Secular Solstice: Doing good for goodness’ sake

Secular Solstice: Doing good for goodness’ sake

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.

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 of 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 of Raymond Arnold

“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, he said, is a main focus of the event.

“When we sing with each other we forget ourselves and find a sense of belonging,” he 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.”

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

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,” another reader told the gathered, “there is no God to put a limit on the good that we can do.”

Alex 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.”

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2 thoughts on “Secular Solstice: Doing good for goodness’ sake

  1. Living here in a little hamlet with 5 other neighbors, on the shortest day of the year, reinforces the reasons why we humans need to celebrate ourselves and reaffirm the ties of friendship that bind us together. I’m hosting a Christmas dinner for 6, including myself. I have gone to country midnight masses here and have been deeply moved by the unbroken traditions. It’s not religious for me, obviously, but I become immersed in the emotion. I love to sing along with everyone else. Maybe it’s easier to view things like this here, because religion does not have the same stranglehold on the minds of most of the people I know as it does in America. I see the creeping marketing of Christmas here….yesterday was the make or break day for many retailers…but, I am looking forward to eating as many oysters as I can on Christmas eve and being with old friends. We will go to the midnight mass in the 12th century Templar Church in Ajat…and since I will be full of oysters, white wine, a shot or two of cognac and other assorted Christmas Eve treats, I will definitely surrender to the force and sing along with everyone else. These are the little things we humans do that don’t necessarily make sense, but make each other feel good, and let me take this opportunity to wish you a very Happy Solstice. Go ahead and celebrate. You made it through 2014!

  2. Enjoy your traditions! And I am jealous of that 12 Century Templar church! What wonderful and historical sites you have there. Enjoy them and the Christmas meal.

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