Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Wednesday, June 25, 2003
A bright shining lie. I was rather surprised to see Instapundit quote approvingly (I think it was approvingly) a lady who has adopted this deliberately created meme whereby the word "bright" equals "non-religious". Not that Reynolds gives any indication of being a believer, but he's not usually explicitly hostile or, one would think, an admirer of Richard Dawkins, who has been pushing the meme in the Guardian.

Steven Chapman certainly isn't an admirer of Dawkins.

Nor was Dr Frank, talking about an earlier article:

"Yet more supercilious Bush-whacking blather from Richard Dawkins. As Jeff Jarvis points out, Dawkins appears to be putting his own sentiments in the mouth of Osama bin Laden."

Still, let us be logical. One could despise Dawkins' Chomsky-lite quagmirism and admire other aspects of his work. I did. Man, I got The Blind Watchmaker in hardback - this is cheapskate me we're talking about! And I turned the pages of The Selfish Gene until three in the morning on first reading. I distinctly remember that one of the minor pleasures of his books on evolution was the way that he had imaginative sympathy with some of the people whose ideas he was arguing against. Somewhere he said that if he'd been a Victorian he too would have believed the Argument From Design, and you felt he believed it. So convincing was The Selfish Gene that I ended up as an amateur Assistant Hammer of the Group Selectionists, and so I have remained.

It took a while for me to realise that my idol had feet of mush. When I first read a letter from him in a newspaper that, ridiculously, condemned some religious group for thinking that they were right and other people were wrong, as if the same claim were not part and parcel of every opinion that ever was, I convinced myself that I was reading the clumsy hand of some sub-editor rather than the man himself.

But as the years went by, evolutionary biology dropped right off the radar. Now he's, what is it, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of How To Land a Guest Column. Like blogging really, but makes more money, and most bloggers try to maintain a wider repertoire than an unvarying 85% the awfulness of religion, 5% the stupidity of America and 10% the unique wickedness of Israel. (To be fair, Dawkins backed off from the racist boycott of Israeli scientists - but he drove into that swamp before he backed out of it.)

Anyway, returning to the "bright" meme. It's meant to be like "gay," sort of allusive and self-chosen and cool. But whatever you think of "gay" (and I can't help regretting, as does Dawkins, the loss of an old and useful word) one thing it does not do is include in itself a derogatory description of heterosexuals. The whole point of "bright" is the sneer within it against the "dull" or "stupid" or "dark" religious people. It cannot be used without signing up to that agenda.

"Oh, I get it. [says your imagined interlocutor at a dinner party] 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?"

Ker-lunk. Yes. We get it.

Dawkins might reply, well, so he does sign up to that agenda. That's what his figure about 93% of top scientists being atheists is all about. (Did he ever wonder if the pressure to conform in order to be elected to the US National Academy of Sciences might be at least as great as the pressure to conform in order to be elected to the US Senate or Congress? Probably greater: the electorate is less diverse.) But the word "bright" doesn't honestly argue for the opinion that atheists are clever, it sells it by the colloquial association of the word "bright" with cleverness, the way a sexy woman on the bonnet sells a car.

In the abortion debate it's a cliche that "pro-choice" and "pro-life" are propaganda-in-a-pan, just shake out the package and you get a whole plateful of attitudes in one go. Yet both are true. I am pretty firmly pro-life but I can see why the English words pro-choice do express why some people think that abortion should be allowed. I would like myself to give women that choice if only I didn't think that her interests cannot override another life. Likewise a pro-choice person can probably see what I'm on about with the pro-life mallarkey. They do not deny the foetus has some sort of life, they just don't think it has enough to override the woman's right to choose. "Bright," in contrast to "gay", is intended to deceptively gain acceptance for an idea by other means than argument, and in contrast to "pro-choice" and "pro-life", its emotional sugar-coating has no redeeming core of explanatory power.

(May I note here that even if you accept the "atheists are cleverer" argument you are miles away from proving atheism true. It is, I suppose, a sort of indirect argument from authority, the collective authority of clever people... a militant atheist turning to argument from authority: it has its funny side. The fact that the "bright" meme is to be used in a sneaky fashion to bolster what was a poor argument in the first place makes it doubly removed from intellectual honesty.)

The first people to use the word "gay" did not intend to cut off the modern reader from appreciating many lines of poetry and phrases from literature; the people who spread the word "bright" boast that their meaning will take over. Worse, Dawkins makes a big joke of how "we" will at first scrupulously insist that it is a noun not an adjective, hoping and expecting all the time that the adjectival and propagandist meaning will take over. In other words, hoping and expecting that others will do the dirty work for you. Elsewhere in the article Dawkins makes a telling point that we should challenge language that presumes too much; how odd then that he advocates a term that presumes an unproven superiority in order to spread an opinion by snobbishness. "Bright" is not illuminating.

(I pressed "publish" too soon on this post. Some of you will therefore have seen it evolve. Hope you enjoyed the process.)