For effective marketing, we need a better label than ‘naturalist’, ‘skeptic’ or ‘bright’
JEFF T HALEY argues that we need better terms than the ones that exist at present to promote a more rational worldview
(This essay was first published in the October 2013 print edition of the Freethinker magazine)
Tags: worldview, naturalism, naturalistic, bright, scientism, Enlightenment, evidist, evidism
FOR the last 300 years, cultural evolution has been advanced by the development and advocacy of a scientific worldview characterized by the ideals of the Enlightenment: that one should rely only on sources of knowledge that have been verified though scientific confirmation and one should reject as valid sources of knowledge tradition, dogma, superstition, religion, faith, revelation, charisma, conventional wisdom, intuition, and inspiration. Of course, one must make decisions every day based on intuition, inspiration or tradition with no scientifically supported basis, but a person with the new worldview remains ready to amend such decisions upon receipt of valid evidence.Although there has been progress, this new worldview consistent with scientific evidence has not yet become dominant in any region of the world larger than a university town. Spreading the new worldview would likely increase human happiness by three mechanisms:
(1) Increasing levels of education and abilities of people to understand each other’s viewpoints has reduced conflict, and spreading acceptance of the new worldview is likely to increase abilities for people to understand each other’s viewpoints.
(2) Differing religions/worldviews have caused conflict; adoption of a common worldview by an increasing number of people would likely reduce future conflict; and the new worldview is the only worldview that has a chance of achieving wide adoption.
(3) Individuals become happier when they have a more correct understanding of the dividing lines between reality and fantasy and are not confused about whether there is truth or whether people can ever know truth, which frequently results from being taught falsehoods of worldviews that are inconsistent with science and reason. It would help spread the new worldview if we had words for referring to the new worldview that people with a modest intellectual inclination can easily learn and understand. Presently used terms for the new worldview and its adherents – “naturalist”, “bright”, “skeptic”, and “scientism” – are ineffective choices for spreading the new worldview. This essay characterizes the new and old worldviews, criticizes the previously used terminology, proposes better terminology, and solicits comment and criticism.
Relationship to religious concepts
The new worldview accepts scientific validation as the only adequately reliable way to draw a line between reality and wishful thinking. There are some who claim they accept the findings of science but also claim they have scientifically valid evidence that justifies including various religious concepts within reality. To be clear, generally accepted scientific theories hold that, to date, insufficient evidence has been found to support a significant probability of: a god, a creator, spirits, a soul, an afterlife, reincarnation, a mind or thoughts separate from the physical brain, or any objective source of human values or morality outside of humans.  Anyone who does not accept each of these points disagrees with generally accepted scientific theories and does not hold the new worldview discussed herein.
As most traditional religions rely on elements listed above, the new worldview undermines most traditional religions. However, there are religious leaders and congregation members who hold the new worldview. The new worldview is not inherently inconsistent with religion. A person can hold the new worldview as an overriding amendment to their preferred religious or values affiliation whether it is humanist, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Confucian, vegan, environmentalist, new age, pacifist, socialist or other.
We need terminology to label the new worldview that can be easily understood and used by everyone, not just academics. And we need complimentary inoffensive terminology to label the older worldviews so that we can talk to people who hold these views and cause a minimum of emotionally distracting insult. The new terms that are needed include:
(1) person-categorizing nouns for adherents of each of the old and new worldviews – words that typically end in –ist or –ian or –an;
(2) adjectives for characterizing each worldview – words that typically end in –ic or –istic or –ial or-al; and
(3) school of thought labeling nouns to identify each worldview – words that typically end in –ism. Some argue that an “ism” noun is not needed for the new worldview and is counterproductive because it is misleading as to the true nature of the new worldview which, they say, is not and should not be a theory or “ism” because theories become bound with dogma – attempts to characterize the theory with a particular set of words – which is inconsistent with the self-correcting nature of the scientific spirit. I do not here discount those arguments. However, “ism” type nouns for the new worldview are already in use (“naturalism” and “scientism”). If our meme spreading is to be effective, we must provide people with preferred terminology that they will be persuaded to use.
Characterizing the old, naturally evolved worldviews
As pre-humans first developed a thinking brain, the brain evolved intuitive ways of assembling and retaining beliefs about everything relevant to making decisions affecting survival or thriving. This is a naturally evolved, intuitive worldview or epistemic method – a method for assembling knowledge. Before the advent of language, using individual intuition, each person assembled on their own a set of beliefs on which to base decisions, which must have varied widely from person to person. We can observe an example of this process as we watch a dog assemble a set of beliefs on which it acts. Unfortunately, evolution gave our brains intuitions that, if unchecked by education, lead us to believe in false sources of knowledge.
As early humans began to develop language, beliefs could be passed from one person to another, particularly from older people to younger. As humans developed more complex cultures, this passing of beliefs provided “knowledge” to each person in many forms, including tested truths based on good evidence as well as untested intuition, inspiration, tradition, dogma, superstition, and religion. The leading theory among anthropologists is that, more than 10,000 years ago, all humans believed that spirits cause all events, including human actions when the person is infected by a spirit. This universal, natural worldview then evolved in separated cultures into the various mutually contradictory religions. In addition to beliefs passed on by religions, the naturally evolved worldviews encompass many other beliefs that are formed and passed on without adequate scientific review, such as belief in ghosts, other spirits, witches, fate, destiny, providence, karma, spells, curses, astrology, homeopathy, lucky and unlucky numbers or objects or events, unwarranted fear of vaccines, unwarranted fear of fluoridation of water supplies, beliefs about special days such as Day of the Dead, and effects of amulets and similar objects. From the perspective of educated people today, many naturally evolved forms of “knowledge”, both religious and non-religious, appear illusory and ill-founded.
However, before the development of scientific methods, these were the only available sources of knowledge on many topics. As humans evolved, children were vulnerable to predation or injury and it was naturally selected that they believe what their elders tell them. This prescientific, naturally evolved, intuitive worldview, in its various forms, has dominated human culture since its beginning and continues to do so in all cultures today.
Characterizing the new worldview that is consistent with science
People can get beyond the natural tendencies of their minds to be self deluded and to believe what their elders tell them – the intuitive, traditional worldviews – only through education consistent with reason and good evidence, particularly as determined by scientific methods. Preferably, the education includes epistemology – the study of sources of knowledge – how we can know what to believe. While learning science and how to interpret evidence is entirely rational, it requires study and is not intuitive for humans.
Once a person fully understands and integrates this worldview that is fully consistent with generally accepted scientific theories, they cross a bright line and do not slip back into a natural or intuitive worldview. However, if education levels fall in a culture, young people can hold onto the intuitive ways of viewing the world that they are born with, and the culture as a whole can slip back. No person can assemble on their own enough valid knowledge to acquire the new, scientific worldview.
We all must learn from others who shared their contributions through writing and correcting each other’s contributions to reach a scientific consensus. By soaking up knowledge from appropriate sources, individuals can move their thinking toward the new worldview without being explicitly aware of the difference between the old and new worldviews. With education in epistemology and in current, generally accepted scientific theories explaining everything that matters to each person – and limited teaching of theories for which there is no scientific consensus, such as traditional religion, astrology and homeopathy – each person can be given the mental tools to adopt this new worldview. With these tools, they can avoid reliance on unworthy theories of truth that they invent by intuition or inspiration or that are presented to them from unreliable sources.
Note that what should be taught is not just the subjects of science that are common in the schools but also generally accepted scientific theories for understanding whatever each person is interested in – what they care about in their daily lives – including religions, spirituality, and superstition. Unlike atheism and skepticism, the new worldview is not merely a negation of invalid sources of knowledge. It is a positive worldview that affirms valid sources of knowledge on all topics. I
t exults in the prospect that there is no part of reality that cannot be discovered through inquiry consistent with science. It is the opposite of epistemological nihilism which is the negation that anything can be known to be true. By requiring consistency with generally accepted scientific theories, the new worldview does not dismiss contributions from the “humanities” as contrasted with the “sciences”. There is no clear boundary between scientific and humanistic scholarship. What we call the sciences and what we call the humanities is largely a matter of pedagogical practicality. All the methods used by either are available to both.
The new worldview facilitates good decisions on the important and difficult issues of values, morality, and ethics because people stop trying to base these decisions on false beliefs that answers are provided by a deity or a source outside of humanity.
Presently used labels are inadequate
1. Naturalist / Naturalistic.
Some suggest we should use the adjective “naturalistic” to identify the new worldview because the view is based only on good evidence from nature. Quoting one of these authors: “The basic epistemic commitment undergirding naturalism is that we should stick with science, in partnership with philosophy, as the arbiter of what fundamentally exists.” Those who like the label “naturalism” advocate using “naturalist” for the associated person-categorizing noun. This meaning of “naturalism” has decades of momentum but has not yet made significant progress outside of academic philosophy. To most people, the word “naturalist” refers to a person who studies life forms or explains nature to public audiences. To reeducate all speakers of the English language and lead them to understand the new definition of “naturalist” would be an impossible task.
Some object to use of the term “naturalistic” because they say it implies reliance on only the “natural” sciences and discounting of all other epistemologically valid sources of knowledge from other fields that emphasize values like curiosity, honesty, accuracy, precision and rigor, including mathematics and history.
The elevation of the “natural” sciences over other valid sources of knowledge implicit in these terms is offensive to academics in other fields. This connotational baggage associated with the words “naturalistic” and “naturalist” is an insurmountable impediment to achieving agreement on this terminology. There are confusing, inconsistent meanings of the word “naturalistic” in scientific/philosophical writing. Some authors use the word to denote the new worldview that is fully consistent with generally accepted scientific theories. Others use the word to denote a philosophy that includes no supernatural concepts but that draws supposedly objective conclusions about values from observations of “nature.” Using a single word to refer to two conflicting theories makes it more difficult to spread the new worldview with that word.
In addition, the word has still more inconsistent meanings outside of philosophy. It would be best to choose new labels that have as few inconsistent meanings as possible. This proposed terminology is confusing because the word “nature” is useful in describing both the old and the new worldviews. “Natural” connotes the essence of the old worldviews much more than the essence of the new worldview because the old worldviews evolved naturally. The word “natural” has effective connotations for the new worldview only when contrasted with the word “supernatural”. If “supernatural” were the best label for the old worldviews, “naturalistic” might be the best label for the new worldview, but “supernatural” is a poor label for the old worldviews because, for examples, the proponents of homeopathy and religious naturalism claim that they are describing nature and there is nothing supernatural about their theories.
We can tell them that they are wrong and that their theories invoke supernatural forces, but they will not accept this characterization. If they will not accept the label we apply to them, the label loses most if not all of its utility. The problem is that the proponents of these theories do not view generally accepted scientific methods as valid for testing their theories. The dichotomous labels of “supernatural” and “naturalistic” were chosen from a perspective that places too much emphasis on ending the influence of belief in a god or spirits and not enough emphasis on ending other beliefs that are inconsistent with generally accepted scientific theories.
This choice of terminology grew out of the conflict between theism and atheism which is losing importance as theism begins to fade. While belief in gods may still be the strongest restraint on the adoption of a shared worldview in human culture, it is not the only restraint. Adopting a worldview that includes no gods but still does not reflect the importance of relying on generally accepted scientific theories in all aspects of one’s worldview fails to take people across the bright line into the new worldview. Thus, the labels “supernatural” and “naturalistic” would only be temporarily effective (until theism is no longer a problem) and would miss the opportunity to cast helpful light on other failings of the prescientific, intuitive, traditional, natural worldviews.
To summarize, the terminology of “naturalism”, “naturalistic”, and “naturalist” is presently too ambiguous, has established inconsistent meanings, and will never be adopted by large numbers of people to identify the new worldview based on generally accepted scientific theories. It is time to give up using these labels and move to labels that are selected to be more effective.
2. Bright / Naturalistic.
An association of people whose worldviews are free of supernatural or mystical elements organized through a website in 2003. They coined the noun “bright” to identify such people, and suggested the contrasting label “super” to identify people who maintain beliefs in supernatural or mystical entities or agency. They use the word “bright” to denote the new worldview that is fully consistent with generally accepted scientific theories. “Bright” has advantages of being short, easy to say, easy to spell, upbeat, and memorable. Unfortunately, the word “super” will never be widely accepted by those it is intended to characterize, and such acceptance is important to making progress. In addition, the word “bright” will not be widely accepted until the “brights” dominate a culture because the word is too self-congratulatory, presenting an insurmountable chicken and egg problem.
Furthermore, “bright” has no adjective form so “naturalistic” is used as the adjective. The lack of a common root between “bright” and “naturalistic”, makes the terminology difficult to learn. While the “brights” effort is a laudable attempt to solve the same marketing problem that this essay addresses, and the effort was mounted for the same reasons, the failure of this terminology to gain serious traction shows that it is time to give up on this terminology and try again. Perhaps the works generated by these efforts can be modified to keep as much of the “brights” momentum as possible while adopting new, better terminology.
3. Skeptic / Skeptical
Apparently due to their dissatisfaction with “naturalist” and “bright”, many people are currently using the words “skeptic” and “skeptical” to identify the new worldview. “Skeptic” is misleading to audiences because it seems to mean merely doubting of questionable assertions. The word “skeptic” only conveys negativism toward views expressed by others and inadequately conveys the affirmative sense that there is no part of reality that cannot be discovered through inquiry consistent with science.
A person who calls themselves a “skeptic” might also be an epistemological nihilist and that is inconsistent with the new worldview. “Skeptic” is inadequate for our purposes because there are several meanings and some of these meanings are inconsistent with the new worldview. We need a short, single word so that, in response to an assertion, people can say “I am a ____. If the listener knows what ____ means, the response will be correctly understood. If the listener does not know what ____ means, they will inquire. “Skeptic” will not work for this purpose.
Until the new meaning is widely disseminated and other meanings disappear from lack of use, people will assume the speaker merely means to say they are skeptical of the assertion just made, not that they are trying to convey something more. The word “skeptic” is seriously flawed for our marketing purposes. We will never be able to adequately eliminate the ambiguous meanings of “skeptic” from the language. Hopefully, if we find and adopt a new word, the new word will replace “skeptic” in the current references to the new worldview.
4. Scientist / Scientific
We could call this new worldview the “scientific” (or “scientistic”) worldview. The “ism” would be “scientism”. These words have suitable connotations for the new worldview and there are advocates for this terminology. It is important to also have a person-categorizing noun and there is no suitable matching candidate. The matching person-categorizing noun would be “scientist” or “Scientist” with a capital S. This terminology faces a major weakness because the word “scientist”, in present common usage, means a person who makes a profession of work using scientific methods or a person with a degree in higher education from a select list of degrees.
We would need to change the understood meaning of “Scientist” to refer to a worldview that anyone can have, not just those who practice scientific methods in their professional lives or have a college degree. In the United States, as tested with a focus group, there are people, including some with advanced degrees from prestigious universities in fields not labeled as “science,” who are not at all willing to call themselves “scientists” even though they hold the new worldview. As the word “science” is understood in English, it excludes fields such as mathematics and history which are also valid sources of knowledge.
This connotational burden for redefining what it means to be a “scientist” is insurmountable. In the same focus group, these people rejected the word “bright” but they were comfortable calling themselves “evidentialists”. In addition, some of the people who self identify as “scientists” and are accepted by all sectors of society as “scientists” employ the new worldview only in their work and not in their personal thoughts and lives 24/7. For examples, Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, says he believes in a god, and Steven J Gould argued that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria”.
It would be risible to claim these men are not scientists, but indisputable to say their expressed views are not consistent with the new worldview.
5. Atheist / Atheistic
Some people use the words “atheist” and “atheistic” to identify the new worldview. This use is confusing to audiences because it seems to mean merely no belief in a god, yet the speakers often intend to convey much more than this, including the entire affirmative epistemology of the new worldview. The word “atheist” inadequately conveys this affirmative sense and it would torture the language to try to redefine what “atheist” means to fill the need.
The word “atheist” is useful to contrast with theism and it would diminish the usefulness of this word to try to stretch it to refer to all aspects of the new worldview. Furthermore, there are atheists who hold beliefs that are inconsistent with generally accepted scientific theories, beliefs such as homeopathy, or astrology, or that nature (all life on earth) is a valid source of objective values, or that objective values can be derived from a source outside of humanity.
Criteria for selecting new terminology
For helping the thinking of people who are already skeptical of the traditional worldviews, whether they call themselves naturalists, brights, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, secular humanists, or other labels, new terminology is not important. These people can use any of the existing labels to fully explore the issues. We need more marketable terminology for spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment to people who are not yet engaged with this way of thinking. One of our targets for marketing the new worldview should be people who are causing harm to others and using false beliefs for their motivation or justification, such as religious fundamentalists.
As we choose better labels, we should keep in mind whether the labels will be optimally effective for reaching these people. The target where we may achieve the most success and therefore make the biggest difference for the evolution of culture is the “Nones”, as well as the religionists who might switch to Nones with a little help. Researchers report that large numbers of Nones have no interest in either theism or atheism. The new terminology should make no implicit reference to the long-standing theism/atheism debate. The day will come when this issue is considered by most to be inconsequential.
We need terminology that will be useful for making progress on the rest of what’s important in each person’s worldview. The three words we choose should work well in translation to all important languages. In English and Latin based languages, the three words should have a single root with three varied endings to make them easy to learn. The root should have an appropriate connotation to convey desired meanings and therefore require less effort to teach the words. If we choose a root that is Latin or Greek, the same root is likely to work in many languages. Ideally, the root would require no spelling change for other languages.
It would be best if a connotation of the root helps people distinguish between conclusions based on generally accepted scientific theories and conclusions based on values or fringe theories. Perhaps the best root would create a mental association with “science” or “evidence” or “reason” or “reality”. An important question is whether we should use a word that already has a suitable general meaning, such as “scientific” or “evidential,” and educate the world to a new, more specific meaning for this word, or whether we should coin a new word.
Here is a strong argument against using an existing word with a suitable general meaning: Any person or group who applies the imprimatur of this word to their worldview will cause confusion as to what the word means. For example, if we choose “scientific” or “evidential” or “naturalistic” or “skeptical”, a person promoting a view that is inconsistent with the new worldview might, without being obviously wrong, say that their view is also “scientific” or “evidential” or “naturalistic” or “skeptical” and confusion would ensue. To avoid this problem of others co-opting our terminology, we need to (1) coin a new word, (2) articulate a simple test for what is and is not within the new worldview, and (3) overpower with public speaking and publications any effort by others to change the meaning of the new word in a wrong direction.
To coin a new word, we can compose a root that is a novel string of letters with a novel sound or we can select an existing word with no related meaning such as “apple” or “bright”. Selecting an existing word with no related meaning will make the education task more difficult than composing a novel string of letters that creates a helpful mental association. The best balance of considerations is to compose a new root that sounds like a root with desired connotations and does not have any undesirable associations with existing words. Perhaps we can compose a new root that sounds like one of the roots in the commonly used words “science”, “evidence”, “knowledge”, “reason”, or “reality”. Other than the coined root proposed below, I have been unable to compose such a root that does not create unhelpful mental associations. Perhaps someone else can.
Proposed new labels: Evidist / Evidism
The analysis above shows that the founders of The Brights were right to coin a new word. Unfortunately, the word they chose has serious flaws. To try again, it is important that we move cautiously and obtain extensive criticism before settling on a new triplet of words. In the new worldview, beliefs are consistent with evidence and reason validated through the peer reviewed scientific process. Referring to the new worldview with the adjective “evidential” has appropriate connotations. Unfortunately, as explained above, if we choose this word which has a suitable general meaning, people with other worldviews can, without being obviously wrong, also claim that their worldview is “evidential”. We can use the sound of “evidence” to coin a new root and make the needed new words. I propose “evidist”, “evidism”, and “evidal” or “evidistic”.
I do not claim these are excellent choices; merely the best so far given the above considerations. In English, these words trigger an appropriate association with “evidence”. I do not believe they will trigger undesirable associations for speakers of English. Because “eviden” is a Latin root, it is likely that “evidist” will have the same association in all Latin based languages that it has in English. It would be best if the same spelling of “evidist” will also work in all other languages that use the Latin alphabet. I invite fluent speakers of other languages to publish or send me their opinions (1) whether “evidist” will trigger undesirable associations in another language, (2) whether the same spelling of “evidist” will also work in the other language, and (3) whether “evidal” or “evidistic” works better as an adjective in the other language.
If we use the term “evidist”, this would imply we are accusing anyone who does not adhere to the new worldview of not respecting the importance of evidence, and they might find this denigrating. It is undesirable to select a word that others might perceive as denigrating, but it probably cannot be avoided. Insulting people over their failure to understand what is good evidence may be worth the drawback because this is exactly the point we most want to make.
Proposed new test: “generally accepted scientific theories”
To easily explain the core concept of the new worldview and prevent the triplet of coined words from being co-opted to change their meaning in a wrong direction, the analysis above shows that we need a simple test of what assertions about reality may be characterized as “evidist”. It is not critical that we choose a perfect first articulation of this test. As science is a self-correcting process that works by collaboration and no single expression of any concept is fixed as the best expression, the test may be articulated in other ways. To match and emphasize the affirmative aspect of the evidist worldview, it would be best to have a positive test for what is consistent with the worldview rather than a negative test for what is not. For the test, I propose: “consistent with generally accepted scientific theories.” 
This articulation of the test restates that our understanding of reality is a set of theories, not facts. It is good for development of scientific literacy to frequently remind people of this aspect of scientific understanding. If a person says they are an “evidist” and they articulate a belief that does not meet the above test, we can say unequivocally that they are not an evidist and, short of debating what views are consistent with generally accepted scientific theories and citing peer reviewed scientific publications, no-one can disagree. People will always publish bad science, and science that once looked good will become outdated and wrong, but using a standard of what is generally accepted at any time seems to be the best test we can devise. “Generally accepted” does not mean accepted by a majority of some quorum. It means accepted by the most respected authors of scientific analysis.
Labeling the old, dominant worldview
From the perspective of the new worldview, all the other worldviews are sufficiently like each other that it would be effective to lump them together under a single label. Perhaps it would be best to call the old, naturally evolved worldviews based on human nature “traditional” worldviews or “intuitive” worldviews or “prescientific” worldviews. It would be a fitting use of the language to call the old worldviews “natural” worldviews, but this would conflict with terminology (“naturalist”, “naturalistic”, and “naturalism”) that already has some traction, and it would cause confusion for many decades until people stop reading the writings that use this terminology to refer to evidism.
Others have called the old, naturally evolved worldviews “supernatural” worldviews, because they include belief in supernatural spirits. However, the term “supernatural” is too narrow because the word fails to clearly encompass beliefs that are equally unreliable as supernatural beliefs where the proponents of these believes do not agree that they are based on anything supernatural. There are many people today who claim to have no beliefs in spirits or anything supernatural or mystical, yet they have beliefs in false theories such as fate, karma (in the strong sense), new-ageism, homeopathy, astrology, unlucky days, or values from a source other than humans, which shows that their worldview is still inconsistent with generally accepted scientific theories.
For an effective noun for a person who follows any of the naturally evolved worldviews, perhaps we could call them an “intuitivist” or a “traditionalist” to correspond with their intuitive, traditional worldview. Those who follow any variation of the intuitive, traditional worldview might find each of these labels helpfully inoffensive.
Previously used labels for the new worldview based on the ideals of the Enlightenment are insufficiently effective for advancing the new worldview. This essay proposes that we urge everyone who gives no weight to sources of knowledge that are inconsistent with generally accepted scientific theories to self-identify as an “evidist”. On the topic of knowledge, in contrast to values, they should assert that they hold an “evidist” (or “evidistic” or “evidal”) worldview.
All others we would refer to as “traditionalists” or “intuitivists” who hold a “traditional” or “intuitive” worldview. For the sake of positive evolution of human culture, we need to select the best terminology for the new worldview and move forward with consistent usage by as many authors and speakers as possible. As a next step, I invite others to publish or send me critiques of these proposed terms, suggest any terms they think might be better, and publish or send me criticisms of the “generally accepted scientific theories” test.
Copyright 2013 Jeff T Haley For permission to copy or translate, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Mynga Futrell, Russell Blackford, Richard Carrier, Tom Clark, Wesley Wildman, Tom Flynn, Ed Buckner, and my wife Carol for criticism of drafts.