t draw.

    Some of this may be because I come from a part of the country where the churches get turned into condos and the atheists go to church (The one where Tim Berners-Lee goes to. Only in the Northeast is this possible)…

  35. #35 razib
    February 22, 2006

    Wieseltier as far as i can tell adhers to Judaism, and is not an atheist.

    the two are not disjoint as judaism is an ethnicity as well as a religion. the american jewish identity survey indicates that a large minority, far larger than the american population at large, of self-identified “jews” are also atheists in regard to the god hypothesis.

  36. #36 razib
    February 22, 2006
  37. #37 justawriter
    February 22, 2006

    Joanna,

    The term bright encompasses more than just religion. It means accepting a naturalistic worldview. One can deny religion while accepting all sorts of other supernatural pap such as healing crystals or Ramtha or telepathy or all sorts of mystical energies that are beyond the ken of pitiful sciences. Brights, or at least this bright, lump them all together.

  38. #38 Chris Mooney
    February 22, 2006

    I welcome the “bright” defenders here, but I would really like to hear one of them explain how exactly this term helps the atheist cause with non-atheists.

  39. #39 Laurie Mann
    February 22, 2006

    I’ve always liked the word “humanist,” but the fundies have used that as a curse since at least the ’70s if not earlier.

    Controlling the disussion is important. Fundies have a black and white view of life that makes controlling the discussion easier and more marketable. In reality, life is much grayer. Since we are more capable of acknowledging the gray areas, it also makes our linguistic frames of reference grayer.

  40. #40 CanuckRob
    February 22, 2006

    Lenin’s party, which was a minority took the name Bolsheviks which means majority in Russian. The Moral Majority in the USA was neither a majority nor particularly moral (other than by their own odd definiton). Co-opting good names is an old trick and atheists should consider it. Brights is okay but could easily be portrayed as arrogant. However if we started having Bright Pride Parades maybe we could get somewhere:)

    Does anyone know what terms are used in other parts of the world? In Canada it is humanist as far as I can tell.

  41. #41 Glenn Branch
    February 22, 2006

    Dennett is persisting in his unfortunate idea of labeling religious unbelievers “brights”

    The idea is actually due to Paul Geisert (who coined the term) and Mynga Futtrell (who developed its official definition), although Dennett and Dawkins both promoted it with their widely read columns.

  42. #42 Chris Mooney
    February 22, 2006

    Sorry, Glenn, I knew that fact, but just overlooked it in this posting. you’re correct.

  43. #43 PZ Myers
    February 22, 2006

    I’ve always intensely disliked the term “bright” myself, preferring just a simple, straightforward “atheist”. Unfortunately, many people also treat that as a term of contempt.

    The biggest problem isn’t the language or the framing — it’s plain old bigotry.

  44. #44 Chris Clarke
    February 22, 2006

    For what it’s worth, the Brights website explicitly welcomes non-atheists to the fold. All that’s required is a non-supernatural worldview, a condition that includes many Buddhists, Quakers, Unitarians, and cetera.

    That said, despite the fact that I’m solidly inside the target audience, the term rather repels me. My worldview is reward enough on its own. I don’t need to slap a self-congratulatory label on it.

  45. #45 justawriter
    February 22, 2006

    I welcome the “bright” defenders here, but I would really like to hear one of them explain how exactly this term helps the atheist cause with non-atheists

    Honestly? It won’t. A word like bright won’t change minds, especially one that is predisposed against such a worldview. I see it more as an organizing tool, a rallying point for people with a naturalist worldview. I don’t see any great acceptance for athiests and agnostics in the future without effective organizing on the their own behalf. It won’t happen anytime soon, but then it took 100 years to go from Jack Johnson (or Booker T Washington, if you prefer) to Michael Jordon (or Barack Obama, ditto). My hope is to see a level of acceptance within my lifetime to have an ethical, virtuous bright as a character in a sitcom surrounded by a bunch of wacky spiritual neighbors. And maybe by 2100, we may even have an athiest president, if we work hard at it.

  46. #46 Chris Mooney
    February 22, 2006

    “Honestly? It won’t.”

    I rest my case.

  47. #47 bad Jim
    February 22, 2006

    I think it would be hard to turn “freethinker” into a negative (who could be against freedom or thinking?) and I like the fact that it is a time-honored and descriptive label.

    One problem with “humanist” is that it also describes people working in the humanities, who aren’t necessarily non-religious.

  48. #48 Todd Crane
    February 23, 2006

    Honestly, I go back and forth on the word “bright.” I like it because it’s such a positive word. But, it also has the arrogance factor that prevents wide acceptance. On the other hand, I don’t like the “-ist” words (atheist, naturalist, materialist) because they’re just so dry. I think “free-thinker” is too broad since free-thought is about questioning authority and dogma which certainly encompasses much more than religion. The essential task is to communicate a natural versus a supernatural world view. With that said, maybe “bright” isn’t such a bad choice afterall. Any term a non-religious naturalist like myself uses is going to create some preconceived notion in the minds of others. At least the term “bright” is a conversation starter.

  49. #49 justawriter
    February 23, 2006

    Hmm. Nice quote mining. You missed the part where I said the label was a tool. Tools aren’t solutions. They are what you use to seek a solution.

  50. #50 Ginger Yellow
    February 23, 2006

    Chris, it won’t help the cause, but I don’t think any label will when the cause is persuading people that a worldview based on naturalistic metaphysics and reality-based rather than authority-based ethics is superior to a religious/supernatural one. If you’re telling people, in many cases whose faith is their most precious possession, that a faithless way of looking at the world is superior, then hostility is going to be the default response. Personally I think it’s a mistake to put any label on the individuals, whether it’s “bright” or something less overtly objectionable such as “freethinker”. This just leads to the misperception that “brights” think “brights” as people are more intelligent/morally superior, rather than “brightism” being a better way of looking at the world, resulting in superior intellectual and ethical actions.

  51. #51 David Wilford
    February 23, 2006

    I guess I’m one of those dodos who still believes that it’s more important what you say about the issues than what the issues say about you, which is all that “framing” really amounts to.

  52. #52 Chris Clarke
    February 23, 2006

    which is all that “framing” really amounts to.

    Framing framing as “framing” is bad framing. What we ought to be doing is explaining.

  53. #53 Kirk
    February 23, 2006

    I vote for the simple, honest, “rationalist”.

  54. #54 gerald spezio
    February 23, 2006

    Framing and reframing??? What a contribution to intellectual development. Cows eat grass. George Lakoff’s cognitive and metaphorical mush makes me puke, and makes pompous George some publishing bucks. His nonsense is as bad as any postmodernist literary subterfuge. Dr. Irwin Corey couldn’t do it any better. What a laffer.

  55. #55 Tulse
    February 23, 2006

    I’m not sure that labelling, regardless of the actual term, will help things at all. By coming up with a label for the general approach of rationalist naturalism, the approach gets turned into something like a political party or religion, and in a sense becomes more easily targetted (we see the IDers using this principle when they attack “Darwinism”). Labels end up taking on connotations of their own, and defining the agenda. Just look at how many people say they oppose “feminism”, yet nonetheless believe a woman should be able to hold any job she wants, and not be subjected to sexual harassment, and many of the other tenets of what one might label “feminism”, all because the connotations of the term no longer seem to encompass its denotation. (In my view, any “club” that involves Dennett’s and Dawkin’s stridency is rapidly going to acquire such negative connotation, again regardless of the actual term used.)

    By giving rational naturalism a cutesy name, it moves it from being an implicit foundational belief of many people to something one has to explicitly assert, with arguments over who gets to be in the club. In a sense, by giving it a label, it makes it just another belief, and puts it up for debate and challenge, rather than being something that is assumed to be commonly held.

    I realize I’m not necessarily being clear here, and I’m not sure I can articulate this unease any more fully, so it may not be a well-reasoned objection. However, my sense is that, anytime an intellectual position gets a label, there are implications that are often negative for that position.

  56. #56 David Sewell
    February 23, 2006

    Jon Winsor writes, re Dennett: “Isn’t it possible that values, etc. exist apart from this sort of mess? Why the compulsion to insist, dogmatically, that they don’t?”

    In fact Dennett himself has been quoted as open to this possibility, cf. this thread on the Brights’ forum, where he discusses the possibility that ethics, like the fundamentals of mathematics, could be something we as humans evolved to discover, not to invent.

    [Dennett] Could we find the universal principles of good behavior for intelligent beings? I’m agnostic about that. I don’t see why we couldn’t. [W]e can ask the same question about ethics that we ask about arithmetic. If we went to another planet, if the search for intelligent life, for extraterrestrial life was intelligence, if this paid off if we discovered another civilization somewhere in the galaxy that was intelligent… What would they share with us? We’d certainly share arithmetic. Maybe not base 10 arithmetic that’s anybodies guess. It might be base 12 or base 16 or base 8. Who knows? That’s an accident. But it would still be arithmetic. Now, we can say and would it share ethical principles with us? And I think in some regards yes it would. I… now does that make those principles transcendent. Yeah. It’s not might makes right. And it’s not “this is what our grandfathers did so this is what we’re going to do. It’s not just historical accident.” I think that there could be a truly universal basis for ethics.

  57. #57 Jon Winsor
    February 25, 2006

    I think that there could be a truly universal basis for ethics.

    Well it’s nice of him to throw us non-materialists a scrap. I haven’t read Dennett’s book yet. But it sounds to me like his thinking involves a tremendous amount of reductionism. I mean, he’s a philosophy professor. It seems that he’d have to have been exposed to enough material, so that he’d at least show that he’s aware of the counterarguments. Wieseltier is right, “all ur ‘intrinsic’ values started out as instrumental values” is quite a sweeping statement. I would have to read his book to get the full context.

  58. #58 Oliver Morton
    February 27, 2006

    There’s a much, much better review of the book by Andrew Brown in the Guardian

  59. #59 Dan Z.
    February 28, 2006

    As an agnostic who emerged from a conservative religious family, I like the word “bright” to describe those of a non-supernatural worldview. To me, it is very similar to the way the gay community has reclaimed “queer” as their own.

    It’s my own personal experience that mainstream Christians do wield a stereotype (“Atheists think they’re so smart!”) in order to club down those who would use their minds in order to understand the universe. It’s that anti-intellectualism that “bright” specifically tweaks.

    Just like “queer” isn’t meant to signify odd, “bright” isn’t meant to signify smart. It’s meant to signify the reclaiming of a stereotype meant to hurt. (Yes, throughout much of this country, accusing someone of being ‘too smart’ is a common way of ostracizing them.) I do believe that many atheists are ‘in the closet’, and that for some, the idea that there is a community of likeminded brights may in the future make a real difference to the way they see themselves.

    If the whole idea of being a ‘bright’ seems silly to you, my hunch is you haven’t experienced a desire to identify with a larger group of likeminded people when those around you would rather you feel ashamed, or even evil, for not believing as they do.

  60. #60 Gorbe
    February 28, 2006

    > In the same way, “brights”, “freethinkers”, “humanists”,
    > etc. could serve as handles by which opponents can
    > manipulate and distort the associations to them. An
    > analogy would be a wrestler who wears his hair long and
    > in a ponytail–it’s giving a huge advantage to one’s
    > opponent because it is a grasping point, a handle.

    I wonder sometimes if the aversion to non-belief and a distrust of non-believers is itself not some sort of evolutionary mechanism because it seems to defy explanation, especially when compared to the track-record of theistic religions.

    What atheist or non-believer has ever started a holy war? Yet, most of the major theistic world religions have done exactly that; and have also opposed scientific and social progress over the centuries. To name only a few of their multitudes of “sin.”

    In America, you have Jerry Tinky-Winky Falwell and Pat He-Deserved-It Robertson making outrageously stupid and vile remarks. And KKK members standing proudly behind their burning crosses. Or footage of believers assembling after church to watch a lynching as they hold The Holy Bible in their hands. Etc. And yet people still have a positive view of Christianity; and trusts more a man who carries a holy book or prays in the White House.

  61. #61 Ginger Yellow
    March 1, 2006

    “I wonder sometimes if the aversion to non-belief and a distrust of non-believers is itself not some sort of evolutionary mechanism because it seems to defy explanation, especially when compared to the track-record of theistic religions.”

    It’s perfectly explicable, on multiple grounds. Dennett himself has argued from memetic principles that faith, and especially evangelising faith, cannot thrive as a virtue unless a) skepticism exists, and b) there isn’t much of it about. A proselytising faith needs skeptics and skepiticism to be visible but anathema – the other by which it is defined. Previously this role was taken up mainly by people of other faiths, and in many countries it still is. But in an America which guarantees and supposedly celebrates religious diversity, skepticism itself becomes the hated other, because it is the non-denominational enemy of faith.

  62. #62 David P.
    March 12, 2006

    For the record, Dennett did not invent the word “brights.” Just google it and see what you get, and you’ll see that there was an organization beforehand….a couple in California, I believe, who invented it. He never says that he invented the word. The model for this is to do what gay people did with the word “gay.”

  63. #63 A Christian
    March 17, 2006

    >What atheist or non-believer has ever started a holy war? Yet, most of the major theistic world religions have done >exactly that; and have also opposed scientific and social >progress over the centuries. To name only a few of their >multitudes of “sin.”

    It should be pointed out that National Socialism, as well as Russian, Chinese, and Cambodian Communism were/are all atheistic in part or in whole. It does not need to be pointed out, as it is of course well-known, that these worldviews were responsible for the worst crimes against mankind in recorded history. By any definition of modern times, Christianity (more specifically, people acting under a banner of Christianity) isn’t anywhere close in terms of blood spilled.

    It should also be pointed out that Christianity and Judeo/Christian values have served as a (perhaps the) fundemental underpinning of western civilization. Christian values were deeply ingrained in the founding of this country. Ignoring the largely abstract leftist brickbats about the bloody history of western civilization or America, I think it is fair to say that western civilization is responsible for more progress toward freedom and justice than any cultural, religious, ethnic, or political grouping in human history; of course putting aside the horrors perpetuated by those atheistic political systems mentioned above that originated in the west.

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