Solstice 2014 / Rational Ritual Retreat - A Call to Arms

by Raemon3 min read30th Aug 201422 comments


Secular Solstice
Personal Blog


 •  I'm beginning work on the 2014 Winter Solstice. There are a lot of jobs to be done, and the more people who can dedicate serious time to it, the better the end result will be and the more locations it can take place. A few people have volunteered serious time, and I wanted to issue a general call, to anyone who's wanted to be part of this but wasn't sure how. Send me an e-mail at if you'd like to help with any of the tasks listed below (or others I haven't thought of).

 •  More generally, I think people working on rational ritual, in any form, should be sharing notes and collaborating more. There's a fair number of us, but we're scattered across the country and haven't really felt like part of the same team. And it seems a bit silly for people working on ritual, to be scattered and unified. So I am hosting the first Rational Ritual Retreat at the end of September. The exact date and location have yet to be determined. You can apply at, noting your availability, and I will determine

The Rational Ritual Retreat

For the past three years, I've been running a winter solstice holiday, celebrating science and human achievement. Several people have come up to me and told me it was one of the most unique, profound experiences they've participated in, inspiring them to work harder to make sure humanity has a bright future. 

I've also had a number of people concerned that I'm messing with dangerous aspects of human psychology, fearing what will happen to a rationality community that gets involved with ritual.

Both of these thoughts are incredibly important. I've written a lot on the value and danger of ritual. [1]

Ritual is central to the human experience. We've used it for thousands of years to bind groups together. It helps us internalize complex ideas. A winning version of rationality needs *some* way of taking complex ideas and getting System 1 to care about them, and I think ritual is at least one tool we should consider.

In the past couple weeks, a few thoughts occurred to me at once:

1) Figuring out a rational approach to ritual that has a meaningful, useful effect on the world will require a lot of coordination among many skilled people.

2) If this project *were* to go badly somehow, I think the most likely reason would be someone copying parts of what I'm working on without understanding all the considerations that went into it, and creating a toxic (or hollow) variant that spirals out of control.

3) Many other people have approached the concept of rational ritual. But we've generally done so independently, often duplicating a lot of the same work and rarely moving on to more interesting and valuable experimentation. When we do experiment, we rarely share notes.

This all prompted a fourth realization:

4) If ritual designers are isolated and poorly coordinated... if we're duplicating a lot of the same early work and not sharing concerns about potential dangers, then one obvious (in retrospect) solution is to have a ritual about ritual creation.

So, the Rational Ritual Retreat. We'll hike out into a dark sky reserve, when there's no light pollution and the Milky Way looms large and beautiful above us. We'll share our stories, our ideas for a culture grounded in rationality yet tapped into our primal human desires. Over the course of an evening we'll create a ceremony or two together, through group consensus and collaboration. We'll experiment with new ideas, aware that some may work well, and some may not - that's how progress is made.

This is my experiment, attempting to answer the question Eliezer raised in "Bayesians vs Barbarians." It just seems really exceptionally silly to me that people motivated by rationality AND ritual should be so uncoordinated. 

Whether you're interested directly creating ritual, or helping to facilitate its creation in one way or another (helping with art, marketing, logistics or funding of future projects), you are invited to attend. The location is currently undecided - there are reasons to consider the West Coast, East Coast or (if there's enough interest in both locations) both. 

Send in a brief application so I can make decisions about where and when to host it. I'll make the final decisions this upcoming Friday.


The Winter Solstice

The Retreat is part of a long-term vision, of many people coming together to produce a culture (undoubtably, with numerous subcultures focusing on different aesthetics). Tentatively, I'd expect a successful rational-ritual culture to look sort of Open Source ish. (Or, more appropriately - I'd expect it to look like Burning Man. To be clear, Burning Man and variations already exist, my goal is not to duplicate that effort. It's to create something that's a) easier to integrate into people's lives, and b) specifically focuses on rationality and human progress)

The Winter Solstice project as (at least for now) an important piece of that, partly because of the particular ideas it celebrates, but also because it's a demonstration of how you create *any* cultural holiday from scratch that celebrates serious ideas in a non-ironic fashion.

My minimum goal this year is to finish the Hymnal, put more material online to help people create their own private events, and run another largish event in NYC. My stretch goals are to have a high quality public event in Boston and San Francisco. (Potentially other places if a lot of local people are interested and are willing to do the legwork). 

My hope, to make those stretch goals possible, is to find collaborators willing to put in a fair amount of work. I'm specifically looking for people who can:

  • Creative Collaboration. Want to perform, create music, visual art, or host an event in your city?
  • Help with logistics, especially in different cities. (Finding venues, arranging catering, etc)
  • Marketing, reaching out to bloggers, or creating images or videos for the social media campaign.
  • Helping with technical aspects of production for the Hymnal (editing, figuring out best places

Each of these are things I'm able to do, but I have limited time, and the more time I can focus on creating

If you're interested in collaborating, volunteering, or running a local event, either reply here or send me an e-mail at 




22 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:10 AM
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Since I will not be able to attend "the rational ritual retreat" I will just post my thoughts on this topic here :) I already talked about this with some of the people from LessWrong Vienna, but I will write it down for the whole community, too:

What do you think about "rational alternatives" to important conventional events (but of course not exactly on the official dates - because people probably meet their families then) or creating "rational annual events"? I personally don't experience big meaning in official celebrations, but I actually enjoy celebrations, even more with smart people who in general share my interests :) Also all the official celebrations probably had an important purpose in the wheel of the year - for me they all lost their purpose over time (because not believing in it or not taking part in it) so at least the rational alternatives should deliver it.

Some vague ideas I had:

  • rational alternative to christmas: We could have a talk or invite someone to speak about effective altruism (I personally associate christmas with "giving") and then reflect about which projects we would love to support monetarily and collect money or something like that (maybe someone of you has better ideas?)

  • rational alternative to New Year's Eve/Day (doesn't have to be exactly on this day) : coming together, celebrating the old/new year with good food (maybe cooking together or something like that) or whatever you like - but instead of just mention some new year's resolutions making it a huge part of the evening/day -> exercises for reflection about the last year and wishes/plans for the next (+ use Alex Vermeer's guide), defining new goals, sharing background knowledge about goal setting and motivation, publicly announcing goals for social control/pressure (I would offer to have some talks about the topics)

  • rational alternative to the fasting period: I think fasting is not a stupid idea - there is also research that shows that reducing the daily intake correlates with a longer life in general (yeah, I know, correlation...) and I experienced that eating far less can really help to "free your mind". However: Also to just reflect about our diet, have some healthy cooking events together, trying soylent collectively or something like that would be an option. Or to do a lot of sport!

  • rational alternative to Easter: since it's officially about "Jesus who overcame death" we could make a event about longevity and immortality and share scientific research on the topics

  • summer/winter solstice: someone who is into this topics could teach the rest more about astronomy/astro physics

Of course I'm aware that there is no need to have any connection/correlation to official christian celebrations (and that some even might think it's contraindicated) - we can of course invent our own things independently (designed for a special purpose)

I think that connecting the ritual to some specific day - an astronomical event or someone's birthday - is not really necessary. That's how it was done historically, because if you want to coordinate masses of people and avoid quarrels among the organizer, you need some rationalization. But these days, we celebrate Xmas on December 25th simply because we have always celebrates Xmas on December 25th. -- Telling people that winter solstice is actually December 21st will not change anyone's mind. And educated people, religious or not, don't believe we have good evidence for Jesus being born on December 25th. Still, December 25th is Xmas, because that's how it has always been. (Unless you are Orthodox, in which case it is January 7th, because it has always been January 7th.)

We are not going to organize the whole country to do something at their homes at the same time. There will be a few dozen people at most, and they will come to the same place. Therefore "It will be on day XYZ, because XYZ is the day we organize it" is good enough. If we announce it soon enough, people will be able to make time.

I started thinking about my vague ideas, but then I realized that what I actually want on the meta level is to expand the range of interaction modes among rationalists. In other words, my reasoning is not "celebrations are inherently better than talking at cafe", but rather "we already do talk at cafe, but we didn't have a celebration yet". Because, you know, if it were the other way round - regular celebrations once in a month, but no talking at cafe - I would probably try to organize some talk at cafe instead. Of course we have more talking at cafe because that is easier to organize. And that's the thing: unless we are strategic, we will always converge to "what is easier to do" instead of "what would be good".

Here is a list of interaction modes that quickly come to my mind:

  • informal talk
  • moderated debate
  • lecture / sermon
  • workshop
  • games
  • sport
  • hiking
  • dance
  • singing together

When people are not strategic about this, they usually follow "easier to do" or "what we did recently" algorithm. Informal talk seems like the default choice in most cases. (However, I also had a group of friends I would like to have an informal talk with, but they always decided to play Bang instead.) Some of these modes require strategic preparation: someone must prepare the lecture or the sermon, bring the guitar, find a good place for sport or dancing, plan the hike, etc.

Sometimes it is possible to have two or more of these modes at the same event. Anything can be followed by an informal debate. There are sermons and singing (and dancing) in the church. At a convention, there can be place for many different activities. -- So, we can choose which of these activities will be done at our regular meetups, which will be done at "rationalist rituals", and we can still create opportunities for the remaining ones.

By the way, if you want to do something emotional together with other rationalists to increase our social bonds, it is not always necessary to organize the whole thing. For a lecture or a sermon, you will need specifically rationalist content. But if you think about e.g. rationalists dancing together, it would be easier to join some already existing activity; just coordinate that all local rationalists interested in "rationalist dancing" will go to the same dancing room. Or ask someone who already does dancing lessons to make one specifically for you.

Very much agreed with this.

I've ended up specializing in ritual because almost nobody else was (both in Less Wrong and among the wider community of people affiliated with rationality), but that ritual is only really useful in the context of a thriving, varied community.

Thanks for the thoughts Anna!

I actually have a lot to say about this, but I will probably end up writing it up as a blogpost in a little bit.

I would love to attend at "The Rational Ritual Retreat" but I expect it will not be near Austria or Bavaria :(

Or even Britain. It's irritating that those rationalists in America consistently refuse to fly over to Britain just to include me in everything.

However, I filled in the application with the information about my personal location, so that he/they can see, that there is need for such events in Europe, too :) (maybe you should do that, too!)

Maybe he can give his plans for this event to some of us and we can organize our own event as a subunit.

Yes, if it turns out there's a critical mass of people in, say Iceland... well, I probably won't be able to make it work this year, but it'd be important information for next year.

Well, someone needs to fly there and copy all their know-how. Are we rational enough to coordinate at this?

Skype conferences and private talks spreading the know-how in a pyramid scheme should be as effective as flying there - and it's a lot cheaper!

It's a continuum, where physical presence is best, then simulcast conferences, then further talks, then video presentations.

The more of a shared event in time and space, the better, but the better shouldn't preclude the not as good. IMO, having a simulcast conference as part of any physical event would be valuable on both sides.

Suggestion: start a new discussion thread titled something like "European Rationality Solstice Ritual". That will be a start. I'm based in France, experienced at the logistics of running unconferences and community meetings, willing to help.

It seems to me that every successfully organized event has at least one specific person who is the "soul" of the event. No matter how many additional people promise to help, this one is the one who will do most of the work, because they will take the heroic responsibility to fix all things that can go wrong. Other people will usually do the limited part they agreed to help with, and perhaps something more if they are nagged enough. But there has to be someone who continuously inspects everything, and does the nagging. In other words, a manager who cares.

Raemon is such a person for this event. If we want to have something like this in Europe, we need this kind of a person here. We need a volunteer for this role. Mere group of people willing to help may not be enough.

EDIT: I realise the inconsistency between not wanting to start a new thread about "hey, someone else should do something", and yet posting a comment here with exactly the same message. Uhm. I just feel like if there is anyone to take the role of the main organizer, they would go ahead and create the thread. (Compared with all other things they will have to do, this one is trivial.) Could be wrong, though.

Note: There was a Solstice in Leipzig, Germany last year. It was had chaosmage as the "soul" of the event, both in the logistical and the artistic sense (As such, it was pretty different from the event I ran - less singing, more dancing and mediation. I'll be incorporating some of that into my next one)

If there's to be a big solstice in Europe this year, I suspect that his event is the natural Schelling point.

We'll do a Secular Solstice in the center of Leipzig on the 19th to 21st of December this year. It'll be long, rich and intense, so it is worth a long trip from, say, Austria! Not too big though: We have beds for 8 guests, camping mat space for another 10, and a ritual space for about 25 to 30 people.

There's no admission fee. Everyone is expected to help with the cooking. It'll feel like the most awesome family gathering you've ever attended.

A formal invitation is coming up one of these days. But if you're already willing to try this, and particularly if you're from far away and want a bed, message me to beat the crowds...

I'm inspired to morph our usual years end come together into a rational ritual thingy. And I'm curious what comes out of Raemons retreat.

I'm so glad this is happening. I identify as a skeptic, a rationalist and also a bit of a "mystic". I often get the sense, lurking on LW, that I am more emotionally sensitive than is the norm here, and as a result I feel like bit of an outsider. I think ritual is a great path to bonding and crystallizing feelings of meaning and purpose.

I don't have a ton of time to write all my ideas about this sort of thing but I will share one that I think is very important:

A good system of ritual should have the idea of social tiers/roles baked into it. I think a major aspect of ritual's effectiveness in people is that it taps into our simian notion of social hierarchy. There should be some kind of leadership group, and a spectrum of more and less "in". And along these lines, there should an explicit initiation ceremony, in which an "outsider" is welcomed into the fold and recognized as a member.

This suggestion comes from my own experience of trying to organize a ritual a bit like this among my friends. Some of them had a hard time taking it seriously and in retrospect it would have been ideal if the social dynamics had been able to recognize their "outsiderness". It would have made it easier for them to feel at ease as the ritual proceeded, and it would have helped spread the idea amongst those who "got it" to be welcoming and accepting of outsiders without expecting as much of them as they did "insiders".

I often get the sense, lurking on LW, that I am more emotionally sensitive than is the norm here, and as a result I feel like bit of an outsider.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind here. Discourse on Less Wrong is comparatively high quality and high barrier of entry. That and the topics that are usually discussed here leave little room for sensitive, emotional content. (Not that I think such content has no place here, but because of "reasons" it doesn't show up that often.) If you take a look at communities just outside of Less Wrong (in my case that's the tumblr rationalists and /r/HPMOR) you'll notice more emotions being acknowledged and shared with the group.

A good system of ritual should have the idea of social tiers/roles baked into it.

I'm not sure that's true. As Raemon says, you need someone facilitating the whole thing, but you don't necessarily need an "elite group", "regular group" and "outsider group" for a good ritual. The Winter Solstice Ritual Raemon made doesn't have that (if I'm getting the pdf right) and I consider that a successful ritual. Some rituals at my local scout group are also without social tiers or roles.

I don't necessarily think that Initiations Rituals or rituals with that social hierarchy are a bad idea. I just disagree that every group and ritual needs that. I think that (currently) the fact that it's easy to become a member of the "Aspiring Rationalists" is a good thing. Maybe in the future (when this subculture has grown a lot) and insider/outsider designation might be necessary.

Point taken, regarding the reasons for the low-emotional-validation style of discourse here. I wouldn't aim to change it, it just rules out engaging in it much for me, because of my own sensitivity/predisposition. Maybe those other communities are a better fit.

I think one intuition I have, though, is that part of the reason for the style of discourse here is that many of the people this kind of thing appeals to are not in the habit of assessing the emotions that come up naturally during discussion, for themselves or others. I say this because the degree to which I pay attention to that kind of thing has changed dramatically over the years, and I wouldn't be surprised to find those questions ("How am I feeling after reading this response? Do I need to take a break?", "How will this make the other person feel?") don't occur to lots of people. For a long time I operated under the assumption that reading someone's response to my post could not possibly put me in a difficult spot.

Onto the point about whether a ritual needs roles/tiers. I don't necessarily think it does either. For a thing like the retreat being proposed by Raemon, there will likely be a lot of self-selection going on and it may render the idea of more vs less outsiders moot. And you're right that an initiation ritual might be a high barrier to entry, which could be bad.

I do think, though, that having an initiation ritual, and a sense of more in vs out, can significantly enhance an individual's experience in a ritual. It can help turn a gathering into a memorable story with lasting power after the fact. And that is something any ritual should be shooting for.

The basic outline of the story goes like this:

  • First I was my regular self, and I came to the group, and I was not part of the group.
  • Then the group had me begin the rites of passage, and I was no longer my regular self, nor was I one of the group.
  • Then I completed the rites of passage, and I was recognized as part of the group, and my identity was updated for the better.

This seems like a Good Thing To Have to me. There are plenty of other Good Things too, and this particular one is not needed, but it would be good to have it.

First I was my regular self, and I came to the group, and I was not part of the group. Then the group had me begin the rites of passage, and I was no longer my regular self, nor was I one of the group. Then I completed the rites of passage, and I was recognized as part of the group, and my identity was updated for the better.

Good way of putting it. I do agree that this can be valuable (and something I should think about specifically when planning the Retreat). I'm not sure if lack-of-it was the issue in your ritual (will comment on that in the other thread)


On one hand, I do think a useful function of rituals is to cement roles, Roles being Martial Arts for Agency. (That post helped crystallize some hazier ideas about why rituals are helpful for life transitions)

But it's not obvious to me that all ritual inherently needs that. (At least, not beyond you need at least one person facilitating. But that's not because ritual has to be include hierarchies or roles, just that logistically you usually need someone facilitating)

I think there are several reasons why people have a hard time taking ritual seriously, and lack of deliberate roles/tiers wouldn't have been among my first guesses. Can you talk more what you did, why you don't think it worked, and what you would have done differently?

I like that post, about roles enabling agency. The argument made there is distinct from my own thoughts on how roles can be useful. Namely I think they are extremely useful for building coherent consensus narratives. While the post sort of alludes to this, it focuses more on how roles get people to do things that wouldn't otherwise get done.

I like to think of narratives in this sense as being a "System 1"-active "meme". And as a rule of thumb I think that the more collectively shared a narrative is, the more active it is in the minds of individuals. Until it is outside your own head and there is a sense of consensus about it, it's just an idea and it feels less real.

So into my experience with what I did. I wanted to get some friends together and have a good time, eating and drinking and sharing stories. And I wanted to introduce ritual into our activities to punch up the levels of awareness that recreation, good times with friends, was the goal of the night, and something to be celebrated in itself.

There were about 8 people present. I wrote up a short "ceremony script", about two pages in length, that included an intro by me, the leader, stating the goals for the night, the value of camaraderie and recreation, with a bent towards the ideas of excess and elation. I wrote up a short fable in which these ideas were personified in a character who comes and gets people to have a good time, and had us take turns reading pieces of the fable. I had a bit where we all take some time to come up with a thing we each want to happen that night, to make things personal. I finished with a section where the group does a sort of call-and-response, in an attempt to get people riled up for the festivities to come. Then we all hit the road to went out for dinner and drinks.

So, the non-ritual, dinner and drinks part, was actually a success. I had a mild sense that the ritual which took place beforehand was motivating people to be more lively, a bit less inhibited, and this sense drifted in and out as the night went on.

During the ritual itself, there were several members of our group who had a really hard time treating things unironically. They giggled through much of it and were very hesitant to share their input on things. Ideally I would have found a way to bake their skepticism into the ritual- where it is acknowledged that some of this might feel silly to you, and that is okay, and we're all just happy to have you here. And in retrospect, I think the idea of roles would be a great way to do this. If you don't feel you can take it super seriously, that's okay, you can take on a more peripheral role. For those who were more into it, roles could be created that gave them more central positioning in the ritual. E.g. someone gets to lead the fable reading, someone gets to lead call-and-response, someone is master of ceremonies. And what's more, I think it would be worthwhile to have an explicit ceremony recognizing these people.

One concept that has inspired me in my thinking about this is Liminality. (There aren't any particularly rational/skeptical takes on the idea, unfortunately.) Liminality is thought of as the state between an "outsider" and "insider". It is the middle step in a rites of passage. And I think it is crucial to generating powerful consensus narratives that stick with people. In other words, it helps everyone stay clear on where everyone else in the group is at with regards to the ritual, presumably helping the sense of "tribal familiarity" we are trying to achieve.

All this said, I'm definitely not opposed to something without a heavy focus on roles. I also don't think one needs a highly stratified system of roles for things to work out. Just some idea of "more peripheral vs more central".