Secular Solstice: Doing good for goodness’ sake

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A publicity shot for "Secular Solstice," a newly-minted December observance for atheists, humanists and other freethinkers that features candles, readings, music and an emphasis on human beings' capacity to improve the world. Photo courtesy Raymond Arnold.

A publicity shot for "Secular Solstice," a newly-minted December observance for atheists, humanists and other freethinkers that features candles, readings, music and an emphasis on human beings' capacity to improve the world. Photo courtesy Raymond Arnold.

OAKLAND, Calif. (RNS) It’s a common ritual in religious observances this time of year: Light a candle against the darkness, the winter, the uncertainty of the world.

But a newly minted observance called Secular Solstice adds its own spin. Those lighting the candles are nonbelievers — humanists, atheists, skeptics and other freethinkers — and the candles represent no unseen divinity, but the actions and intentions of those who light them to make the world a better place.

“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.”

Secular Solstice is the handiwork of Raymond Arnold, a 28-year-old Catholic-turned-humanist who wanted to do something meaningful with friends in mid-December. He put together the first Secular Solstice — a two-hour blend of music and readings by candlelight — last year in New York, where he works as a web developer.

He struck a nerve — the first Secular Solstice was packed, and this year there will be Secular Solstices in New York, Seattle, San Diego and Leipzig, Germany. A Kickstarter campaign to stage the New York event attracted more than its $7,500 goal and brought Arnold to Oakland, where the first Secular Solstice this season was held Saturday (Dec. 13) in Humanist Hall.

It included moments of hilarity as well as deep seriousness. The crowd — almost entirely white and most seemingly under 30 — sat quietly with candles in their laps as a long string of speakers shared their own struggles with the suicide of loved ones, their encounters with death and their realization that the universe is vast and uncaring.

The readings and testimonies were punctuated here and there by Arnold, a slight young man in a scarlet dress shirt, rousing the crowd to sing along to “Deck the Halls,” “Let it Snow” and other songs. Singing together is a main focus of the event.

Raymond Arnold, founder of Secular Solstice, a December holiday for nonbelievers. Photo by Apneet Jolly, courtesy of Humanist Culture

Raymond Arnold, founder of Secular Solstice, a December holiday for nonbelievers. Photo by Apneet Jolly, courtesy of Humanist Culture

“When we sing with each other we forget ourselves and find a sense of belonging,” Matthew Elder, the night’s music coordinator, told the capacity crowd. “The feeling of belonging is an intensely powerful thing, to lean into that sense of belonging, so let’s sing together.”

Secular Solstice is another in a recent series of atheist-humanist events that look something like church. Sunday Assembly, a weekly morning gathering that started in London and spread quickly across the U.S., Canada and Europe, features uplifting talks and popular music. HumanLight is a December holiday promoted by humanist organizations that includes a ring of candles a lot like an Advent wreath.

Arnold is aware of the similarities to religion and embraces them.

“We are trying to accomplish a similar thing — gathering together as a community to  talk about the things that are important to us,” he said.

A Catholic church’s midnight Mass or a Protestant church’s “lessons and carols” service may have a similar goal but a different worldview, one that places God at the center of all things.

“Just as there is no God to put a limit on suffering,” Alex Altair told the gathered, “there is no God to put a limit on the good that we can do.”

Altair, 26, helped organize the Oakland event. He attended a Secular Solstice held last year in a private home in San Francisco and immediately knew he wanted to help bring the event to a public space in the Bay Area this year.

“It was seeing so many people who truly care about the same things I care about” such as rationality and working toward a just society, he said. “I feel like the multifaceted, rational communities that are around here have a lot to celebrate and don’t have a lot of ways to celebrate them.”

YS/MG END WINSTON

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Jack

    Somehow I don’t see most atheists going for a non-church experience that looks and probably feels like a church experience, but odder things have happened.

    As far as “doing good for goodness’ sake,” I wasn’t aware that believing in God precludes that. Theologians have long argued that it’s not just that love is good because the Bible says it is, but that the Bible says it is because, in fact, it is.

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  • “Those lighting the candles are nonbelievers — humanists, atheists, skeptics and other freethinkers — and the candles represent no unseen divinity, but the actions and intentions of those who light them to make the world a better place”

    Sacramentality is a well know concept which atheist are discovering anew. I say good for them. They are many paths to truth, even is one has to go around the word to get to the house next door.

    “Viva Cristo Rey!!”
    DHS

  • Samuel Johnston

    @Deacon
    I see that the attempts at coopting these folks have already begun. Once, the Druid holy men were coopted by the Church too. Quickly they disappeared from sight, and even from memory, the same as scores of cults and religions before them. Sacraments are the beginning of the end of freedom, and the restoration of the rule of religion. Naturally this is applauded by the Deacon.
    There are already hundreds of excellent charity and service organizations to join that should satisfy almost any desire to actually help mankind. The article describes what I perceive as a political agenda, not a moral one.

  • Very good article, very positive tone. There is no good reason why humanists and other secular persons should not have year end or other celebrations with music, readings and fellowship. Also, let’s note that similar rather secular celebrations have been held for many years in Unitarian Universalist, Ethical Society, and Jewish Humanist congregations throughout the US.

    My wife and I were privileged several years ago to attend a large, well-attended confirmation service for teenagers of the Norwegian Humanist Association held in the magnificent Oslo City Hall, the same auditorium in which the Nobel Peace Prizes are presented.

    Edd Doerr

  • Jack Jones

    Glad you posted this, You are so right. The point is important and we don’t look any different than those who celebrate for religious reasons. We should be careful about how and when we celebrate secular events. You can also read : http://bit.ly/17LUsBK