General Thoughts on Secular Solstice

I attended Secular Solstice in Berkeley last December.

My perspective is quite unusual: I live in a rationalist group house and work at an AI safety office, but I also am a Christian and attend church every week.[1]

I was originally not planning on going to Solstice, but a decent number of people (~5) told me in person that they would be particularly interested in my opinions of it. I realized that I was interested in learning what I would think of it too, so I went.

I took notes on my thoughts throughout the service.[2] This blog post is my broader thoughts on the experience. I also have blog posts for a fun little correction to one of the songs and my detailed notes & commentary.

Overarching Narrative

I do not agree with the overarching narrative presented at Solstice.

There is a narrative in my tradition about people becoming humble and turning to God. You can choose to be humble or you can be “compelled to be humble” by the difficult circumstances in life. I’m not super fond of this description because being humble and turning to God is always a choice. But there is some truth in it: many people do find themselves relying on God more and developing a deeper relationship with Him through the more difficult times in their lives.

The overarching narrative of Solstice felt like a transmogrified version of being compelled to be humble. The descent into darkness recognizes the problems of the human condition. Then, instead of turning to humility, it turns to a fulness of pride. We, humanity, through our own efforts, will solve all our problems, and become the grabby aliens we hope to be. There is some caution before the night, learning to accept things we cannot change, but this caution melts away before the imagined light of the Great Transhumanist Future.

AI X-Risk and AI Transhumanism

Existential Risk

A major cause for concern leading into the night was existential risk from AI: the chance that future artificial intelligence systems might kill everyone. This was talked about more than any other problem.

I expect that the organizers and speakers of Solstice are significantly more doomy than the audience.[3] The audience itself probably has selection effects that make it more doomy than AI researchers, or forecasters, or other groups of people who have thought about this possibility.

It is often the case that people’s beliefs are more determined by what is normal for people around them to believe, rather than personally considering the relevant arguments and evidence themselves. This is a problem for intellectual communities, and should be countered by encouraging each person to know for yourself whether these beliefs are true. Organizers and speakers at Solstice have an unusually large power to establish what is normal to believe in the rationalist community. They promoted increased concern about AI x-risk in the community, not by arguing for this belief but by treating it as common knowledge.[4] Maybe they believe that this is justified, but it felt to me like a Dark Art of Persuasion.


Solstice also promoted the Great Transhumanist Future. What exactly this involves was perhaps intentionally left vague, and mostly described in song. It involved a coder dismantling the sun, making branches of your presumably-uploaded self, streams of data across the galaxy, and computronium. This is not just transhumanism: it’s AI-centered transhumanism.

There were also some parts of the transhumanism which were not explicitly computational: things like space colonization or human immortality. But overall, it felt like the route to hoped-for future ran through powerful AI.

This is … not the future I hope for. I am probably more futuristic than most of the public, and am excited about things like space colonization and more abundant energy. I am definitely not excited about mind uploading or turning the sun into computonium. The rationalist community (1) is trying to have a disproportionate impact on the future, and (2) the future that they are trying to create is not something that most of the public would want. Solstice included unusually explicit statements of the vision of the future that leaders in the rationalist community are trying to create. I’m glad that it was explicit, but not about what the vision happens to be.


Solstice included both emphasis on AI x-risk and AI-centered transhumanism. The juxtaposition was jarring.

The AI-centered transhumanism of the rationalist community is a major motivating factor for people who are trying to build powerful, potentially dangerous AI.[5] It is not just a fact about the world that AI is the most significant existential risk now: it is something that the rationalist community helped create.

I know that some people in the rationalist community have done some serious soul-searching about the tension between promoting AI-centered transhumanism and AI existential risk. Maybe Solstice isn’t the place to do this—or maybe this night of reflection is.

If you find yourself believing that your hopes are killing you, maybe you should think about whether you should have different hopes.

These Aren’t My People

For many people in the rationalist community, going to their first rationalist event is finding their people. There are a bunch of people who think like them and have a similar culture, even if we haven’t met yet. Finding a group of people who are by default friends with you is a wonderful thing.

This is not my personal experience with the rationalist community. There are a bunch of interesting people to talk to, many of whom I have become friends with, but this is not a culture that I naturally fit into.

Solstice is the fullest expression of this community. I didn’t really feel like I belong. Even if you don’t believe in the Gift of Discernment, reflexively feeling that this isn’t the place you should be[6] doesn’t help you enjoy the program.

Barbs at Religion

There is one weird trick to building a cohesive community: identify an outgroup and unify against the outgroup. Communities that are worth being a part of try to resist this tendency, respect the Other(s), and be welcoming to people who are very different from them. This is hard, and we should expect even the best communities to fail sometimes, but it is something that should strived for.

Religious people are an outgroup for the rationalist community.

The overarching narrative of Solstice was not religious. I disagree, but this is fine.

There were also little bits of meanness directed at religion scattered throughout the program. Most of these were not essential: they could be removed without changing the message. This kind of small, repeated, inessential criticisms is what made Solstice feel hostile to religious people.

First, a counterexample:

  • “If the Lord won’t send us water, we’ll get it from the devil.” in Song of the Artesian Water.

    This is very clever imagery, and central to the message of the song. The song is about drilling for groundwater so you don’t have to rely on rain. You should work to achieve the things that would improve your life and surroundings.

And an unusually clear example:

  • In Brighter Than Today, there is a female Prometheus who, in her pain, smashed rocks together and invented fire. The song then has her religious community try to silence her.

    The message of the song is the hope that technology can relieve pain. It doesn’t need to have human enemies at all. The song is not just how portraying how things normally work: it is not the case that most inventions are opposed by religious leaders. We don’t know what the religious landscape looked like back then: the earliest archaeological evidence for controlled fire is significantly older than the earliest archeological evidence for religion. The entire story is made up, and the author choose to make religious people be the enemy.

Here are the other examples that I noticed:

  • The introduction to Time Wrote the Rocks said that it was originally written to be anti-Biblical.

  • Time Wrote the Rocks describes Galileo recanting.

    This is not a particularly good moment for the Church and I don’t have a great love for Early Modern Catholicism more broadly. I worry that if this is the only instance from the history of science & religion told, it promotes the conflict thesis, instead of recognizing the long and complicated history of the interactions between religion and science.

  • “We’re sick of prayers and Providence. We’re going to do without.” in Song of the Artesian Water.

    This feels less central to the song. It is possible to both pray and work on a problem.

  • Level Up told people to “Let your faith die,” and then contrasted faith with wonder.

    I really don’t think that most people experience faith as being in opposition to wonder. It also suggests that faith is incompatible with the sort of progress the rationalist community wants.

I’m not surprised that these sorts of things existed at Solstice. They’re common on LessWrong, and exist sometimes in personal conversations around here too. But they still felt like barbs being thrown at people like me who happened to be there. It did not make me want to link arms and sing with you.

Not Acknowledging Religious Influences

There are good things, both organizationally and ideologically, that the rationalist community has learned from Christianity. Solstice itself is clearly modeled off of a Christian worship service, in particular, American Protestant low church. If you ask people in person, they are often willing to acknowledge this.

It would be nice if this influence were publicly acknowledged at Solstice. The planners and speakers seemed to avoid citing things that are obviously associated with the outgroup. It is good to incorporate good things into your community regardless of their source, and to say that this is what you’re doing.[7]

Good Songs

I liked some of the songs !

Songs I Endorse and Might Learn

Songs Where I Disagree with Some of the Message, but Still Think They’re Fun

Hymns I Know That Feel Like They Could Work for Solstice

  • Ring Out Wild Bells

    A New Year’s hymn, about bells ringing in the cold, bringing in hope for the new year. To secularize it, you would only need to change one word: “Ring out the darkness of the land. Ring in the Christ (→ light) that is to be.”

  • Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

    This would take more work to secularize, but the imagery seems fitting. The setting is a dark and stormy sea, with a safe harbor that people are trying to get to. There is a large lighthouse (God) sending light out over large distances. If everyone were good at navigating, they could reach the harbor using the lighthouse alone. But almost everyone is bad at almost everything almost all the time. There are a bunch of smaller lights lining the shoreline. You have responsibility over one of the lower lights. It’s feeble, but that’s fine. Most people won’t even come this way, and for the few who do, you’re just protecting them from one little rock. When you have lots of people holding up their little lights all along the shore, it illuminates the entire way to go safely into the harbor.

    Solstice would probably eliminate the lighthouse from the song. You might still like the imagery of a bunch of little lights leading people safely into the harbor.

Things Which Are Probably Reasonable, But Annoy Me

No Sheet Music

There are two ways to get large numbers of people to sing together: you can teach everyone at least rudimentary music literacy & show them the sheet music,[8] or you can sing songs that everyone is already familiar with. Ideally, you have both.

Since Solstice only meets once a year, it can’t really do either.[9] Having musicians at the front with microphones helps some here: they can carry the tune by themselves. But having sheet music would also help: there are some people who are at least partially musically literate for other reasons, and they can better contribute to the singing if they have the music.

(Actually, I wasn’t singing anyway. I wanted to pay close attention to what the songs were saying. I also don’t like singing things I disagree with. Reading a line ahead and deciding whether I want to sing it is doable, but effortful.)


I don’t like clapping. It’s loud and grating. I know it’s a sign of honor, but I can’t get myself to feel that.

My tradition does not have clapping in church, which is great. Clapping on the beat is OK because it functions as a percussion instrument. Applause is basically always unpleasant to me.

There was a lot of clapping at Solstice. Something which has this many songs doesn’t need to have clapping after most of them.

The thanks-to-all-the-organizers thing near the end felt especially out of place. That is a thing that happens at conferences. It is not a thing that is typically incorporated into religious services.


Multiplying the suggested contribution by the number of attendees results in a budget that feels an order of magnitude too high: more than the annual budget for my ~40 person congregation.[10]

I don’t know how large the budget actually was, or what it was used for. General ideas for running events like this more cheaply include: (1) use spaces that your community already has (Lighthaven?), even if they’re not quite set up the right way for them and (2) be willing to ask people to volunteer for things. [EDIT: This is already being done.] Meaningfully contributing to your community is something that many people really value, and you don’t have to pay them for it.

Continued in: My Detailed Notes & Commentary from Secular Solstice.

  1. ^

    I have discussed my religious beliefs in some detail on The Filan Cabinet.

  2. ^

    Including when it was dark. That page was a mess, but I was able to decipher it afterwards.

  3. ^

    The most doomy statement I recall implied that there was a proof that alignment would fail. The speaker expressed hope that there might be a subtle flaw in that proof, much like there was a subtle flaw in Kelvin’s argument that manned powered flight would not work.

    My guess is that the median p(AI Doom) in that room is maybe 25%? The median p(AI Doom) of AI researchers is around 5%. The median p(AI Doom) of forecasters is around 0.5%. These are all concerning, but not nearly as bad as implied by this statement.

  4. ^

    The talk Every Ailment Under the Sun is the clearest example. Despite the title, it mostly discussed AI x-risk.

  5. ^

    The classic example of this is Sam Altman’s tweet:

    eliezer has IMO done more to accelerate AGI than anyone else.

    certainly he got many of us interested in AGI, helped deepmind get funded at a time when AGI was extremely outside the overton window, was critical in the decision to start openai, etc.


  6. ^

    Interestingly, the impression was OK with being present at Solstice in the moment, and primarily opposed to belonging. The message wasn’t ‘Walk out the door now,’ but rather ‘Don’t make a habit of coming back.’

  7. ^

    The most natural places to do this would be either:

    1. At the beginning, there was a comment that said something like: ‘People have been meeting in the depths of winter to celebrate together for generations.’ This could mention what tradition the structure of this service is most similar to.

    2. When telling the history of moral progress, it could include some Christian individuals. Christianity has been extremely important in getting humanity to broaden our circle of moral concern.

  8. ^

    Sheet music can be projected, or it can be printed in the program. It is commonly associated with hymnals (and high church more generally), but it does not have to be.

  9. ^

    Next token prediction does not work. Music is somewhat but not extremely unpredictable, with a 1/​f power law.

  10. ^

    The building we meet in is owned by the church, and maintenance for it comes from a different pot of money than our budget. The budget does, however, include personnel: we don’t have a professional clergy and the congregation runs on volunteer (or voluntold) work.