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The Bright side 

Is atheism going mainstream? One group says yes and presents a new option for nonbelievers

Paul Geisert doesn't believe in God, but he didn't exactly want people to hate him for it. And so there he was, in the fall of 2002, contemplating plans to attend a march in Washington, D.C., organized to protest the overarching religious themes of September 11 memorials and tributes. A Sacramento, Calif. resident since 1985, Geisert wanted to head east to participate in the demonstration but was aghast at the message its name implied. At best, he reasoned, the Godless Americans March on Washington was clueless. At worst, it was downright offensive.

That name, the longtime atheist remembers, left him feeling angry and defensive.

"I just went absolutely ballistic — here the [march organizer] is calling on everyone in the active atheist groups to march on Washington, and they call it 'godless' — it was just like spitting in everybody's face," Geisert explains on a recent afternoon. The way Geisert saw it, the word godless is synonymous with "evil," and its use was a surefire way to alienate the general public.

"Why would anyone want to call themselves something that was seen as evil? That 'godless' part just drove me nuts.'"

So the former science professor sat down and tried to think up a new term — one that was less divisive than godless but more inclusive than atheist.

The idea, he says, was to pick a word that would help public perception of atheists. Much as the term gay has largely replaced homosexual in the mainstream lexicon, Geisert wanted a word that would allow more atheists to feel comfortable being "out" with their viewpoints.

A few weeks later, after brainstorming thousands of ideas, he finally hit upon what he believed to be the perfect word: bright.

Used as a noun instead of an adjective, Geisert's definition of the word expanded it to include any "person or persons possessing a worldview that is naturalistic" — a person without belief in a deity or so-called "supernatural" elements such as the afterlife or spirits.

The word bright, as he excitedly explained to his wife, Mynga Futrell, could serve as an umbrella term for atheists and agnostics as well as self-described "freethinkers," rationalists, secular humanists and skeptics.

"I said, I've got it — this is it."

In November 2002, Geisert and Futrell took the concept to a world stage, presenting a 15-minute PowerPoint demonstration on the word and its meaning at an atheist conference in Tampa, Fla.

As it happened, several renowned atheists, including Richard Dawkins, were in the audience. In fact, the author of The God Delusion liked the "Brights" concept so much, he adopted the term on the spot.

Motivated by their peers' enthusiasm, the Sacramento couple launched the Brights as an "Internet constituency" consisting of atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists and any other person who eschews a belief in the likes of deities, the paranormal, psychic powers or any other so-called "supernatural" entity.

And when Dawkins wrote about the concept in a 2003 editorial for the London Guardian, the idea gained widespread attention: "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,'" Dawkins wrote. "You can say 'I am an atheist,' but at best it sounds stuffy (like 'I am a homosexual') and at worst it inflames prejudice."

"Overnight, we had 2,000 registrants," Geisert says.

"We said, 'OK — we'll go ahead with this — we've got ourselves a movement.'"

Today, the Brights network boasts more than 51,000 members worldwide — a number that reflects recent polls and studies that show an increase in the number of self-identified atheists. The Brights are often lumped in with the growing "new atheism" community, a loose faction of groups that not only counters religion, but is often harshly critical — and sometimes intolerant — of it.

(Dawkins, for example, has described prematurely labeling a child with religion — calling a minor "Jewish" or "Catholic" or "Muslim" before he or she is mature enough to make independent decisions — as something akin to child abuse.)

While expected, the association with such intolerant, hard-line atheism isn't fair, Geisert and Futrell say.

"Being a Bright means illuminating the naturalistic worldview — we just want more people to come out and be visible," Futrell says.

"We want everyone to be treated with respect — you don't have to believe their beliefs. You don't even have to respect their beliefs —you just need to respect their rights to hold a belief."

And, unlike other atheist groups, she adds, the purpose of the Brights isn't to divide the world into believers and nonbelievers, but rather to dismantle the religious framework they believe dominates our culture.

"We all believe in something."

Out of the closet

Over the years, the Brights network has expanded mightily. Each month, members hold meet-ups across the nation — from Boston to Chicago to Santa Clara, Calif. In Geisert and Futrell's Sacramento backyard, there are 533 registered Brights within a 25-mile radius.

At least in part, the Brights aim to make it easier for atheists of all walks to feel comfortable enough to be "out" about their viewpoints. Being an atheist, many Brights agree, is a little bit like being gay, with public acceptance and tolerance growing only in small increments.

Indeed, a 2007 study by Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that just 5 percent of American adults say they do not believe in God or other deities. A 2008 Gallup poll showed a modest increase in nonbelievers since 1999 — particularly in the western United States, where 10 percent of those polled claimed no belief in a god or higher power.

In 2009, a study released by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., however, showed that the number of respondents claiming "no religion" had grown exponentially in the past two decades. The American Religious Identification Survey noted that, nationally, those claiming "none" had nearly doubled to 15 percent in 2008 from 8 percent in 1990.

The numbers could be seen as a major shift in faith — proof that atheism is becoming more mainstream, tolerated — adopted, even.

Futrell, however, is often skeptical of such findings.

"The 1990 [American Religious Identification] study was a very well-constructed telephone study that asked, 'What is your religious belief?' In 2001, the question changed to 'What is your religious preference, if any?'" she says.

"To me, that's the not the same question — if you give people the 'if any' option, it's like opening a window and saying, 'Hey, you could just say 'no.'

"There are a ton of people who actually maintain their way of looking at the world with the spirits and the deities — they just move away from being tied to any one religion."

It's a viewpoint shared by Laurie Soule, who serves as co-facilitator of a monthly Brights meet-up in Sacramento. Atheism, she says, isn't necessarily becoming mainstream but, increasingly, more people are becoming comfortable going public with their viewpoints.

"I grew up in the Bible Belt — you learn not to say anything," says the 45-year-old environmental scientist.

"[But now] it seems to me that atheists are becoming more outspoken, and maybe it's just because of all the new books [on the subject] and people are realizing it's OK."

Futrell, who along with Geisert reads every online Brights registration form, says she has plenty of anecdotal evidence of people who don't feel comfortable admitting that they don't believe in a god of any persuasion.

"Sometimes we'll get two pages of comments from a person, other times it will be just a very concise note, but what it always is is: 'I feel like I'm so alone where I am — I'm caught in this thing and I can't be myself.' They feel like if they're open, then people withdraw."

That feeling, Futrell adds, is similar to what gays went through. Just as the friendlier-sounding gay is often substituted for the word homosexual, she believes bright signals something more open — less off-putting, if you will — than a word such as atheist.

"We like to be ourselves, and the motivations are very similar to the gay movement in that's what they want — to be treated like other people, to be given that worth that they are sure they have, to be able to participate and run for office."

'It was logic'

Futrell has mapped out the organization's purpose with a diagram featuring two overlapping circles. The left circle depicts the "religious arena" — a place where the religious and nonreligious square off, a sphere in which believers face nonbelievers, where the godly confront the godless.

In the right circle, however, a different framework exists. Here, in this "civics arena," the conversation is based on, if anything, the separation of church and state. Such a "society-focused framework," Futrell explains, is inclusive and egalitarian. Laws are secular and anyone, regardless of faith or lack thereof, is allowed to participate.

"Did you see that in Australia they elected a female prime minister who is an atheist?" Futrell asks, referring to Julia Gillard, who was elected to Australia's highest political office in June.

"She said, 'I'm not going to play that game — I have more respect for religious people to be something that I'm not,'" Futrell says. "That doesn't work here, in this country."

Futrell, who taught science at Sacramento State for several years, grew up in a religious household. Raised in Richmond, Ky., she remembers moving around from church to church; her father was a lay minister for the Church of Christ, while her mother, who grew up in a mountain community, wanted to find a congregation similar to the one from her childhood. The family bounced around central Kentucky's varied Protestant churches — Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, et al.

As a teen, Futrell experimented with Catholicism ("I thought, 'Maybe the Catholics have it'"), but even as she studied and befriended a priest, she realized that religious path didn't hold the answers either.

"I could never make much sense of it ... and this priest finally told me, 'You're not one of us.' And I wasn't."

Then Futrell read the iconic 1927 Bertrand Russell book Why I Am Not a Christian, and everything clicked into place. "Two paragraphs into the book, it was like a seed crystal — it was logic."

Geisert's upbringing didn't revolve around religion, either, but the Toledo, Ohio, native remembers his family routinely heading out to church on Christmas and the other major religious holidays. In his 20s, Geisert got a job as a soloist in a Lutheran church choir and later worked as science teacher at a Catholic high school in Chicago.

Still, he says, he never subscribed to any religious teachings.: "I was never a firm believer of those things."

It wasn't until Geisert and Futrell, who were married in 1980, went to go see Madalyn Murray O'Hair speak at a Sacramento conference that Geisert started to openly identify as an atheist.

But O'Hair, best known for the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Murray v. Curlett that ended prayer in public schools, was a controversial and divisive figure. Life magazine once called her "the most hated woman in America." And to this day, 15 years after she was murdered by a former employee, O'Hair's name still evokes strong reactions.

Geisert, who once served as president for the Sacramento-founded Atheist and Other Freethinkers organization, kept that in mind as he and Futrell laid out their goals for the Brights.

"I'm very intellectual, I don't get dragged into ideology much," Geisert says. "We wanted to pull together a giant number of people willing to register under the concept of having a naturalistic worldview rather than an ideological or anti-religious one. Of course the Brights have many atheists, but you don't have to be one to be a member of a social group that's attempting to change things."

As such, Futrell says, many self-identified Brights still follow various religious customs — there's even a Jewish subgroup — but do so out of ritual or a respect for family traditions — not a belief in any higher power, deity or god.

More formally, the Brights' goals are relatively simple: Unite a large, diverse group of people who've been marginalized and stigmatized for their beliefs, and promote a path that allows them to participate fully in society.

The Brights movement, she says, has grown steadily and "linearly."

"This was never supposed to be a religion or something like the [American] Humanist Association, or anything else that's organized around a set of beliefs," she says. "I think we have a lot to offer, and we just want to play in the civic sandbox."

Davis Jacobson, forum moderator for the Brights discussion board, says the board's varied topics of conversation reflect this concern.

"We have members who are quite concerned with civics issues — the separation of church and state, the scientific validity of school curricula and similar issues."

Recent postings on the board cover topics such as theory of evolution; mandated prayer at Lancaster, Calif., city council meetings; and the case of a public elementary school in Florida that was "adopted" by a church as a way to pay for school supplies.

"I can see a quid pro quo here, which is at least rational — if your school needs financial help buying school supplies and books, then the school should be able to solicit donations for that purpose," one Stockton-based Brights member wrote on the topic. "And that's what happened here. The normal process is for a corporation to make that donation and in exchange for that donation the corporation can receive, by agreement, marketing access to the students. Here, of course, the church is the donor receiving [that] marketing access."

There's another theme echoed throughout the board — an impression of liberation and consolation in finding like-minded people and acceptance.

"I was raised in a Christian household but from a very young age had a hard time swallowing a lot of the Dogma. The concept of Jesus dying for our sins was particularly troubling. ... It just didn't make any sense, why did Jesus have to die for bad things I hadn't even done yet?" reads one such post.

"I heard about the Brights through Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion," posted another reader. "Finally, I feel like not such a freak for not believing what my parents believe!"

"There is a sense of relief," Jacobson says. "Many Brights, atheists and agnostics feel quite beleaguered — they're just glad to find a forum where they can be themselves without fear of social sanction."

By any other name

Over the years, the Brights have received national attention from the likes of Dawkins and other noted atheists, including Christopher Hitchens and New York Times writer Daniel Dennett — who, in a 2003 editorial, declared that the Brights had the potential to "become a powerful force in American political life if we simply identify ourselves ... stand up and be counted."

Still, not all atheists appreciate the Brights ethos.

San Francisco writer Gary Wolf, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, wrote about the new atheist movement for a July 2009 article, but aside from a slight mention of the Brights organization, largely ignored the group.

That snub was intentional.

"Atheism is a strong idea — Brights is a weak one," Wolf says.

This idea, he adds, to make atheism more palatable to the masses by christening it with a more positive sounding name, is silly.

"I don't think atheism is negative, and I suspect this work of cultural engineering will fail," he says. "It's true that the word atheism is formed from theism, but then again, without belief in God, there would be no need for atheism — I don't see why that requires a new word."

Others see the word as anything but positive, criticizing its implication that anyone who doesn't think like a Bright must be, well, dumb.

Richard Dawkins addressed the issue in his Guardian editorial — "We brights are not claiming to be bright (meaning clever, intelligent), any more than gays claim to be gay (meaning joyful, carefree)" — but the linguistic disclaimer did little to dispel the word's arrogant connotation.

"I don't call myself a Bright. I have trouble with the concept of that word — what the heck does it mean?" says Jeanine Cunningham, a 28-year-old grad-school student at Sacramento State who is currently working toward a master's degree in sociology. Of course, she adds that she doesn't much like the term atheist, either. "I don't like things being framed in terms of theism at all — it just seems to have a negative connotation."

Even Futrell admits she wasn't initially sold on the term bright when her husband first introduced the word to her all those years ago.

"I foresaw the problem that many would identify — I was reticent and skeptical if it would be successful," she says.

To help soften the prickly connotation of bright, Futrell and Geisert provided a counterpart in super — meant to denote any person who does believe in a god, follow religion or other supernatural deities.

Whatever the word, she adds, the purpose remains straightforward.

"We just wanted more people to come out and be visible," she says. "What disappoints me is that people fixate on it, and their understanding of it is very superficial."

All along, Futrell adds, she's viewed the word bright as a communications tool for getting people to think about atheism and its relationship to politics, civic duty and social discourse.

"I'd like to emphasize that this idea was never about substituting bright for the atheist term — it's about expanding identity options to aid civic involvement for people with that naturalistic bent," she says.

"I didn't choose the word, [but I helped create] the definition," she says.

"And I'm very pleased with the definition."

Rachel Leibrock writes for the Sacramento News & Review, where a version of this story first appeared.

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