The Aspiring Rationalist Congregation

  1. Meta Note: This post has been languishing in a Google doc for many months as I’ve procrastinated on cleaning it up to be more coherent and polished. So… I’m posting it as is, with very little cleanup, in the hopes that it’s valuable in the current state. I’m sure there are big missing pieces that I haven’t addressed, justifications I haven’t added, etc., so at this point this is mainly starting a conversation.

  2. Epistemic Status: The seed of an idea, but a seed of an unknown fruit that may grow to be sweet or bitter. I believe it to be a good seed, but who can know until it is planted?

What this, and why

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?”

What makes a church community different (better)

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.

  • I think it would also be good to have a distinction between “current” and “lapsed/​emeritus” members: this way, you continue to have the focus on people who are actively participating in the community, but still recognize folks who have contributed in the past.

    • (why this is important to me personally: in a Quaker community I have been part of, I’ve actively attended for a long time and there are many folks who are ‘full members’ but haven’t come in years and in fact have moved far away—it felt crappy that I was actively contributing but the folks who weren’t were considered “more” part of the community than I was! (although to be fair I never went through the Full Membership process (but neither did they, in many cases, as the Meeting waived that process for folks who attended as children)))

  • Some things you might use to create this distinction: financial contribution (but be careful about this, as you don’t want to exclude members for whom this would be a hardship; there are horror stories about Mormon bishops pressuring their congregants to tithe before paying their bills); declaration of shared beliefs; volunteer service to help run the community; some sort of ritual or ceremony of induction?

    • Possibly you could do a ritual or ceremony at first and then be required to contribute or attend regularly in order to maintain “current” vs “lapsed” membership status.

How to do it?

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:

  • Childcare /​ children’s programming that parents are actually happy with

    • Volunteer childcare rotation OR professional care

    • For older children, one could use a premade educational curriculum of some sort, perhaps designed for afer-school programs. Math or science would be topical to rationality. I suspect that there’s lots of preexisting content that could be purchased and used for this.

    • Also, I think there’s at least one organizer working on designing kids’ content? @JohnBuridan perhaps?

  • Consistent content that helps support people in their everyday lives

    • This is one of the big hurdles to making this work, and a bit of an open question IMO.

    • Guild of the Rose could be one resource, potentially?

    • Also the Meetup-in-a-Box sequence could be a source here. It might need to be adapted; I think for this, it would be better to have the content in mostly the same format each week, and the Meetup-in-a-Box stuff can be much more varied in format and type.

    • Just “selected Sequences reading and discussion” could be a reasonable format.

  • A space that stays consistent from week to week. It doesn’t necessarily have to be owned, but ideally there would be some kind of long-term rental contract or agreement.

    • Ideally with three sound isolated spaces for adult content, mid sized child content, and tiny child care.

  • An explicit mission and values statement. (More about this below)

… and then the most important part:

  • Running it every single week for one year.

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.

How to get it started

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.

  • Have it at someone’s house: Maybe, but their house needs to be pretty big (several rooms available), and they also need to be okay with opening it to other people every week, which is a BIG ask.

  • Rent out some space: Could get expensive, but may be viable. Especially if you look for spaces away from the city center. Renting space from a church, or a local secular humanist group, or something similar might work; alternately, any commercial rental space.

    • A church means you can’t do the usual “Sunday morning” time, but it also means they are likely to have a very good setup space-wise.

      • A church also might not like an atheist group using their space?

  • Outdoor space, if you live in a climate where this is doable year-round?

    • It’s really rather important to have it in the same place every week, so this isn’t going to work almost anywhere; even in the Bay Area, there’s a rainy season.

  • Buy a building: This is ideal, but also very expensive and unlikely to be viable without a lot of buy-in /​ a very successful Kickstarter /​ etc. Plus, then you need some legal structure of ownership like an LLC, which may be expensive or difficult to get depending on your location (e.g. in California: it’s a minimum of $800/​yr, and when you’re buying physical property you can’t even get out of this by registering in Delaware). Simply put, the required amount of investment here may just be too high for a group that doesn’t exist yet.

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.

Prior art

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.

Examples of mission statement /​ values stuff

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:

  1. Value curiosity and finding things out

  2. View it as virtuous to come to your own understanding of the truth, independently of other people. This can include respect for experts and others who understand certain subjects better than you, but ultimately responsibility for determining what is true (including who to trust) lies with the individual.

  3. Valuing disagreement as a way to help find truth.

  4. Valuing ambition and growth of all kinds.

  5. Valuing happiness, fun, etc.

  6. The general belief that truth is not black and white, but probabilistic. Changes to one’s beliefs should generally also be probabilistic, rather than total.

  7. Value changing one’s mind when encountering new information.

  8. Transhumanism or simply opposition to the naturalistic fallacy. What is “natural” may not be morally good, and we should strive to counteract or transcend nature when it goes against our beliefs about what is right.

  9. Belief in the inherent dignity and worth of sentient minds (potentially including non-human minds).

  10. Mysterious questions, not mysterious answers: if we don’t understand something, that doesn’t mean it can’t be understood in principle.

  11. Lack of belief in the supernatural, not in principle but due to lack of observed evidence that would make such beliefs reasonable.

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.

So, who will do this? Is it real?

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!