Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily for this reference to Richard Dawkins' latest piece of endarkenment, 'The future looks bright'. Dawkins is a very fine writer who is consistently right, right, right about matters of evolutionary science (well, that's my opinion and it's worth every penny you paid for it) and a brave leader against obscurantists of all stripes. But his opinion pieces in the Guardian seem to be stunted by the poor intellectual nutrition of their environment.
First, a good idea in this piece (not every writer can produce a column that contains two noteworthy ideas):
My favourite consciousness-raising effort is one I have mentioned many times before (and I make no apology, for consciousness- raising is all about repetition). A phrase like "Catholic child" or "Muslim child" should clang furious bells of protest in the mind, just as we flinch when we hear "one man one vote". Children are too young to know their religious opinions. … We'd be aghast to be told of a Leninist child or a neo-conservative child or a Hayekian monetarist child. So isn't it a kind of child abuse to speak of a Catholic child or a Protestant child? Especially in Northern Ireland and Glasgow where such labels, handed down over generations, have divided neighbourhoods for centuries and can even amount to a death warrant?
OK. I can't remember when I last had occasion to refer to a 'Buddhist child' or a 'Jain child', but I'll be extra-careful in future.
Now we come to Dawkins' unwise modest proposal. I'm going to jump straight to his carefully crafted conclusion, so if you're bothered about his article being spoiled for you, read it in full first.
Those of us who subscribe to no religion; those of us whose view of the universe is natural rather than supernatural; those of us who rejoice in the real and scorn the false comfort of the unreal, we need a word of our own, a word like "gay". You can say "I am an atheist" but at best it sounds stuffy (like "I am a homosexual") and at worst it inflames prejudice (like "I am a homosexual").
… Bright is the word, the new noun. I am a bright. You are a bright. She is a bright. We are the brights. Isn't it about time you came out as a bright? Is he a bright? I can't imagine falling for a woman who was not a bright.
… As with gays, the more brights come out, the easier it will be for yet more brights to do so. People reluctant to use the word atheist might be happy to come out as a bright.
I suppose this is the reason for my objection:
Geisert and Futrell [the perpetrators of this idea] are very insistent that their word is a noun and must not be an adjective. "I am bright" sounds arrogant. "I am a bright" sounds too unfamiliar to be arrogant: it is puzzling, enigmatic, tantalising.
I'm afraid not, Richard. Puzzling or not, it manages to sound just as arrogant – as shown when elsewhere he describes 'bright' as 'like gay, [having] its original meaning changed but not too much'.
So, for Dawkins, 'atheist' = 'clever'.
By the end of his column, Dawkins has sidled over to a position where he can write this:
Of course, even though we brights will scrupulously insist that our word is a noun, if it catches on it is likely to follow gay and eventually re-emerge as a new adjective. And when that happens, who knows, we may finally get a bright president.
The context makes clear that in this feeble joke he means 'president of the United States', and this is a hobby-horse that he's ridden before – his belief that George W Bush is unintelligent. Which shows that Guardian-style left-wingers – even when they're able thinkers who pride themselves on their respect for reason and evidence – can have their consciousness lowered to the point where they swallow any ludicrous myths if they're recited often enough by American left-wing comics and critics.
I've just gone and looked at the-brights.net (see the preceding entry). Buried among their pages I found this astonishing verbal haemorrhage:
* By adopting and using the new noun term, we collectively surmount a diverse "philosophical lexicon" which blurs and disguises what is actually a critical cultural commonality.
The umbrella term makes more visible in society our mutual life stance and garners greater capacity for all our fellow citizens who share a naturalistic worldview to translate their outlook into positive social and political action.
* Having this term in the lexicon and using it in the public sphere lets us break free from the "comparative terminology" of the dominant culture, which so capably casts a dark shadow over those who do state publicly their naturalistic beliefs, tying up their identity and social standing with negative labels in such a way that they all too commonly avoid disapproval by way of civic silence.
I'm not going anywhere near 'em. Never entrust your brain to people who can't write.