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Class Exercise: Defining Religion

The psychology of religion features certain themes that simply do not go away. One of these concerns the scope of our field of study: What is religion? Does religion refer to a broad range of phenomena, or does it reflect a more narrow focus on social institutions? This issue has been discussed at length by psychologists. It has been said -- correctly, in my opinion -- that psychologists and others who attempt to define religion are likely to satisfy only themselves. Still, the question of what religion is and whether or not related phenomena also fall under its umbrella remains actively discussed. For instance, in 2005 Division 36 of the American Psychological Association (APA) held a vote on the question of whether or not to change its name from Psychology of Religion to something that included spirituality.

Some members of the APA felt that by including both spirituality and religion in its name, Division 36 would explicitly recognize that people are frequently seek spiritual fulfillment outside the boundaries of organized religion. For these people, religion refers to something qualitatively different from spirituality. Others believed that the psychology of religion naturally includes spirituality, and therefore, spirituality was not needed as part of the title. Many of these people viewed the proposed change as a response to a cultural fad, and not a development that grew out of a result of scientific study. As it happened, 57% of votes supported changing the name, short of the 2/3 majority needed, so the name remained the same.

Regardless of one's view on the question of Division 36's name, the underlying issue is an interesting and important one because the names we give things affect how we view them. A good case in point is The Brights. They are a loosely organized group of people who advocate taking a naturalistic, rather than supernatural, approach to understanding the world. Consider the following statement from The Brights, and ask yourself whether or not you would consider the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of The Brights to fit in under The Psychology of Religion's umbrella. If you think The Brights should be considered under the scope of The Psychology of Religion, what is it about their interests that leads you to reach this conclusion? If you do not, why not? What would be gained (or lost) if psychologists of religion studied people such as The Brights?



Statement from The Brights

Doctor Nielsen has graciously allowed the Brights to introduce themselves. What follows is the briefest of introductions to the Brights' worldview. We all hope that you find this document stimulating.

On the Brights' web site you will encounter the definition: "A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview. A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements.  The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview." This is not meant to imply that there is one Bright worldview. There is no such thing. Brights come from so many different societies and backgrounds. All that links Brights is the naturalistic element in their worldview, the freedom from the supernatural and mystical.  Each Bright's view of the world around them is the result of their own life experiences, and of thinking deeply and critically about life and the universe in which we live.

Further down the web page is the description: "The Brights - An international Internet constituency of individuals." This is most important. The Brights is not an organization like a church. The Brights is not a religion. Each and every Bright is an individual in their own right with their own ideas and values that can be argued and debated with other Brights. As an example of how this works: the article you are reading was not constructed by one Bright. A number of Brights joined a topic on the Brights Forum and put forward ideas and suggestions until there was a consensus on the structure and content of the article. The Brights' movement was started through the efforts of two US educators, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell. Two other Brights who have had considerable influence are, in the US, Daniel Dennett who has written extensively on philosophy, and in the UK, Richard Dawkins who writes and speaks particularly on science and evolution.

Brights are sensitive to the fact that many people find comfort in the idea of the world being governed by benevolent supernatural powers and see any deviation from this idea as dangerous and frightening.   Brights find a naturalistic view, however,  offers essential virtues  that provide greater freedom, assurance and comfort.  In the words of a prominent Bright: "I subscribe to the naturalistic worldview because of its immense explanatory power regarding the real world." Brights are heartened by the notion of living in a natural world in which there is so much to see and learn. We cannot rely on supernatural beings to save us from disease and disaster. Using the best information, data and  evidence available, it is up to us.

Do Brights want to spread their views all over the world? Most would like to see this happen, but certainly not by coercion. Brights firmly assert that freedom of thought is an absolute right. No one should be forced to live their lives constrained by, or subsumed within, the worldview of any one group or individual. Brights are not against people believing in gods if they want to, nor do we deny anyone the right to observe civilized religious practices of any kind. In response, Brights do expect others to respect their right not to have to conform to what they see as superstitious practices. Brights defend their worldview strenuously against misrepresentation, and seek the cultural acceptance of it as a reasonable position.

A Bright's values, ethics and morals are in most cases heavily influenced by their naturalistic worldview. Brights understand that human beings and their societies are the result of biological and social evolution. Brights do not accept that morals and ethics derive from supernatural or mystical sources, so they must think deeply about their actions and the consequences of those actions. Like most human beings, we are sensitive to the possibility that our actions may be harmful to others, either physically or psychologically, and we would like to see the same principles followed by the adherents of other worldviews. However, there is still much intolerance. In some countries those who do not conform to religious views are politically and socially excluded, or even persecuted as infidels or heretics, so becoming a Bright in such a place is not something to be taken lightly. Usually considerable depth of thought goes into a decision to become a Bright and the development of the worldview that follows. Like all sensible people Brights prefer diplomatic solutions to violence and warfare.

We invite you to learn more about The Brights' Net at Comments, questions and feedback are all welcome. Please direct queries to:, and join in our discussions at the Brights' Forums:


Dr. Nielsen's students: Your assignment is to argue whether or not The Brights should be considered a religion. Be sure to provide rationale supporting your position. In writing your argument, refer to the concepts of empiricism - observation and objectivity - that we discussed in class and that are in our text. What is it about The Brights that suggests that their beliefs and behaviors should be studied by psychologists of religion? And what is it about them that suggests they should not be studied? In your opinion, what would be lost or gained by considering The Brights to be part of our field of study? In 2-3 typed pages, address these issues and describe why you reach the conclusion that you do.

Address comments to Dr. Nielsen (Be sure to delete from your the _delete_this_ portion from the "To:" line in your email program.)