Unrefined thoughts on some things rationalism is missing vs religions

Rationalism seems somewhat like a proto-religion to me. It has norms of behavior very different from society at large. It has apocalyptic prophecies which it’s members strive to stave off. Still, what’s missing? I think a few things:

  • Rituals
  • Symbols
  • A community
  • Institutions around which to build a rationalist life
  • The normalization of rationalism as a central identity rather than a peripheral one or a non-identity


Rituals come in many shapes and sizes. Some rituals are recurring and universal. Passover, Petrov Day or Eid all happen once a year at the same time for all believers. Others are singular and specific to the individual. A Bar-mitzvah, Hindu marriage or Irish wake all happen at different times for different individuals and mark transitions from one part of life to another. Some are happy. Others are sad.. Some are for the whole community. Think of Haj. Others are for friends and familly, think of a wedding. Others are for family alone.

I think a major purpose rituals serve is to create/reinforce identity. I’m not sure how they do this, but I have a few plausible mechanisms in mind:

  • Getting members of the same community/faith to meet and spend time together
  • Giving people time to think about important questions and their faith
  • Triggering irrational mechanisms which make our brains recognize each other as being part of the same tribe. (similar to how marching in time or wearing a uniform in the army works)

Raemon’s ritual sequence has some good thoughts on what makes rituals work and failure modes of rituals., Ruby’s wedding ceremony has some of the best speeches/rituals I’ve read.

While certain rationalists do celebrate certain rituals such as Solstice or Petrov Day, these rituals are not widely celebrated (most rationalists I know don’t celebrate them) and are few in number. Importantly, they’re also only one kind of ritual. There’s no rationalist ritual to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. From life to death. From an individual to a family. I think most pieces of the puzzle are missing.


A cross means Christianity. The Stars and Stripes means America. Every identity has it’s symbols. I think symbols are important. I’m not sure why I believe this. I know people in history Maytered themselves over symbols. Old faithers dying for the two fingers instead of three. Maybe symbols are a coordination mechanism. A way to stake out an identity in public, to make yourself visible to others in your group and those not in your group. To tell the world you as a community exist. Maybe they’re a personal reminder. Like a magic object that contains a part of your Self.


If you’re christian, you will more often than not have a community of christians you can access. This often won’t be your only community, but it’s there. Through coordination mechanisms like services, Sunday school, baptisms etc… you’ll meet people and eventually have a network of acquaintances.

That’s not the case for rationalism. In most cases you’ll have some online forums and blogs and maybe a local meet up with a few people once in a while.

Thoughts on why this is the case:

  • There are too few of us. Hence most places have too few rationalists to form a stable community.
  • Rationalists are overwhelmingly male and 20 – 35. This isn’t enough for a community, at least not the kind of one a church or religion offers.
  • We don’t have rituals. Hence meetups are awkward to organize, often stilted and revolve around the discussion of readings or rationality problems or even just lack any structure at all. Contrast this to a church where you show up every Sunday, listen to a service and then make smalltalk or go to a picnic.


The word institution is broad. Here I use it to mean a real, formal organization with rules, membership and goals. Rationalism doesn’t have enough of these.

  • We don’t have a church, whether centralized like Mormonism/Catholicism or decentralized like Protestantism/Islam. No one dedicates their life to rationalism. Maybe that’s fine. After all, in many religions priests are community members with jobs, not a separate caste.
  • No one spends real time, energy or effort evangelizing rationalism. There are some arguments for why this isn’t done more, but I think the reason we don’t proselytize isn’t that we find the arguments against proselytize convincing. Rather it’s that no one get’s around to doing it. it’s a shame. From outreach in schools and universities to free education on avoiding epistemic capture, happy death spirals and partisanship, there’s a lot Rationalism could give to the world. I doubt even 0.01% of people matching the intellectual profile of today’s lessWrongers have been exposed to rationalism.
  • There’s no rationalist education. CFAR is expensive, inaccessible, only open to adults and only processes tiny numbers. It also does not provided a rationalist education. Rather it provides a toolbox of things which may make you better at acting rationality. There’s a difference between instrumental rationality and rationalism. The former is about getting better at a skill. The latter is a systems of beliefs and values which includes reason and knowledge as one of it’s core aims. (The other being preventing the many apocalypses waiting over the horizon) I’m not sure how necessary all of these institutions are but I think at least temples/churches and some kinds of schools are necessary for a functioning religion/movement.

Rationalism as a "core" identity

People have lots of different identities. I can be an employee of my company, a software engineer, a partner to my girlfriend, a Serb, an Atheist etc… Still, some identities are more core than others. Very few people hold their love of strawberry yogurt to be deeply important, meaningful and something which undergrids their day to day life. Many people do feel that way about their Religion.

Right now I think that for many people rationalism is a peripheral identity and attempts to embrace it as a core identity are seen as cringe or culty.

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