Surrogate churches

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know that I’m an atheist and that I seldom make a big deal of it. In southern New Hampshire it’s not a problem to be one, and atheism isn’t a belief but the absence of one, so I don’t normally talk a lot about it.

I grant, though, that churches offer values which have nothing to do with the promotion of religious doctrines. They provide a sense of community and offer support to members encountering difficulties. They provide an occasion for members to gather regularly. For many church members, these benefits are more important than the belief system. (By “church” I mean any nominally religious organization with regular local gatherings, whether it’s called a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, or whatever.)

Even without a belief system, a church-like organization can offer those benefits. The Unitarians, as a church without a doctrine, demonstrate this. Other types of organization aren’t at all church-like but provide a similar community focus. An example which I’m personally familiar with is science fiction fandom. It provides regular gatherings (club meetings and conventions), often provides encouragement and support for members with problems, and takes note of important events in members’ lives. The same is even more true, for me, of its subset, filk music fandom. (Take a look here if you haven’t heard of filk before.) Because I’m a member of the filk community, there are places all over the US, and in the UK and Germany as well, where I’m welcome as a friend and can ask for help in an emergency.

You could say that SF fandom has a belief system: a belief in the future. It’s mostly an optimistic belief, one that things can become better even if there are no guarantees. It always holds that our chances are better if we’re ready for change and think about what it may be like. It accepts cultural variety; if we’re even going to think about talking with beings from another planet, we should be able to find some common ground with people from Zambia or Thailand. (I don’t mean that all cultural practices are equally valid, but that difference alone isn’t a reason for dismissal.)

Filk fandom, the part of SF fandom for whom sharing music is important, also has a central belief: that people can and should make music, even if they aren’t supremely talented, rather than just listen to the professionals. The acceptance speeches of Barry and Sally Childs-Helton at the 2003 Filk Hall of Fame Banquet are excellent statements of this belief. Sally said:

In a way, we’ve been robbed. We have robbed ourselves of the joy of making music, of dancing, of doing art. This [the filk] community has taken that and pitched it out the window and said, “We are making music because we love it, we need to do it, it feeds our souls, it feeds our community, it feed us as individuals.” And we do it.

Barry’s closing remarks hint at the potential downside of any church or surrogate church, though I don’t think he intended to:

For this and for many other reasons, I consider the people of science fiction fandom to be my people, in the ancient sense that the tribesman will look at his tribe and say “These are my people”. That someone will look at his ancestors and say “These are my people” at his close friends and say “These are my people.”

The ancient tribesman who looked at his tribe and said, “These are my people,” tended to look at everyone else and say, “There aren’t my people. They may be enemies. They may not even really be people.” People tend to divide the world between “us,” friends, and “not-us,” enemies, with any difference providing an excuse. We see this in the term “mundanes” which SF fans apply to outsiders. Mostly the term is used with good humor, commenting on the puzzlement others feel when we do things that look weird to them. Too often, though, it reflects an assumption that those other people have no imagination, that they live boring lives, that they have nothing to offer except as part of the economy. This betrays the best part of fandom. IDIC — Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations — includes so-called “mundanes.” There are many kinds of communities and interests.

Community organizations can either support or stifle its members as individuals. In Barry’s case, the use of “this is my tribe” was just an odd piece of rhetoric; the filk community doesn’t at all give the sense of living in a tribe. Both actual and surrogate churches, though, are capable of instilling a sense of deep obligation to the group and hostility to anyone who’s different. Each organization has to be judged by whether it encourages its members to think for themselves, accept their own uniqueness, and respect differences.

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4 Responses to “Surrogate churches”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    As you noted, churches often provide an unhealthy function which many people find highly valuable: providing their members with an us-vs-them sense of identity, defining themselves as members of an in-group that is hostile to or disdainful of outsiders/unbelievers/infidels/goys/mundanes.

    A major way in which churches fulfill this function is through projection; by convincing their members that it is the outsiders who are hostile to or disdainful of the church and all it stands for, thus justifying their members in reciprocating this attitude. Churches often encourage their members to have an exaggerated sense of how hostile outsiders are to them and their beliefs, or, where such hostility does not in fact exist, to imagine it.

    We can see this in fandom. You will often hear conversations among fen about how disdainful mundanes are of science-fiction and of fandom; such perceived disdain is almost always exaggerated, often entirely imagined, and always clearly an important source of pride and joy to the fan who talks about it.

    Unfortunately, this unhealthy aspect of churches, and of surrogate churches such as fandom, was reinforced among filkers by Sally Childs-Helton’s 2003 acceptance speech. The center of the speech was an attack on the attitude, allegedly pervasive in western culture, of hostility towards unskilled artistic expression. The main point of the speech is that filkdom is a fight against a grave wrong committed by a hostile world; that the motivation behind filk is not that we enjoy it, but that “we’ve been robbed”.

    I have never seen any evidence of any such hostility in the culture at large, anything to stop those who enjoy artistic expression from engaging in it whatever their level of skill or native talent. I believe the anti-unskilled-art attitude of western culture existed, up to 2003, only in the imaginations of some academics; and, since 2003, also in the imaginations of many filkers.

    The one good thing I can say about Sally Childs-Helton’s speech, is that I don’t think it has had much actual influence on the filk community. If filkers were to take the speech seriously, it would have two main effects:

    First, it would cause filkers to approach filksings in a combative spirit; with the attitude that they are singing or performing, not to do something they enjoy, not to participate in a pleasant social activity with their friends, but to defy those who have tried to keep them from performing.

    Second, it would cause filkers to deliberately avoid training to improve their musical skills. If they want to defy those who have “robbed” them of the right to perform without skill, and (in Kathleen Sloan’s formulation) to “take back the right to sing and play”, then developing greater skills would defeat that purpose.

    Fortunately none of that has happened; Sally Childs-Helton’s speech has become something that many people talk about, and claim without much thought to identify with; but few if any actually let it affect their behaviour. To the extent that the speech has had any influence, however, it has been an unfortunate influence, reinforcing the worst church-like aspects of the filk community.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      I’ve seen a fair amount of the hostility she talks about. It’s commonplace to ridicule people’s singing efforts, and people do it more by cultural reflex than because they actually have an opinion of their own. Certainly there has been a large amount of ridicule of filk, most of it completely ignorant of the fact that there are quality filk performers. Apple’s musical social network (which has been a complete flop) was designed on the assumption that there are professional musicians and people who listen to them but don’t make music.

      The point of letting people with low skill levels perform isn’t that they have to stay at that level. Kathleen’s song says, “Come grow with us.” It’s that those people also have something to offer, and that you have to start out as a beginner.

      • Eyal Mozes Says:

        It’s true that there has been a large amount of ridicule of filk within fandom; just like there has been a large amount of ridicule of gaming, of anime, and of Star Trek fandom. It is common practice (and another one of fandom’s negative church-like aspects) for fen to ridicule any sub-fandom they’re not a member of. That does not in any way support Sally’s claim about a general cultural attitude.

        There are certainly many people who approach music as something to listen to rather than as something to perform (for that matter, I myself tend to approach music that way, which is why I perform at filk circles much less often than most people). Many musical events, including Apple’s musical social network, are organized with that in mind, because that is in fact what many people want. It does not signify any hostility or derision towards those who do want to perform, no matter what their level of skill.

        Regarding your claim that “it’s commonplace to ridicule people’s singing efforts”, I don’t believe that is true, and can’t recall any incidents I’ve ever witnessed in my life that would be examples.

    • Cat Says:

      There are absolutely people who think if you can’t perform perfectly, you shouldn’t perform at all. My dad and my brother spring immediately to mind, and believe me, I’ve tried several times.

      It would be great if they were two lone voices, ignored by the rest of the world who are crowded around the campfire, passing guitars from hand to hand, or singing a capella a tune they made up for words in a book, or springing up to dance by the radio. But by and large that’s not the way it is.

      Now I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about this. I take my fun to places where it’s welcome–the filk community, formerly the SCA, a few folk circles, stuff like that. But about most of mainstream culture? It’s been my experience that Sally is right. I had one boyfriend who wouldn’t get up and dance without two drinks first, and another who wouldn’t dance at all, because he was afraid of looking silly. I go to a UU service and the person on my right is afraid to even try to whisper out the melody because someone in that roaring cacophony might notice she’s doing it wrong.

      It may or may not be useful to notice; that’s a different argument. But if you think the other kids in your class, or the other people at work, will be okay with you singing on the playground, I think you may be in for a surprise.


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