What is a Bright?

Saturday, March 10, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:54 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

They are but a small minority, making up less than 5 percent of the U.S. population. And until recently, they have kept a low profile. For good reason: People who do not believe in God are the most distrusted group in the country and are viewed by many as a threat to the American way of life.

That’s according to researchers at the University of Minnesota, whose 2006 study found that Americans see an atheist as someone who rejects “cultural membership in American society altogether.” It seems, the study concluded, that as Americans become more tolerant of different religious faiths, they are increasingly intolerant of those who have no faith in God.

Belief in brief: Shinto

Shinto stands for “the way of the spirits.” Shinto is so incorporated into Japanese life that many simply view it as a way of life, not a religion.


Belief in and worship of the multifaceted kami — loosely defined as spirits — is central to Shinto. Kami is typically defined as anything — good or evil — which inspires awe and reverence in men. This can range from kami of nature to kami of certain locations, such as villages, roads, and even toilets. Kami relate to all aspects of human life, such as granting good exam results, bountiful harvests, or a partner. The kami are believed to be benevolent and loving if respected, but dreadful when angered.


Besides purification rites, worshiping at shrines is imperative for Shinto believers. Shrine visiting is not just a spiritual act; it is also a communal activity. It has even taken on political significance, as was seen in the anger over Japanese ex-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead.

The debate

Shinto is today the subject of much scholarly contention. While some historians argue that Shinto is Japan’s ancient indigenous religion, others say that it is no more than a modern construct made up by the Meiji government, which used aspects of Shinto — such as belief in the divinity of the emperor — to rally support for Japan’s nationalist and expansionist causes that ended in World War II. Sources: Encyclopedia of Religion, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices

Perhaps no one is more aware of this attitude than the Brights, an international movement whose members reject the existence of or belief in “supernatural and mystical elements.” Brights possess what they call a “naturalistic” world view, which attributes everything that exists to the laws of science and nature.

Columbia has the largest local constituency of self-identified Brights, according to the national organization, which maintains an online worldwide network of members from Sacramento, Calif.

Many of the Columbia Brights are affiliated with MU, including Carol Ward, who chairs the student organization of Brights on campus. “The thing I like about the Brights is although some of the leading figureheads have been active atheists, the whole point is whatever your religious beliefs are, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the natural world,” Ward said. “Really, the whole point of the Brights is... we can explain the natural world without invoking necessarily supernatural explanations.”

Though the Brights reject supernatural explanations of the world, and the national Brights organization says that most of its members are atheists, the group doesn’t subscribe to the atheist label.

Will Morris, the founder and president of the local Brights, said he doesn’t like to use the word atheist because it only describes a tiny portion of your view of the world whereas the word bright incorporates an entire world view. “You don’t define yourself by the things you don’t believe in.”

“Science and religion are apples and oranges. They have nothing to do with each other,” Ward said. And because they have nothing to do with each other, one can be a Christian, Jew, Muslim or a member of any other religion and still be a Bright, she said.

“It doesn’t have to be either/or, accept religion or don’t ... You don’t have to mix religion and science. You can keep them separate. And many people do,” she said.

Morris has been instrumental in bringing Victor Stenger, a committed atheist, to Columbia this summer. Stenger’s latest book, “God: The Failed Hypothesis — How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist,” reached the The New York Times’ best-sellers list this week. He will come to Columbia on June 4.

Stenger, who is a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, and an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, said that beyond a reasonable doubt, God’s existence can be proved or disproved. “My book shows how it could happen either way and reports what the data say,” Stenger said in an e-mail interview. “I insist throughout that if the data showed there is a God, then scientists like myself would have to become believers. Obviously that has not happened.”

Besides Stenger, many other authors have recently written books questioning the existence of God and criticizing religions’ effects on society. Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Sam Harris’ “Letter To A Christian Nation” are both currently on the New York Times’ best-sellers list.

In fact, “Letter to A Christian Nation” is number 21 on the list, and “God Delusion” has been on the best-sellers list for 22 weeks and is currently at number 10.

Dawkins, who is a professor at Oxford University, said a distrust of atheists stems from a misunderstanding of the group. Some Americans believe atheists lead very different lives than their religious counterparts.

In a recent interview on CNN he said, “If you’re an atheist, you know, you believe this is the only life you’re going to get. It’s a precious life. It’s a beautiful life. It’s something that we should live to the full, to the end of our days ... Being an atheist frees you up to live this life properly, happily, and fully.”

But the University of Minnesota researchers seem to suggest that Dawkins might have some difficulty in convincing Americans that atheists can be trusted. They found that nearly 40 percent of Americans feel atheists do not agree with their vision of American society and almost half of Americans would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist.

Americans distrust atheists, Stenger said, because “they have been brainwashed by their preachers into thinking that morality comes from God and that only a godly person can be moral. But the facts are otherwise. Studies show that atheists are at least as moral as theists and some of the worst social behavior is among the most fervently religious.”

The local Brights use less controversial language than Stenger. But they do hope to change the perception that atheists, agnostics and naturalists are immoral heathens, Morris said. Peter Gardner, professor emeritus of anthropology at MU, who is familiar with the Brights movement, said that despite common misconceptions, “we (naturalists) really aren’t monsters. We love this world. We love people.”

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