The Brights – a united community of non-believers – have arrived! But are they an equality movement, or something quite different indeed?
In 2003, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell founded a new social movement intended at connecting and galvanising non-religious people into uniting the self-styled “community of reason”. Hoping to borrow from the successes of the Gay movement, Geisert decided to coin a new meaning to an existing word that could be used as an umbrella term to describe the entire community of unbelief: that word was ‘bright’. Thus, the Brights Movement was founded.
Before discussing this matter any further, it may be necessary to dispel a misconception about myself. Some bloggers, seeing the extent to which I am willing to defend Young Earth Creationists, assume some pro-religious or Christian evangelist agenda. To be sure, I am pro-religious, and indeed multi-religious (I identify five religions for myself), but the value that compels me to defend the Creationists is not religious solidarity but my firm commitment to freedom of belief. I may have few beliefs in common with the Brights Movement (or, for that matter, the Creationists) but I defend to the death their right to believe in whatever they choose to believe.
Indeed, if the Brights Movement were only concerned with “Athiest Pride”, I would have no issues with them whatsoever, and would be delighted to support them. I have long suggested that even if one does not believe in God, styling oneself as an atheist is choosing to identify by what one opposes, rather than what one supports, which in the game of identity politics is often asking for trouble. In this regard, I wholeheartedly support the Brights goal to “promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements” – this shift away from non-believers identifying as “godless” and towards identifying as believers in a naturalistic or materialistic view of reality is, I believe, very healthy indeed.
So where is the problem? Well, an initial problem is that the choice of the word “Bright” as a label was either monstrously naïve or hopelessly arrogant, a point that forms part of a comprehensive critique about the choice of word by Chris Mooney, who in principle should fit snugly under the Bright umbrella. When atheists already have a PR problem in that some people (erroneously) perceive them as ‘all reason and no emotion’, styling oneself as “Bright” is a political own goal.
Perhaps a wider problem is the Brights movement use of evolutionary theoretician and anti-religious firebrand Richard Dawkins as a major spokesperson. I do not deny that with his personal fame and influence, Dawkins is a potential asset to the Brights, but remembering that a major goal of the movement is to “educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such people” a certain amount of caution is required in who you allow to publicly endorse your group. If you wish to be recognised as an equality movement, like the Gay movement the Brights founders sought to emulate, you cannot afford to be perceived as bigots, and having Dawkins in a prominent position invites this interpretation.
Since at this point we will be switching from examining the goals of the Brights movement to examining Dawkins’ personal agenda, I feel it is necessary to underline that the community of unbelief holds Dawkins in high esteem and has no reservations about being connected to him. Witness the recent decision by Doctor Who reviver Russell T. Davies to feature Dawkins on his show. Davies announced about Dawkins visit to the Doctor Who sets: “People were falling at his feet… We've had Kylie Minogue on that set, but it was Dawkins people were worshipping.” Furthermore, on the specific importance of Dawkins as a figure, Davies declared: “He has brought atheism proudly out of the closet!” As a prominent member of the Gay community, this claim by Davies can be seen as more than just an endorsement of Dawkins agenda, but also (perhaps) as a validation of the underlying claim of the Brights to be a liberation movement parallel to the earlier Gay movement.
Put another way, the fact that Davies makes a direct parallel between what it means to come out of the closet as a Gay person and what it means to come out of the closet as an atheist seems to reaffirm the need for an equality drive for non-believers. This is a rather extreme comparison, however, as the extent of persecution against the Gay community at the time the Gay movement accelerated (which is often credited to the Stonewall riots of 1969) was tangible – homosexuality was officially a mental illness, for instance, and many Gay people were beaten or even killed by homophobic bigots. It is considerably less clear that the modern atheist suffers so greatly, especially when one looks at the financial and social success of prominent atheists such as Davies (recent recipient of an OBE from the Queen) or Dawkins (who lives in palatial luxury at Oxford university, one of the most prestigious universities in the world).
Returning to the issue of the logic of unequivocally supporting Dawkins as a figurehead, let us take a brief aside to examine Dawkins personal agenda. Since 1976, Dawkins has published books which alongside perfectly reasonable scientific ideas include open prejudice against religion and religious practitioners. This is less evident in his middle work (the finest of his books, in my opinion), but it re-emerges on centre stage with the publication of The God Delusion in 2006. Even the title of this book encodes prejudice, inviting the interpretation that Dawkins believes all theists are deluded, but to remove any ambiguity here, Dawkins expressly develops this idea within his text, dressing up his bigotry as being scientifically validated.
The problem with The God Delusion is that it goes far beyond the remit of the equality movement the Brights aim to be, and tips over into intolerance. Dawkins claims the book contains four “consciousness raising” ideas. Two of these – that atheists can be happy, balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled, and that atheists should be proud because atheism is evidence of a healthy independent mind – are more or less in line with the Brights movements hope of equality. A third idea, that theories of natural selection are superior to a “God hypothesis” in explaining the living world and the cosmos, badly confuses metaphysical issues and scientific issues, and falls into a classic teleological trap, but is somewhat beyond the scope of our discussion today. Suffice it to say that trying to apply God in a solely epistemological (knowledge-based) role not only misses what God means to most theists, it steps far beyond testable claims, and thus out of modern science entirely.
So the problem with Dawkins’ agenda (and thus with the Brights movement in so much as it shares this agenda to some unspecified extent) lies in his fourth “consciousness raising” idea, which is that Children should not be labeled by their parent’s religion, and that terms like “Catholic child” or “Muslim child” should make us flinch. This idea is developed ultimately into the principle that raising children in a religious tradition can be seen as a kind of ‘mental abuse’ – Dawkins attacks the Amish (who are greatly respected by many people as an example of a self-sufficient religious community) by claiming that society is in effect guilty of allowing the Amish to abuse their children. Dawkins argument is strident: “Isn’t it a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?”
It is precisely in this attack on religious freedom that Dawkins goes too far, exceeding the boundaries of equality for atheists, and tipping into anti-religious bigotry. Usually when arguing against this thread, I take the impersonal moral high ground by pointing out that what Dawkins is proposing is widespread violation of human rights that the Western world usually enshrines as the very basis of the modern notion of freedom. An argument of this kind can be found in my piece on the Ethics of Metaphysics, which is recommended reading for exploring this issue more fully. In brief, our societies agreed after the terrible religious abuses conducted in World War II that we would honour and respect freedom of belief, and that parents would be allowed to choose how their children would be educated: any argument that runs contrary to this (such as the one advanced by Dawkins) is thus advocating human rights violations.
Today, however, I’d like to respond to this claim on a more personal level. Dawkins advocates, in effect, that children should be “protected” from religion until they are age eighteen, when they have the intellectual capacity to handle such issues. This is a viewpoint which is terribly seductive to people who do not belong to a religious tradition, or who have made a forcible break from one, and indeed I had at least one guest here on my blog who attempted to expand this thought in a reasonable and entirely unprejudiced fashion. The logic of this argument rests on the prioritising of personal autonomy – when one’s ethical values place individual freedom in especially high esteem, and one has little experience of religious traditions (or a confused idea about them), it seems logical to support Dawkins’ viewpoint that children should only be introduced to religion when they come of age.
To find what is wrong with this idea, it is necessary to actually appreciate what it means to be raised in a religious tradition. A parent – whatever their beliefs – teaches their children how to behave, which is to say, the parent passes their ethics on to the children. In terms of explaining those ethics, the parent will draw upon their own personal metaphysics (their untestable beliefs) – this is equally true for religious parents as for non-religious parents, since the justification of ethics cannot avoid a metaphysical component. Since the very essence of a religious tradition is its metaphysical and ethical beliefs, it is quite impossible for a parent to isolate their children from their own religion – the idea that this is possible comes from the non-believers misconception that religion is something that can be set aside, like a hobby that you never mention to your friends. But the devout religious parent can no more set aside their religion in raising their child than the atheist can set aside their disbelief in God: it is essential to their very identity.
This does not mean that religious parents cannot respect their children’s choice if they decide to break away from the family religion, nor that there are not parents on the fringes of religious practice who are able to compartmentalise their religious background. What I am expressly stating is that when a particular religious tradition constitutes a quintessential part of who you are, you cannot help but pass some part of this experience onto your children, and neither should you be expected to try to resist this outcome.
Dawkins tries to argue that religious identity should be like political identity – something that only comes into play in adulthood. But religious identity is far more like national identity – something that forms part of the unavoidable background of existence and which cannot be opted out of until maturity. Just as you cannot realistically set aside the fact that you were born in the USA, or the UK, or wherever, in terms of how this affects the sense of who you are as an American, or a Brit, or whatever (although you can in adulthood change this identity by emigrating), you cannot set aside the religion you were born into because your parents, as the people who most influence your upbringing, quite naturally pass aspects of their religious identity on to you just as they pass aspects of their national identity on to you. This is not ‘mental abuse’, as Dawkins contends, it is the very nature of parenting.
Now at a deeply personal level, what offends me about Dawkins argument here is that by equating raising a child in a religious tradition to mental abuse, he is simultaneously insulting my childhood and the memory of my parents (something I expect other people from religious backgrounds to fully appreciate). He insults my parents by intimating they were bad people to not wait until adulthood to introduce me to their religion (putting aside the point that this would have been entirely impossible), yet sharing in the religious experiences of my parents was one of the most wonderful aspects of my youth. Even though I later drifted away from Christianity (only to later – and much to my surprise – drift back to it, as one religion among many that I identify for myself), I never resented my parents for sharing the foundations of their spirituality with me, because that experience gave me a tremendous head start on the road we all must walk to find our own personal spiritual identity.
Furthermore, to suggest that religion was the primary source of abuse in my childhood is doubly insulting to me, since as a teenager I was bullied by atheist children (that is, children raised by atheist parents who naturally adopted some of their parent’s atheist beliefs) because of my Christian beliefs. This is the only aspect of growing up in a religious tradition which brings a negative slant to my experience, since my Christianity was a source of considerable personal and spiritual joy for me – and I never, under any circumstances, tried to push my religious beliefs onto other people, but simply tried to live up to the example set by Jesus to “love one another”.
Now of course, there is an irony here in that by admitting to this backstory I expose myself as a distorted mirror image of Dawkins, but since I contend that one cannot be expected to wholly eliminate metaphysical bias on subjects such as this, I hope that by exposing my bias it will allow for more fruitful debate. (I also wish to explain why previously it has been difficult for me to write about Dawkins’ anti-religious views without becoming angry). Despite having a pro-religious bias, I am thoroughly open to discussion on this subject, and also staunchly in support of the non-believers right to their unbelief.
Finally, when people such as Dawkins or, even more distressingly, my atheist friends, express a view that children should be isolated from religion until adulthood, I am personally horrified because this is a viewpoint that, seen from my perspective, effectively wishes that I did not exist. My Christian upbringing is a part of who I am – it is not something about which I have regrets, and I never did, even when in my late 20s I was as far from Christian metaphysics as any atheist. I am in fact tremendously touched by the extent with which my parents shared their spirituality with me: it helped make me the person I am today.
Dawkins says you should shudder at the idea of a ‘Muslim child’ or a ‘Christian child’ – well I was a Christian child, and I am horrified at the suggestion that you should have found me a source of disgust. Christianity was a wholly positive experience for me as a child – except in so much as it was a reason for other children to persecute me.
This, then, is the problem with the Brights movement unequivocal employment of Dawkins as a figurehead: along with his message of “Atheist Pride”, Dawkins also presents a rather horrifying anti-religious bigotry, something that Davies does nothing to dismiss in his newspaper interview regarding the Dawkins guest spot on Doctor Who, thus suggesting solidarity on this issue. But the Brights movement cannot be an equality movement if any part of its goals concerns denial of freedom of belief to others.
Part of the reason that atheism has acquired a bad name for itself is that the “New Atheist” movement of the 1990s and 2000s is far from the first time atheists have tried to unify, and non-believers have not demonstrated much of a willingness to address this historical source of anti-atheist sentiment. It is not early twentieth century atheists, such as Bertrand Russell, or Max Weber (who famously accused anyone who could maintain religious views of either naivety or intellectual dishonesty) that are the problem, nor the sad failure of the Humanist movements which followed, but totalitarian political systems such as Stalin’s interpretation of Marxism, which dominated certain countries in the wake of World War II.
By adopting and centralising a particular atheist belief, and using this as the basis to deny religious freedom and viciously abuse believers for decades, Marxist extremism savagely tarnished unbelief’s image. Atheist bigots such as Christopher Hitchens do nothing to aid this situation when they try to explain why the atheist Marxists don’t reflect badly on atheism since they were really a religion (at least in his view), instead of admitting to the fact that any belief system – religious or non-religious – becomes a horror when it tips into totalitarianism.
The Brights movement represents a minority, collecting together some 38,000 people from around 150 different nations. In so much as they represent an equality movement, striving towards equal treatment for the members of the community of unbelief, whether materialist, naturalist, atheist, or otherwise, they have my full support. But while it is not willing to take a stand against anti-religious bigotry, the Brights movement cannot honestly represent itself as an equality movement. Someone needs to stand up and say something along the lines of ‘we respect Dawkins for his vehement defence of our right to be atheists, but we don’t support his anti-religious sentiments’, and if (as seems to be the case) no-one is able to do this, the movement’s stated goals of equal treatment will likely remain frustratingly out of reach.
Whatever your metaphysical background, please share your views on this issue in the comments.