Religious Aspects of DisCon III’s Opening Ceremonies

Opinion by Joel Zakem: I recently read an account of an assembly at a PUBLIC high school in Huntington, West Virginia. According to the Associated Press report: “[w]hen students arrived at the event in the school’s auditorium, they were instructed to close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer, Mays said. The teens were asked to give their lives over to Jesus to find purpose and salvation. Those who did not follow the Bible would go to hell when they died, they were told.”    

This is nothing new. An almost identical assembly took place at Newport, KY, (PUBLIC) High School when I was a student between 1967-71. During a mandatory Easter assembly, the student body was told that if they did not accept Jesus as their savior, they would all go to hell. As the only Jewish student, as far as I know, in that high school, I was appalled, but sat there without saying anything. An atheist friend of mine did walk out, and was immediately suspended. Fifty plus years later, I still regret not following his lead.

Perhaps that is why I have always been sensitive (some may say overly sensitive) about events like what occurred during opening ceremonies at DisCon III. I’m also very disappointed (partially based on the con’s quick action to the complaints concerning Raytheon) in the lack of response from that Worldcon’s committee after I raised my concern more than a month ago.

Admittedly, I did not attend DisCon III’s opening ceremonies in person. While I had purchased an attending membership, I decided I was not yet ready for an in person con. Having attended numerous Worldcons since 1973 (and having worked on a few), however, I was interested enough to follow what was going on at Worldcon on various social media platforms. It was on FaceBook where I first saw friends’ posting about Opening Ceremonies. According to what was posted, some of the musical selections performed by students from the Duke Ellington School spotlighted the religious aspects of the Christmas holiday.

My immediate reaction was that this was not an appropriate part of Opening Ceremonies, especially since, as far as I know, the religious aspect of the performance was not contained in the descriptions in any convention publication. The online description of Opening Ceremonies says, in its entirety: “Welcome to the convention. We will present the First Fandom and Big Heart awards, as well as remarks from the Chair.” The December 9, 2021, news release about the choir’s participation did not mention that there would be a religious component to the performance.

Still, as I noted, I was not there, and therefore did not make any type of inquiry to the convention committee until I had the opportunity to see the ceremony for myself. On January 8, 2022, however, I made a post on the “DisCon III – The 79th Worldcon Group” FaceBook page mentioning what I had read concerning the ceremony, which generated numerous comments from all sides, including those who attended in person.

Even though I do not believe that DisCon III has officially announced that attending and virtual members can now view portions of the program on line, I was able to watch Owning Ceremonies a few days later. Therefore, on January 12, I posted the following [slightly edited for clarity and to correct a few typos] to the same FaceBook group: Having watched [Opening Ceremonies] in its entirety, I am definitely on the side of those who thought the performance of the choir from the Duke Ellington School was inappropriate (and this is, in no ways is a judgment on the talent exhibited by the choir which, as many have noted, was excellent). It has everything to do with the groups choice of material, and the committee’s support of allowing opening ceremonies to contain an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.

To be honest, while the first three songs had nothing to do with SF or fandom, they were more seasonal than religious and basically innocuous. It was only in the remainder of the performance where the religious aspects of the Christmas holiday were celebrated. As a non-Christian, I thought that this had no place in opening ceremonies, especially since nothing in the schedule referenced any type of religious content.

It is hard to say what my reaction would have been had I attended the con, and opening ceremonies, in person. Would I have walked out? I think that I might well have, which would have meant that I would have missed the taped remarks from Bob Madle, which followed the choir and had more to do with fandom than their performance. Would I have complained about it during the next day’s gripe session. Most probably, so long as I was able to get up that early.

Once again, my post generated numerous comments on all sides. One individual suggested that I get off of my high horse. Another helpfully suggested that I should directly make my concerns known the the convention’s committee.

The second sounded like a good idea, and on January 13, I sent an abbreviated version of my FaceBook post to the DisCon III information address (which was the only email address that I found on the DisCon III web page). That same day, I received a response from DisCon III’s Division Head, Member & Staff Services, saying (in its entirety): “Thank you for your feedback. I have passed it on internally.”

That is the only response I have, so far, received from DisCon III. I did send a follow up email on February 4, 2022, but it also received no response.

I do realize that the performance at opening ceremony was, in no way, as egregious as forcing students to attend a mandatory assembly promoting a certain religion. Still, DisCon III’s Code of Conduct does express a goal of promoting “an inclusive community” and, in my humble opinion, I do not think spotlighting one region’s holiday does that. I would have felt the same way if the Choir had spotlighted the religious aspects of Hanukkah, or any other religions’ holiday, to the exclusion of others.

I also realize that many cons, including Worldcons, have scheduled gatherings or services for followers of particular religions, including mine, as part of their official program. I have no problem with these, and have even attended a few. The purpose of these, however, were plainly set out in the program. As far as I have been able to determine, there was nothing in the description of DisCon’s opening ceremonies that warned people that there would be a performance advancing the tenants of one particular religion. That is why I thought it was inappropriate.

DisCon III members, at least those with attending or virtual memberships, can watch Opening Ceremonies after logging in.

25 thoughts on “Religious Aspects of DisCon III’s Opening Ceremonies

  1. You are not alone. I was there and usually I am pretty oblivious, but even I could tell this was not a great choice of song material for a Worldcon ceremony. Some of my friends said it made them feel excluded and uncomfortable. That is a shame. Worldcon should be welcoming to all faiths and philosophical traditions.

    Students and teachers from the Duke Ellington School were heavily involved in tech at the convention, which I think is a big part of why DisCon was able to have so many programs online. I’m not aware of this kind of relationship between a high school and a Worldcon before. I think it was a great idea. But it is hard to do something new without making any mistakes.

  2. Since (one hopes) no future Worldcons will be held in December, this is a self-limiting problem, yes?

  3. I believe I voiced opinions supporting your objections on Facebook; if not, I would have.

    I refused to stand for the pledge in elementary school and spent several years of beginning my school day outside of the classroom, standing in the hallway. (They actually thought that being separated from my classmates was some kind of punishment, lol).

    And I will admit that I find religious programming of any kind at a SCIENCE Fiction convention to be a bit odd, but then Fans are an odd bunch.

    Suffice to say, Discon III crossed whatever line there may be with their opening ceremony.

  4. @NickPheas: Good question. The songs in question were, I believe, Whose Child is This, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, Come Let Us Adore Him, and Emmanuel.

  5. I happen to not be a Christian and love those songs but I can see the problem. There are so many secular seasonal songs which are essentially songs celebrating winter that have no actual references to Christmas.

  6. What struck me is that for a convention that was going out of its way to be inclusive in so many ways, they arranged to turn over a major part of their opening ceremony to something that was exclusionary.

    Yes, they were being inclusive by bringing the students in, and I’m sure that the group had a set holiday list they performed, but it was extremely short sighted of the coordinators not to think about how much it sent a message to members who were Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, atheist, agnostic, etc. (let alone those who have been specifically driven away from the Christianity they were raised in) that they were “other.”

  7. Which is the greater offense:

    The offense to non-Christians by including a few religious Christmas songs in an opening ceremony?
    or
    The offense to people of faith by insisting that Worldcon may not have any religious aspects?

  8. Pingback: AMAZING NEWS FROM FANDOM: 2/20/22 - Amazing Stories

  9. @bill

    You are punching the strawperson again, I see, and either not reading or deliberately ignoring the post’s clearly stated paragraph:

    I also realize that many cons, including Worldcons, have scheduled gatherings or services for followers of particular religions, including mine, as part of their official program. I have no problem with these, and have even attended a few. The purpose of these, however, were plainly set out in the program. As far as I have been able to determine, there was nothing in the description of DisCon’s opening ceremonies that warned people that there would be a performance advancing the tenants of one particular religion. That is why I thought it was inappropriate.

    But that is your modus operandi as far as I can tell–throwing a hissy fit about what was not actually said. It’s tiresome. 🙄

    .

  10. The offense to non-Christians by including a few religious Christmas songs in an opening ceremony?
    or
    The offense to people of faith by insisting that Worldcon may not have any religious aspects?

    Bill, is it wrong to offend Hindus by providing roast beef sandwiches in the consuite, and not including Ganesh Chaturthi songs in the opening ceremonies? After all, that’s a major religious festival that falls during Worldcon, celebrated by over a billion people….

    I find the binary nature of your contention here confusing at best and misleading at worst. Rather like Pascal’s Wager, which sounds facile on the face of it but ignores the possibilities that God might be more offended by pretense than honest unbelief, or that Zeus might be really miffed that you’re choosing to pretend to worship Jesus rather than him…

    Fandom is multinational and multicultural. A basic respect for fans suggests that we try not to overly privilege any particular culture over any other (other than, of course, Fannish culture, which I contend should be privileged at SF conventions — but which is not static, and changes from generation to generation of fan).

  11. Bonnie McDaniel says But that is your modus operandi as far as I can tell–throwing a hissy fit about what was not actually said. It’s tiresome

    My religious beliefs are that everything is sacred particularly felines and I had no problem at all with these opening ceremonies, so I agree with Bonnie that you are throwing a hissy fit, a fine phrase indeed, over something that was not actually said.

    Now relistening to P. Djeli Clarke’s A Master of Djinn because it’s that damn good.

  12. Well, the UK National Convention is generally known as Eastercon (alongside its ‘agreed’ name) because it takes place over the Easter weekend, given that this is a four-day-weekend and thus a convenient time. And yet even as a Christian, I don’t expect the event to have any sort of official religious component; it would seem incredibly inappropriate, not to say irrelevant.

    But I also suspect that this was the sort of thing that didn’t appear to be religious to the organisers so much as just a cultural component. I would tend to think that registering an objection was worthwhile, but it doesn’t feel as though it deserves to lead to any sort of massive internal inquiry, unlike some other incidents! I do imagine that it means that someone at future planning meetings may remember it and that’s often enough.

  13. bill’s straw being fallacy aside, I was at those Opening Ceremonies, and as the choir got into the very overtly religious songs, I found myself thinking WTF.
    As in, was this a Worldcon in a supposedly more inclusive time and climate, or the start of CPAC ?
    Yes, as perhaps we won’t have any more Worldcons in December (We hope), this specific example should be a one of, but it does raise the question for future concoms to vet the outside performers they allow to perform to the attending audience for what they intend to perform, and whether it fits within the themes of fandom and inclusiveness.

  14. Since DisCon III took place in December, seasonal songs during the opening ceremony are acceptable IMO.

    That said, there are a lot of wonderful holiday songs that are less explicitly religious than Whose Child is This, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, Come Let Us Adore Him, and Emmanuel, all of which are lovely songs, but not appropriate to an explicitly multicultural event like Worldcon.

    If the choir wanted to perform those songs, a separate concert of Christmas songs would have been a more appropriate venue than the opening ceremony. That way, members who prefer not to listen to explicitly religious Christmas carols could have avoided them.

  15. @Cassy B.

    A basic respect for fans suggests that we try not to overly privilege any particular culture over any other (other than, of course, Fannish culture, which I contend should be privileged at SF conventions — but which is not static, and changes from generation to generation of fan).

    Once upon a time, Fannish Culture included a large dose of toleration, and recognition of the fact that when someone else has a belief (religious, political, sexual, etc.) system different than yours, a shared interest in SF was sufficient to bring fans together, and allowed one to overlook and politely ignore beliefs that were different, or even offensive.

    If it is important not to privilege one set of beliefs over others, it would seem just as important not to say that one set of beliefs must be suppressed over others.

    I didn’t take the performance of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir to be an official statement of Discon III, but rather a combination of two things: An entertainment to start off the convention, and a showcase of local talent and culture. The Duke Ellington choir is a mostly Black group of students, coming from a mostly Black school in a mostly Black community. And Black American culture has always included as a strong component of its singing tradition Gospel and spiritual music. You can look at their recorded performances and see that religious music is consistently a major part of their repertoire. It’s surprising that anyone would be surprised that they would include religious songs in their program, especially in a holiday season with religious origins. To suggest that they should not have included religious songs in the program is, at some level, racist.

  16. bill: Someone with your propensity for research and deep diving into subjects ought to know the myth of faannish tolerance is a falsehood. Especially since the only way to even be aware of the claim is through fanhistory. Your attempt at employing this false claim to shame people into accepting your opinion is unworthy.

  17. If you wanted to be in glee club (and, more important, glee club homeroom) in my high school in the early ’70s, that meant a Christmas program every year with the same kind of mix of secular and religious Christmas tunes (plus the token Chanukah one). My guess is that’s still the case in most high schools. What I did, as the only Jewish kid in g.c., was make substitutions: “O come let us adore him, Chrysler lord” etc.

    If I’d attended DisCon, I would have been a lot more offended by a Christian invocation than by a praise-Jesus song; especially since 2015, I don’t have much aggravation to spare.

    (At the time, in my opinion, there were new Chrysler products that remained worthy of worship…)

  18. @bill

    The offense to people of faith by insisting that Worldcon may not have any religious aspects?

    In the US, at least, the people most likely to think that cramming a “religious aspect” into Worldcon are the ones most likely to refer to me as an idol-worshiping heretic, so I’m totally not offended by Worldcon not including any such aspects.

  19. @bill,

    Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom are fundamentally unrelated to real-world religion; there’s nothing ‘christian’ or ‘muslim’ or ‘zoroastrian’ or in any way religion-specific about science fiction or fantasy in themselves.

    As such, people of any and all faiths can find things within science fiction & fantasy over which they can come together. Worldcon is an excellent place for people to do so, where they can meet other fans from all over the world, people of all faiths – and a big reason for that is precisely because Worldcon is not a religious event.

    If I meet someone who wears a cross, or a hijab, or a kippah, I can of course ‘politely ignore’ that – or strike up a conversation to get to know the person!

    But when a supposedly non-religious and religion-neutral event suddenly includes elements that look strikingly like religious worship according to one specific faith … then that makes that particular event suddenly no longer a “neutral ground” where everyone of any faith is equally welcome: because clearly, that event is favouring one religion over all others.

    And when that element is the opening ceremony, that really sets a tone that says “people of this faith are more welcome than people of all other faiths”.

    That is precisely the opposite of “recognition of the fact that when someone else has a belief (religious, political, sexual, etc.) system different than yours, a shared interest in SF was sufficient to bring fans together, and allowed one to overlook and politely ignore beliefs that were different, or even offensive” – because you literally can’t “overlook and politely ignore” those beliefs that are being pushed at everyone’s faces at the opening ceremony of an event.

    And if the Duke Ellington School of Arts Choir wanted to show off their skills, there are excellent ways to do that without pushing a specific, non-fannish culture into the mix.

    Could they not have chosen something of more fan-cultural significance? Performances like those of A Cruel Angel’s Thesis or Still Alive (just to pick examples of two favourite genre-related songs of mine) show that that is eminently doable!

    So yeah – if we want fannish culture to be inclusive and open and welcoming to everyone, then not shoving one particular set of beliefs into everyone’s faces (especially at the opening ceremonies!) at an event where that really is not supposed to happen, is … a better idea than trying to handwave such a suboptimal choice away.

    [Aside: A Cruel Angel’s Thesis is of course from the seminal Neon Genesis Evangelion, which includes religions aspects – Angels, Eve, Lilith, lots of concepts and imagery from Jewish and Christian mythology, through a science-fiction-ish lens and perspective. So that is actually an example of how religious aspects can live within a SF&F context, and without pushing a current-real-world agenda onto people.]

  20. @Mike, et al:

    You are correct in your statement “…the myth of faannish tolerance is a falsehood”, but what goes unmentioned is that the concept is an ideal, not a myth. I hope one that is still being pursued.

    In that respect, Bill is correct “Once upon a time, Fannish Culture included a large dose of toleration, and recognition of the fact that when someone else has a belief (religious, political, sexual, etc.) system different than yours, a shared interest in SF was sufficient to bring fans together, and allowed one to overlook and politely ignore beliefs that were different, or even offensive.”,

    IF you make some edits:

    ETA: “Once upon a time, Fannish Culture talked and wrote about the importance of toleration, and recognition of the fact that when someone else has a belief (religious, political, sexual, etc.) system different than yours, it was important for fans to remind themselves that a shared interest in SF ought to have been (be) sufficient to bring fans together, and allowed one to overlook and politely ignore beliefs that were different, or even offensive, so long as those beliefs and offenses didn’t cross the line into harassment, and that gentle ways to correct such behaviors ought to be the recourse for handling them.”

    Ideals represent the goal, not the reality. Sadly, I believe we have largely lost sight of the goal as well, but that is a broader and deeper discussion than whether or not too much tolerance was being requested at DC3.

  21. I have an idea about how Joel Zakem felt, because I was once actually co-opted into a religious service for a faith that is not mine. For twenty years, I sang in a high-level local choir that did all sorts of music. Most of the chorus members were older, they were overwhelmingly white, and through conversations I heard, many of them also performed with their (Christian) church choirs.

    Several years ago, we did a concert of gospel music, which I happen to love as music, though I am not Christian. The few Jewish members of the choir had been excused from singing that weekend, as it fell during some Jewish holiday period. We rehearsed the music as straight music, with no religion attached. Our first performance, at a church (most choirs use churches as performance venues because they’re cheaper to rent), we sang our concert of music qua music.

    However, our Sunday concert was different. We went to a black church in San Jose, where we sang with some of their choir members. Before we went onstage, we were instructed to hold hands to pray; I said nothing, but I got some funny looks when I did not join hands. Then we gave our concert, and partway through, our conductor turned the concert over to the church’s pastor. All of a sudden we were co-opted into his worship service, being asked to praise Jesus, say Alleluia, affirm what he was saying, etc. I briefly considered walking offstage, but I was standing on choral risers surrounded by singers packed around me. So I just kept my mouth shut when not singing our music.

    Afterward, I was very upset and talked to several choir members about it. Most of them just did not see why I was upset. I complained to my section leader, who didn’t really get it either, and although puzzled, she said she’d pass my complaint to her hgher-ups. I heard nothing more about it.

    II think there’s a difference between the analogy of (1) having, say, bacon or shrimps as part of a choose-your-own buffet, as someone mentioned above (or having meat at all, which many people object to in an almost faith-based sort of way), and (2) going to a ceremonial occasion (like the Opening Ceremonies) that is supposed to be for all and being essentially preached at without warning by the official entertainment being of a religious nature, and (3) being put into a situation where you are being forced to participate in a religious service, without notice, as happened to both Joel (in school) and myself.

    I have no problem with (1), because choices are merely being provided. I also have no problem with the morning worship services often offered at cons by con members (in the Bay Area, we have Brother John, a Catholic priest, who does the honors for the Christians). Nor do I have any problem with panels discussing religious topics on panels. (Nor do I have a problem attending religious weddings, as all know that I am an observer, but not a participant in the faith activities.)

    I do, however, have problems with situations with a certain degree of ceremony where everyone is supposed to be welcome, but there is the pushing of a point of view that makes some feel unwelcome. I think that the con should have vetted the entertainment beforehand, to find out what the band was performing and ask them to choose non-religious pieces. (Another reason a con might want to vet entertainment in a ceremonial situation would be to assure that it would not be of an “adult nature”, either sexual or potty-mouth; there are other times and panels at cons where this sort of thing is welcome by those who choose to participate.)

    The tone of many of the comments above makes me think that not many of you have been faced with a situation like mine, or Joel’s in his school, that produced such a strong reaction in you. Trust me that for some of us, this can be very upsetting.

  22. Steve Davidson: How gently you try to “correct” my rejection of the false myth of faannish tolerance, but it’s still false. Fandom has never been any different than the society it draws from. For every idealist who preached love of sf conquers all, there was a Laney counting and outing the homosexual members of LASFS. There was a Moskowitz booting people out of the first tiny Worldcon. If it wasn’t any more misogynistic than the rest of society it wasn’t any less, and for its first four decades had very few women participants. The same applies today — the people who think those welcoming ideals should actually apply can always count on resistance from those who haven’t been feeling any pain.

  23. @Bill

    *it would seem just as important not to say that one set of beliefs must be suppressed over others.

    To suggest that they should not have included religious songs in the program is, at some level, racist.*

    Your assertions are patent nonsense, and as Rachel Maddow would say, bullpuckey to boot. There are plenty of Christmas-y songs out there that are not Jesus-y. I could rattle off four or five off the top of my head without breaking a sweat (and I double checked the lyrics): “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Silver Bells,” Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and I’m sure many others. All it would have taken when the Duke Ellington choir was hired was to present them with the conditions for this job: Christmas-y without being obviously Christian. There are alternate songs they could have sung. Or if they felt they couldn’t have done that, they could have turned down the job. Either way, all it would have taken was a little planning and consideration on the con’s part. Not being blatantly Christian is not oppression, you know.

  24. I attended opening ceremonies and assumed that the Christmas songs would be the winter and Santa songs. Instead I was assaulted by a highly religious Christian worship service with no warning. For all the convention’s talk of inclusion, apparently, this did not apply to matters of religion. Once again Christian privilege was just accepted as the norm with no apology ever given to those of other faiths.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.