The God-free now have their own 'pride' movement. But, says Stephen Phillips, some of its prominent members have cast a shadow over its progress
These are busy times for the Brights, the "atheist pride" movement launched three years ago by leading academics. One of its VIP members, Richard Dawkins, Oxford University professor of the public understanding of science, is riding high on the non-fiction best-seller list with his new book The God Delusion . In the US, neuroscience doctoral student Sam Harris's broadside against America's Christian Right, Letters to a Christian Nation , is hot on its heels.
Dawkins and Harris assail religion as intellectual bunk, a pernicious, retrograde force that contributes massively to human suffering because of the violence, intolerance and extremism committed in its name, yet it is shielded from critical scrutiny by the peculiar deference accorded to belief.
Their books follow the buzz of interest generated by Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon , by Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel Dennett, another leading Brights light. His argument is more measured but scarcely more conciliatory towards religion.
November's Wired magazine christened the authors the "new atheists". Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University, says all three are tackling taboos around religious belief and trying to open it up as fair game for discussion. "These folks are giving people the opportunity to examine their beliefs using the same standards we use to examine political or scientific beliefs," he says.
Also in November, Dawkins, Harris, two Nobel laureates and other luminaries gathered in San Diego for a conference Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival . The conference website described it thus: "Religions are increasingly a geopolitical force to be reckoned with. Science and religion are at odds in the classrooms and courtrooms. After two centuries, could this be twilight for the Enlightenment project and the beginning of a new age of unreason?"
The publicity surrounding the books and conference has prompted an influx of new Brights. Membership now stands at 25,000 and counting. The largest following is in the US, which has more than 4,000 members, but Britain is home to the second largest - with more than 2,500 - and the most active.
In stirring editorials in 2003, Dawkins and Dennett launched the group as a vehicle to agitate for "Brights' rights", a voice for freethinkers, humanists and atheists who felt they had been marginalised in civic discourse, in particular in President George W. Bush's America. It was hoped that the term "Bright", used as a catch-all for those espousing a naturalistic (non-supernatural) world-view, would take root as a positive new meme (in Dawkins' speak, a contagious idea) and would give a fresh, affirmative spin on a perspective that had habitually been defined in the negative - as non-belief - and maligned as nihilism or amoral materialism.
Dawkins billed it as an exercise in "consciousness-raising" that he hoped would achieve the same effect for the "God-free" that the use of the term "gay" has for homosexuals. A study published in the April 2006 issue of American Sociological Review found that it is still socially acceptable, in the US at least, to say you are intolerant of atheists.
In a 2003 poll of a nationally representative sample of Americans, atheists received the highest disapproval rating (48 per cent) as prospective spouses for people's children - versus 34 per cent and per cent for Muslims and African-Americans respectively. They also scored highest (40 per cent) among groups deemed "least likely" to share their vision of America, ahead of "publicly visible, controversial" Muslims (26 per cent) and gays (23 per cent), says co-author Penny Edgell, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.
But three years on from the Brights' inception, opinion remains divided over whether the name is a masterful tactic or an albatross around the group's neck. "'Bright' hasn't skyrocketed to public attention," Dennett concedes. "But it took 'gay' quite a few years to overcome the doubters."
But the whiff of Mensa-member smugness prompted one US commentator to say: "The rest of us would be 'The Dims', I suppose."
Bright Massimo Pigliucci, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, says the group's initial pulling power owed much to the name's shock value. Its ability to provoke remains an asset, Dennett adds. "I still think the irritation value of the term is one of its strengths. If a more diplomatic, less in-your-face term had been chosen, it would have been forgotten by now."
Anticipating a backlash, Dennett and Dawkins said at the group's inception that Bright was a noun, "not an adjective". But Edgell says the name plays up the perceptions of elitism that have given atheists a bad name. "Culturally, it's a misstep," she says.
Although recent books are credited with swelling the Brights' ranks, the group's November newsletter records a "smattering of departures" of members who are recoiling from Dawkins and Harris's no-prisoners stance. Indeed, Paul Geisert, co-director of the Brights' network, distances the group from its most illustrious members, calling Dawkins and Harris "anti-religious".
"That's not what the Brights are about," he says. "The Brights are a civil-rights organisation looking to level the playing field for all world-views." He writes in the newsletter: "The fact that the internationally known scientist Richard Dawkins is both a Bright and a vociferous atheist does occasionally place the Brights in a ticklish position." Geisert's "ticklish position" highlights the perils of trying to organise freethinkers, a task Pigliucci compares with "herding cats".
The Brights movement was conceived as an "umbrella" group for bickering humanists and atheists, Geisert says. "The atheists thought the humanists were wimps and the humanists thought the atheists were radicals." Accordingly, it is a self-styled "constituency of individuals" with a flat organisational structure in which no one speaks for anyone else. Dawkins is not about to be ex-communicated for heresy. But Geisert is worried about alienating potential allies among religious moderates. "Why make a battle of this? Let's find our commonality," he says.
Dawkins' vehemence - he calls the notion that science and religion belong to distinct realms a cop-out and brands the religion-friendly science presented by many defending evolution from fundamentalism "appeasement" - has already alienated some who have argued with him against religious incursions into science.
Kenneth Miller, the Brown University biology professor described by Dawkins as "the most persuasive nemesis of 'intelligent design'", is a Christian who feels his belief is compatible with Darwin's theory. He says: "The values I'm interested in defending are those of science, (its) beauty, romance and empiricism. On that, Richard and I agree and I'm happy to stand with him to defend the integrity of science. Where we part company is whether the same values can be used to disqualify religious points of view." Personally, Miller says, he finds the "religious viewpoint useful in putting science into perspective".
Harris says that he can see the tactical argument against closing off possibilities for finding common ground with religious moderates as part of the attempt to tackle extremism. "But that is only to say that a sufficient number of people are so deranged by religious myths that it's dangerous to honestly criticise them," he says. "I think it's important to have me and Dawkins out there making everyone uncomfortable. They should be uncomfortable. Our world has been shattered, quite unnecessarily, by fairy-tales."
"Half the American population thinks the universe is 6,000 years old," Harris says. "This is a belief that should be disparaged - relentlessly. This isn't even a world-view - it's a view that can be maintained only by ceasing to view the world. People should be made to feel embarrassed by this intellectual backwardness. Likewise, with the moral backwardness that religion so reliably generates: Christians still preach the sinfulness of condom use in regions where Aids is epidemic; US Christians debate gay marriage as though it were the greatest moral question of the 21st century; and Muslims riot over cartoons but not over suicide bombings. Disparagement is the least we can offer in the face of this lunacy."
But Scott Atran, director of research in anthropology at France's National Centre for Scientific Research and a professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan, says Dawkins and Harris leave empiricism behind in their pronouncements on religion.
Atran, a speaker at November's San Diego gathering, whose fieldwork has included living with the Mujahidin, says both take an excessively literal view of religion, overlooking its social, political and cultural context. He puts the hypothetical case of proposals to "dump nuclear waste" in a remote part of America's southwest that also happens to be a Native American burial ground. The proposals are put to statewide vote and the mostly non-indigenous populace approves, authorising generous compensation for tribes. "But (the tribes) refuse because the sacred burial ground is more than ghosts in the air, it's the summation of their cultural yearning and identity. What amazed me was that there wasn't a shred of science to try to understand religion or other people," Atran says of the San Diego proceedings. "There's no data in the aggregate that anyone's citing, no attempt to find systematically reliable evidence. Picking extreme cases of jihadism and conservative fundamentalism (and saying) that's religion is like picking Mengele and saying that's science."
For the Brights, meanwhile, one challenge is to reach beyond core committed atheists to the lumpen masses of sympathetic but more wishy-washy atheists or agnostics. This can be tricky without becoming shrill or climbing on one's soapbox. "Conveying a supernatural-free world-view in casual conversation is not easily accomplished," they concede.