Sky Lanterns: A New Humanist Ritual

Humanist communities need more wonder.

This isn’t the fault of humanist communities. Most religious communities also need more wonder. Most people need more wonder.

(The words “awe” and “transcendence” could stand in for “wonder” – I’m referring to that whole category of emotions.)

Whether it comes from the high note of a gospel hymn or the highest rocket in a fireworks display, wonder might just be the single best emotion. Mix wonder with affection, and you get love. Aim for wonder in your daily life, and you have a chance to avoid the hedonic treadmill that so often drags down the pursuit of pleasure. As far as I know, wonder never gets boring.

Unfortunately, wonder can be hard to find on a regular basis. I don’t feel it as often as I’d like. And when I do, it’s hard to tell whether the things that give me that feeling will also work for other people.

(For example, most people don’t think of dubstep as a quasi-religious experience.)

But a few months ago, I stumbled onto something I think could become a wonder-inducing ritual for humanists around the world. The ritual is cheap, safe, beautiful, and equally accessible to one person or a gathering of thousands.

I could reveal it now, but this essay will make more sense if I tell you a story first.

Light Up the Skies

Last November, the neuroscience lab I work for held a gathering to celebrate the turning of the seasons.

Sky Lanterns pic 1

After dinner, we wandered over to a nearby soccer field. We opened a box of Chinese paper lanterns and attached the fuel cells: white cubes of paraffin wax, which burn hot enough to produce many times their weight in lift.

After a few failed attempts, the head of the lab coaxed her lantern into the sky. The lanterns of the post-docs followed soon after. Finally, the students put match heads to wax, and our fire became flight.

Sky Lanterns pic 2The sun had been setting when we stepped onto the field. As the lanterns rose, the sky darkened until it became the blue color that is the opposite of burning wax.

One lantern got stuck in a tree, far out of reach. We tried in vain to free it; after a few minutes trapped in the damp branches, the fire burnt itself out. That was the sad part. The rest of our lanterns flew 50 meters into the air before the wind caught them, sending them over the treetops, farther and higher until their fires were only as bright as the stars.

They were crafted from humble materials, not much different from what the Chinese were using thousands of years ago. And still they’d soar away and float for miles, powered by just a few ounces of simple fuel.

I’d only spent about five minutes with each of my lanterns, but as they rose from the earth, I felt my heart rise with them. And then it struck me: a sense of wonder so clean and true that I stood rooted to the ground until the lanterns disappeared behind the treetops. The metaphor came to me unbidden:

The lanterns aren’t just lanterns, I thought. They are my children. I built them and lit the fire and let them go, and they left to discover a world beyond my reach.

The Future, Writ Small

Do you have children? If not, do you want children? If not, do you like children?

(I hope at least one of those worked. If not, you may not like the rest of this.)

My wish for the children of the next generation is that they’ll rise out of the reach of their parents. Fueled by the principles of tolerance and inquiry, they will fly until we can hardly see them, learn until we can hardly understand them.

I hope we’ll be able to keep up with our children, wherever they go—add to their conversations, laugh at their jokes, program their new machines—but if we can’t, it will be because they’ve transcended us.

Sky Lanterns pic 3

Our children will refine our dubious wisdom; replenish the resources we’ve spent our lives depleting; learn everything we know and then write entire textbooks out of the knowledge they discover themselves. They’ll fly to places their parents could never travel to, places their parents never even imagined.

Some will fly into trees and burn out before anyone can save them. That’s the sad part. However carefully you launch a lantern—or raise a child—part of its path is beyond your reach.

But others will float free of the grasping branches of misfortune, until the wind carries them off to parts unknown, to a future with fewer limits than the time in which we live.

The key difference is that, while sky lanterns are thoughtless constructions of paper and wire, humans are powerful biological computers. Lanterns collapse in storms, or fall when the fuel burns out. Humans, when faced with the limits of evolution, sit down and begin to build, coaxing their fires to burn brighter and stronger.

Sky Lanterns Pic 4

I fervently hope that my peers and I will discover the secrets of death and create a world where no person ever has to stop living unless they want to. But failing that, we can make progress for our children to build on. And whether it’s our children, our grandchildren, or another generation far in the future…

…someday, someone will release the first lantern that will burn for a million years.

Take On the Night

I came to the sky-lantern ritual from a certain philosophical perspective. But I believe that deep down, we all have similar wishes for the children of the future.

In the span of an hour, we can give our wishes physical form, sending our own small stars into the darkening sky. We light the fires; we let go; and we watch the things we’ve made rise under their own power. To me, the ritual is wonder incarnate.


If you’d like to buy sky lanterns, this is a good brand. They are more than worth the money. And if you’re launching in or near New Haven, I’d love to attend your sky lantern gathering. Tell me what’s happening.

Aaron Gertler (Yale University)
Aaron GertlerAaron is a member of the class of 2015 at Yale University. After he graduates, he hopes to live his life in a way that makes the lives of other people significantly better, unless he gets distracted by his dream of becoming a famous DJ/novelist/crime-fighter. His interests include electronic music, applied psychology, instrumental rationality, and effective altruism. If his beliefs are inaccurate, you should tell him so as directly as possible. You can follow him on Twitter @aarongertler, and he also writes for his own blog.

7 responses to “Sky Lanterns: A New Humanist Ritual

  1. Pingback: Sky Lanterns and the World of Tomorrow | Alpha Gamma·

  2. Yes, humanist communities need more wonder. And the lanterns are lovely, but did you not consider the danger of starting a house or forest fire? Sky lanterns are banned in over 20 states & The National Association of Fire Marshals wants them banned everywhere.


    • Dear me! Thanks for the warning, Tom. In our case, the flames were tiny and the woods were damp with the day’s earlier rain. But perhaps there’s a way to recreate this without actual fire.


  3. Pingback: Sky Lanterns and the World of Tomorrow | Alpha Gamma·

  4. Pingback: Finding the Sacred in Service to Others | Applied Sentience·

  5. Pingback: Finding the Sacred in Service to Others | Humanist Muse·

What Do You Think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s