July 14, 2003
No new thing under the sun

In my comments to this post, David referred to an article by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, promoting the use of a new term:

What is a bright? A bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of views about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic and life after death.

This article has actually been getting a lot of play in the blogosphere lately. Telford is predictably ticked off, as are Mindles Dreck, Kieran Healy, Benjamin Kepple and Charles Murtaugh. Dean Esmay and Kevin Drum are more sympathetic, but by and large their commenters aren't.

It's striking how the idea seems to be going over like a ton of bricks even among people who themselves would fit Dennett's definition. I agree with their complaints about the word: it's self-congratulatory, cutesy and ungrammatical. Also a few commenters have asked, "What's wrong with good old 'atheist'?"

I don't know for sure, but I suspect there are a few different reasons Dennett (and his friend Richard Dawkins) are promoting 'bright' in its place. For one thing, 'atheist' has a negative connotation and an entirely negative meaning -- it defines you by what you don't believe rather than what you do.

Secondly, Dennett seems to be using the word to encompass several different groups that don't really belong together. At one point he says there are 27 million atheists or agnostics in America -- all of which he calls brights. In reality, though, I think that includes people who not only affirm positively that there is no God, but people who don't know (like me), people who affirm positively that you can't know (like Joel) and people who just don't care. It's pretty clear from the attitude that Dennett shows toward religion that what he's really talking about are affirmative atheists, but the 'bright' label lets him create the illusion of a bigger tent.

A third possibility is that the word atheist technically means someone who doesn't believe in God, while what Dennett speaks of is a rejectiion of all things supernatural. Taoism, for instance, is a belief system that's supernatural but not theist, as is Buddhism, kinda, so the term would include people who don't follow those. That may be giving Dennett too much credit though, because like a lot of Western atheists he doesn't seem to realize that most other religions aren't like Christianity. For instance, he says:

We are, in fact, the moral backbone of the nation: brights take their civic duties seriously precisely because they don't trust God to save humanity from its follies.

Actually, Christianity is the only major religion that believes that God will save us from ourselves (or, to put it more nicely, gives us grace). I do not know of another one that does.

So, what would be a good name for Dennett and his compadres? Since Dawkins is a zoologist I'm sure he'd appreciate my using the principle that the first name to be coined should take precedence. And, in fact, the first name that I know of goes back a whopping 2800 years to ancient India. The word is lokayata:

The world lokayata was used to refer to the person who believed in the reality of this world and the physical existence of man and of other beings on earth and nothing else. 'Loka' means the world and 'lokayata' means he who is centered around or relies upon this world only. The lokayatas believed in the existence of this world only, neither in heaven nor in hell, neither in vice nor virtue. They accepted only that reality which they could subjectively perceive and interact with, not in any imaginary world or some kind of ideal world.

I like lokayata because it defines a person by what she is instead of what she isn't, and has no strong positive or negative connotation. The closest equivalent in English is "materialist", which is sometimes used for, er, brights, but it also has this popular meaning of shallow and greedy, which many lokayatas aren't. It also points out the fact that this viewpoint isn't strictly a modern Western thing, although I don't know if Dennett and Dawkins would like that or not.

Lokayata has the disadvantage of being longish. The alternative "Charvaka" is shorter, but it implies allegiance to the particular Charvaka school of philosophy, which includes some things Dennett and Dawkins wouldn't agree with (such as the outdated physics, or the disbelief in objective knowledge). I doubt it'll catch on anytime soon, but from the looks of it, "bright" won't either.

Posted by Camassia at July 14, 2003 05:19 PM | TrackBack

Beautiful idea -- I don't know that it has much better chance than "bright," but it's a great word.

Posted by: Charlie Murtaugh on July 14, 2003 05:57 PM

The reactions you point to seem to be the same as you would expect from anyone with strongly opposing views about pretty much anything...

You're right though: nothing new about it! :)

Posted by: David on July 14, 2003 05:57 PM

p.s. I do like the label "lokayata".

Posted by: David on July 14, 2003 06:02 PM

Actually, if you look more closely, some of my commenters are coming around.

I believe that the negative reaction--and "reaction" really is the proper word--is a comkbination of a few things:

1) Conservatives who are still shuddering at the excesses of feminism in demanding the wholesale change of countless words simply to make feminists feel better about femininity.

2) A few who still resent having to say "gay" instead of "homosexual," or "black" instead of "negro,"

3) Theists who feel defensive, although often with no small amount of hypocricy since many of them think nothing of calling themselves "chosen" or "clear" or "saved" or even "beacons."

4) Brights who find Dawkins and Dennett annoying (which, by the way, would include me.)

But in fact there are now at least three bloggers who have endorsed the concept, including myself, articles on the word have made it into two of the world's biggest English-speaking papers, and the-brights.net web site is continuing to increase in traffic.

I continue to point out that a world which can tolerage gays, queers, blacks, and greens can find some way to live with a cute term like "bright." I am not alone. We will see what we see.

Posted by: Dean Esmay on July 14, 2003 08:59 PM

I like "lokayata." Cool word.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on July 14, 2003 09:21 PM

How "bright" is it to insist that what is obviously real is the only reality? These guys seem like a less imaginative, latter-day manifestation of the French existentialists. Been there, done that raised to the level of supposed new vitue. "Look at me, I'm bright!" As it is put in Georges Bernanos's novel, "The Imposter", they make "The strange mistake...of a man not yet aware that pride has no intrinsic substance, being no more than the name given to the soul devouring itself. When that loathsome perversion of love has borne fruit, it has another, more meaningful and weightier name. We call it hatred." Bright?

Posted by: Rob on July 15, 2003 04:58 AM

Dean: I agree.

Rob: "How "bright" is it to insist that what is obviously real is the only reality?"

Correct me if I am mistaken by your assertion, but why does just about every Christian I meet tell me the only way to salvation is through J.C.? Isn't that an "only-reality" view as well?

Posted by: David on July 15, 2003 09:00 AM

I don't think there's anything wrong with saying there's only one reality -- part of the definition of reality is that there's only one of it. The question is what you think that reality consists of. For Christians, for instance, the Holy Spirit is as much a part of reality as the computer I'm typing on, but lokayatas would deny it because it can't be perceived directly through the five senses.

Posted by: Camassia on July 15, 2003 10:23 AM

For sure, there is only one reality. I was trying to point out only that what is immediately available to consciousness and easily accessible for ultiliarian and pragmatic purposes, is not necessarily the whole story when it comes to reality. Think about subatomic physics along those lines.
David: I think that Jesus did a much better job of explaining the path to salvation than most people you might speak with who identify themselves as "Christians"--whatever that label has come to mean, when it can be applied to both Mother Teresa and Jerry Falwell...

Posted by: Rob on July 15, 2003 11:32 AM

Christianity does not teach that God will save humanity from its follies. "Humanity" in the sense of "mankind" is not a particularly Christian concept; Christianity is more interested in particular humans, like you and me.

Posted by: Tom on July 16, 2003 07:18 AM

According to my understanding of it, Tom is correct.

Posted by: Rob on July 16, 2003 10:28 AM

[from Geoff Riggs; not from Eliz. H., my better half]

Please excuse my responding to such an old thread. I found it through Google.

Personally, I see the ancient founder of Lokaayata as a very intriguing figure, and I wonder if, with the evident knowledge on this subject among certain users here, someone might be able to resolve a small puzzle for me -- or, at any rate, point me in some direction where I might be able to have the puzzle solved for me eventually.

A bare plurality of scholars, I gather, are agreed that the founder of Lokaayata was, most likely, a certain Brhaspati, or Brihaspati. I realize there are two Brhaspatis: a prominent figure in the Hindu pantheon, and this Lokaayata founder. Something puzzles me with respect to the latter, though. From the very few extant expositions we have, some scholars extrapolate that Brhaspati is ultimately an amoral figure. But Dakshinaranjan Shastri in his "History of Indian Materialism" (1930) states that Brhaspati "flung away the fetters of religion that he might be righteous and noble. Some of the verses of the Vedic hymns ascribed to Brhaspati are very noble in thought ... [H]is own teachings were of an elevated character."

I've already read a few sections of the Rig-Veda and have not yet stumbled on those "Vedic hymns" that Shastri ascribes to the iconoclastic Lokaayata founder.

Please, might anyone here know -- or could someone here point me in the direction of someone who might know -- if these hymns are even in the Rig-Veda at all? Even more importantly (whether they are or aren't in the Rig-Veda), might someone here be able either to e-mail a few of the texts of the elusive Brhaspati "hymns"(!!!) or give me just some rough idea of what they say that is (apparently) so "noble in thought" (according to Shastri)? Thanks.

Conversely, is there another resource(s) out there that might help me track down the gist of these hymns? I've already tried the Google search engine, and I already have one Carvaka/Lokaayata book anthology with texts from a few of the Upanishads along with the Haribhadra precis, among others. But not a trace of these "hymns" do I see.

(Possibly, Shastri is applying outdated Lokaayata scholarship, meaning these "hymns" were simply traditionally ascribed to the deity figure in the Hindu pantheon, not the Lokaayata founder, and are now understood as such -- but the bottom line is, I just don't really know, and I'd very much like to know.)

Much thanks,

Geoff Riggs

Posted by: Geoff Riggs on November 24, 2004 04:49 PM
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