Jun 272003

Richard Dawkins will stop at nothing. Not content with foisting on the Internet the SARS-like “meme” — which doesn’t mean what you think, look it up sometime — he plumps for “Bright” to describe “a naturalistic worldview…absent any presumption of forces or entities beyond what can be observed/measured.” Few things inspire in me a sympathy for the religious; here is one.

To begin with, there are obviously forces that are far from mystical that cannot be measured, human ends for instance, which are notoriously ordinal, not cardinal. Ends can be observed, but not directly, only in their manifestations. Unfortunately our Bright employs a slash so we cannot be sure if he meant “and” or “or,” which demonstrates the same feeling for language that “Bright” itself does.

As Andrea Harris points out, “bright” is, in ordinary usage, the antonym of “clever.” It describes children who get A’s in Deportment (do they still give grades for Deportment?) and Play Well With Others. It is a word from which any genuinely intelligent child instinctively recoils. This was as true in Dawkins’ time as in my own; he must have forgotten that “bright boy” is a term of abuse, and not the way “geek” and “grind” are either.

He may intend to hijack the word, the way statists hijacked “liberal” and radical homosexuals hijacked “queer.” If he succeeds, it will merely impoverish the language. There are perfectly good English words available to describe a naturalistic worldview. Rationalist, scientific, and non-religious have all performed this homely service adequately for quite some time.

Most offensively, it is a transparent attempt to win an argument by changing the terminology, which is as unscientific a procedure as can be imagined. You may as well adopt the word “right” to describe your worldview. What does that make your opponents? Wrong, of course! Dawkins is quite frank about this, imagining the following bright snatch of dialogue. There is really no other word for it, and if the Brights have their way, there will be no word for it at all.

“Well, some brights are happy to call themselves atheists. Some brights call themselves agnostics. Some call themselves humanists, some free thinkers. But all brights have a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism.”

“Oh, I get it. It’s a bit like ‘gay’. So, what’s the opposite of a bright? What would you call a religious person?”

“What would you suggest?”

Count me dim.

(Update: Andrea Harris comments. Jonathan Wilde comments. Mark Wickens defends Dawkins doggedly but not altogether convincingly.)