Opinion Tara Isabella Burton: Religion Remixed

‘Hacking the good’ from religion at a secular solstice

The sunrise shines between pillars at Stonehenge on the winter solstice in 1985. Photo by Mark Grant/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Last Saturday I found myself at a service in honor of the winter solstice.

We began by consecrating the space – turning first east, then south, then west, then north, promising to honor the virtues traditionally symbolically associated with those directions. We rose and sat together. We sang songs in unison – about the darkness of uncertainty, the vastness of nature, the promise of tomorrow. We extinguished LED candles, one by one, reflecting on death, and on what it meant to live in a broken and ontologically meaningless world.

We listened to a bearded man in a black robe give a series of speeches – meditations on what it meant to be alive, and what it meant to be together.

We affirmed our presence in the community, rising and calling out “I am here” as we committed to joining our fellow celebrants in making our world a better one for the generations that would come after us.

The event, hosted in a theater in midtown Manhattan, was a “secular solstice,” one of several related ceremonies taking place across America, spearheaded by musician Raymond Arnold and presided over this year by Daniel Speyer, an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering at Cooper Union.

Among the overlapping, largely secular humanities communities represented at the event were the Rationalists, a largely internet-based group that congregates in notable psychology and economics blogs such as LessWrong and Slate Star Codex. The Effective Altruists also made a good showing. This philosophical community is dedicated to using scientific inquiry to determine the maximum amount of good that social actions can effect in the world.

For the 100 or so gathered, the event was an opportunity to, as many of them put it, “hack into the good of religion”: to bathe in religion’s sense of community and belonging, its affirmation of shared values, its collective vision of a brighter future, powered by human beings’ thirst for knowledge and progress – all without the epistemologically problematic notion of God.

A bonfire to celebrate the winter solstice. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

This produced a celebration that was alternately bleak and optimistic. We sang Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” and songs about the bounty of scientific progress. These were interspersed with songs devoted to the lack of intelligent design in the universe and the inevitability of death. Some were bleak and optimistic at once. A song about different burial methods – the singer reflected on all the ways his body will be destroyed after death – concluded with a verse about how death itself might be defeated by anti-aging science or cryogenics.

As one attendee – envisioning that – told me, “in 100 years, people are going to look back at Secular Solstice as the beginning of a new era.” After all, he said, when it came to religion, he didn’t “want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

In a country where religious people tend to be happier than the 24 percent who identify as “religiously unaffiliated,” it makes sense perhaps that groups bent on optimizing human behavior would try to salvage what they see as the measurable good from religious experience.

To “hack the good” from religion, then, means taking away metaphysical truth or a higher power from religion so that it becomes fundamentally a communal activity designed to reinforce group bonds and, no less importantly, group values.

Those values include religious principles such as altruism, but members of these secular communities are invited in turn to commit themselves to scientific research to solve social problems, including death itself, if only by helping to fund such research. In doing so they affirm their membership in the group.

The singing of Monty Python ditties or another one we sang last weekend from the video game Portal similarly fosters a language for common values and shared references — a secular answer to a hymnal or prayer book.

“Before the solstice,” one attendee told me, speaking about last year’s event, “we were a group of strangers. Afterwards, we were a community.”

The secular solstice raises the wider question of whether and how other communities fill that gap. Book clubs, fitness classes, internet fandoms and fetish communities set aside special time for meditation or mindfulness, meeting in gyms, coffee shops and virtual realms set aside for creative practice, apart from home or work.

In that, they share more than a little with the structure and ideological underpinning, say, of a formal Catholic liturgy.

Indeed, the 20th-century historian of religions Mircea Eliade saw religion itself as precisely about the separation of “sacred” and “profane,” a mechanism for organizing time and space into the categories of ordinary and extraordinary.

Most of the religiously unaffiliated among us may not go so far as to seek out a secular solstice come wintertime, or any ritual. But it’s worth asking what practices in our own lives separate out the “sacred” and “profane,” and what kind of faith we have like the Rationalists’ and Effective Altruists’ belief in the potential for human triumph over sickness and death.

How do the hours, and places, we set apart reflect who we are? What poems, song and other forms of art comprise our own “hymns”? Ultimately, it means understanding the way we manifest elements of religious identity in our daily life – regardless of what it says about a higher power.

About the author

Tara Isabella Burton

Burton, who received a doctorate in theology from Oxford University, is at work on a book about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in America, to be published in November 2020 by Public Affairs. Her novel, “Social Creature,” was published in June 2018.

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