Two things that serve to maintain morale, focus, and motivation within the “community of reason” are its comparative unity and its growth over the past century, in particular within educated, affluent, liberal, democratic communities. This relative unity contrasts with the bickering, arbitrary schisms—and even bloodshed—among various religions around the world.
While supernaturalists’ criteria for truth, sources of knowledge, and philosophical positions vary widely, wildly, and arbitrarily, this quietly emergent community of reason, bolstered by extraordinary successes in hundreds of technical, medical, and other scientific endeavors, is in overwhelming agreement as to the sources of true knowledge.
While theists murder each other over how an allegedly sacred text should be interpreted, atheists join various (overlapping) groups or subscribe to parallel publications according to their individual interests or preoccupations. Those focused on ethics in society and improving people’s lives tend to join humanist organizations. Those concerned with pseudoscience and the spread of belief in the paranormal will read or contribute to skeptical magazines. Those upset over the continuing harmfulness and absurdity of the world’s religions contribute to online atheist forums, and so on.
But these variously labelled positions ultimately form an internally consistent whole, perhaps because they can be largely reduced to two interrelated core propositions: (a) that the natural world is the only world there is; and (b) that the scientific method, incorporating reason and observation/experiment, is the best—and perhaps only—way to derive generalized knowledge about the world.
A gamut of cross-consistent philosophical positions emerges, dissolving almost all of the philosophical—let alone theological—arguments and issues of the past 3,000 years. These subsumed positions include: atheism or agnosticism, empiricism, freethinking, hard determinism, materialism/physicalism, moral relativism, plus utilitarianism and consequentialism, naturalism, positivism, rationalism, secular humanism, skepticism, and others, depending entirely on precisely how they are defined.
Because the terms on this list have arisen partly from common or general usage (e.g., skeptic) and partly from philosophical discourse (e.g., rationalist), and not from a consistently developed scientific discipline, their definitions and connotations remain imprecise and debatable. This means that those who cleave to this poorly described but inherently uniform community of reason are often misperceived as diverse, amorphous, or arbitrary. How often is atheism, for example, dismissed as “just another belief system,” akin to baldness being described as just another hair color?
The position of most scientists is not a hodgepodge of philosophical stances cobbled together after years of pointless word games; it is instead a consistent set of assumptions about the world that works. This is one good reason to select a general umbrella term to replace what this commentary has self-consciously and clumsily thus far referred to as the community of reason. We have used this clunky term for want of a better one.
But there are many other reasons we need a collective signifier. Each of the subsumed terms is not only poorly defined or understood in the general population (especially rationalism), but many of them have acquired unjustified negative connotations and uses. For example, atheists by definition lack something or are equated with antitheists. Skeptics are often mistaken for cynics, “truthers,” or conspiracy theorists. Materialists are assumed to be greedy. Rationalists have either no profile in the general population or appear to be implying that everyone else is irrational.
The splintering of the community of reason into interest groups has resulted in a rich array of publications, which is a boon in populous and wealthy nations but has meant that in smaller markets only one aspect of the complex of interests is likely to be represented, if that. Similarly, many countries or towns can support one skeptical or humanist or atheist or rationalist organization or meet-up group, but not two or three, which means that few reach a critical mass.
The need for a new umbrella term with positive connotations has long been recognized. In 2003, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell coined the term bright to encompass all those who hold and promote a naturalistic worldview. Although over 78,000 people are claimed to have joined their Internet-connected group, the term itself has not taken off in general discourse, in relevant publications, or as a group signifier.
This may be largely attributable to its unfortunate connotations of arrogance, as it strongly implies that everyone else is stupid or dim. In seeking a positive word comparable to the term gay, the choice of bright was described at the time as “cringe-making” in its conceit (Christopher Hitchens), a “backfire” (Chris Mooney), and “smug, ridiculous, and arrogant” (John Allen Paulos).
The term proposed here, one that has a positive but less arrogant flavor and is also less arbitrary, is the acronym SHARP. The letters here represent five of the most commonly cited positions among the communities of reason as indicated by the names of particular organizations, websites, and journals and magazines. Signified are: Skeptics, Humanists, Atheists, Rationalists, and Positivists.
This selection from the extensive list of descriptors/positions given earlier is of necessity somewhat arbitrary, due to the vagueness of many of the definitions, and the near-equivalence of some, such as between Rationalism and Positivism.1 But most current organizations and publications are represented, and a convenient acronym has emerged without undue contrivance.
Although positive, SHARP is less arrogant and aggressive than bright, since its opposite is most comfortably blunt (rather than stupid or dim), which can aptly imply that opposing arguments, beliefs, and positions are crude, and without nuance, complexity, balance, finesse, or subtlety. Answers to the question “Why?” can be on the one hand hard-earned, complex, precise, supported, solid, and scientific (i.e., sharp), or on the other hand simplistic, broad, and blunt, as in “Because it just is” or “Because God made it so”—very blunt instruments indeed.
That the term is depicted in capitals emphasizes its acronymic roots, and further makes it a special, technical, newly defined term, rather than an arbitrarily selected boast. We suggest that it will remain capitalized to maintain this distinction, as has occurred with AIDS (but not with dink—a couple with a “dual income, no kids”).
Although the roots of the new collective term lie in the names of some philosophic positions, it does not itself describe a specific philosophical viewpoint. There is no “SHARPism.” It describes a general worldview, and the community of people who share this worldview. There are people who are SHARPs (the noun), and there are SHARP (the adjective) organizations, journals, conferences, and websites.
Within this SHARP community, there will inevitably be a diversity of emphases and interests among the individual members. Hence subgroups will continue to function under the general umbrella. But it will be more possible for a critical mass to form when these groups come together for a SHARP conference, or to meet monthly in the pub, or on a special interest SHARP website, or to publish a local newsletter.
Members of the gay community represent a spectrum of individual lifestyles reflective of the diversity of that community, but they are united by one common characteristic—in this case, their sexuality. Similarly, the SHARP community is in many ways diverse, but its members also share an important commonality. That unified view is a rejection of the notion that supernatural forces are at play in the universe, and a recognition that the laws of nature, albeit imperfectly understood (but capable of being understood), govern our existence. Perhaps even more important, being a SHARP proudly proclaims that broad worldview and reinforces a commitment to rational endeavor as the best pathway to knowledge.
- The broader modern sense of the term rationalism is described by the Rationalist Society of Australia as: “Adherence to the principle that all significant beliefs and actions should be based on reason and evidence, that the natural world is the only world there is, and that answers to key questions of human existence are to be found only in that natural world.” This is not the earlier narrow philosophical sense of the term, which is in contrast with empiricism.