Meetups are nice. Sometimes they even create something like real community in a place. Honestly, the amount of community I've gotten through LW meetups for the past decade or so is... more community than most people my age ever experience, from what I can tell talking to non-rat friends. (Mormons excepted.)
Yet I still have the sense more is possible. Exactly because of those Mormons I know. Community can be much more powerful than what we have now.
[TODO (left in intentionally because I don't have time to fill in these details): Put more motivation / justification here: Bowling Alone stats, stats about religion making people happier, some reference about religion making people believe untrue things. Friendships formed by repeated random bumping into people, thus regular events important]
Physical co-location can be very powerful for this. The group of folks living in Berkeley in walking distance from each other are doing quite well at it, in that sense. When I lived there, I was shocked by how often, in a city of 100,000 people, I randomly ran into someone I knew on the street. (It wasn't that often! But it happened.)
But that's not always possible, for myriad reasons. I now live in a spread-out metro area that has a decent number of rationalists, but very few living in the same town. I want something that works fairly well even when you can't live in a big group house or neighborhood with all of your friends. Something more like a religious congregation.
"So," one might ask, "what's the difference? Churches meet once a week, (some) meetups meet once a week, what's different about them?"
Here are my desiderata:
1) Family. You want a place where the whole community gets together, including the people closest to them, including their kids. That means, in the case of kids, going to significant lengths to accommodate them: having children's programs for older kids, childcare for younger kids, and ways to include kids a little even in the main programming. Churches usually have a side room where parents with a screaming baby can step out for a moment, then come back. They often have short parts of the ceremonies (~15 minutes) that everyone, even the smallest, is expected to come to, and then the kids break off to their Sunday school or nursery.
At meetups, by contrast, people usually don't even bring their significant other. Sometimes this is because the significant others are not aspiring rationalists, and not interested in the content. Other times... they're just not interested in meetups, specifically. As a woman who runs stuff, this makes me sad, because frankly, it's usually women who don't want to come. (And I try to run meetups that I myself would want to go to! But this is a whole other can of worms of a topic.)
I also personally feel it's important to encourage people to have kids. And to do that honestly, we also need to help and support those who do. Both to make the community grow over time, and to make it feel like a growing thing, and connect us to that part of human life.
2) Sacredness. It has to feel important that you show up. This is achieved by the easy expedient of it being important that you show up. Why? a) because it builds community. The ritual cannot be completed unless you come. and, ideally, b) because it supports you in living the rest of your life.
Meetups often feel like "meh," like, "oh, this is a social thing I might or might not go to." Unimportant. The challenge is making a space where it feels like it matters that you show up, both to yourself and others.
2.5) Support. You want it to be something that helps build on the lives of members. The content should be something that brings them out of their regular life and helps them think about the meta-level; it's appropriate in life to live on the object level most of the time, but having a dedicated set-aside time for meta can supercharge your efforts the rest of the time. There should be rationality content that helps people live their regular lives, or at a minimum, stick their heads up out of the sand and look around a little.
It can also support you in the form of a social safety net (I'm speaking of ad-hoc efforts to help members in trouble, not necessarily a dedicated fund, although that's also an option, longer-term).
3) Fruitfulness. Ideally, this community would build on the weekly event to have things that sprout from it. Other study groups, interest groups, etc. The weekly event is a home base, a touchpoint for the whole community, but it's not the entirety of the community; the community, as a larger, living, breathing thing, has to encompass more than that.
4) Reliability. There's something very powerful about the same thing happening every week. It can become built into the fabric of people's lives, in a way that monthly or quarterly events can't.
5) Consistent space (or ideally, dedicated space). You not only know exactly when to go each week, but also where. That space can take on its own flavor, associated and attached to the people you see there and the things you do there, which strengthens the feelings of sacredness.
In the ideal form, this would involve having a building actually owned by the group, but that may be difficult to achieve at first; you either need one or two rich members who are very bought in, or a lot of buy-in from many members who are willing to contribute.
The ideal setup has at least 3 sound-isolated rooms: one for the adults, one for mid-sized kids’ content, and one for watching small children. The small children’s room should preferably be set up to be comfortable for child-watching: reasonably baby-proof, access to toys, a space for changing diapers, cleaning supplies, etc. (Having a babyproofed, entertaining, and comfortable space makes care of small children much, much easier.)
6) Shared values and (to some extent) beliefs. You know you have some baseline of commonalities with people who show up, because the gathering has an explicit mission statement of some kind, and you know what's entailed in it. Or if you have disagreements with it, you know where they are and by how much.
7) Clear membership. You need to be able to say who is in the group and who is not. At the same time, you also want to be as welcoming as possible so that people can come try out the group and see if it is for them, in a low-pressure way. The Quaker community I’ve attended has a distinction between “members” and “attenders”: anyone can attend, or even be on many committees, but in order to become a full “member” of the Meeting, you have to go through a process where you declare your intention to join and have a conversation with a committee. Having such a clear distinction is valuable for helping people feel part of the community.
Now... the other question is how to achieve such a thing. I've thought about what the "MVP" version looks like. I think even an "MVP" here looks very effortful, because reliability and long-term-ness are important; plus, the desiderata surrounding children are extremely time-consuming.
To be viable, I think you need:
... and then the most important part:
And then, once we've done that, maybe we'll see if the idea can get off the ground. Fruitfulness, shared values, and community support, I hope, would flow from these initial investments.
I think you want to get together a group of a few families/households who are on board with this vision, and then create a mission statement / shared beliefs and values statement together, that you all agree on. This may take some time to hammer out, but I feel it is worth it to get something that folks are all sufficiently happy with. These will be the founding members of the group.
Then you need 1-2 people who can commit to being there and running the main adult content, every single week.
Then you need [some number of people] who are qualified and whom the parents will be happy with, to run childcare. This could be as simple as “rotation of parents who don’t mind taking care of an extra kid, and trust each other.” It also depends on how many kids you have in the community. If you have older kids, you will also want at least one person whose job it is to find and use a curriculum of fun/educational activities for them. (Or make the curriculum, but that’s a lot more work!)
Then you need space. This is a tough one and I don’t know exactly how to solve it.
Money could come from some combination of the founding members and/or a funding organization that gives money to community efforts; I don’t regard this effort as centrally “EA” but I’m told the EA Infrastructure Fund sometimes funds projects like this on the principle that they are likely to produce new EAs anyway, even though that is not the main goal.
I think the organization that comes closest to "real community", outside certain groups of rationalists in the Bay, is probably Guild of the Rose. They build actual close ties with a cohort of people who all join together.
That said... the Guild has a number of differences from this model; the monthly subscription requirement, the time-limitedness of cohorts, etc., make it more like a university class than like a multigenerational community.
As far as “touchpoint for the whole community”: the closest we get to this, I think, is actually the yearly Winter Solstice event in various locations. It’s the one thing that just about everyone goes to, new community members and old. But it’s obviously very different to have this be just once a year vs. once a week.
Remember, to be useful, a mission statement has to be something you can reasonably disagree with. Platitudes like “murder is wrong” are not useful, because basically everyone in our society agrees with them, so they don’t help you make choices about what to prioritize. Nor do they help someone decide whether the group is for them or not. We need a set of values that are divisive but that we believe in.
Values and beliefs that I think rationalist groups are likely to agree on and could be good candidates for an individual congregation's mission statement:
The exact list for your group may be different, and I’m probably missing a few things that will in retrospect seem obvious. The important thing is that the founding members feel that they can solidly get behind the statement.
As far as I'm concerned, I'd be happy to see anyone try this idea out. The most likely candidates are existing LW organizers in various cities.
I'm personally not able to start on a major project like this for the next few months. After that... if I could find funding for it, I'd potentially be interested and able to dedicate a significant amount of time to it.
But this idea also requires a lot of buy-in from other people in my community, so I'm putting this out there to get more feedback and thoughts. Plus, I'm sure some effort could be shared among geographically-distant groups when it comes to curriculum, etc., so I'm hoping to draw out some of that as well.
If you're in the DC area and interested in contributing volunteer effort to a project like this (childcare, curriculum, running the main content, or even just "I'll commit to showing up X% of the time if you do this")-- let me know!
I've seen a bunch of people dream of this sort of thing. I've formed a vague, ossified belief that this isn't actually workable. It'd be cool to be proven wrong.
I think meeting once-a-week is just actually pretty hard to either enforce, or to provide enough value that people do voluntarily.
An argument that shifted me from "still trying to make something like this work somehow" to "giving up in my heart" was that while orthodox religions still are going strong in many places, liberal reform religions are losing membership. And this feels mechanically connected to what I've seen in the variants of this I've seen people attempt. The orthodox religions work because they actually constrain people, in a way that libertarian-ish rationalists really don't like getting constrained. (note: I'm haven't actually looked into this too carefully, and this is a crux. If it turned out a sizeable fraction of liberal reform religions were gaining membership I'd change my mind here)
That doesn't mean I think community is doomed as an effort, I'm just skeptical of the "once-a-week, for everyone" that is modeled after a traditional congregation. I think solving community in the 21st century requires somehow filling a new niche in a new ecosystem.
I think I still agree that many of the ideas here, I mostly just think they should be pointed more at "figure out a new thing that will weather a changing world" than "try to replicate existing congregations.")
Fleshing out the background anecdata informing my take here
(Note: I think I'm somewhat responding to a stereotype-of-an-idea in my head more than Maia's post. I think I'm nonzero responding to Maia's post itself, but regardless just taking the opportunity to say a bunch of stuff that feels relevant I don't think I've written down before)
(note: these don't all point in the same direction):
All of that adds up to:
Staring at your points, I keep thinking about Mosaic House. Mosaic House was a group house in Boston that ran weekly dinner parties for a year. After six months, they usually had a couple dozen people show up for a random Friday night. Sometimes they had an activity or a topic but the magic ingredients seemed to be that it was the same time, same place. The couple of times they canceled, they still had people show up who hadn't read the cancellation. Mosaic was great, and only stopped when the group house couldn't renew their lease.
I'm going to loosely go point by point- not objecting but musing- but I'd be interested in dialoguing about this with you if you'd be up for that.
The thing that's alive to me is shaped more like a dojo than a church, but I think the bones of both of them (same time, same place, same people) are pretty similar.
Importantly, I think lots of different things can hang on those bones in a way that's mutually beneficial. To use the church as an example, once you know people are going to be there at that time in that place, you get people saying "it'd be nice to have a book club, but when? Oh, how about the hour before the sermon in the side room?" "Thanks for loaning me that pie tin- I had some spare apples so I baked you an apple pie, why don't we do a pot luck after the sermon?" "It'd be fun to play soccer. Oh, hey, I've got a soccer ball in my car- how about we play on the green by the church after the pot luck?"
counterpoint: I run a weekly meetup in a mid-size Canadian city and I think it's going swimmingly. It is not trivial to provide value but it is also not insurmountably difficult: I got funding from the EA Infrastructure Fund to buy a day off me per week for running meetups and content planning, and that's enough for me to create programming that people really like, in addition to occasional larger events like day trips and cottage weekends. 8-12 people show up to standard meetups, I'd say around 70% are regulars who show up ~weekly and then you have a long tail of errants. Lots of people move away since it's a university town, but when they visit they make sure to come to a meetup and catch up.
re: constraining, filling a new niche, etc - i feel like your POV is a bit doomered and this is pretty easy for a rationalist meetup to do - just enforce rules for good discourse norms and strongly signal that any topic is allowed as long as the dialogue remains constructive. make it a safe space for the people that will run their mouths in favor of the truth even if it kills the vibe at other parties and everyone else is glaring daggers at them, and people will show up. They'll show up because they can't get a community like that anywhere else in the city, as long as the city in question isnt in the bay area :P
There’s a pretty straightforward mechanism by which this happens:
In order to make it possible for everyone (i.e., the spouse, the kids, the friends, etc.) to participate in your thing, you have to dilute your thing until it’s tolerable (never mind appealing, even; just tolerable!) to everyone.
No rationalist organization can have everyone participate and remain a rationalist organization, because rationality is not appealing, nor even tolerable, to everyone.
The path forward is either “exclude most people” or “abandon all that is ‘rationalist’ about your group and what it does”.
And indeed this is what we see in practice.
But also, my experience is this doesn't work either (in particular if your goal is "people show up every week." People showing up every week is a lot, and you need to be offering them something they can't get anywhere else for that. The groups I've seen attempt to go this route didn't work either because they were too generic to matter.
You don't necessarily have to have every individual person showing up every week, though, just often enough that the thing happens in aggregate. Choir manages weekly during concert season and biweekly the rest of the time! D&D groups often manage weekly. It's still hard but it's not, like, completely obviously impossible like "every person shows up every week".
Two adjacent rooms, one only for members, the other for everyone (that's where you drop off your spouse and kids).
I'd push back against the notion of this not being possible, instead I'd just say that it's extremely challenging and will likely fail most of the time. Convincing people to come every week is a big commitment. Most people only have one or two or maybe three weekly slots, so this involves beating out a lot of other things. The standard for persuading people to commit isn't good, but amazing. So, humanly possible, but you need to be exceptional.
Some reasons to enforce and value it:
For me the issue is that
it isn't clear how you could enforce attendance or
what value individual attendees could have to make it worth their while to attend regularly.
(2) is sort of a collective action/game theoretic/coordination problem.
(1) reflects the rationalist nature of the organization.
Traditional religions back up attendance by divine command. They teach absolutist, divine command theoretic accounts of morality, backed up by accounts of commands from God to attend regularly. At the most severe mode these are backed by threat of eternal hellfire for disobedience. But it doesn't usually come to that. The moralization of the attendance norm is strong enough to justify moderate amounts of social pressure to conform to it. Often that's enough.
In a rationalist congregation, if you want a regular attendance norm, you have to ground it in a rational understanding that adhering to the norm makes the organization work. I think that might work, but it's probably a lot harder because it requires a lot more cognitive steps to get to and it only works so long as attendees buy into the goal of contributing to the project for its own sake.
It seems to me that once a week would be good for highly motivated members (and perhaps a very successful community would make many members motivation, but we are not there yes), and for others, maybe once a month.
Or perhaps, there should be a formal meetup once a month, announced publicly, and an informal meetup once a week (except for the week with the formal meetup), announced privately.
I went to a bunch of churches when I was younger, and I think the types of locations you listed are actually in a fairly typical order for starting a new church:
For renting, I wonder if part of it is just calling places up to see what combo deals they can give you. When renting the space at the senior citizen center, my church had access to one big room with a stage, plus two small classrooms. I'm not sure if we got lucky and this was the only place like that, or if it's actually a reasonably common set of needs.
This also makes me wonder if combination daycare/coworking spaces exist (and if they don't can someone get me Masayoshi Son's phone number because I have a tech company idea?).
The founding members meet in someone's house
I remember hearing shade against congregations that meet in someone's house ("that's not a church that's a cult"), but that was in religious circles. I guess seculars will be more understanding as to why the congregation has not been around long enough to own land.
I don't think I ever ran into that when I was younger. Meeting in houses is the original way Christians met, so I think it would be weird to complain about it. I found it pretty common for people to make fun of the opposite. If you're spending your church money on a big fancy building, does that really show your dedication to church teachings like charity*?
Also, people might accuse a really small church group of being culty, but a small church group with a big fancy building feels much cultier than the same group meeting in a house.
I was only really exposed to Evangelical Christianity so it's possible this is very different among other groups like Catholics.
* Churches typically justify this in terms of practicality (more spaces to work with) and marketing evangelism.
The best version of this I know is Fractal in NYC. The main idea is everyone lives in the same apartment building in Brooklyn. There is also common area in 1G. Works great. Not very family focused though. But the founders of fractal are looking into a sister project with more family focus.
I don't think 11 needs to be a community value. If someone comes in believing in the supernatural, in cryptozoology, UFOs, P = NP, or other ideas that haven't been scientifically verified, who cares as long as they're interested in changing their way of modeling the world to be more evidence-based?
Yeah, and that's the posture you have to take if you want any sort of growth at all. Inevitably, people who've been on the path for a while will end up converging on weird ideas that aren't intuitive to new members, such as, you know, short timelines and alignment difficulty. New members will always arrive believing things that aren't common in the rest of the community.
CEO of the Guild of the ROSE here. This is an excellent writeup, and I appreciate the shoutout. You've correctly identified that our current structure lends itself more towards a university-like environment, but we have always aspired for that to just be one piece of the Guild. We are also interested in being a more open-ended community and providing the things you describe.
Right now, we are limited by funds and time. We have been working on this project for several years without pay, and so we have had to severely restrict what we focus on. If anyone wants to use us for the aspirations outlined in this post, let us know and we will happily lend ourselves to this mission.
I'm in the DC area and I'm interested in contributing to whatever ends up getting cooked up.
It seems to me that there is some tension in the creed between (6), (9), and (11). On the one hand, we are supposed to affirm that "changes to one’s beliefs should generally also be probabilistic, rather than total", but on the other hand, we are using belief/lack of belief as a litmus test for inclusion in the group.
(9) is a values thing, not a beliefs thing per se. (I.e. it's not an epistemic claim.)
(11) is one of those claims that is probabilistic in principle (and which can be therefore be updated via evidence), but for which the evidence in practice is so one-sided that arriving at the correct answer is basically usable as a sort of FizzBuzz test for rationality: if you can’t get the right answer on super-easy mode, you’re probably not a good fit.
I think this has the potential to be a great thing to make note of. I would consider adding weird rituals and communal synchronization into the mix (in form of song or dance). I don't think the synchrony stuff has to be crazy (a mere songs in front a camp fire feels like a religious experience to many). Although it does sound very weird (and very well may be), I find it not merely coincidental that this a strong part of what makes religions' communities survive and thrive. I do see potential downsides 1) in how weird it would be to the outside (making the rat culture even more insular) and 2) actually getting people to participate in those activities seriously without belief in something beyond mere instrumental utility.