Saturday, May 10, 2008

Sticks and Stones

There's been some talk among atheists about what to call themselves, especially given the power of language to frame attitudes and debates. "A-theist" is negative, and maintains a focus on theism.

One effort at a redefinition is being pushed by people who call themselves "brights". Here is how they describe themseves on their website:
The noun form of the term bright refers to a person whose worldview is naturalistic--free of supernatural and mystical elements. A Bright's ethics and actions are based on a naturalistic worldview.

A number of prominent atheists have signed on, if only out of solidarity. In Breaking the Spell, Dennett refers to himself as a bright.

The hope is to start the spread of an infectious meme that will change how people think about those who reject theism, in much the same way homosexuals have redefined themselves in part by appropriating the terms "gay" and even "queer" to describe themselves.

I don't think it's going to work, if only because a number of clear-headed skeptics I've talked to would be embarrassed to be called or thought of as "brights". Part of the problem is that the whole effort seems too artificial, too much a contrivance of strategic marketing. Perhaps a bigger part of the problem is that the term is too smugly self-congratulatory.

I won't mince words. It makes me gag.

Hanging out in the forum of the official Richard Dawkins website, I've hit on a couple of possibilities for repackaging the brand.

First, a number of fledgling atheists complain that their friends and family accuse them of being insufferable know-it-alls. They keep hearing variations on the theme: "Where do you get off questioning God?"

Following the model of queer activists, who adopt a derogatory epithet as both a badge of honor and a tool for subversion, I propose that atheists, skeptics and other free thinkers call themselves "smart-asses".

Second, the smart-asses should adopt April 1 as their official holiday. This is inspired by a widely-circulated email containing an apocryphal story about a moralizing theist judge who throws out a case brought by an atheist concerning religious holidays. The punch line: the judge argues that April Fool's Day is an atheist holiday because, according to Psalms 14.1, "The fool says in his heart, there is no God".

Well, why not? Perhaps smart-asses could spend April 1 playing pranks on fundamentalists to expose their gullibility . . .


Doc Nagel said...

I do like smart-asses. I'm a professional smart-ass, meself. But I wonder about finding a term that really addresses being an atheist, or that has been used as an epithet for atheists (as in the case of queer). The godless? Heathens? How 'bout a combo meal: smart-ass heathens? Ooh: godless smart-asses has a nice ring.

Robert Kirkman said...

I like the sound of "heathen." Someone on the Dawkins' site suggested "infidels."

Phil Taylor said...

In Shakespearean tradition, how about: "Fools". Won't work, but I like the idea.