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September 11, 2003

Deconstructing Brightness

I feel I must respond to brother Ole's post. I've tried to avoid talking about this topic-but seeing as most of the readers (from the poll) of this site are part of the "Bright" constituency, I'll wade in.....

The first thing is that using the term "Bright" is committing to a manichaean typology-everyone else is a "non-Bright." Does this remind you of anything? "Saved" vs. "unSaved", "Christian" vs. "nonChristian," etc. We engage in the very sin which we resent the most. This tendency comes to some extent from the Christian mindset, after all, there is not a "Bright" mindset, it is an ad hoc collection of tendencies that often correlate are but are not enumerated in a scripture that is taken as axiomatic. Julian The Apostate attemped to mimic Christianity by forcing the pagan cults to organize an eclessiastical hierarchy and explicate defined doctrines, even his personal intolerance toward Christians often bemused his pagan companions. He brought a Christian mindset into the pagan religious world-view-and some "Brights" bring the same baggage with them. The Ghost of Christ haunts the movement. In the process of shaping who we are against, the "Other," we will alientate natural allies like liberal Christians. If the movement has practical goals of liberation-then these costs must be evaluated.

Hannah Arendt said if you are insulted as a Jew, fight back as a Jew, no matter what your identity besides Jewishness. If someone insults you as an atheist, fight back as one. But atheism or naturalism does not define the totality of most "Brights," rather family, cultural activities and plain fun are much more paramount. The analogy to gays is spurious in that gays have become a subculture-there are "gay" neighborhoods after all, when was the last time you heard of a "naturalist" or "atheist" neighborhood. There is simply an artificiality about the construction of this identity that needs to be focused on-there is no natural coherence to it just as there no coherence to pro-choice activists, or frankly, libertarians. We exist as a counter-point defiantly against the demon haunted world-but that doesn't mean that our naturalism must become a graven idol that we worship, it is background, not foreground. I speak as someone who was active in atheist activitism as an undergraduate. The tearing down of church & state separation, the defamation of secularism (ergo, secular people), the plain old ignorance about the non-theistic naturalist position in the wider world, these were things I felt needed to be countered. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we were socially a disparate bunch, socialists & libertarians, outgoing or shy, aggressive in our anti-religion or somewhat complacent.

As I said-some groups like homosexuals or artists form communities, districts where they live and civil assocations where they meet. I believe in the importance of mediating non-governmental institutions to the health of a democratic society. Nonetheless, these can not be forced, they must emerge naturally. To some extent, identity comes from both "push" & "pull," social ostracism (gays) and common belief or origin (Jews) can shape a group self-awareness-and generally push & pull work together and are confounded. But the formation of group identity comes at a price-heightened tension with the society as a whole. Sometimes this is worth it, black Americans suffering segregation had to forge institutions that spoke for them as a group against injustice, and these organizations continue even after segregation as valuable mainfestations of black identity. On the other hand, some identities are created from disimilar groups mainly by "push" from society, for instance, the "Asian American" identity is such a construct in my opinion. These kinds of self-identification are to my mind artificial, and feed off the friction and unappealing aspects of the American social superstructure, parasitic "activist" classes emerge who also insist on group conformity, since coherency does not come naturally to such a collection of individuals (as opposed to black American or Jewish culture). Atheists, naturalists, "Brights," share some things, but in my opinion not enough to move beyond a single issue interest group in in the political realm to a full fledged community that enters the marketplace of civil society.

And frankly, I'm sick & tired of the identities I have already. I was born brown into a Muslim family, so involuntarily I have both of these identities. My affinity is low to negative with both, but it doesn't matter, many (most?) Americans tend to have an idea that your background defines rather than informs who you are. Like Hannah Arrendt responding to anti-Semitism as a Jew, I respond to racism or prejudice by identifying as who I am perceived to be, but in my everday life, such things have little impact on my individual personality. Who I was born as defines me to enough people that I'm wary of adding another layer of intermediating group identity to my individual character. I'm already accused of "self-hatred" by enough Asian Americans and Muslims (being brown and Muslim is a big part of my "self" apparently, not just the historical coincidence and biological happenstance I tend to view them) that I really don't want to deal with the package that comes along with group identity.

Yes, if I am of any group, it is that of the Brights, but the more important point is that I do not ascribe great significance to groups as a whole-something else I think characterizes Brights! In the end, I am Who I Am, no need to read the label.

Posted by razib at 01:48 PM

Hannah Arendt said if you are insulted as a Jew, fight back as a Jew, no matter what your identity besides Jewishness.

I don't get that. When frustrated by injustice toward me, I take it personally. It's all about me, baby. I really do not care how another person rationalizes their misbehaviour. Of course, I am fortunate to avoid most injustice so maybe I just have not had enough practice.

Without any injustice, I don't see any reason to feel insulted.

Posted by: Bob Badour at September 11, 2003 02:43 PM

An atheist neighborhood would be fun. This reminds me of a town somewhere in Europe that I read about once, where the town's PA system was used by some sort of church to call people to prayer. The atheists petitioned for equal time and got to announce over the PA, "There is no God" a few times a week. :)

Posted by: Jacqueline at September 11, 2003 03:11 PM

In every party there is one member who, by his all-too-devout pronouncement of the party principles, provokes the others to apostasy. -Nietzsche

That's about where I stand with the "brights".

Posted by: sliggy at September 11, 2003 03:50 PM


I address the premise that injustice is unjust to me or to anyone else, and I think that deters the would be victimizer from victimizing members of any group.

Group identity is a dead-end street.

Posted by: Bob Badour at September 11, 2003 05:37 PM

I actually agree with Dawkin's / Dennett's point. Somehow "out" atheism has become rarer, compared to the XIX c. for example, and I think it's substantially because of intimidation and a sort of creepy, often fake public piety. (Many of the Christians I'm acquainted with are totally sleazy about it).

One reason I don't talk much about atheism is that atheism is not a true counterpart to theism. It does not give meaning to one's life the way theism claims to. It just amounts to realizing that theism isn't really there. (The Loch Ness monster is only important to people who believe in it; I don't spend any time at all not-believing in Nessie, and my non-belief in him or her is not a factor in my life).

HOWEVER: the term "bright" is poorly chosen because I immediately start thinking of wattage, fluorescent vs. incandescent, and stuff like that.

I'm reading vol. I of Nietzsche's "Human, All Too Human" right now and highly recommend it as a dissection of belief (esp. Ch. 5, which I'm on).

Posted by: zizka at September 11, 2003 07:02 PM

Human, All Too Human, Chapter 5

Posted by: Jason Malloy at September 11, 2003 07:56 PM


I am a Canadian wannabe American, but I suppose that's close enough. The Badour clan can take care of itself. If I am a target of an attacker, I don't care why I am a target: I am a target. And it's all about me, baby!

It's true I would come to the defense of close family members, friends, acquaintances, or possibly a stranger even if I were not a target. I am not sure my aid would depend on any particular group identity nor am I certain insult would motivate me.

Freedom of association protects our right to form voluntary groups, and I see no harm in this. I remain convinced that group identity, however, is a dead-end street.

Posted by: Bob Badour at September 11, 2003 08:25 PM

I remain convinced that group identity, however, is a dead-end street.

well, depends on what you mean-it is a dead end street if you are talking about the long term health of the republic as a liberal democratic polity. on the other hand, it isn't a dead end street in terms of the groups themselves, they flourish when they are recognized-and as some on this blog have noted, it is the natural order of human affairs, our own system which focuses on the individual as the supreme level of organization and identity being anomalous in both time & space (ie; most of history has been based on group identity of some sort-most of the world still tends to fixate on it more that we do).

re zizka: i agree that many of the fake christians are pretty irritating. in some ways, i find fundamentalist christians refreshing when their ideas are well thought out-i disagree with their axioms, but they follow the implication to their scary conclusions. on the other hand-many nominal christians tend to cherry pick in a very self-interested way, which is natural, but i think detracts from the candor that makes american society so special.

Posted by: razib at September 12, 2003 01:51 AM

Razib says,

Americans tend to have an idea that your background defines rather than informs who you are.

Well, for a large portion of the population their background really does define who they are to a large extent. People use background indicators for the simple reason that it is a useful heuristic that works enough of the time to justify its use. We interact with far more people than we can ever really get to know. So we have to make guesses about them.

Posted by: Randall Parker at September 12, 2003 01:56 PM


Group identity is a dead-end street for the groups themselves. I agree that tribalism is the natural order of human affairs, but humans benefit in many ways by abandoning their nature.

Science and the scientific method oppose human nature. Democracy opposes human nature. Rights, themselves, oppose human nature.

Group identity leads to ghettoization and limits opportunity. For instance, my Algonquin ancestors chose to integrate with the society around them, and when I see the abject poverty on some northern reserves, I recognize that I am much better off for it. When I see the members of my "tribe" enter negotiations with the ministry of indian affairs, I shake my head in wonder. Don't they realize they are asking for dependency, isolation and loss of control?

I can think of no group with a strong group identity who has benefited from it. Those who have no strong group identity flourish.

Posted by: Bob Badour at September 14, 2003 06:48 AM