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Graeme Hunter on Elite Faith in Naturalism
For years, the annual get-together of Canada’s main academic organizations used to call itself “The Learned Societies.” They changed the name, probably because even the most pompous participants found it hard to take it seriously. Humorists and realists had grown fond of referring to those meetings as “The Stupids.” When the “Learned Societies” left us, our little joke lost its home. Until now. There is a new organization that may be able to use it: a lobby group wishing to organize the militantly non-religious, calling itself “The Brights.”
It is no surprise that the Brights are based in California. The organizers, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, are freelance education writers, whose passion is what they call “naturalism.” Naturalism defines itself as the belief that the world is “free of supernatural or mystical deities, forces, and entities.” If you believe this, then, according to the invitation on the Brights’ website, you can become one of them.
Why join? Well, one of their main goals is “to gradually bring together under the name, the Brights, large numbers of the supernaturalism-free individuals and begin to form an identifiable and visible civic constituency.”
If you are not already organized by sex, color, race, religion, disability, or sexual orientation; if, perhaps you are despairing of ever finding a politically potent label under which to shelter, then the Brights may be for you. If you find the world too pious a place, if the overwhelming influence of ministers of religion in public and private affairs troubles you, if you resent the way Christian views dominate the public sphere, then perhaps you should consider joining this courageous band of high-minded reformers.
They think big. They hope to “gain a place at the civic table for the Brights, and a capacity to transmit to religionists, politicians, media, and society in general educational information on key topics that affect the interests not only of the Brights (e.g., discrimination, the separation of church and state), but the welfare of all the individuals of the nation and world.”
You can see immediately that their aims are not selfish. They have in their benevolent hearts the interests of “all the individuals of the nation and the world,” in addition to their own. Like most interest groups, the Brights find conflicting interests frighteningly easy to reconcile. After all, if the world really knew what was good for it, they seem to think, it would want what the Brights want.
Not that the Brights will end up doing much harm. Their name will make a sport of them forever, like a now defunct Canadian political party that flirted suicidally with the malodorous acronym “CRAP” (Conservative Reform Alliance Party). Neither will their aim be taken seriously by religious people (that is, by most people some of the time and some people all of the time).
One reason not to take them seriously is that they have so obviously modeled themselves on the position they reject. Flash back to their definition of naturalism as asserting that the world is “free of supernatural or mystical deities, forces, and entities.” It is nothing but a negation, and reveals how unnatural naturalism is. It can exist only as a parasite on religion. Without religion, the Bright could not even articulate what he believes.
Brights think the world would be a better place if people had no concept of the supernatural. But if they ever met the man of their dreams, he might find their beliefs amusing or insane, but he would not think them clever. The Bright idea would amount to affirming that only existent things exist. No one would accuse them of being controversial.
But theirs is the kind of belief about which the philosopher Wittgenstein encouraged people to be silent, if they do not wish to appear a little daft. He says you will make your dinner guests uncomfortable if you inform them that you are now alive, that your house is located on earth, or that what you normally breathe is air. In the same way, it will only trouble them to learn that you have now come to believe only in existent things.
Their Smaller World
Unfortunately for the Brights, their fundamental belief does not become much more interesting even when they are speaking to religious people. We too profess to believe only in what exists, though we are discreet enough not to go on about it. We differ from the Brights only in including supernatural entities among the existent things. All the Brights can say for themselves is that they belong to a smaller world.
They might try calling on etymology to help them. Nature, by its Latin root, involves the idea of birth, in Yeats’s fine phrase, “whatever is begotten, born and dies.” The Brights might say that they believe in nothing but what emerges from the womb of time. But that won’t save them either. What of that womb itself? And how do they account for its fertility?
The reason we will not take them seriously is not because none of them is “bright” in the usual sense of that word. Indeed, one self-confessed Bright is a Nobel prize winner, and another is a famous philosopher. No, the reason they will not be taken seriously has to do with a kind of foolishness bright people are prone to and ordinary ones easily detect. The philosopher Descartes thought he could prove that he was not a body, but never persuaded his masseur. His German successor Leibniz thought that no two persons could really interact with one another, but had trouble convincing lovers.
Bright people are notorious for believing crazy things. So much so that Cicero said there was nothing so ludicrous as not to have been propounded by some great philosopher.
Could it be that the shortcoming of the Brights is not an error but a closely related thing: a sin? It may be the sin of pride. Perhaps they mean by naturalism the claim that only beings whose existence is certified by twenty-first-century opinion-makers (especially natural scientists) have impeccable credentials for existing.
If that is what the Brights mean, then their belief is once again as worthy of satire as their name. Let a worm make a similar claim, or a rat or a monkey, and we would laugh. When men make it, it excites the inaudible laughter of the heavenly hosts. “Man, proud man,” Shakespeare says, “most ignorant of what he’s most assured . . . makes such fantastic tricks before high heaven that the angels, if they had our spleen, would all themselves laugh mortal.”
The Brights hope to live by a negation. Much of our spiritual life is only intelligible, however, if that negation is false, and the resounding affirmatives of faith are true. Even the militant atheist Friedrich Nietzsche found it distressing that atheism left no one to thank for the sheer miracle of existence. The Brights therefore are likely to have difficulty recruiting ordinary people to their cause. However, they may still find some learned societies ripe for the harvest.
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.