State of the Solstice 2014

This’ll be the first of a col­lec­tion of posts about the grow­ing Sec­u­lar Sols­tice. This post gives an overview of what hap­pened this year. Fu­ture posts will ex­plore what types of Sols­tice con­tent res­onates with which peo­ple, what I’ve learned about how Less Wrong cul­ture in­ter­sects with other cul­tures, and up­dates I’ve made about rit­ual as it re­lates to in­di­vi­d­u­als as well as move­ment build­ing.


For the past three years, I’ve been spend­ing the last sev­eral months of each year fran­ti­cally writ­ing songs, figur­ing out lo­gis­tics, and pro­mot­ing the New York Win­ter Sols­tice cel­e­bra­tion for the Ra­tion­al­ity and Sec­u­lar com­mu­ni­ties in NYC.

This year… well, I did that too. But I also fi­nally got to go a Sols­tice that I *wasn’t* re­spon­si­ble for. I went to the Bay Area on De­cem­ber 13th, trav­eled straight from the air­port to the dress re­hearsal...

...and I found a com­mu­nity com­ing to­gether to cre­ate some­thing mean­ingful. I walked into the hall and found some 30 or so peo­ple, with some string­ing to­gether lights, some peo­ple ty­ing dec­o­ra­tions around can­dles, a choir singing to­gether… it felt very much like a gen­uine holi­day com­ing to­gether in an or­ganic fash­ion.

(There was some squab­bling about how to best perform par­tic­u­lar songs… but it felt *very* much to me like real holi­day squab­bling, when­ever a fam­ily of cre­ative peo­ple with strong opinions on things get to­gether, and I found it sur­pris­ingly heart­warm­ing)

This year there were four large Sols­tices in the US and one small but in­tense 3-day event in Leipzig. Each of them had a some­what differ­ent au­di­ence and a differ­ent fo­cus. Each was put on by lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties who I en­couraged to put their own spin on it, bring­ing a mix of new and “tra­di­tional” songs. I’ve got­ten some in­ter­est­ing feed­back on which parts of Less Wrong cul­ture res­onate with which peo­ple.

Sols­tices that I ac­tively col­lab­o­rated with and/​or con­sulted on in­clude:

Bay Area—The most ex­plic­itly Less Wrong-y and tran­shu­man­ist Sols­tice this year. Ap­prox­i­mately 130 at­ten­dees. I sus­pect had the largest choir lead­ing songs. About half of the au­di­ence seemed to be from what I’d con­sider the col­lec­tive Ra­tion­al­ity com­mu­nity (i.e. EA/​Less Wrong/​CFAR) and half were “friends of friends” who were less Less Wrong-y.

(If you went to the Bay Sols­tice, you can fill out the anony­mous feed­back form here. If you don’t have much time, at least an­swer­ing the first cou­ple ques­tions would be helpful)

Seat­tle—Run by a mix of Less Wrong and EA types. It was a shorter cer­e­mony but in­cluded ad­di­tional ac­tivi­ties like im­prov games, Non-Violent Com­mu­ni­ca­tion work­shops and other ways to break the ice and help peo­ple bond. There be­tween 50-60 at­ten­dees.

(Feed­back form for Seat­tle)

San Diego—This was put on by Sun­day Assem­bly and the lo­cal Coal­i­tion of Rea­son (a col­lec­tion of sec­u­lar/​hu­man­ist/​athe­ist groups), with no Less Wrong con­nec­tion at all. They also had fewer songs, more sto­ries and other group ac­tivi­ties. This one had about 100 adult at­ten­dees and about 20 chil­dren. (Prob­a­bly the most fam­ily friendly of the bunch).

Leipzig—This was a three day work­shop, with around 20 peo­ple who worked col­lab­o­ra­tively to de­sign and run a rit­ual to­gether, along with some high­light songs from the “tra­di­tional” Brighter Than To­day pro­gram.

New York—I ran this per­son­ally, co-spon­sored by Sun­day Assem­bly and Eth­i­cal Cul­ture. My goal with the event was to high­light im­por­tant ideas I’ve learned from Less Wrong and Effec­tive Altru­ism, framed in the lan­guage of the gen­eral sec­u­lar move­ment. I also wanted to ad­dress par­tic­u­lar is­sues af­fect­ing the New York Ra­tion­al­ity com­mu­nity. We had 180 at­ten­dees, about half from the Ra­tion­al­ity/​EA com­mu­ni­ties and half from var­i­ous sec­u­lar com­mu­ni­ties.

(If you went to the NYC Sols­tice, you can fill out the anony­mous feed­back form here. Again, if you don’t have much time, it’s still helpful if you an­swer the first cou­ple ques­tions)

Wash­ing­ton Post Article

I was put in touch with a re­porter who was ex­cited to cover the Sols­tice’s growth as sec­u­lar holi­day. She ended up at­tend­ing the one in San Fran­cisco. (We talked be­fore­hand about how the Bay Area Sols­tice would be put on by a lo­cal com­mu­nity with a lot of Sili­con Valley tech-en­trepreneur­ship-types, how it’d likely have more of a fo­cus on tech­nol­ogy, and that they’d be try­ing out some sillier songs that I wasn’t sure would work at a more main­stream event. She noted that she would fo­cus on cov­er­ing the growth of the holi­day as a whole rather than fo­cus­ing on the par­tic­u­lar ex­e­cu­tion at the Bay Area event).

She wrote an ar­ti­cle for the Reli­gious News Wire, which was picked up by the Wash­ing­ton Post web­site among other places. The ar­ti­cle was ex­tremely pos­i­tive (al­though it mis­tak­enly at­tributes some speeches to me which were ac­tu­ally given by lo­cals). I men­tioned that to her and she ed­ited the origi­nal, but the Wash­ing­ton Post had already picked up the ear­lier ver­sion.

A brief snip­pet:

“We live in a world be­yond the reach of God,” one of the ser­vice’s many read­ers said as 130 or so peo­ple gath­ered hud­dled over white can­dles in glass vo­tives at Hu­man­ist Hall — a pur­ple-painted house near down­town Oak­land. “It is a hard uni­verse. If we want to build a softer uni­verse we will have to do it our­selves.” As a choir broke into “Here Comes the Sun,” an in­scrip­tion painted on the wall beamed down upon the gath­ered, “The world is my coun­try, to do good is my re­li­gion.”

Build­ing a Bet­ter Solstice

I de­liber­ately en­courage ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with the for­mat—real rit­ual evolves, and if we want great rit­ual (in par­tic­u­lar, great rit­ual-for-your-par­tic­u­lar-lo­cal-com­mu­nity, as op­posed to great rit­ual-for-the-NYC-crowd that you’re try­ing to em­u­late), we want to iter­ate faster, see what res­onates with peo­ple, and let the less in­ter­est­ing vari­a­tions die out.

This year I’m work­ing to en­sure each lo­cal sols­tice does a feed­back form and sends it out as soon as pos­si­ble. I want to get a sense of what things res­onate (or don’t) fairly re­li­ably across the world and what things hap­pened to work for par­tic­u­lar groups or small sam­ple sizes.

There’s an ob­vi­ous prob­lem that a) the most likely peo­ple to fill out the sur­vey are peo­ple who like the event, b) the sec­ond most likely peo­ple to fill out the sur­vey are peo­ple who hate the event. If you felt the event was “meh” (and per­haps don’t want to fill out an en­tire sur­vey be­cause you don’t care that much), it’d still be helpful if you at least briefly an­swered the first cou­ple ques­tions, so we have a broader sense of what works.

(And again, we definitely want nega­tive feed­back, in par­tic­u­lar from peo­ple who want *some­thing* similar to the Sols­tice but didn’t like the ex­e­cu­tion of it)

One thing that’s clear is that tran­shu­man­ist and LW con­tent is po­lariz­ing, even within the Less Wrong crowd—some peo­ple re­ally love it and it makes them feel con­nected and in­spired. Others find it very offputting. It’s pos­si­ble that the best solu­tion is to have mul­ti­ple events that cater to differ­ent peo­ple. But I’ve also found it’s very pos­si­ble (albeit harder—it took me a cou­ple years of prac­tice) to make an event that works on mul­ti­ple lev­els, res­onat­ing with the main­stream sec­u­lar com­mu­nity with Easter eggs that are funny/​sad/​in­spiring to peo­ple in the LW or Tran­shu­man spheres.

Another thing that’s per­haps more sur­pris­ing: peo­ple who don’t know what Less Wrong or Tran­shu­man­ism are at all tend to be perfectly fine with Less Wrong and a lot of Tran­shu­man­ist con­tent and can be pretty oblivi­ous to even fairly di­rect anti-death mes­sages. It’s the peo­ple who know about the meme­sphere and ei­ther don’t like it or are wor­ried about their friends not lik­ing it that are most un­com­fortable.

What makes a Sec­u­lar Sols­tice™?

So, if ex­per­i­men­ta­tion is a core el­e­ment of the whole en­deavor, what makes some­thing a Sec­u­lar Sols­tice as op­posed to a sols­tice-that-is-sec­u­lar? Or any other non-the­is­tic holi­day? The pre­vi­ous at­tempt at a hu­man­ist holi­day, Hu­manLight, hasn’t re­ally caught on, and I think that’s largely be­cause it’s de­liber­ately flex­ible—you can cel­e­brate it on what­ever day you want, with what­ever tra­di­tions you want, so long as it ties in with hu­man­ity-as-a-force-for-good.

Be­ing too flex­ible or generic makes for a wa­tered-down ex­pe­rience that no­body es­pe­cially likes, or a col­lec­tion of ran­dom ex­pe­riences that don’t have much in com­mon with each other.

So my an­swer is this:

The core el­e­ment of the Brighter Than To­day Sols­tice is the emo­tional arc. It be­gins fun and up­beat. It turns somber, then sad, be­fore turn­ing up­lift­ing and in­spira­tional. It should lead peo­ple from light to dark­ness to light again, both liter­ally and metaphor­i­cally.

The sin­gle most im­por­tant image peo­ple should imag­ine, when they are vi­su­al­iz­ing the sols­tice, is the Can­dlelit Story and the Mo­ment of Dark­ness—a mo­ment when all but one can­dle has been ex­tin­guished, and a story is told about the hard­ships we’ve faced and the hard­ships yet to come. The story should end giv­ing peo­ple rea­son to hope, with­out re­sort­ing to com­fort­ing false­hoods.

Then that can­dle is ex­tin­guished, and peo­ple sit in the dark­ness for a minute be­fore the lights are rekin­dled and hope re­turns in earnest.

The par­tic­u­lar songs I’ve writ­ten and found are not es­sen­tial, nor is even the idea of mu­sic it­self nec­es­sar­ily. (Although I highly recom­mend it, and I highly recom­mend find­ing songs that fill similar pur­poses. You might not be a fan of the ac­tual song Brighter Than To­day, but it’s very helpful to have some kind of emo­tion­ally up­lift­ing piece that’s rooted in an ev­i­dence-based wor­ld­view that lifts you out of the dark­ness).

Some peo­ple ac­tively dis­like mu­sic or group singing, but still like the sto­ries that take them through that arc. Some peo­ple like “preachy” con­tent that gives peo­ple a call to ac­tion, and some peo­ple hate it and pre­fer more ca­sual per­sonal sto­ries.

I’m not sure how this holi­day will evolve to best meet the needs of the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity and the wider world, but there are many paths I can imag­ine it tak­ing. I’m glad that the core con­cept has res­onated with so many peo­ple, and look­ing for­ward to work­ing to­gether to make it bet­ter each year.