Solstice 2015: What Memes May Come (Part II - Atheism, Rationality and Death)

by Raemon4 min read7th Nov 201519 comments


Secular Solstice
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Winter is coming, and so is Solstice season. There'll be large rationality-centric-or-adjaecent events in NYC, the Bay Area, and Seattle(and possibly other places - if you're interested in running a Solstice event or learning what that involves, send me a PM). In NYC, there'll be a general megameetup throughout the weekend, for people who want to stay through Sunday afternoon, and if you're interested in shared housing you can fill out this form.

The NYC Solstice isn't running a kickstarter this year, but I'll need to pay for the venue by November 19th ($6125). So if you are planning on coming it's helpful to purchase tickets sooner rather than later. (Or preorder the next album or 2016 Book of Traditions, if you can't attend but want to support the event).


This is the second post in the Solstice 2015 sequence, discussing plans and musings on the potential cultural impact of the Solstice. The first post was here

This explores the Solstice's relationship with Atheism, Rationality, and Death.


Some may be surprised that I don't consider atheism particularly core to the Solstice.

This probably will remain a part of it for the forseeable future. Atheists happen to be the demographic most hungry for some kind of meaningful winter traditions. And Beyond the Reach of God, a powerful essay that (often) plays an important role in the holiday, happens to frame it's argument around the non-existence of God.

But this doesn't actually seem especially inevitable or necessary. Beyond the Reach of God *isn't* about God, per se (at least, I don't see it that way). It's about the absolute, unforgiving neutrality of the laws of physics. It's about all the other sacred things that even atheists believe in, which they may make excuses for.

I think it's *currently* useful for there to a moment where we acknowledge that there is no God to bail us out, and that this is really important. But this may not always be the case. I would be pretty happy if, in 50 years, all references to God were gone from the Solstice (because the question of God was no longer one that preoccupied our society in the first place), but those crucial points were made in other ways. It can be a holiday for atheists without being about that in any specific way.


It's common throughout the secular world to speak highly of "rationality." But oftentimes, what that means in practice is pointing out the mistakes that other people are making, the fallacies they're committing.

The brand of rationality that spawned the Solstice has a different meaning: a specific dedication to looking at the way your own mind and beliefs are flawed, and actively seeking to correct them. Looking for the sacred cows of your culture (be it liberal, libertarian, academic or otherwise) and figuring out how they have blinded you.

Rationality is... sort of a central theme, but in an understated way. It underlies everything going on in the event, but hasn't really been a central character.

This might be a mistake. In particular because rationality's role is very subtle, and easy to be missed. Axial Tilt is the reason for the season, not crazy sun gods. But the reason that's important is a larger principle: that beliefs are entangled, that habits of excuse-making for outdated beliefs can be dangerous -- and that this can apply not just to antiquated beliefs about sun gods but (more importantly) to your current beliefs about politics and finance and love and relationships.

Aesthetically, in a culture of rationalists, I think it's correct for "rationality" to be very understated at the Solstice - there are plenty of other times to dwell upon it. But since Solstice is going to get promoted outside of the culture that spawned it, it's possible it may be best to include songs or stories that make it's epistemic core more explicit, so as not to be forgotten. It would be very easy for the Solstice to become about making fun of religion, and that is very much not my goal.
This year I have a story planned that will end up putting this front and center, but that won't make for a very good "permanent" feature of the Solstice. I'm interested in people's comments on how to address that in a more longterm way.


I think one of the most valuable elements of the Solstice is the way it addresses' death. Atheists or "nones" don't really have a centralized funeral culture, and this can actually be a problem - it means that when someone dies, you suddenly have to scramble to put together an event that feels earnest and true, that helps you grapple with one of life's harshest events, and many people are too overwhelmed to figure out how to do so.

Funerals, more than any kind of secular ceremony, benefit from prior ritualization - a set of clear instructions on what to do that feel familiar and comfortable. It's the not the time to experiment with novel, crazy ideas, even genuinely good ones.

So Solstice provides a venue to test out pieces of funeral ritual, and let the good ones become familiar. It also provides a time, in the interim, for people who haven't had the chance to grieve properly because their loved one's funeral was theistic-by-default.

I think for this to work optimally, it needs to be a bit more deliberate. There's a lot of death-centric songs in the Solstice (probably more than there should be), but relatively few that actually feel appropriate for a funeral. I'd like to look for opportunities to do things more directly-funeral-relevant, while still appropriate for the overall Solstice arc.

There's also a deeper issue here: secular folk vary wildly in how they relate to death. Some people are looking for a way to accept it. Other people think the very idea of accepting death is appalling.

Common Ground

I have my own opinions here, and I'll dive a bit more deeply into this in my next post. But for now, I'll just note that I want to help shape a funeral culture that does feel distinctive, with traditions that feel at least a little oddly specific (to avoid a sort of generic, store-brand feel), but which also strike a kind of timeless, universal chord. Funerals are a time when wildly disparate friends and family need to come together and find common ground.

When my grandmother died, I went to a Catholic mass. Two hundred people spoke in unison "our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." The words themselves meant very little, but the fact that two hundred people who speak them flawlessly together felt very meaningful to me. And I imagine it'd have been even more meaningful, if I believed in them.

In the secular world, not everyone's into chanting things as a group. But it still seems to me that having words that are familiar to you, which you can at least listen together and know that two hundred people also find them meaningful, could be very important.

Now, humanity has certainly not lacked for beautiful poetry surrounding death. Nor even beautiful non-supernatural poetry surrounding death. Nor even beautiful poetry-surrounding-death-that-matches-you-(yes-you)-'re-specific-worldview-surrounding-death. But what it does seem to be lacking is are well-known cultural artifacts that a wide array of people would feel comforted by, in a very primal way.

There's a particular poem that's meaningful to me. There's another poem (very similar, both relating to the turning of the seasons and our changing relationship with the seasons of over time), that's meaningful to my girlfriend. But they're just different enough that neither would be feel safe and familiar to both of us, in the event of someone's death.

So something I'd like to do with the Solstice, is to coordinate (across all Solstices, across the nation, and perhaps in other holidays and events) to find words or activities to share, that can become well known enough that everyone at a funeral could feel united.

An actionable question:

In particular, I think I'm looking for a poem (not intended to be the only element-addressing-death in the Solstice, but one that has a shot at widespread adoption),  with a few qualities:

 - Short enough (or with a simple refrain) that people can speak it aloud together.
 - Whether metaphorical or not, hints at a theme of relating to memories and the preserving thereof. (I think this is something most worldviews can relate to)
 - All things being equal, something fairly commonly known.
 - Since everyone's going to want their own favorite poem to be the one adopted, people interested in this problem should try applying some meta-cooperative-considerations - what do you wish other people with their own favorite poems were doing to try and settle on this?

If you have either suggestions for a poetic contender, or disagreements with my thought process here, let me know!


In the next (probably final) post of this mini-sequence, I'll be talking about Humanism, Transhumanism, and the Far Future.

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19 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:45 AM
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Someone recommended this one. I think it has pluses and minuses over "Do not go gentle."


I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Formatting tip: If you end a line with two spaces, it'll put the following line directly below it, instead of continuing the paragraph.

THANK you!

Robert Frost's"Nothing Gold Can Stay" seems like the obvious choice.

1) It is so popular that the majority of people already at least sorta-know it, and a significant percentage could already recite it from memory.

2) It has a cadence that makes it easy to recite in unison.

3) It's simple.

4) It isn't specific to atheism/ doesn't exclude anybody.

5) It faces death rather than rages against it. Funerals probably aren't the best time to rage against death. That's sorta counterproductive to the acceptance that funerals are supposed to provide that helps people move on with their lives in a functioning manner.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

This seems like an obvious choice for a death-related poem...

Do not go gentle into that good night
Dylan Thomas, 1914 - 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It's still under copyright, but I don't think that really matters...

I absolutely love the poem. Unfortunately every reading I've ever heard is painfully bad, so maybe it isn't a great choice for a spoken piece. The exception is this scene from Interstellar: [Trigger warning? Or is it just me?]

This is definitely a contender. It's currently unclear to me how universal it is. (It seems to be fairly popular in nontranshumanist circles, so I think works for Solstice but also doesn't really feel like an appropriate thing for an actual funeral - not everyone is going to be in a mental state for this poem to be helpful)

Anecdotally, all of my matriarchal pre-funeralees have all indicated a strong dislike at both this poem's mild sexism and its somewhat mournful, rather than explicitly celebratory, approach.

Copyright shouldn't matter in these instances.

The brand of rationality that spawned the Solstice has a different meaning: a specific dedication to looking at the way your own mind and beliefs are flawed, and actively seeking to correct them. Looking for the sacred cows of your culture (be it liberal, libertarian, academic or otherwise) and figuring out how they have blinded you.

I think it would be great to have a song about that.

Harry's meme for the Solstice:

And someday when the descendants of humanity have spread from star to star, they won’t tell the children about the history of Ancient Earth until they’re old enough to bear it; and when they learn they’ll weep to hear that such a thing as Death had ever once existed!

Remember that the particular goal here is something that non-transhumanists would not find alienating.

There will be various ways that the Solstice will address transhumanism (I'll discuss in the next post my current plans to approach humanism and transhumanism), but for this post I'd like to engage the "If my ideological opponents were crafting the Solstice with memes they found meaningful, what process would I want them to be using?" mindset.

(That said, I do think I want the Solstice to do a better job of capturing why the stars represent the future, and what exactly that could mean)

I'm a fan of both versions of Ozymandias, but here's Shelley's version:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Note that the Bay Area Facebook event is private for technical reasons; here's the LW thread as an alternative.

I don't know if it makes a difference, depending on how many more folks actually read articles posted in Main rather than Discussion, but I encourage you to post this mini-sequence into Main. This might just be my thinking more folks should post in Main because it makes things more interesting to have them receive greater reception. Still, even though this hasn't received tons of upvotes, I think this is fit for Main. The idea of the Secular Solstice and what it has become is to me very key to what LessWrong has come to be about.

My impression is that Main currently doesn't get much visibility - unless things get promoted, you have to actively go looking for articles there, whereas most people who come to LW at all see discussion by default.

Agreed. It's silly. This site needs more active tending in general, in my opinion.

In the mean time, you can bookmark this link.

I don't go to Main because it's always flooded with Meetup articles.

This wasn't my impression, but I haven't been paying much attention to LessWrong in general as of late. I visit a couple times a week, and I always just go directly to Discussion. I thought I was one of few who bothered to do that among people who still visit the site regularly at all. I guess not. Carry on.