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A Bright Idea for Atheists
by Robert J. Sawyer
First published (under the title "Unhealthy Skepticism")
as an op-ed piece in The Ottawa Citizen, the largest-circulation
newspaper in Canada's capital city, Wednesday, April 4, 2007; this is
the definitive version of the text.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
I'm bright, and you're not.
At least, that's the way the Modern Skeptical Movement would have
it assuming you're one of the vast majority of North
Americans who believe in God.
"Skeptics," by the way, is the term that's now generally used by
atheists to describe themselves and with good reason. As
Richard Dawkins documents in his current bestseller
The God Delusion,
voters, at least in the U.S., would rather elect a
criminal or a member of a cult than someone who publicly
professes to not believing in God.
The term "skeptic" became synonymous with "atheist" because of
the magazine The Skeptical Inquirer, published by the
wait for it Committee for Scientific Investigation
of Claims of the Paranormal. The magazine's name was originally
a pun; in its early years it demolished the silly claims found in
The National Enquirer. But over the years, it's shifted
from debunking spoon-bending and flying saucers to focusing
almost entirely on a war against religion.
Stripped from the magazine's title, the name skeptic on
its own conjures up visions of dour, frowning, unpleasant people.
And the Modern Skeptical Movement yes, you can hear the
caps when they say it aloud wants to be viewed as fun and
inviting. And so, like the Martians in H.G. Wells's The War
of the Worlds, these intellects vast and cool and
unsympathetic looked with envious eyes at what had at one time
been an even more reviled community: homosexuals.
See, those who prefer same-sex partners brilliantly remade their
public image by taking a word that had been quaint even when
The Flintstones had used it in their theme song back in
1960 and giving it a vibrant new meaning. "You may be happy,"
they said, "but we're gay." And with a cheery rainbow logo,
colourful parades, and self-deprecating humour, they won over
almost everyone whose first name isn't Stephen and whose last
And so the skeptics who have all the marketing savvy of
the New Coke team decided to try something similar,
co-opting "bright" as their sexy replacement term for atheist.
Except that the unspoken implication, as I said at the outset,
when one asserts "I'm bright" is that you are not.
And that's only one example of how the Modern Skeptical Movement
has gotten us into this mess in which atheists actually have to
keep quiet about their beliefs or lack thereof in
We've all seen those cartoon fish outlines that some Christians
stick on the backs of their cars. How do the skeptics respond to
them? Why, with mockery, of course!
Recently in Toronto, a gala opening was held for the Centre for
Inquiry, Ontario, the new local headquarters for the skeptical
movement. At the little gift counter there, you can buy yourself
a Darwin fish. The Darwin fish looks just like the Christian
fish, except that it's got legs a fish evolving into an
But Christians don't display a fish in support of creationism
(something most educated Christians don't believe in anyway; they
know that life evolved from simpler forms, thank you very much).
Rather, they're declaring their adherence to a moral code:
blessed are the peacemakers; if someone strikes you on the right
cheek, offer them your left; forgive and forget. Responding to
that with a smug joke about evolution not only misses what the
Christians were saying, but it makes the atheists look
Even worse, in its way, are the pins and T-shirts for sale at the
Centre depicting the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The FSM is a
putatively divine being that looks like a big twirl of spaghetti
strands. It's used all over the world by skeptics as a cudgel
in debates over religion in schools, tax breaks for churches, and
so on. If you want time and space to worship your bearded old
man in the sky, they appear to be saying, then you need to give
us time and space to worship our deity, the hallowed FSM.
Except, of course, no skeptic actually believes in the FSM
(although the Centre does hold monthly $5 all-you-can-eat
spaghetti dinners in its honour). No, what they're really saying
is, "If you want time and space devoted to something that's
important to you, then I should be given equal time and space to
ridicule that thing."
Again, arrogance. Is it any wonder nobody wants to elect
or have as a neighbour, or allow their daughter to marry
More: the skeptics who trot out the FSM are playing into the
hands of those who try to dismiss atheism as just another
religion. But atheism is no more a religion than not
playing chess is a hobby. In a world in which we have a war not
on terror but rather on religiously inspired violence, in which
sectarian fighting spills blood on every continent, it's vital to
keep clear that there is an alternative to religion.
Despite the arrogance of the Darwin Fish, despite the sneering of
the Flying Spaghetti Monster, despite the out-and-out stupidity
of the term "Bright," most atheists are good, happy, fun-loving
people. But I wish to well, to the random forces of
nature! that they would come up with a better way of
presenting themselves to the world. Rather than the Darwin Fish,
maybe a bumper sticker that says, "You Can Be Good Without God."
Instead of a Flying Spaghetti Monster pin, get one that says,
The skeptical movement in the United States has been an abject
failure. It's done nothing to prevent the election of
George W. Bush, an anti-science fundamentalist, to the
White House (and I, for one, certainly wish the guy with his
finger on the button didn't think there was a better world
after this one). It's done nothing to quell the fight to
expunge evolution from classrooms. It's done nothing to
counter and, yes, maybe even is responsible for
the public perception of atheists as evil, arrogant people.
But perhaps there's a ray of hope. Despite its gift counter, the
Centre for Inquiry, Ontario, has dubbed itself "A New Canadian
Voice for Reason, Science and Secularism." If that's just an
empty PR slogan, then it will accomplish as little as its
American counterparts have.
But if the Centre can really bring a new voice (one that's polite
and charming) and a Canadian voice (one that's self-effacing and
inclusive) to the Modern Skeptical Movement, then it might
actually do some good.
And then maybe, just maybe, atheists will start feeling
comfortable about coming out of the closet.
Toronto science-fiction writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER's latest
novel is Rollback,
just out from Tor.
More Good Reading
About Calculating God, Rob's
Hugo Award-nominated novel about evolution vs. creationism
Rob picks Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion as "Book of the Year"
About Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God
Rob's op-ed piece on The Canada Council and science fiction
Rob's op-ed piece on science: ten lost years
Rob's op-ed piece on multitasking and attention deficit
Rob's op-ed piece on Stephen Hawking's call to colonize space
Rob's op-ed piece on Michael Crichton blending fact and fiction
Rob's op-ed piece on the private sector in space
Rob's op-ed piece on privacy who needs it?
Rob's op-ed piece on technology and the end of culture
This op-ed piece as it appeared in The Ottawa Citizen: