Less Wrong, More Rite (II)

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)

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86 Responses to Less Wrong, More Rite (II)

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m scared.

  2. Eli says:

    Actually, the real reason Rationalist Solstice is cringeworthy and awful is because winter itself is cringeworthy and awful. The entire enterprise should be moved to the other end of the year and have its rites rewritten to include the traditional all-night party held for the Summer Sun Celebration.

  3. Tim Freeman says:

    I tried watching Raiders of The Lost Ark at least a decade after it came out, and I did cringe at the bad acting and had to stop watching. I remember Harrison Ford on an airplane acting out conflict that had no purpose. His body language was off and I could tell the script made no sense to him at that point. So cringes aren’t sufficent to create fandom.

  4. John Tyson says:

    My theory is that this is because of the historical artifact of “right-winged” ideologies being religious. Let’s assume that for a moment.

    Let’s also assume that people are actively looking for ideologies that increase their self-image. Those are usually leftist (victim-worship, blaming the rich-and-powerful, pro-inclusion, etc.).

    Then it’s pretty clear why those people should be drawn towards secularism: Not because it makes sense, but because it makes sense *and* inflates their ego.

    In other words, the fact that atheist is more correct than theism isn’t the motivation, it’s the *means*.

  5. Pawel Aleksander Fedorynski says:

    It so happens that of the two major political parties, the one which is less friendly towards Christianity is also more friendly towards poor people. This fact is likely an accident of history and there’s no logical reason for it to affect any atheist’s opinion on say free market economy, but for a certain kind of person it does create a strong emotional reason to lean left. I propose that it’s the same kind of person who would be more into joining movements and communities, you can call them “socially oriented people”. I think that’s sufficient to explain your observation.

    • Damien says:

      There’s a strong association among freethinking, socialism, and feminism, going back to the 19th century, and not exclusive to the US. It’s by no means a mere accident of the current two-party system. Religion — especially ones like Christianity or Hinduism — is frequently used to provide support for social hierarchy and inequality, economic political and gender; religious doubt thus erodes such baseless inequalities.

      Of course some nominal atheists find quasi religions of their own, whether Marxism, Objectivism, or free market fundamentalism.

  6. Michael Edward Vassar says:

    How about famous atheist musicians who write songs about the Tax Man?

  7. >about ideas like progress, pacifism, humanism, social justice, unity, of humankind et cetera that neither make nor need any reference to God.

    This made me chuckle. Are you *sure* you’re not religious?

    That said, I have remarked that it’s a tragedy that the christian social tradition didn’t survive the loss of God, so it’s nice to see people attempting to reconstruct some of that in a way that is at least nonoffensive to a sane worldview.

  8. Doug S. says:

    Much of the case for right-wing-ism is *explicitly* religious, and some political positions associated with the right wing make no sense to me outside of a religious context. Subtract that, and you get something close to left-wing-ism simply by default.

  9. JadedRationalist says:

    I think that one of the big pros of the transhumanist movement is that you can have a set of in-group beliefs that are weird enough to form a community around, WITHOUT having to believe anything false or otherwise stupid. Unfortunately h+ is currently a bit of a flop because it is too geeky for that many people to take an interest; whereas religion is something you can do now and requires no special knowledge or skill.

    Unfortunately there is a paradoxical dynamic here: the more correct some belief system is, the more likely it is that everyone believes it (or at least implicitly agrees with it), therefore the less likely it is that anyone at all will want to form a group around it and take action. So sensible things like atheism, rationality, the pursuit of prosperity and cooperation fall by the wayside, whilst radical Islam, anti-vax and scientology make gains.

    tl;dr – humans care a lot about hierarchies, status and ingroups, and little about correct abstract beliefs.

    • Doug S. says:

      This seems to be one of the mechanisms by which post-revolutionary governments are systematically taken over by the most radical elements of the revolution. Moderates tend to lack the courage of their convictions; unless you’re Jon Stewart, it’s usually hard to get people to march in the streets carrying signs saying “BE REASONABLE!” On the other hand, radicals tend to be much quicker to go to extreme measures, including kicking out the moderates by force; the French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions were all taken over by the most radical elements within them. (The founders of Israel were well aware of this failure mode and made damn sure it didn’t happen to them.)

  10. Miranda says:

    “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.”

    Yes. So many times yes.
    I’ve been generally irritated for a long time by the people who nitpick and call things “cringe-worthy” but don’t, y’know, do something about it. Possibly because I’m not nitpicky by nature and I would really like to agree with everyone.

  11. Damien says:

    Proper title is “The Word of God”, by Cat Faber.

  12. BenSix says:

    My theory is that for something to attract fans, it must have an aspect of truly monumental badness about it.

    Evidence that favours this theory is found in the level of fandom that so-bad-it’s-good films can attract. There are people who know every line in The Room; who have watched every film of Don Dohler’s and who maintain that Ed Wood was a misunderstood genius.

    One thing I would say is that fans can make art seem “badder” than it is. There’s nothing too ridiculous about Sherlock Holmes until one thinks of people dressing up in deerstalkers and haring about Baker Street.

  13. Berna says:

    I love The Words of God, but of course it isn’t an atheist song. It’s against creationism/bible-literalism, but it says over and over ‘God wrote the world’.

    • Crimson Wool says:

      The use of God and truth fairly interchangeably is inconsistent with a straight religious reading. For example, “truth has left its sketches on the slate beneath the ground” is shortly followed by “God wrote the rocks,” or “the truth has left its footprints in the dust between the stars” is shortly followed by “God wrote the sky.”

      Given that I’m pretty sure the same artist wrote Atheist’s Anthem, I’m inclined to read it as an atheist using pantheistic/religious language to refer to the universe/truth/reality (pantheism as sexed-up atheism, as it were), rather than merely being an attempt to syncretize theism and science.

      • Damien says:

        IIRC Cat’s told me she’s atheist, but wrote it as a Deist hymn (how it struck me) because that’s how the song worked well.

        • Crimson Wool says:

          …but it doesn’t quite work as deistic? In deism, God created the universe and promptly fucked off, right? So he didn’t create rocks or life, since those were later formations.

        • ozymandias says:

          If God is omniscient and omnipotent then God could set up the conditions of the universe such that life and rocks are inevitable outcomes, which is not entirely unlike making them.

  14. Scott Alexander says:

    Atheism is already a couple steps to the left by denying religious tradition and hierarchy. If it wants to differentiate itself from the mainstream it’s easier to just go a little further in the direction it’s already gone than having to retrace its steps.

    Also, churches are notably some of the most rightist organizations and strongest supporters of rightist ideas. In a world where feminism is very popular and churches are one of the few organizations that explicitly and proudly ban women from top positions (and where the Bible has some pretty repulsive views on gender as well) it would be like leaving a $100 bill on the ground for atheists not to become the sort of people who make big deals about that and talk about how evil it is.

    • Multiheaded says:

      I wonder if any left-leaning Christian groups are eventually going to capitalize on the “fedora-wearing insecure misogynistic douchebag” negative stereotypes of outspoken internet atheists… I guess they could cite someone like Nietzsche as the ur-example.
      (Although Nietzsche has always been liked by leftist intellectuals; me, I think he was massively complicated and his provocative stance wasn’t really an assertion of inner strength.)

      • Multiheaded says:

        In Anti-Nietzsche, Malcolm Bull confronts the modern-day ubiquity of that strange and lonely man going mad in Turin. Nietzscheanism is everywhere; Bull points out quite rightly how strange it is that a philosopher famous for his oppositionalism is so scarcely opposed. Socialists, feminists, and Christians swear their fidelity to the ideas of the anti-egalitarian, misogynist and atheist Nietzsche.
        However, Bull points out that defeating him isn’t an easy thing to do. Nietzsche writes about the will to power; if you try to critique his ideas, you’re only asserting your own will to power over his. Nietzsche writes about master and slave morality; if you try to overturn his principles, you’re only proposing your own master morality. Nietzsche’s works are full of conflict, war, and dynamite; if you try to fight him, he’s already won. So Bull doesn’t try. As he puts it, Nietzsche wants us to ‘read for victory,’ so he reads for defeat. Bull’s tactic is for us to accept Nietzsche’s philosophy in its entirety but to position ourselves on the ‘wrong’ side of every opposition. Rather than trying to raise ourselves to Übermenschen, we should become less than human; we should abandon the aesthetic; we should arm ourselves with nothing except our weakness, because we are weak. Bull encourages us to ‘read like losers.’
        It’s a fascinating idea, but I think there’s something he’s missed. There’s no need for us to read like losers, because Nietzsche writes like a loser.


  15. Brian says:

    It reminds me of Steven Bond’s Objects of Fandom.

    I disliked that article’s interaction style on a first reading. After reading some more of Bond’s articles, though, I’ve revised my opinion: I now violently dislike his interaction style.

    That’s not to say that he doesn’t occasionally bring up some good points, but anything remotely controversial is presented in an odious pandering-to-the-base style that makes them nigh-impossible to learn from. I’ll pass.

  16. Steve says:

    Is it really only 2%? I would be somewhat surprised if it were that low.

    • Brian says:

      From what I recall, that statistic’s based on people actively identifying as atheist. If you include things like “agnostic” and “no religion”, it’s several times higher (though still a smallish minority).

      • Douglas Knight says:

        20% of Americans who do not believe in god are members of a religion. 20% of Americans not members of a religion do not believe in god. source

        • Brian says:

          Yeah, I’d heard similar things, but decided not to mention them on the grounds that “atheist” in this context more accurately describes people outside the social structure of a religion than people who happen to believe in zero gods.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          I think you are very mistaken in describing “no religion” as “outside the social structure of a religion.”

        • Brian says:

          Care to explain why?

    • Athrelon says:

      To be fair, the number of orthodox adherents to various religions are also much lower than self-reported religious status. Few people directly make an effort to have such consistent abstract beliefs, of any stripe.

  17. Kibber says:

    I don’t believe the strength of religion has a lot to do with grouping. One can be extremely religious without any co-believers nearby. Personally, I think it has much more to do with the irrationality of religion itself. Rational thoughts tend to not produce strong emotions. On the other hand, the behavior we tend to call “emotional” tends to be irrational.
    Atheism is hopelessly rational, so the only strong emotion it seems to produce is disgust with all those stupid believers. And vice versa, atheists that experience strong feelings about atheism tend to come from religious families. Lack of irrationality (and hence emotion) in atheism would also explain why there’s so little good atheist art, since good art is about making people experience strong emotions.

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      “One can be extremely religious without any co-believers nearby”

      Really? Not even one’s parents? Sure you can remain religious without co-believers nearby, but your claim seems stronger than that.

      “Atheism is hopelessly rational”

      That’s pretty funny. I suspect selection bias is at work here. (For evidence against, look at the comments section of pretty much any atheist blog on Patheos)

      • Kibber says:

        Yes, really. See: hermits; missionaries.

        The fact that atheism is perhaps the most rational out of all belief systems doesn’t necessarily mean all atheists have to be rational, too. Also, atheism is not perfectly rational, so there’s still some wiggle room left. But I did check the comment section of the first post in the first blog on the title page of Patheos Atheism hub. As expected, lots of mocking the believers, lots of (arguably irrational) disgust with them, no other irrationality.

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          Okay I see what you’re saying.

          And sorry for misreading you regarding atheism being rational – you weren’t saying that atheists are generally rational.

  18. roystgnr says:

    You might not be the one cherry-picking. If people are willing to stay in religions which have a strong community or willing to stay in religions which aren’t too weird, then the resulting selection bias (where weird religions with weak communities disappear) will create a non-causal inverse correlation between strong communities and non-weirdness.

    Berkson’s Paradox

  19. Ben says:

    Hey man, don’t you DARE equate the brony community with your weird amoral syphilis cluster of friends. Objective morality has to come from somewhere, and if you don’t believe it originates from the benign oversight and gentle trolling of Her Royal Highness Celestia, then what’s to stop you just stabbing the first baby you lay eyes on?

  20. Salem says:

    “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.”

    But hang on. The Times They Are a-Changin’ may not directly mention God, but its lyrics are explicitly based on the Bible, and that’s where it gets much of its rhetorical force from. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the lyrics to Blowin’ In The Wind, a song which gets its musical appeal from reusing a gospel melody. In other words, this isn’t the atheist version of Bach, this is stepping into the vicar’s vestments to deliver your sermon, while leaving out any mention of God.

    Frankly I don’t think there is “an incredible corpus of brilliant songs” as you describe. There are very few, because songs like that come across as preachy, saccharine and objectionable, unless you can put them into religious language. The only successful examples I can think of are “Imagine” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” – and both those songs have plenty of people (including me) who loathe them.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m not really sure what you’re claiming. That there haven’t been uplifting or beautiful songs written over the past hundred years that don’t derive from religion? Where Have All The Flowers Gone? This Land Is Your Land? Space Oddity? Bridge Over Troubled Water? The Mary Ellen Carter? I feel like there are a *lot* of examples here.

      • Salem says:

        Are the goalposts shifting? We seem to have moved from songs about “progress, pacifism, humanism, social justice, unity, of humankind” to songs that are merely “uplifting or beautiful.” For example, Bridge over Troubled Water is one of my favourite songs, and I definitely think it’s uplifting and beautiful, but it’s got nothing to do with progress, pacifism, humanism, etc. Non-religious songs about those subjects tend to sound like “We Are The World.”

        I don’t know “The Mary Ellen Carter”, but of the other songs on your list, the only candidate is “This Land is Your Land”, but no-one ever sings the verses about social justice etc, and there’s a reason for that. It’s just a nationalist song. Plus, although Guthrie was an atheist, his song repeatedly talks about God! “While all around me a voice was sounding”, etc. If this is the best you can do, I’m really not persuaded.

        Having thought about it more, “Man In The Mirror” is an example on your side, and there are probably one or two others. But it’s pretty slim pickings.

    • Charlie says:

      A gospel melody, eh? You mean an African melody? I’d hardly call that Christian. You can’t just change the words of African folk tunes to be about your god; the music police don’t allow it. All gospel tunes must be stricken from the Christian canon, along with all hymns based off of secular English folk tunes, secular Scandinavian folk tunes, and so on.

  21. Said Achmiz says:

    I was strongly considering coming to this year’s Solstice thing (weather and plane delays ended up making this impossible). However, this is the first I’m hearing about the whole concert/Kickstarter/etc. deal. Was this announced/advertised anywhere?

    As far as detractors go, I think characterizing objections as “stop enjoying yourself!” is unfair. I’m not going to rehash my take it on here, though.

    As for you not feeling close to another person who’s an atheist… well, I think that’s Working As Intended. Atheism isn’t supposed to be, and shouldn’t be, a philosophy that binds people who share it. It’s just the absence of one particular kind of crazy. Find something else to bond around! (As indeed you have.) One of the points of atheism is that, in the absence of religion, we can now focus on more important/interesting things.

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      “Atheism isn’t supposed to be, and shouldn’t be”

      Taboo should’t/ought. I detest normative claims without backing such as “no one would have to justify their reasons for wanting a divorce” as an argument for no fault divorce.

      • Said Achmiz says:

        Fair enough. First, a clarification: “isn’t supposed to be” was not meant to be a normative claim; I meant “was not intended to be”, “was never conceived as”, etc.

        As for “shouldn’t”: “Trying to make atheism be the central philosophy to build communities around inevitably causes problems” — as evidenced by this here post that we are commenting on, and also a bevy of other examples. Alternate formulation: “atheism as an idea is not conducive to community-building because of how it correlates, or does not correlate, with positions along axes of personality/disposition/ideology that determine whether people will consider each other ‘kin’, etc.”

      • Said Achmiz says:

        Upon rereading your comment, which seemed like a reasonable objection at a glance, I realize I have no idea what the heck you were saying. What is the relevance of the divorce thing…? Clarify, please.

      • Alexander Stanislaw says:

        It wasn’t related to the topic, it was just another example of the form of argument I’m frustrated by (which in hindsight made my comment less clear).

        Okay, I sort of understand your feelings on the matter now. I still don’t understand why you would object to a particular subset of atheists doing community building in this way though. Its not supposed to be a global atheist thing, just something for people who want that sense of community.

    • Raemon says:

      I had posted about the kickstarter in the LW discussion section (posting a request-for-money-for-a-not-highly-effective-charity in main seemed rather crass). It was back in September.

      Sort of moot point, but if you’re interested, the link is here:


  22. Kaj Sotala says:

    Another possible explanation to the cringeworthiness thing is simply that nobody likes everything, and anything that’s intense enough to appeal very strongly to some people is going to come off as very cringeworthy to someone else.

    I once read advice by a successful author, who claimed that if you want to build up a loyal fanbase, then you want to have people who absolutely hate your work, because if nobody cares enough to hate your books then they’re not distinctive enough and nobody will love them either. I think he claimed that something like one third of your reviews being strongly negative was the ideal ratio you’d want to go for.

    Of course, it’s possible that this correct but not for the reason he gave it, with the ingroup thing actually being the main mechanism. But I don’t think that that really holds for something like Star Wars: there are kids who really like Star Wars, way before they even realize that there might even be an outgroup who doesn’t like SW. “Some works just strike certain people are really inherently awesome” seems like a better primary explanation for the fandom thing than the ingroup-outgroup thing, but the ingroup-outgroup thing may be larger for things like religion.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      Found the quote I was thinking of:

      > The best way to find your target audience is to write something original! When you’re truly original, the mainstream readers of that genre will often consider your work outrageous, or shocking, or insane, or unique, or weird, or all these things, but that’s okay. If it’s your original voice, stand proud and pick one of your books to slam down the throats of the entire obvious audience. Then be strong enough to deal with the high percentage of hate reviews you will certainly get from those who don’t “get” your work. A lot of authors can’t handle hate reviews. But a bad review simply means someone outside your target audience found your book. The angrier the review, the further removed from your target audience they are. But along with the hate reviews, you’ll get some great ones.

      > The reason you’ll get some great reviews for your original writing is because I don’t care what you’re selling, there’s a market for it! What I’m saying, if you’re not offending a significant number of readers, your writing is probably not very original. And the less original you’re writing, the less loyal your fan base will be. […]

      > Yes, Saving Rachel was my third book, but when I wrote it, I realized it would be the key to finding my target audience, because it divided people like crazy. Most either hated it or loved it. If I had known then what I know now, Saving Rachel would’ve been my first book. But that’s not important. What’s important is that you write a unique, original book that will divide the reading world into two camps: those who love your writing and those who hate it. Those who hate it will give you angry, spiteful reviews. That’s the bad news. The good news is they’ll never buy your books again, so that will end their angry reviews!

      > I know what you’re thinking: *“Why is alienating half the book buying audience a good thing?”* The answer is it proves you’re original. And the more unique and original your writing, the deeper and more loyal your target audience will be. I mean, there’s a limit—you don’t want everyone to hate your work! Ideally, you’d hope for 60% to love your Target Book, 30% to hate it, and you’ll always have 10% who can’t decide, which means they’re probably open to trying another of your books.

      > Once you know your target audience you’ll write directly to them. If you don’t get a lot of bad reviews with your Target book, you’re not original enough. I’m not talking about your initial reviews. Almost all of those will be positive. I’m talking about the reviews you get after your book starts moving up significantly. That’s when the bad reviews start creeping in. But that’s a good thing because it will help you identify and grab the attention of your Target Audience.

      > Locke, John (2011-06-15). How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! Telemachus Press, LLC. Kindle Edition.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I see where you’re coming from, but certain of the examples (like Mormons believing Jesus came to America, or Scientologists believing ancient people flew to Earth in DC-10s) don’t seem calculated to appeal to anyone in particular.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        Really? To me, “Jesus came to America” seems like a pretty obvious candidate for something that’s calculated to appeal to Americans. Makes the country seem more special. Not so sure about the Scientologist bit.

        • Doug S. says:

          Scientology was invented by a hack science fiction writer. So one might guess that it was intended to appeal to the same kind of audience that goes ga-ga over Star Wars…

  23. lmm says:

    I want atheism to be boring and obvious, not some weird exclusive cult. I wouldn’t expect to be able to form a community out of atheism any more than you can build a community out of not being vegetarian, or disliking country & western.

    • Desrtopa says:

      Unfortunately, as-is, many people resist leaving their religions because atheism *won’t* provide them with the sort of community ties their religion does.

      • Anonymous says:

        Which is fairly silly. Why should your views on the existence of a deity necessarily be the thing that provides you with a community? What’s wrong with becoming an atheist, and then getting your community from something unrelated to religion or lack thereof?

        If there isn’t anything other than religion that anyone has built a community around, that’s certainly problematic in itself, but the problem is not somehow inherent to atheism.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          Above anon is me, sorry.

        • Kaj Sotala says:

          I think this demonstrates why treating religion as merely a set of beliefs is problematic: it’s also a set of social practices.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          That’s true; Jewish culture is one fairly clear example of this.

          Of course, this too fails to translate sensible to atheism; what cultural practices are associated with the absence of religious belief?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “I want atheism to be boring and obvious, not some weird exclusive cult. I wouldn’t expect to be able to form a community out of atheism any more than you can build a community out of not being vegetarian, or disliking country & western.”

      That’s….kind of what I’m saying. So do I and so do most atheists. That’s why atheists don’t form communities very well.

      On the other hand, being in a strong community is fun.

      And cause of memetic selection, strong communities are going to form around *something*.

      I find it interesting how all of those factors interact.

  24. Raemon says:

    Curious – where did you *expect* to fall apart (humanist/atheist balance-wise), but then it didn’t?

    I can imagine it of falling apart or staying together, but am not sure what “oh god the whole thing’s a out to unweave – oh, wait no, that made sense” would look like.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      At the beginning, when that guy with the guitar started doing his thing where he was like “ALL RIGHT! SING THIS PART WITH ME OVER AND OVER! I CAN’T HEAR YOU! EVERYONE SING HARDER! I THINK I SEE SOME PEOPLE NOT SINGING IN THE BACK THERE! ARE YOU EVEN TRYING?” my thought process was “Oh god oh god, we let the obnoxious extroverts in and now we are doomed forever.”

      Then everyone sang the “Bury My Body When I Die” song and you read from “Beyond The Reach Of God” and I was like “Nah, Raemon’s still in control, all’s right with the world.”

      • Doug S. says:

        Weird Al once mocked singers calling out “I can’t hear you” to the audience…

        Join the crowd! (DARE TO BE STUPID!)
        Shout it out loud! (DARE TO BE STUPID!)
        I can’t hear you! (DARE TO BE STUPID!)
        OK, I can hear you now! (DARE TO BE STUPID!)

  25. a person says:

    I think it’s just that intelligent, educated people tend to be more atheist and also more liberal. Also the left is associated with secular values whereas the right is associated with religious values, so just as a religious person might conservative just because the Republicans pander to their demographic, an atheist might lean to the left.

    • Multiheaded says:

      If leftism or something correlated with it is the secret sauce in making groups out of isolated individuals
      Then the timeless reactionary cliche that leftism and liberalism destroy strong bonds between individuals/the fabric of community/etc. and lead to alienation would’ve been too demonstrably wrongheaded to take root. Hell, you hear liberals complaining about this bug of liberalism/progressivism on occasion,presumably to appear wiser and more even-handed. I think that both left and right ultimately just form different structures, and then mistakenly perceive the building blocks of an enemy structure to be fundamentally alien/inhuman/untrue as well. (Although this doesn’t describe the mechanism through which the differences in subjective experience take root; I’ll go with Marx on that one.)

    • Multiheaded says:

      More to the point, “group cohesion” and “right-wing authoritarianism” are felt to be at least correlated by most people. If the opposite of leftism is seen to be so effective, leftism clearly isn’t magic.

  26. J. Quinton says:

    “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 looks like you’re on the right path:


  27. AJD says:

    I don’t think I could approve of a song that rhymes rarity with singularity; but then, it would be infeasible to require songwriters to vet their rhymes with people with all different accents, I suppose.

    • DavidS says:

      I’ve been wondering for a bit whether the AJD who comments on this blog is the same AJD whose livejournal is http://dr-whom.livejournal.com/ ; I am now convinced the answer is yes. Hi! I am David your blockmate. (Avoiding full names in case you don’t want yours used online.)

      If I am wrong, you might be interested to know that there is a second AJD who is obsessed with song lyrics, phonology and the importance of wordplay working in multiple dialects.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Allow me to demonstrate that I know that they are the same.

        • AJD says:

          Allow me to demonstrate that I know that they are the same.

          On the other hand, I have no idea who this is.

      • AJD says:

        “For a bit”? Wow, I think I’ve only commented on this blog once or maybe twice before, and not more than a couple of weeks or so ago. Sharply noticed indeed.

        Hi, David!

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t have a good feeling for why this doesn’t work. What accent do you have and how does it pronounce rarity and singularity?

      • Raoul says:

        I can’t speak for AJD, but I have a pretty standard English accent (something like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Received_Pronunciation) and for me, the “ar” bit of rarity sounds like “air”, while the same bit of singularity sounds like the “arr” in Harry.

      • AJD says:

        Raoul’s summed it up—though my accent is from Boston, and the Boston accent differs from British RP on some words, it doesn’t differ on these. It’s the marry-merry-Mary distinction, as Aaron Brown notes, which is quite rare nowadays in the US; rarity matches Mary and singularity matches marry (and has the vowel of TRAP, not the vowel of SQUARE).

    • Aaron Brown says:

      Which if any of Mary, marry, and merry rhyme with each other for you, and which of those do the “ar” parts of rarity and singularity rhyme with? (Or correct me if it’s not the “ar” part you’re talking about.)

      For me Mary, marry, rarity, and singularity all have the “ar” sound of mare. (I was born and raised in Michigan, although apparently most people here also pronounce merry the same as those.)

  28. a person says:

    “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.”

    See, that’s my problem, I wish I could hang out with and talk to rationalists, but I’m not one of those few hundred people. In fact, I tend to stay away from “nerdy” things in general. :\

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I am confused. Is your problem that you’re not interested in things like futurism? Or that you don’t like singing about it? Or what?

      • a person says:

        More that I wouldn’t like singing about it, or doing any similar sort of (for lack of a better, more value-neutral term) “cheesy” (for lack of a better, more value-neutral term) “circlejerk-y” activity.

        Not that I don’t think people who enjoy such a thing should stop, of course.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          ” I wish I could hang out with and talk to rationalists, but I’m not one of those few hundred people.”

          You can still hang out and talk to rationalists! Every other meetup throughout the year has no such singing or anything like that. I don’t know where you live but there is very likely a meetup group somewhere near you.

  29. Noah says:

    I wish I’d known about this event! It sounds wonderful.

    Regarding atheist music, I’m particular to the album We Are All Where We Belong, by Quiet Company, with tracks like You, Me, & the Boatman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jj268mEPJg0 . It edges on “deathism”, but I think for an ex-Christian, it captures the essence of focusing on the present.

  30. Gunlord says:

    “The Words of God” is a pretty nice song. I hadn’t heard of it either before this post, so I thank you for introducing me to it. The “ten best atheism songs” link was also interesting–made me realize that if you want explicitly atheist music, you might do well to look at heavy metal (not even to mention black metal). Still, none of the songs posted above have quite convinced me that rationalism has yet produced something like Handel’s “Messiah” or even the Kyrie Eleison.

    • Typhon says:

      There’s plenty of atheists in classical music.
      Ravel, Shostakovich, Saint-Saëns, Bartók, Prokofiev, Berlioz, Bizet, Debussy, Satie, Fauré…

      • Gunlord says:

        I’m not the most knowledgeable person in the world when it comes to classical, but I do like Shostakovich and Ravel. If they were atheists, it might be a good idea to have some rational rites using their music. I imagine a ceremony with Ravel’s “Bolero” might be a bit less…’cringe-worthy,’ in Scott’s words.

  31. hamiltonianurst says:

    I had never heard The Words of God before this event, and it is great. Sorry I didn’t get to meet you (or maybe I did? I met a lot of people that weekend, and I don’t know how you were introducing yourself vis a vis the separation between this identity and your real one).