On Word Choices

I was listening yesterday to an interview with Richard Dawkins — author of The God Delusion, husband to Lalla Ward, friend to the late Douglas Adams; all three very good things in this writer’s view. I’m not sure when the interview was done, but it was before The God Delusion came out, so I’d guess, at a minimum, it was eighteen months old.

Dawkins was a rather engaging speaker; I’m not sure, truthfully, if I’ve ever heard the man speak.

He was asked, at one point, his thoughts on the Brights Movement. The Brights Movement is, if you might not be aware, an attempt to give atheists and other non-theists a positive label, to find a positive word with positive connotations. “Bright” sounds positive, sunny. “Atheist” sounds negative, not least because the word begins with a negative prefix.

Here’s Dawkins’ thoughts, as I transcribed them from the interview:

I’m interested in memetic engineering, so it’s a nice idea to think, “What if we plant a new meme and hope that it spreads through the meme-osphere.” And the model, of course, is “gay,” because the word “gay,” during my lifetime has changed its meaning from being kind of happy and jolly to meaning homosexual. And that’s a fantastic achievement of memetic engineering by somebody. I don’t know whether it was planned, or whether it just kind of happened by inadvertance. It has happened, there’s no question about it, and the Brights Movement set out to do the same thing. I think that the word they chose is actually rather a good one. A lot of atheists object to it because they’re frightened of being thought arrogant and frightened that people will think they’re saying that atheists really are more intelligent than religious people. Which my attitude is, “Of course they are more intelligent than religious people. What are you so afraid of? Why be so deferential and respectful, or very least let’s go look at the evidence, let’s actually gather some evidence, give some IQ tests to people of different religious faiths.” Now, I’m very keen that that research should be done and I think it is being done, but what little research has been done does indeed support the contention that atheists are, on the whole, more intelligent, have higher IQs, than religious people. Of course not everybody will never make that sort of generalization. Of about 40 studies that have been looked at, the great majority of them, I think about 38 out of 42, showed the same effect that non-religious people tend to be more intelligent statistically, only statistically, than religious people which, of course, is exactly what you and I would expect.

And he’s hit precisely on why I have a problem with the word “bright” as a label. 🙂

In everyday usage “bright” is an adjective, not a noun, and is often most used as a comparative or a qualifier. “This light is bright.” “The bright sunshine felt warm on my skin.” Etc. So, if I’m a bright, that means that someone who has a belief in god isn’t. What’s opposite of bright? Dim? Cloudy? Dull? And that’s in terms of lightness/darkness. What about in terms of mental acuity? Normal? Dumb? Slow-witted? The offense I feel in the term “bright” has nothing to do with my categorization as an atheist — it doesn’t matter to me how one labels my non-belief — but with how the word, by implication, categorizes everyone else.

So, of course it’s the arrogance inherent in the word that bothers me. And the implication that non-theists might be lacking a few marbles….

I actually do applaud the goal of the Brights Movement — as I noted above, “atheist” is a negative word — because social attitudes toward atheists aren’t exactly positive. Maybe they need a different word. 😉

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