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.)

  8 Responses to “A Dim Religious Light”

  1. Please count me as a "blight" — someone who hates such nonsense and refuses to cooperate with it anymore. Aren’t we having enough definitional problems as it is?


  2. Thanks, Aaron! It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one that thinks the idea is ridiculous.

    Is Dawkins really the source of "meme"? I got it from a book by Douglas Hofstadter, but it was so long ago I no longer remember if he credited someone else.

  3. Dawkins is usually credited with first publishing the word in The Selfish Gene in 1976, which I’m pretty sure antedates any mention by Hofstadter.

  4. Aaron wrote: "Dawkins is usually credited with first publishing the word in The Selfish Gene in 1976, which I’m pretty sure antedates any mention by Hofstadter."

    How very, um, bright of you.

    Right on both counts.


  5. Human ends are forces? I thought that forces are marshalled to achieve human ends, but that the ends are not in themselves forces. Could you elaborate?

  6. Ah Aaron,

    I have to confess I feel invigorated by the bracing one-sidedness of your arguments. I even think I subconsciously seek it out, like some kind of tonic. But I’m not convinced by it.

    Let me just bring up one point:

    “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.”

    This is the nub of it. These people aren’t presenting an argument. They’re doing publicity and advertising work for an argument that they think has already been made elsewhere. They’re trying to do persuasion, not debate, not analysis, and Dawkins acknowledges that. In fact, that’s the point he’s making for the majority of his article. You say it’s offensive, but that’s just a way of thumbing your nose at it.

    I don’t think “bright” is such a bad word for hijacking. I don’t think its ironic connotations are really as strong as you say. Surely “gay” sounded strange before it became established. Maybe sometimes you’ve got to break a few linguistic eggs, so to speak. The language is not just some musical instrument to keep in a museum of perfect usage. It’s also (no surprise here) the way we talk about the world together, so what’s wrong with improvising on it a bit in order to affect that conversation?


    I admit their definition’s a bit muddy, but I really think that’s secondary. It’s unsporting of you to drag an issue into such tangents as what qualifies as an “entity” or a “force.” You know full well that’s just a back alley to a labyrinth that goes nowhere.

  7. Bill: I see free will as a “force” in the sense that it is what impels me, say, to sit down at the keyboard and answer you this morning instead of blowing it off. If we confine the word to the sense in which you mean it, then the definition of “bright” is just another Bulletin from the Institute of Tautological Studies.

    Alexis: “Bracing one-sidedness” — there’s damning with faint praise if I ever heard it. I grant that “bright” is not an argument but a publicity ploy; it is, however, a particularly tasteless publicity ploy. I don’t object to “breaking a few linguistic eggs,” quite the contrary. The great virtue of English is that it breaks them all the time; it is the French who treat their language like a museum piece. But novelty is not good in in itself. Coinages are to be judged by whether they enrich or impoverish the language. I can’t agree with you about “gay”: “homosexual” was a fine word whose only liability was five syllables, and now the original sense of “gay” has been lost, and there is nothing to replace it. I would worry more about “bright” if I thought that its proponents had the faintest chance of succeeding.

  8. Unlike "gay" and "queer", which were foisted upon homosexuals by heterosexuals (they simply redeemed the term), this is a case where a special interest is trying to appropriate a word quite already in use for something completely different.

    Guess I’ll have to start reserving the term Handsome for people of my exact height, and Beautiful for people with my hair color.

    Just kidding. But I am proposing Smart as a counter-meme.

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