The Damned

Last week's meme of the moment was the noun "bright." A couple of zealots in Sacramento started a Web site at www.the-brights.net for an ancient special-interest group whose image apparently needs a face-lift: atheists. The founders of this movement in the making, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, think that atheist just doesn't sound happy and fun enough. Maybe, they wager, more people will like atheists if we don't go around describing ourselves as godless. Instead, we should call ourselves something that makes people think of pretty stars and emergency vehicles.

According to the Bright Web site -- whose capacious logic and stumbling syntax read alarmingly like Scientology's -- you don't even have to be an atheist to join the club. If you want to "sign up as a Bright" and offer a personal testimonial you merely have to profess a "naturalist worldview." Naturalism means, Geisert and Futrell write, "conceiving of reality as the natural world as it is known and experienced scientifically (no supernatural)." Ah, if only things could be as simple as a high school class in philosophy. Then there would be no disagreements among scientists about what they'd "experienced," no quibbles over what exactly "the natural world" is, no disputes over what it means to "know" something, and no three-millennia-old debates about what constitutes the "supernatural." Truly in such a world, anyone could call her- or himself "bright."

The amazing scheme behind all of this naturalism crap is to spread the Bright meme via what Geisert and Futrell call their "Internet constituency." And they've even got Mr. Meme himself, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, busking the Bright tune in the London Guardian. In an op-ed ("The Future Looks Bright," 6/21/03) for the British newspaper, Dawkins compares the Bright movement to feminism and gay rights (he isn't quite hip to queer rights yet). Apparently, feminists taught Dawkins that changing language can lead to changing people's minds. He describes how he has learned that writing "he or she" and "chairperson" are two ways we can challenge sexism with language, even though he "tries to avoid" these phrases "on aesthetic grounds." Wow, what an endorsement. Too bad those feminists didn't give Dawkins a brain transplant, too.

But the climactic moment in Dawkins's argument is that bright will be a term that atheists -- erm, I mean naturalists -- can use to raise consciousness, to teach people that godlessness is next to cleanliness. He compares this linguistic feat to what he calls "the homosexual hijacking of the word 'gay.'" Gay, he says, is an "up" word, just like bright. Just as homos stole the word gay away from the aesthetically minded Dawkins, now the infidels can steal bright away from George W. Bush.

First of all, let's get something straight here, Mr. Dawkins. Homosexuals did not "hijack" the word gay. They were called gay as an insult by other people -- the same people who called them pansy and nelly, which also happen to be very "up" words. Gay activists didn't sit down together, design a poorly written Web site, and say, "Let's pick a nice word to call ourselves so that people won't hate us!" Nope, they fought tooth and fucking nail to be respected, and they got beaten up by cops and fired from their jobs and sent to jail and raped. Finally they were so miserable and pissed off that they just started calling themselves gay to take the insulting sting out of the word. That's why people in my generation call themselves queers. That's why blacks call themselves niggers, and why people who grew up in trailer parks call themselves trash. This ain't no fucking marketing campaign for "Internet constituencies." It's survivor's pride.

Daniel Dennett's op-ed ("The Bright Stuff," 7/12/03) on being a Bright in the New York Times is not quite as clueless as Dawkins' piece . Dennett decries the prejudice against atheists and identifies himself as a persecuted "silent majority." He's right, in some ways. Although there are 27 million atheists in the United States, many in the highly productive science and technology fields, we are routinely derided by our Judeo-Christian leaders. No politician has yet dared to out him or herself as a nonbeliever. Public policy is often based on the idea that we have souls in need of saving.

But if we're going to stand up and fight for our right to be atheists, let's not try to jump-start some dumb little advertising campaign that makes us sound like cultists or kids who went to hippie day school. Let's start where it hurts, the way our brothers and sisters did: with words like godless, unholy, damned, infidel, unbeliever, sinner. I am a sinner and proud! Civil liberties for the infidel! We represent the godless future! Now get used to it.

Annalee Newitz (sinner@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd whose infidel can kick your Bright ass all over this goddamn church parking lot. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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