In memoriam: The bright life of Paul Geisert
Many in the freethought world were saddened to learn of the death of Paul Geisert, who succumbed Nov. 17 to COVID-19 due to an outbreak in the congregate living community near Sacramento, Calif., where he had resided the past year.
An Ohio native, Geisert had a rather eclectic career, living and holding jobs in 11 states across his lifetime. Besides owning and running two businesses, all his creative work related in some manner to education, with most positions being as a teacher and/or instructional developer.
He pursued undergraduate studies in biology at the University of Toledo, did his master’s level graduate work at the University of Michigan, and then received his Ph.D. in instructional systems at Florida State University, co-authoring with his wife two college-level textbooks on instructional uses of computers.
He also authored numerous articles in science education and freethought publications, taking firm stances on behalf of authentic science in the face of creationist/religious intrusions into public education.
Besides his personal freethinking, Geisert was a nonconformist in several ways, almost approaching iconoclast status. While on the faculty of the University of Wyoming and being a highly innovative member of its Science and Mathematics Teaching Center (he won a national award for instructional development in college level biology there), he unpredictably departed academia after making local news by publicly turning down his academic promotion, choosing to pursue his own pathway as a freelancer instead.
Geisert is probably best known among organized freethinkers as the person who originated the noun identity term (“a bright”) as a positive way of presenting one’s all-encompassing outlook without making reference to religion. Although a great many atheists and agnostics would qualify for the descriptor, not all would do so, because fitting the definition means going beyond lacking deity-belief.
Brights have a naturalistic worldview, fully free of supernatural and mystical elements. No “woo-woo” for them. A bright would not credit as existing in reality any of the copious paranormal entities and agencies that inhabit human minds.
Geisert co-founded The Brights’ Network as an international online constituency of individuals holding a naturalistic outlook. Several notable freethinkers such as the magicians James Randi and Penn and Teller, and scientist Richard Dawkins, joined the network of registered Brights and drew attention to its existence. Unfortunately, the popular attributions were not always accurate, because the neologism was not invented to be a synonym for atheist.
Drawn to unconventional activities and unorthodox thinking, Geisert was a firm supporter of public education and the need for civic neutrality between religion and nonreligion.
Among other products, he co-produced “Different Drummers: Nonconforming Thinkers in History,” an instructional unit that California approved for classroom use. He also lobbied its Department of Education to press for inclusivity of nonreligious persons and points of view, thereby inducing new wording for the state’s curricular standards for social studies teaching. Paul became active in Objectivity, Accuracy, and Balance In Teaching about Religion (OABITAR) and wrote material for several of its projects, such as the website, “Teaching about Religion in Support of Civic Pluralism.”
Atheists and Other Freethinkers, the local group that Geisert co-founded in 1993 and served as an early president, continues to be active today (aofonline.org), as do other nonprofits that he helped to get going, such as Sacramento’s Reason Center (reasoncenter.org) and, of course, The Brights’ Network (the-brights.net).
Many who knew Geisert personally considered him a Renaissance Man, having proved himself just as handy under the hood of his Model A or two classic cars as in the bowels of an “old house renewal,” where he accomplished all the electrical, plumbing, carpentry, tiling, locksmith work, etc. by himself.
Among his many building projects, Geisert constructed two boats and even ground the lens for the telescope that he built. He was savvy in the kitchen and at the sewing machine, as well.
Despite having no deity-belief whatsoever and hence functionally an atheist, Geisert would not accept the label, despite friend Michael Newdow’s persuasiveness on the matter. “I see no reason to define myself by reference to religion; I am a bright.”