Language can help to shape the way we think about the world. Richard Dawkins welcomes an attempt to raise consciousness about atheism by co-opting a word with cheerful associations
I once read a science-fiction story in which astronauts voyaging to a distant star were waxing homesick: “Just to think that it’s springtime back on Earth!” You may not immediately see what’s wrong with that, so ingrained is our unconscious northern hemisphere chauvinism. “Unconscious” is exactly right. That is where consciousness-raising comes in.
I suspect it is for a deeper reason than gimmicky fun that, in Australia and New Zealand, you can buy maps of the world with the south pole on top. Now, wouldn’t that be an excellent thing to pin to our class- room walls? What a splendid consciousness-raiser. Day after day, the children would be reminded that north has no monopoly on up. The map would intrigue them as well as raise their consciousness. They’d go home and tell their parents.
The feminists taught us about consciousness-raising. I used to laugh at “him or her”, and at “chairperson”, and I still try to avoid them on aesthetic grounds. But I recognise the power and importance of consciousness-raising. I now flinch at “one man one vote”. My consciousness has been raised. Probably yours has too, and it matters.
I used to deplore what I regarded as the tokenism of my American atheist friends. They were obsessed with removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance (it was inserted as late as 1954), whereas I cared more about the chauvinistic nastiness of pledging allegiance to a flag in the first place. They would cross out “In God we Trust” on every dollar bill that passed through their hands (again, it was inserted only in 1956), whereas I worried more about the tax-free dollars amassed by bouffant-haired televangelists, fleecing gullible old ladies of their life savings. My friends would risk neighbourhood ostracism to protest at the unconstitutionality of Ten Commandments posters on classroom walls. “But it’s only words,” I would expostulate. “Why get so worked up about mere words, when there’s so much else to object to?” Now I’m having second thoughts. Words are not trivial. They matter because they raise consciousness.
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. Just as you can’t vote until you are 18, you should be free to choose your own cosmology and ethics without society’s impertinent presumption that you will automatically inherit your parents’. 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?
Catholic child? Flinch. Protestant child? Squirm. Muslim child? Shudder. Everybody’s consciousness should be raised to this level. Occasionally a euphemism is needed, and I suggest “Child of Jewish (etc) parents”. When you come down to it, that’s all we are really talking about anyway. Just as the upside-down (northern hemisphere chauvinism again: flinch!) map from New Zealand raises consciousness about a geographical truth, children should hear themselves described not as “Christian children” but as “children of Christian parents”. This in itself would raise their consciousness, empower them to make up their own minds and choose which religion, if any, they favour, rather than just assume that religion means “same beliefs as parents”. I could well imagine that this linguistically coded freedom to choose might lead children to choose no religion at all.
Please go out and work at raising people’s consciousness over the words they use to describe children. At a dinner party, say, if ever you hear a person speak of a school for Islamic children, or Catholic children (you can read such phrases daily in newspapers), pounce: “How dare you? You would never speak of a Tory child or a New Labour child, so how could you describe a child as Catholic (Islamic, Protestant etc)?” With luck, everybody at the dinner party, next time they hear one of those offensive phrases, will flinch, or at least notice and the meme will spread.
A triumph of consciousness-raising has been the homosexual hijacking of the word “gay”. I used to mourn the loss of gay in (what I still think of as) its true sense. But on the bright side (wait for it) gay has inspired a new imitator, which is the climax of this article. Gay is succinct, uplifting, positive: an “up” word, where homosexual is a down word, and queer, faggot and pooftah are insults. 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”).
Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, of Sacramento, California, have set out to coin a new word, a new “gay”. Like gay, it should be a noun hijacked from an adjective, with its original meaning changed but not too much. Like gay, it should be catchy: a potentially prolific meme. Like gay, it should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright.
Bright? Yes, bright. 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. The website http://www.celeb-atheists.com/ suggests numerous intellectuals and other famous people are brights. Brights constitute 60% of American scientists, and a stunning 93% of those scientists good enough to be elected to the elite National Academy of Sciences (equivalent to Fellows of the Royal Society) are brights. Look on the bright side: though at present they can’t admit it and get elected, the US Congress must be full of closet brights. 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.
Geisert and Futrell 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. It invites the question, “What on earth is a bright?” And then you’re away: “A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view.”
“You mean a bright is an atheist?”
“Well, some brights are happy to call themselves atheists. Some brights call themselves agnostics. Some call themselves humanists, some free thinkers. But all brights have a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism.”
“Oh, I get it. It’s a bit like ‘gay’. So, what’s the opposite of a bright? What would you call a religious person?”
“What would you suggest?”
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.
· You can sign on as a bright at http://www.the-brights.net/. Richard Dawkins FRS is Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University. His latest book is A Devil’s Chaplain.