After the 2002 “Godless Americans March On Washington,” Paul Geisert was upset.
… the choice of the name “Godless” for the march [distressed Geisert]… and he [searched] feverishly for an alternative name to use in unifying such a gamut of individuals.
Not long after the march, Geisert coined a new term for this group of people: Brights. (That link also explains the grammatical difference between lower-case “bright” and upper-case “Bright.”)
What is a Bright? A person with a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural and mystical elements.
I like it. In fact, I am an Enthusiastic Bright. Though, it’s hard to give up the “a-word” since I’ve used it to describe myself for so long. Plus, I’d have to change the name of the website…
The Co-Directors of the Brights’ Net, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, answered my questions in separate interviews (though I combined their answers below).
As always, if you have any questions you’d like to ask them, leave them in the comments and I’ll pass them along!
Hemant Mehta: Were you raised without religion?
Paul Geisert: My parents were not religious and we never talked about religion, but my mother did send me to Sunday school (Lutheran) and we sometimes went to church on Easter. I had the impression that neither parent was religious, but my mother felt a duty to at least expose me to religion.
Mynga Futrell: I attended church through my teens (I grew up in a town thick with Protestant churches, and my mother was continually involved in one or another). My father had drifted away from religion before I was born and did not attend. I presume he was agnostic, but we did not discuss such matters.
HM: When did you realize you were not religious?
PG: Basically, I was never “a true believer”, but I attended a Lutheran church from ages 14 through 40. My first wife was Lutheran, we married in her church, and were a “church family” for a number of years. I sang in the choir, became interested in music, took voice lessons and became a paid soloist in a Methodist church. For all intents and purposes I had a naturalistic worldview all along, but I attended church.
MF: I fit the picture of the “igtheist” (a la [Paul] Kurtz). I began “searching for something that would make sense” at about age 15, and was an agnostic for a while before I stopped attending church altogether. Always questioning, around age 20 I had an “aha!” experience” and in an instant became a full-fledged freethinker when I read merely the preface of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian.
HM: When did you realize the word “Bright” had become mainstream?
PG: Probably about the time we hit 10,000 registered Brights. By that time, there was considerable controversy about “the word” on the Internet, and in certain print media as well. The controversy over the word itself is greatly diminished, and yet the word continues to grow in publications. In reality the strength of the Brights’ idea was never the word, it was the definition – a Bright is an individual with a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural and mystical elements. The word is an attractor; the definition is the pot of gold.
MF: I don’t call the term mainstream yet, and won’t as long as there is confusion due to the variant and disparate interpretations people so often give to it. (To a large degree, this is a consequence of those who erroneously portray it on the Internet as synonymous with atheism.)
HM: Is the Bright movement successful? What is the goal that must be realized for this to happen?
PG: The Brights’ Network is successful and growing steadily. Shortly, it will have registered 30,000 Brights, and there are Brights in 134 nations. This movement was intended as a 20-year endeavor, so we have a way to go on this idea of creating a level civic playing field for brights and supers! (The long-term aims remain on the home page unchanged.)
[Hemant’s Note: A “Super” is a person whose worldview does incorporate supernatural elements.]
In the short run, the movement has introduced to the “community of reason” the new concept of the naturalistic worldview as a means of characterizing the totality of an individual’s complex belief system. “Atheist” (and “agnostic”) link an individual explicitly to one major concept – existence of god(s). That linkage keeps the “nontheist” defined by the negation (or doubt). Talk about power of theism! “Humanist” is a less restricted identifier, and yet it has a set of associated “principles” that one is expected to honor. A naturalistic worldview allows one to honestly and forthrightly characterize individuals (brights and supers) by two major social attributes (having naturalistic or supernaturalistic worldviews) and do so without reference to religion.
MF: I’d have to say that the “naturalistic worldview” concept is the most successful aspect of the movement so far. The broad identity appears to do exactly as intended for a great many Brights (they have reported how helpful it is in opening doors to their “being themselves”). I delight in learning of more people “coming out” and gaining freedom to frame their stance in a religion-free way, if that’s what they wish to do. Our vision was always of gradual change, not instant eruption. The explosive start quite surprised us! We had envisioned first drawing varied freethinkers together to get their help in enticing a long-silent segment of society into being more vocal in their various spheres of activity. It has worked more the other way around, at least so far.
The “bright idea” seems to fly higher with generic “nones” out there and is less appealing within already-organized freethought circles, where folks seem less inclined to “like it” or even to “get it.” It’s probably harder to perceive that a naturalistic worldview encompasses a full gamut of beliefs and values if someone’s individual self-identity is strongly shaped either by an opposition to religion or by their intellectual conclusion about deity. Also, anyone under sway of cultural anti-intellectualism is going to be more hesitant, but on that score, as more folks are grasping the Enlightenment connection, more seem to be coming around.The immediate goal is to continue to enlarge the constituency, which is growing well, while at the same time overcome associated nonsense by way of a deliberate educational process. Having people, even Brights, misconstruing what it’s all about adds a lot of noise to the endeavor. (At the very least, any person should visit the main site, take its intent to heart, and not add to the distortions.)
HM: Can you tell us about any hardships you’ve faced as a result of your non-religiosity?
PG: When a group of us guys worked in a Catholic hospital as medical technicians, the nuns stopped letting us talk to the student nurses because we were discussing religion. Very traumatic. Other than that, nothing.
MF: No hardship. One or two relatives are ill at ease. My closest sibling, though, has responded to gentle exposure and ongoing experience. She has gone the route from “not understanding at all” to “a reluctant tolerance of my nonconformity” to being, most recently, “a genuine supporter of the civic justice aims.” I highly favor the “gentle” aspect in exposure, and highlighting the sweep of a naturalistic outlook.
HM: Can secular groups work together with religious groups, and if yes, how so?
PG: If the secular groups ever hope to make significant changes in the social order and to become respected members of society, they must work together with religious groups.
The first step in this process is for secularists to stop lumping religions into one category. Indeed, the “religious community” is primarily composed of supers, but politically speaking, there are huge differences within. The secularist community sorely needs to discriminate between socially dangerous groups (fundamentalists) and those mainstream institutions and individuals that support many social aspects in common with brights. Three areas come immediately to mind, all of which are supported by some major religious groups: separation of church and state, the teaching of sound science education, and support for evolution as the appropriate explanation of life in our universe.
MF: Well, even among themselves, secularists often encounter challenges at collaboration! I think we need to move away from positioning ourselves so much in an oppositional stance to religion and wear different hats at different times – act more pragmatically.
A good start would be to remember to afford to others the civic right of conscience that we wish for ourselves. If we are to join hands with the religious to solve problems, we have refrain from our own tribalism and bigotry. We need not respect one’s views, of course, but you don’t attack the core of who people are as persons and expect them to welcome you to the civic table. We must also better differentiate the harmful actions of organized religions (and the very real problem of religion intruding onto government) from those broader civic arenas in which people (whether supers or brights) can – and must – effect progress, such as in heading off the impending global catastrophe for Homo Sapiens.
HM: What would you like religious readers and leaders to know about Brights?
PG: Brights and supers simply do not divide “by religion,” and so one cannot say that brights exactly equate to “non-religious people.” There are many Brights who have a naturalistic worldview and a religion-connected lifestyle at the same time. Clergy in and out of practice have registered as Brights, including UU and Protestant ministers, professors of religious studies, and an ex-Benedictine monk/priest. The panoply of brights will amaze (and does confuse) many people. There are registered Brights who have a naturalistic worldview and live lives as Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Lutherans, etc.
While may some relish “exile status” terms, I personally view labels that categorize brights by references to religion (such as nontheist, godless, nonbeliever, heretic, heathen) as akin to calling a Black person by the N-word. I don’t wish to confirm a second rate status for persons who have a naturalistic worldview. I want to claim equal status on social and civic terms.
MF: I’d hope they would see brights as fellow citizens, and empathize with the necessity of our organizing to achieve the social acceptance and civic participation due to all citizens. I would like both religious and nonreligious readers to consider both brights and supers as full-fledged human beings. In a nation that proclaims to honor liberty of conscience, both need to be treated as such, until they evidence flaws by way of actions. We brights need allies for strengthening the secular nature of society, preserving rights of conscience, and working for the common good.
A side note on the “non-religious” label: The network’s umbrella covers a broad spectrum of individuals, so it’s really not quite so simple! It happens that some Brights are associated with a religion. Also, think of the atheists out there (they exist!) who are not brights because they believe in supernatural events and soak up such things as astrology, feng shui, and sundry “weird things.”
HM: What type of work do you do as Co-Director of The Brights’ Net?
PG: As Co-Directors, we educate about the movement and coordinate all the varied activities of the Internet hub. We facilitate collaborations among Brights and suggest initiatives. Being a constituency, we never take public positions on issues or speak for all the Brights, which are a varied bunch. We give talks, help local networking, and work with other organizations.
I tend to handle most incoming emails and registrations, respond to written queries, do the programming of the website and other web resources, draft public articles, reports, and the monthly Bulletin, keep the organization’s books, and develop presentations.
MF: We both wear lots of hats, explaining the Brights’ endeavor and running the activities at “Brights Central,” making joint decisions as called upon, and reporting to our legal board. For my part, I tend to take BC’s draft material to final stage (including the monthly Bulletins), communicate with leaders and activists (including the Brights’ Forum, merchandise coordinator, project leaders such as U.K. representatives, the BLC coordinator, Morality Project leader), and develop new initiatives.
HM: What can we expect from The Brights in the future?
PG: As an Internet constituency (not a typical organization), the main results of networking continue to come from collaborative actions online and from Brights “out there” who pursue activities in their communities directed at action priorities listed on the website.
MF: Currently we are developing products that have a positive, naturalistic, and humanistic focus to help people better understand the larger scope of naturalistic worldviews (example: Brights 2007 calendar). Similar collaborations involving segments of the constituency support the Secular Coalition for America and interacting with the global action of the United Religions Initiative against religious violence.
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