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» Hatrack River Forum » Active Forums » Books, Films, Food and Culture » Landmark: My Solstice Celebration

   
Author Topic: Landmark: My Solstice Celebration
Raymond Arnold
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A few years ago I realized that Christmas Eve was actually one of my favorite times of the year. The extended family gets together, sings Christmas carols for hours and then reads a few stories, sometimes while literally roasting chestnuts over an open fire. I’ve invited a friend whose initial response was incredulous (“Wait, people actually DO this in real life, not just in the movies?”) but by the end of the night was saying “OMG I had no idea Christmas could be so awesome!.”

The night begins with fun, boisterous songs about Santa, and ends with solemn, beautiful hymns about the birth of Jesus. I appreciate the emotional arc that goes with the night. But I’ve become increasingly frustrated that I have to turn to religious stories that I don’t really believe in to get the particular kind of experience that Christmas offers.

In the last year I’ve become involved with a decent sized community of skeptic friends, and a few weeks ago I put together a Solstice party for us, paying tribute to all the hard working people who have come before us, for whom winter was often a matter of life and death, who shaped their future so that we could enjoy the winter in comfort. We ended with a promise to do our own part, working for a future even better.

I put together a songbook for the evening, and I’ve spent the past few weeks writing a “Director’s cut” that explains my design process, motivation, and ultimately summarizes my current beliefs about the world. The book is written for an atheist audience, I don’t know how exactly it’ll read to a theist. But I wanted to share the opening story here:

quote:

A Just So Story, true enough for our purposes:

The Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year. It is a time of cold and darkness.

It marks the beginning of the return of the light. The days once again grow longer. But it does not mark the end of the cold. For months afterward, the world is frigid and life is fragile. For young civilizations, if you hadn’t spent the year preparing adequately for the future, then before spring returned, you would run out of food and die. If you hadn’t striven to use your tribe’s collective wisdom, to work hard beyond what was necessary for immediate gratification... if you hadn’t harnessed the physical and mental tools that humans have but that few other animals do... then the universe, unflinchingly neutral, would destroy you without a thought. And even if you did do these things, it might kill you anyway. Because fairness isn’t built into the equations of the cosmos.

But it wasn’t just the threat of death that inspired the first winter holidays. It was that sense of unfairness, coupled with the desperate hope that world couldn’t really be that unfair. It wouldn’t have occurred to the first squirrels that stored food for winter, but it gradually dawned upon ancient hominids, as their capacity for abstract reasoning developed, alongside their desire to throw parties.

Our tendency is to anthropomorphize. Today, we angrily yell at our cars and computers when they fail us. Rationally we know they are unthinking hulks of metal, but we still ascribe malevolence when the real culprit is a broken, unsentient machine.

There are plausible reasons for humans to have evolved this trait. One of the most complicated tasks a human has to do is predict the actions of other humans. We need to be able to make allies, to identify deceptive enemies, to please lovers. I’m not an evolutionary psychologist and I should be careful when telling this sort of Just-So story, but I can easily imagine selection pressures that resulted in a powerful ability to draw conclusions about sentient creatures similar to ourselves.

And then, there was not a whole lot of pressure to not use this tool to predict, say, the weather. Many natural forces are just too complex for humans to be good at predicting. The rain would come, or it wouldn’t, regardless of whether we ascribed it to gods or “emergent complexity.” So we told stories about gods, with human motivations, and we honestly believed them because there was nothing better.

And then, we had the solstice.

The world was dark and cold. The sun had retreated, leaving us only with the pale moon and stars that lay incredibly far away. There was the enroaching threat of death, and just as powerfully, there was the threat that sentient cosmic forces that held supreme power over our world were turning their backs on us. And the best we could hope for was to throw a celebration in their honor and pray that they wouldn’t be angry forever, that the sun would return and the world would be reborn.

And regardless, take a moment to be glad for having worked hard the previous year, so that we had meat stored up and wine that had finished fermenting.

But as ages passed, people noticed something interesting: there was a pattern to the gods getting angry. Weather may be complex and nigh-unpredictable. But the movements of the heavens... they follow rules simple enough for human minds to understand, if only you take the time to look.

We had a question. “When will the sun retreat, and when will it return?”

When you really care about knowing the answer, you can’t make something up. When you need to plan your harvest and prepare for winter so that your family doesn’t starve, you can’t just say “Oh, God will stop getting angry in a few months.” If you want real knowledge, that you can apply to make your world better, then you need to do science.

Astronomy was born.

I want to give you some perspective on how much we cared about this. Stonehenge is an ancient archaeological wonder. To the best of our knowledge, it began as a burial site around 3000 BCE. Over the next thousand years, it was gradually built, in major phases of activity every few hundred years. Between 2600 and 2400 BCE, there was a surge of construction. Huge stones were carted over huge distances, to create a monument that’s lasted five thousand years.

30 Sarsen stones. Each of them was at least 25 tons. They were carried 25 miles.
80 bluestones. Four tons each. Carried over 150 miles.

In this era, the height of locomotive technology was “throw it on a pile of logs and roll it.”

We don’t know exactly how they did all this. We don’t know all the reasons why. But we know at least one: The megaliths at Stonehenge are arranged, very specifically, to predict the Solstices. To the moment of dawn.

30 stones, each 25 tons, carried over 25 miles. 80 stones, each four tons, each carried over 150 miles.

I want to repeat that last part one more time because it blows my mind. Eighty stones, each eight thousand pounds, dragged over one hundred and fifty miles, over the course of two hundred years.

That’s how much we cared about the answer to that question.



[ January 03, 2012, 12:35 PM: Message edited by: Raymond Arnold ]

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TomDavidson
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Speaking as an atheist, I think that's rather brilliantly done.
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twinky
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Very cool.
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Glenn Arnold
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quote:
Rationally we know they are unthinking hulks of metal, but we still ascribe malevolence when the real culprit is a broken, unsentient machine.
Well, some of us curse the engineers that designed them. It never occurred to me how "rationalist" it was for me to do that, though.
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Raymond Arnold
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In that one particular sentence, I actually meant the colloquial definition of the word "rational". Although it works either way.
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Mike
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More LW on Hatrack is good. [Smile]
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Rakeesh
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Heh, fitting for this thread, not many hours ago two religiously conservative, even fundamentalist-at least to me, but they both watch a LOT of football every single Sunday-coworkers were remarking, "It's funny how everyone celebrates Christmas, isn't it?" to each other in a tone meant to carry.*

I immediately thought, "Yeah it's just crazy how human beings all over the world that can see the sky take special note of absolutely recurring noteworthy events like length of day and night. Weird." But that's not the kind of stance that ever gets very far with them-one response would be, "Why do you think Jesus was born at that time, hmm?" with a smug sneer.

This is a pretty eloquent, touching explanation of how religious (and in this country, Christian in particular) appropriation of the solstice is bunk. Thanks for sharing, Raymond:)

*when they went on to wax rhapsodic of the beauties of God's love and infinitely merciful plan, I wondered aloud, in a voice likewise meant to carry, just how loving someone could be who says 'worship obey and love me or I'll torture you for wternity'. They quickly said, "Let's change the subject." Schmucks.

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rivka
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May be funny, but it ain't true. [Razz]
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Rakeesh
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Oh, sure, I mean it's complete, obvious nonsense on religious grounds too. Even without dipping into the well or steadily decreasing church attendance throughout the country, it's very easy to point out, "Yeah, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus sure love them some Christmas!" Of course that would promptly devolve to, "Yeah, but even they can tell there's something remarkable about that time of year. They're responding to Christ even if they don't know it."

One of those cases where the response is easily predictable because it's the easiest explanation for why they're not wrong after all. Such as, "There's no evidence for evolution."

"Yeah there is, there are plenty of...(brief slightly informed layman description of fossil record)."

"No, there aren't." Heh, it's still funny when I remember it. Just flat-out denial. Such and such hasn't been discovered because it doesn't exist, and if you want evidence you just need to listen to this discredited religious college doctor who talks about how the Earth ain't more than several thousand years old and he proves it, you're being led astray by the Devil (seriously) if you won't hear the truth when it's so obvious.

Man, I should wear a wire, heh. This 'Christian', when bragging or angry, also has a habit of pointing out how skilled he is at martial arts and fighting, and threatening in a trash-talking kind of way, to see you on the street.

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Raymond Arnold
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quote:
This is a pretty eloquent, touching explanation of how religious (and in this country, Christian in particular) appropriation of the solstice is bunk. Thanks for sharing, Raymond
I'm not sure that's the angle to best view it. I mean, yes, I think many other holidays that take place around the Solstice are bunk, but that's because I think the religion that generated them was untrue. The fact they appropriated existing culture doesn't really bother me. Culture evolves. I certainly appropriated existing symbols to create the evening.

Glad the narrative worked though. Thanks.

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Rakeesh
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No, you're right. I didn't mean to suggest your theme was, I don't know, in the vein of a persuasive essay or advertisement or anything. I just meant to say, and I think this might explain my thoughts better, that your experience in itself serves as an eloquent rebuttal to the idea that holidays, even sacred holidays, are religious in general or Christian in particular. Religion isn't necessary to recognize and experience awe at great and powerful events and ideas, and this experience illustrates that.
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Samprimary
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quote:
But that's not the kind of stance that ever gets very far with them-one response would be, "Why do you think Jesus was born at that time, hmm?"
quote:
Christmas: The first Christmas was celebrated thousands of years ago by pagans to give glory to the invincible sun god. Years later, the emperor of Rome also declared that this was the day of the birth of Jesus, based on the evidence in the Book of I'm The F------g Emperor of Rome. And so, although Jesus's birthday was probably not on December 25th, everyone pretends it was. This remains the only inconsistensy between the Bible and absolute fact.

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Raymond Arnold
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quote:
Originally posted by Rakeesh:
No, you're right. I didn't mean to suggest your theme was, I don't know, in the vein of a persuasive essay or advertisement or anything. I just meant to say, and I think this might explain my thoughts better, that your experience in itself serves as an eloquent rebuttal to the idea that holidays, even sacred holidays, are religious in general or Christian in particular. Religion isn't necessary to recognize and experience awe at great and powerful events and ideas, and this experience illustrates that.

To be perfectly honest, the story (and the larger essay that it's an introduction to) IS intended to be persuasive and (in some ways) an advertisement to a certain type of person, but it's advertising humanism, not atheism, and it's targeting atheists, not Christians.

(The broader essay is also sort of intended to be selling humanism to transhumanists and transhumanism to humanists, if that makes any sense at all)

[ January 08, 2012, 01:10 AM: Message edited by: Raymond Arnold ]

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Teshi
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I always recognise the Solstices. Not in a silly, druidic way, but if I'm able to, I'll light a candle and have a moment.
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Samprimary
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I don't think we have ever really cared for or against any religious/jesus' birthday overtones of christmas, any more so than we care about whether santa is involved. Christmas manages to be a wonderful event at our house nevertheless.
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Raymond Arnold
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Sort of odd, appearing to be the only one in the thread who actual celebrates Christmas in a way that acknowledges Jesus.
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Teshi
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Well, I didn't mention Christmas, but aside from the songs, I don't really recognise it as Jesus' birthday either. I celebrate it in its earlier form as the Feast of Mithras.

[Wink]

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Dan_Frank
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quote:
Originally posted by Raymond Arnold:
(The broader essay is also sort of intended to be selling humanism to transhumanists and transhumanism to humanists, if that makes any sense at all)

Speaking as someone who's sympathetic to humanism and transhumanism both, not only does this statement make sense, but I also thought the piece was really awesome. Well done, man! [Smile]
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Raymond Arnold
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Thanks. Curious: did the transhumanism actually come across in the initial section I posted here? (This would surprise me) or did you look over the rest of the book? Or did my statement just make intuitive sense on its own?
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Dan_Frank
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The statement makes sense to me on it's own, at least the way I interpreted it. Because some of my problems with transhumanism are solved by humanism, and vice versa.

My comment on the statement making sense and the actual piece you posted being great were largely separate (in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have phrased it the way I did, within the same sentence, as I see now how it looks). I've opened the book, but haven't really read past the intro yet.

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Raymond Arnold
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It's a fairly long book, so fair enough. I did design it to work as a coherent piece on its own, without prior knowledge, and I'm curious how it reads to a random internet denizen. If you have the time I'd appreciate it.
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Dan_Frank
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Not sure if I count as a random internet denizen in this context. I'm pretty familiar with the ideas of the LW community and with Bayesian rationalism in general. I disagree with it on some fundamental points, so I wouldn't call myself one of them, but I'm also not going in blind.

Nevertheless, when I read it I'll be happy to give you feedback! [Smile]

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