Every year people mock the Rationalist Solstice Ritual. And every year I read the discussions, nod, and then go to New York and have a great time and meet amazing people and have fascinating discussions and get the songs stuck in my head for the next couple of weeks.
(“Stop enjoying yourself! Your enjoyment is wrong!”)
The detractors keep calling it “cringeworthy”. If anything, I’m worried it isn’t cringeworthy enough. Last year we sang Zack Davis’ Contract-Drafting Em Song, which is brilliant but only if you’re really familiar with Robin Hanson’s futurology and have a very special sense of humor. Also that one song from Portal. Now that’s cringeworthy.
This year’s ritual was very polished in a lovely auditorium (the sign in front said “Winter Solstice Concert” and I felt a brief sense of disorientation – concert? How did I get tricked into going to one of those?) It was billed as appropriate for people across the atheist community and supported by the Center For Inquiry.
And it worked. There were a few moments when I didn’t think that it would, but Raemon managed to pull it together and still help it keep its old flavor despite the added sophistication.
But it got me thinking. A lot of religion is pretty cringeworthy. And the stronger the religion, the more cringeworthy it tends to be. Unitarianism is very nearly cringeless and just says nice things pretty much everyone can agree with – but they are not exactly known for the burning ferocity of their faith. Standard-model Christians have weirder beliefs than Unitarians and also a somewhat stronger community. Mormons have weirder beliefs than standard, and their community is stronger still. Scientology maxes out both belief weirdness and insularity. I may be cherry-picking, and I realize there’s a lot of potential to introduce bias in variables like “strength of community”, but I think there’s a relationship.
It reminds me of Steven Bond’s Objects of Fandom. I’d previously read only the Less Wrong discussion thereof, so it was a surprise to double-check the original source and discover that yes, he had mentioned religion.
What makes something an object of fandom? There are some works that attract obsessive fannish behaviour and some that don’t — and this seems to be independent of popularity. To take an example from LucasProduct, both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars are hugely popular movies, but only the latter has developed a significant fan base. Why? My theory is that for something to attract fans, it must have an aspect of truly monumental badness about it.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a robust potboiler, tongue-in-cheek, very competently done. I think it’s enjoyable, but even among those who don’t, it’s hard to see the film attracting actual derision. Boredom or irritation, probably, but nothing more. Star Wars, on the other hand…. From one perspective, it’s an entertaining space opera, but from a slightly different perspective, an imperceptible twist of the glass, it’s laughably awful. Utterly ridiculously bad. And it’s this very badness that makes so many people take up arms in its defence…
And the same again goes for religion, the ultimate expression of fandom. If Christianity, say, were just a list of moral precepts, it most probably wouldn’t have any adherents — just admirers. But add in nonsense like the resurrection and the Trinity, the creation and the apocalypse, the angels and the saints, and you get that monumental awfulness that millions will die for.
I will be less judgmental than Bond. I think the active ingredient is not awfulness per se, but something more like separation. That is, to strengthen in-group ties, simply differentiate yourself from the out-group. The more radical the differentiation, the better. A Unitarian who speaks out in favor of everyone getting along has minimal difference from the out-group; heck, they probably agree with her, even if they don’t consider themselves Unitarians per se. A Scientologist who speaks out in favor of ancient aliens being chained to volcanoes has successfully burnt pretty much every bridge with the out-group.
But it’s not just about believing unusual things. It’s also about having such a different way of looking at the world from everyone else that even if you want to have a conversation, it’s barely even worth it. A friend in New York with whom I discussed this brought up how the Scientologists both replace normal-person vocabulary with Scientologist vocabulary (so that souls become thetans) but also replace normal-person assumptions with different bases (a Scientologist believes that a person’s problems are based on traumas suffered by zir thetans in past lives, which leads to radically different problem-solving strategies than most people).
Atheists are kind of in a rut when they want to build community. It’s really easy to be not-religious without identifying as an atheist, let alone becoming part of some atheist group. There are lots of obstacles preventing atheists from joining communities – most atheists are individualist by nature, atheists are very scattered geographically, atheists differ wildly in all their other beliefs from libertarian to Communist – and there is no a priori reason why atheists should want to get together.
The few raw materials they have for community-building just aren’t good enough to overcome these obstacles. I feel less akin to an atheist Marxist than I do to a politically centrist Reform Jew. And I feel less akin to an atheist basketball player than I do to a Methodist doctor. Even though there are some traits typical of atheists that I want in my social interaction partners – intelligence, rationality, interest in science – there are already pretty good social sorting mechanisms for finding those people that have nothing to do with religion – and atheism is far from a perfect guarantee of these traits anyway. In other words, the out-group separation that Mormons and Scientologists enjoy – “I could never associate with a member of the out-group, there would just be too big a gulf between us” – is entirely absent, and with that absence vanishes any strong “patriotism” for the in-group.
I would now like to irresponsibly speculate on how the modern atheist movement is shaped by different strategies to solve this problem.
First, ignoring the problem and being content with weak and insipid communities, which is not a bad idea if you just want an atheist meetup every couple of months.
Second, making atheism appear unpopular and persecuted. In areas where atheists are unpopular and persecuted, this is easy. In other areas, it seems to involve a lot of effort: exaggerating how religious everyone else is, bringing up every available example of atheist persecution a hundred times, and conflating distant areas where atheists are persecuted with one’s own situation. If everyone else is a raving creationist loony who believes in alternative medicine and ancient aliens and wants the Ten Commandments put up in all public places, atheists have their out-group separation right there.
Third, dialing the atheism up to eleven until it becomes genuinely unpopular. If saying religion is bad doesn’t work, say that religion is responsible for nearly all the world’s problems, that all religious people are culpable without exception, that every single vaguely religious public monument or institution needs to be torn down. Congratulations, you are now unpopular with the out-group.
Fourth, linking your atheism to another belief that is much more specific than atheism. For example the atheist movements in favor of transhumanism, social justice, and rationality (libertarianism and efficient charity may or may not qualify). These submovements have been quite successful within atheism, to the point where to many atheists they are much more important than the atheism itself. Each has its own complicated vocabulary, each makes much broader critiques of mainstream culture than basic atheism, and each is at least somewhat unpopular (rationality and social justice are not unpopular per se, but most people wouldn’t be on board with the way we handle them).
I am not as affiliated with the other submovements, but I think the rationalist movement has been especially blessed. Without really meaning to, and without having to deliberately believe cringeworthy things for the heck of it or unfairly attack others, we have managed to develop enough different ways of thinking that we naturally have a very strong in-group distinction – which in turn means a very strong community. Last year, sitting around Raemon’s house singing the Contract-Drafting Em Song, I got this feeling of “There are only a few hundred people in the world who would possibly enjoy this and they are my people and I love every last one of them.
And then this year, even though the base was a little broader and the songs a little less insular, I still ended out thinking “These are people who are willingly going to an event called a ‘secular solstice ritual’, and they are singing songs which rhyme ‘rarity’ with ‘singularity’, and I am still pretty darned okay with them.”
(in our defense, it was ‘rarity’ the word meaning rare event, not the pony. Although really it’s only a matter of time.)
(speaking of people being united by outsider-scorn and cringeworthiness…)
I will tack on to the end one more little revelation I had at the Solstice. In particular I had it when we were singing The Times They Are A Changin’
People are always talking about how much great art religion produces, usually in contrast to the poverty of atheism-associated art and music.
But atheists make up 2% of the US population. Atheists who identify with the atheist movement are a small subset of this small subset. And it may be even less than this among artists and musicians – although these groups are famously liberal and skeptical of religion, in my experience people who go all the way to self-identifying as “atheist” are more likely to be math and science geeks. And even when there are atheist musicians, there is no more reason to expect them to sing about atheism than there is to expect anti-tax musicians to sing about tax relief. I think the amount of good art about atheism is about what you’d expect given the null hypothesis that atheists create art about the same as anyone else.
But that’s not the end of the story. When people ask “Where is the atheist version of Bach?” and Luke from Common Sense Atheism answers with a list of great atheist songs, I think he’s missing the point. The “missing atheist music” isn’t to be found in hidden gems of songs about atheism, it’s to be found in songs like “The Times They Are A Changin” and “Blowin In The Wind” (both of which we sang at Solstice). It’s to be found in our incredible corpus of brilliant songs written by nonreligious or ambiguously spiritual people about ideas like progress, pacifism, humanism, social justice, unity, of humankind et cetera that neither make nor need any reference to God.
(yeah, I know Dylan briefly became a born-again Christian. He wasn’t one when he wrote those songs, and he changed his mind later, and having weird spiritual crises every so often is itself a kinda atheist thing to do.)
(and in terms of explicitly atheist music, The Words of God is still pretty awesome in both the modern and traditional senses of the word)
I wrote a list of people I enjoyed meeting at Solstice, and as always two minutes after it was published I thought of a dozen people I’d been thrilled to see whom I had embarassingly left out. I’m not even going to attempt to try again here. I’ll just thank Raemon one more time and suggest that anyone on the fence about going to Solstice next year should give it a try.
(I understand there were franchise Solstices in the Bay Area and a few other places this year. I am intrigued by the possibility of trying to run a Solstice franchise in Michigan next year if our community expands, perhaps the weekend after the one in New York to allow me to go to both, but I make no promises)