Monday, May 31, 2010

There's Something About Daniel Part I: The Brights


You know who I miss? Daniel Dennett.

Not that he's really gone anywhere. He's still alive as of this writing. Still at Tufts, I believe. Probably still teaching, maybe even still writing books and articles.

But he's gone in other ways. Gone from the New Atheism the way Dave Chappelle is gone from stand-up and sketch comedy - he's an increasingly foggy memory, despite so much initial fame. When everyone was saying "I'm Rick James, Bitch!" in comedy-loving circles, budding wannabe internet philosophers were quoting Dan Dennett's gems.

What's that? You don't remember him? Come on! This is Daniel freaking Dennett! Right-hand man to none other than Clinton Richard Dawkins! One of the original Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse! You know that whole "Brights" thing? He was one of the guys who came up with that!

And there we have one of the reasons I miss Dan: His train-wrecks. And man, was The Brights Movement ever a train-wreck. Sounded good on paper, I'm sure: A snazzy new name to refer to atheists (particularly materialist atheists) with! Something to fill them with pride so they speak out about their views! So sayeth Dan, "Let's get America's candidates thinking about how to respond to a swelling chorus of brights. With any luck, we'll soon hear some squirming politician trying to get off the hot seat with the feeble comment that "some of my best friends are brights.""

Dan (and to be fair, others) missed out on a few key points:

* Getting committed, materialist atheists to speak up isn't a problem. In fact, despite being a tiny minority, it's remarkably difficult to get them to shut up - no matter the context, no matter the forum, no matter how off-topic they're getting - especially on the internet, where every pissant has multiple ant hills to piss from.

* Pride isn't much of a problem either. Again, what Dan wanted to give atheists, they weren't lacking to begin with - see the "have a problem not shutting up" bit. Generally people who run at the mouth on controversial subjects don't really have a confidence probably. More the opposite.

* Which leads us to the name. Brights? Seriously? When this idea was being kicked around at some Liberal Arts Students for Atheism meeting, did anyone raise their hand and say 'You know, if someone told me they were a Bright, I wouldn't even wait to hear what that meant - I'd figure I was dealing with some kind of pompous jackass'?

You don't hear much about the Brights anymore, because it went over like a lead freaking balloon. Religious believers had a field day, with atheists proving that even self-righteousness and sanctimony wasn't a market theists had cornered. Non-atheist irreligious squirmed and distanced themselves from the very word, and in the process the movement itself. Atheists with something close to social tact quietly and quickly abandoned the bandwagon, wincing whenever their compatriots with the more potent strains of social dysfunction proudly bandied their Asshole Credentials in a public forum. To Dan's credit, he achieved one part of his aims: squirming was involved.

That's what that special something about Daniel Dennett is: He's the famous philosopher, one of the original New Atheists... and yet he's the Doctor Evil of secularism. Impressive credentials, big plans, and just about every intellectual move he's ever made has backfired hilariously. He wanted to be the hero in a drama, and ended up as the villain in a comedy.

Dan may have largely retired from the already dwindling New Atheist movement, but I'm more than happy to replay his Bright ideas. They deserve to be remembered.

(And yeah, part of the reason for the post was I wanted an excuse to post that picture. I'm easily amused.)

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