The Brights



Freethinkers on the whole tend to place their bets that humans, not gods, are the actors on life’s stage, and thus people are responsible for the good and bad things that happen on earth. That is, the natural world and humanity’s place in that natural world is the focus of their intellect and convictions. For freethinkers, there is no looking to the supernatural or to a deity to solve problems.


Freethinkers in Context


Freethinkers as People


Some Categories  ï [buttons at left; discussion below]

Freethinkers in Context

Across history, the responses of the cultural and religious establishment to persons who deviate from tradition have been varied. Custom and authority sometimes press hard for acceptance and compliance. A broadminded society may indulge its freethinkers; other societies will not.

Freethinking in some political contexts may result in shunning, or even in persecution and death. Recent history provides one dramatic example. In 1989 the author Salman Rushdie published a volume titled The Satanic Verses. He was almost immediately threatened with death by fundamentalist elements of the Muslim religion, which found his writing distasteful, blasphemous, and heretical. To protect his life and safeguard his family, Rushdie was compelled to flee his native land and to seek asylum, protection, and anonymity in the freer society of England. He remained under a death threat for nine years.

Even if not pursued or persecuted, nonconformers to conventional belief are in the position of confronting the prevailing views and the predominant authority surrounding them. They may be rejected by segments of society or somewhat shunted to the margins of public life. For example, in the U.S., the prevalent view is that "a God is in charge." But, freethinking persons who are skeptics, deists, atheists, or secular humanists must have concluded otherwise, and their reasoning presents a challenge to the strength of the common notion. Consequently, any of these assorted "nonbelievers" may suffer some degree of civil censure for a seeming insolence to societal authority and tradition. For them, there will be strong cultural pressure to conform—in avowal, at least, if not in true conscience—because the majority society views a disbeliever as a misbeliever (heretic).

The social inducement for an American to declare some form of creed—or at best, agnosticism—over nonbelief is strong. Citizens who think that they can, without consequence, go merrily along their way in life without holding to or believing in any God or gods are likely to be disappointed. Take the situation of someone openly atheist. Despite the constitutional civil guarantees of religious freedom, in some states laws still exist on the books to exclude such a citizen—no matter how upright and law abiding—from public office. That person’s nonconforming idea is simply too far from conventional thinking. It is "out of bounds"—taboo.  

Even when such laws have been removed or are simply ignored,  it remains unlikely, due to prejudice, that this "atheist person" will ever be elected.  A recent Public Agenda survey of the general public asked the question, "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for a candidate for political office who is open about not believing in God, or would this make no difference to you?"  Over half (54%) of respondents chose "less likely." [Public Agenda, 2001] 1  This type of sentiment makes it less likely for an acknowledged atheisthowever good a person or contributing a citizento get the vote.  The assertion, "I'm a Christian," may carry a positive weight in many communities, but the "I'm an atheist" claim is deemed a poison pill for the candidate.  Less likely, too, is that the person will be admitted to or elevated within public service.  Several surveys have shown the "atheist" label to carry as much or greater risk of rejection for the individual than "homosexual" or any other descriptive category label.

Despite much progress, this is the situation in many other democratic countries as well. In the present century, few political surroundings offer freethinkers the real freedom to be different and to express themselves fully without fear of reprisal from mainstream society. More typically, a person’s actions and outcomes must heed authority, which demands acquiescence and adherence.

What about the reverse situation, the influence of one person’s freethinking on the surrounding society? History shows the impact can vary widely, depending on the era and environment into which the person is born and within which his or her life is spent. One individual’s probing and questioning and reasoning and challenging may cause hardly a ripple in the culture. In times such as the Enlightenment, however, it may place a person on the cutting edge and in the forefront of heady times that make an enduring mark on history and advance human progress for all.  See Freethought's Contributions

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Freethinkers as People

Generalizations about the persons who hold to freethinking perspectives are difficult, if not impossible.  For example, some freethinkers may be antagonistic to the concept of religion or to others' religious belief or practice, whereas others are not anti-religious at all. In fact, some persons may actually be participating in socially sanctioned religious observances for social reasons (e.g., family harmony).  There is not much one can say in the way of generalization about the people behind the various category labels applied to freethinkers.

Most freethinkers are, in essence, "swimming upstream" in a society in which most everybody else tends toward a religious belief of some sort, belief that would express itself in worship, meditation, or some other practice.  

Although the freethinkers have freedom of conscience to think as they do, the society around them tends to view religious faith as an admirable, if not absolutely necessary, quality to be "a good person."  Hence, there is a tendency for the freethinker to be somewhat cautious when it comes to expressing his or her philosophical perspective.

Because of widespread cultural stereotyping in the United States, a great proportion of the nonreligious simply keep their views to themselves.  They are well aware that outward evidence of nonbelief is frowned upon and would tend to make the individual suspect in the site of others.  They cannot as readily "be themselves" and be accepted as can adherents of most forms of religion.  Hence, there is a tendency for persons who are vocal about their freethought perspectives to be edged to the margins of society. (Note: some religious minorities suffer a similar disdain from mainstream society.) 

It is important for a classroom teacher to have correct information in order to ensure fairness and objectivity.  A teacher must avoid perpetuating stereotypes or permitting denigration of nonreligious persons.  One also needs to be able to confront such opinions if students offer them.  Disparagement of these persons is unwarranted.  On some societal variables, nonreligious citizens appear to surpass many traditional "respected" religious groups (a lower percentage imprisonment, proportionately fewer marriages ending in divorce, and so on).  

One academic who has written several well-received articles regarding the cultural stereotyping and morality of freethinkers is Wendy Kaminer.  Professor Kaminer is a public policy fellow at Radcliffe College, a social commentator, and contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Her articles and commentary include "Atheism: The Last Taboo" (in The New Republic) and "Pro and Con: Atheists Can Be Moral, Too" (at  By focusing on atheists in particular, these two articles help to provide information and a framework for better understanding in what is an oft-ignored and little-understood cultural arena.  

Without data, it is best for teachers to simply note for students that a freethinker is no more or less moral, no more or less mean, no more or less inclined to bad conduct, no more or less a worthy person, no more or less generous, etc., than any other person.  All citizens' constitutional right to think differently regarding religion should be respected and protected in classrooms and society.

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Some Categories

Categorizing freethinkers is not easy.  The individuals tend to self-identify, applying to themselves the specific label or labels with which they are intellectually and (in different contexts) socially comfortable. One will read of several ways to categorize modern day freethinkers as a whole.  

The buttons [at left above] survey a few common means of categorization.  Each category briefly characterizes the essential nature of the underlying reasoning by which a person may stay free of conventional religious thinking.  Within a category, there may be additional labels.  For instance, many different routes lead to atheism. [Atheism may derive from a philosophy of naturalism, perhaps, or from philosophical materialism, and so on.]

Subcategories of Freethinkers

Criteria for the means of categorization here combined simplicity (not too many categories) with curricular relevance.  Consequently, a rather prominent modern-day category (e.g., rationalist) may be omitted while a rather insignificant (in terms of population) category (deist) is nevertheless included. 

Although there are American deists, their numbers are miniscule in today's panorama; nevertheless deistic thought has had much relevance within U.S. history. For further material on the historical deism that so influenced the Framers of the U.S. Constitution in the late 18th century, go to Deism at the Teaching About Religion with a View to Diversity Web resource for teachers.

The categories shown here are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are overlapping, in that some combination of reasoning is more often than not the case for any single individual. It may be the case for one person’s thinking to be that of an atheist (naturalist variant) and also match elements of contemporary humanism (outside link) with no contradiction or interference.  

One Supra- Category

A nation that accords to religion a high degree of cultural authority will tend to offer to those who "have a faith" more acceptance and approval and to withhold same from those who don't. A "cultural blessing" for those who are religious puts the freethinker at considerable societal disadvantage. We may look to the identity labels the society uses for the nonconformists to religion and see how this disadvantage is expressed through language. 

In the U.S., faith and belief have positive cultural connotation, whereas the freethinkers have become known by comparison.  They are the faithless, unbelievers, godless, and other terms that label them by use of established terminology (faith, believer, god).

Preferring a positive descriptor to call their own, many freethinking persons are choosing to self-identify by a noun "umbrella" label, one that is useful and one they envision can place them all in a (more satisfactory) nutshell together.

What supra-label could possibly depict the "freedom of most freethinkers" and be inclusive ? Well, the notion of their sharing "a specific worldview" offers one opportunity to encapsulate (sum up with one word) a huge fraction of these sundry persons. It is likely that most (though not all) the individuals in the various categories of freethinkers do have in common a naturalistic worldview that is free of supernaturalism and mystical elements. That depiction would "scoop up" a colossal portion of the individuals, but what term to use?

The positive single term selected for use by those who say they have this particular worldview (no supernaturalism or mystical elements in it) is "Bright."  Use of the noun for self-identity (e.g., "I am a Bright") simply indicates agreement with a precise way of describing a personal worldview.

Whatever the varied "traditional" labels individuals may prefer, they can also be Brights. Atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc...all might choose to be Brights. People other than those who think of themselves as freethinkers per se (or any variant) could also possess a worldview that fits (matches the proffered definition). Simply put, anyone who concurs with the rigid description can choose to use the label. Those who do are the Brights.


1 Data within the 56-page Public Agenda Report, 2001, For Goodness' Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life, Table 6, page 52.


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Last Updated 5/15/2005

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