I opened last week’s Secular Solstice by reading this. I haven’t edited it for publication; it reads like a blog post because that’s how I naturally write. (Probably not the optimal format for a speech, but oh well.)
The ideas contained in here come primarily from Raymond Arnold’s writings on humanist ritual, particularly “The Story of Winter”, and from Kevin Simler’s writings on the evolution and function of religion, particularly “Post-Atheism: Religion Refactored”.
Good evening. Welcome to Secular Solstice.
If you haven’t been to a Secular Solstice before, you might be asking yourself: What exactly are we, as secular humanists, doing here, in this building which is for ostensibly religious services, participating in a ritual which includes readings and group singing and other elements that sound suspiciously like a religious service?
If you have been to a Secular Solstice before, then go ahead and ask yourself that question anyway, because I think it turns out to be kind of a deep question.
Religion has been a feature of most human societies for the past 12,000 years or so, though some aspects of it are older. We don’t entirely understand how it began. One story, which you may have heard before if you attended a previous Solstice in New York, is that human brains have evolved to be good at dealing with other humans, so when early humans encountered natural phenomena like the weather, they tended to attribute them to human-like agents—the gods. And so they would start asking these gods for things like a good harvest, and over time these prayers and practices evolved into religion as we know it today.
It’s a neat story, but it’s not the whole story. Why the social aspects of religion? Why pray and sing and have all these rituals in public, with other people? Why isn’t religion just a personal thing?
Perhaps—and I’m not an anthropologist, I don’t know how much agreement there is on this among experts—but perhaps religion helped tribes to coordinate.
Rituals and music served to provide group bonding experiences. Myths and legends helped give the tribe a sense of shared purpose. Religious laws and commandments helped them live harmoniously with one another. Taken together, these factors could help make the members of a tribe more able to trust one another, to cooperate in prisoner’s dilemmas. And perhaps those tribes that could do this were rewarded with a greater ability to survive and reproduce than those that could not.
And sometimes, they were able to coordinate to do more than just that. Sometimes, they were able to do things like spend hundreds of years dragging hundreds of tons of stones over 150 miles to build something like Stonehenge, the ancient archaeological wonder. We don’t fully understand why Stonehenge was built, though it seems to have had some kind of ritual purpose. One theory, which has garnered a fair bit of academic support, is that Stonehenge was a place of healing. These ancient people coordinated to bring this place into existence so that the sick and injured could be ritually healed there, through the power of ringing sounds that were made by hitting the rocks.
Unfortunately, human physiology doesn’t actually work that way, and so these rituals didn’t really heal the sick. That’s the danger of this kind of cultural evolution; it can only get you so far. It might be useful to have beliefs that give you a sense of belonging with your fellow humans, but it’d be even nicer if these beliefs were, y’know, actually true. So that you don’t spend hundreds of years building a healing center that doesn’t actually work. And these sorts of evolved religions didn’t quite get there.
But of course, I’m not telling you anything here that you don’t already know. The more interesting question for secular humanists is: Can we get these benefits of religion—particularly, in the context of Secular Solstice, the benefits of ritual—without giving up the benefits that come from believing things that are actually true?
Some of us think that we can. And for the fifth year now, Secular Solstice has been a test of that hypothesis.
One way to help make this work, of course, is to be explicit about what exactly we’re trying to do. This wouldn’t have worked for the early humans—they didn’t know enough about their own history or how the universe actually functions—but it can work for us. So, instead of praying to the gods and hoping that this incidentally brings us closer together, I can just tell you directly that the theme for this Solstice is coordination—the benefits it can bring us, the challenges in making it work, and ultimately, why we as a species will need to get better at it, if we want to survive and prosper.
Speaking of the gods…perhaps we shouldn’t dispense with them entirely. They may not exist in a literal sense, but they can still be useful as metaphors. An abstract concept can be easier to wrap your head around if you give it a name and a face, as the ancients did. We may have had more practice with high-level abstract reasoning than they did, but this stuff is still complicated and we need all the help we can get in understanding it. Provided, of course, that we remain aware of what we’re doing. So in that sense, you may hear the names of a few gods spoken as part of this ritual tonight.
So that’s why we’re here tonight. We can bring ourselves closer together, and perhaps, in time, build our own Stonehenge—but one based on the truths we’ve learned about the universe.