10.01.2012

The last Last Supper: how to kill religion with respect

I teach at a summer camp for gifted students called the Center for Talented Youth. The program encourages bright and creative teenagers to engage each other in an active learning community, and it puts particularly strong emphasis on self-expression and respect for diversity. The camps have been running for decades and students often return for multiple summers in a row, so by this point there are a body of rich traditions that the students carry over every year, including a strange communal rendition of American Pie, and wearing bathrobes and carrying towels on Thursdays in honor of Hitchhiker's Guide. At the site in Lancaster, PA, which is the largest of the camp sites and where I've taught a philosophy of mind class for the last 7 years, the rituals included a tradition that until this year was known as The Last Supper.

This year, CTY formally forbid the students from continuing the tradition in its existing form. Here is the official statement from Stu Gluck, an Assistant Director for CTY and who oversees the Lancaster site, which was sent to employees a few weeks before the summer session began:
Gathering to celebrate the summer’s experience is perfectly appropriate. However, the use of religious symbolism, which has increased over the years, has not always been perceived as respectful of the diverse religious beliefs of students in our program. This year students will be expected to find a way to celebrate their experience that does not include religious symbolism.
I think Stu's reasoning here is consistent with CTY's overall teaching philosophy, and on the surface there's nothing that seems inappropriate. I also understand perfectly well the kind of legal and political pressure that CTY is under to adopt such a policy; I remember hearing many people remark that they were surprised the tradition carried on as long as it had. So I'm not writing this post to disparage CTY or complain about an unjust policy. I almost always enjoy my experience teaching there, and I'm very proud of the work I've done with them. However, I think this case is an interesting microcosm of the more general role that religion plays in society. Since the issue is is the air, I thought it would be worthwhile to treat the case and explain why I think the policy is ultimately counterproductive to the values of religious tolerance that the program wants to support. 

I don't know all the details of the tradition, but it was something that everyone at camp knew about (or were quickly taught) and was a noticeable force in the social dynamics among the students. A few students were selected to play specific, partly-scripted roles for the duration of the three week session, including one student dubbed "Jesus" and another "Satan", who are commonly referred to by these names. The roles sometimes come with distinct artifacts, like a staff made of duct tape or a jester's hat, and the students assigned these roles carry their artifacts visibly and proudly throughout the session. Everyone at camp knows who has a role in the Last Supper, even if they don't care or participate in the tradition directly. The tradition comes to a climax on the final day of camp, when the students gather around a long table and the designated members read prepared speeches and then pass their artifacts and roles onto the students who will be carrying on the tradition the following year. The ceremony is accompanied with a few light (and sometimes clever) religious allusions that are ritualistically repeated as part of the tradition. For instance, there is a rough analogue of communion as they all drink from shared jugs of punch and share their stories from camp, in line with the Last Supper theme. I imagine similar torch-passing traditions are quite common for yearly summer camps. 

Below is video (that I didn't take) from the last Last Supper in 2011. I've taught many of the students in this video.



You don't have to watch the whole video to follow the post. I'm just referencing it to demonstrate that this isn't some grotesque Kubrickian ritual, but is more or less kids being innocuous kids. There is some overtly sexual innuendo that might make people uncomfortable, but the offensive religious content is rather low. This is just a clip of the ritual though, and doesn't quite demonstrate the depth of the tradition how it develops over the course of a session, or what it means to the overall dynamics of the camp. The student-built Real CTY wiki gives some more detail, including links to the specific duties and functions of each member of the Pentinity and the history of the tradition. They've put a lot of effort into cultivating these traditions, both at camp and during the year. I've known siblings passing on duties in the ceremony to younger siblings coming up through the program, for instance. It's probably worth mentioning here that the tradition is largely maintained by a somewhat clique group known as the Alcovians, who are basically the popular kids at camp. There's all kinds of social teen dynamics involved in who gets selected for the roles, and the teen drama of it all probably makes just as many people uncomfortable as the religious symbolism. 

Still, the religious allusions are obvious, and CTY has heard complaints from students and families with backgrounds in the traditions being alluded to in this ceremony. Especially for students who aren't used to environments where religious beliefs are openly discussed in a secular context, this ritual may seem strange, alarming, or even offensive. There's no hiding the fact that most students at camp are science nerds who are openly skeptical of religious dogma, but at the same time a wide diversity of religious beliefs are represented in the student population, and the program does a lot to respect and accommodate those beliefs as it can, including accompanying students to religious services of their choosing if they (or their parents) request they attend during the weekends the students are in the care of the camp.  

CTY also clearly wants to continue to encourage the students to participate in traditions of their own creation, and Stu's comments are clearly sensitive to those concerns. So instead of forbidding the activity outright, the compromise position was that the students needed to remove the religious symbolism and imagery from the tradition. Now, the role of Jesus has been changed to "The Muse", and Satan is "The Fiend". "The Duck", another member of the tradition, was not considered to have any religious connotations, and was allowed to remain in tact as part of the tradition, but the rest was removed entirely. The whole ceremony was renamed to "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe", to stay in line with the Douglas Adams obsession among the students. The students were largely responsible for the changes themselves, although it ultimately had to meet Stu's approval, but they went along with the changes without too much objection. No one seemed unhappy with the result. 

Just to be clear, I'm trying to give the best case I can for CTY's actions here before I launch into my objection. CTY's goal was to cultivate an atmosphere where the diversity of the student population was fully accepted and respected, and where no one felt uncomfortable or targeted by a camp activity. If students with a religious background felt uncomfortable in participating in the tradition or the camp because of the religious overtones, then that is something that needs to be addressed and handled, and I think CTY did the best it could do under the circumstances. 

However, I think the treatment of religious traditions in this case is symptomatic of a major social problem with the way we handle religion socially, and I think that when understood in full context it should give pause to both religious and nonreligious people alike. My worry isn't about rampant political correctness, or a runaway desire to prevent offensive actions or protect people's feelings. 

Instead, my worry is that we are teaching children that religion is not theirs to play with. By saying they can't use religious symbolism in their traditions, we are telling them that an entire realm of rich human history and culture is off limits in their attempts to create their world. Religious myths and icons are like fine porcelain in a glass case: to be looked at and admired, but not to be used for anything productive. 

In my philosophy of mind class at camp, we talk about the imagination in terms of remixing. When you create new things, you do it by producing fresh combinations of previous material you've been exposed to. Kirby Ferguson makes the excellent case that remixing is how learning and development takes place, and we relate Descartes' discussion of the imagination in The Meditations to the copyright issues surrounding remixing and sampling in the digital age.  The copyright case bears all the same structural properties of the Last Supper policy change: a young generation is trying to repurpose their surrounding culture into a tool for managing and developing their own social and intellectual lives, but a group of people claiming a privileged relation with that culture attempt to refuse or control access to the source material. Larry Lessig describes it as a debate between "read-write" and "read-only" culture, and that's a perfect description for what's going on with the Last Supper. CTY's policy clearly has the position that Religious Symbolism is "read-only", and not for the students to include in their own traditions. 

Now, it's worth pointing out that the request itself-- to undress the student's activity of any religious allusion-- is basically impossible to take seriously; it is about as plausible a request as asking the students to refrain from any Shakespearean allusions in their language. Most religious symbolism and iconography is so deeply infused into these kid's activities and behaviors (most of it entirely unconsciously) that removing it all would be removing a substantial portion of what the kids know how to do. To take a random example, the camp runs according to the Gregorian calendar system, which was introduced by a Pope and centered on the birth of their savoir, but no one blinks an eye at the possibility that it would offend anyone. Before you object that everyone uses the Gregorian calendar (and to be clear, they don't), the objection makes the point for me: it is used so widely precisely because the surrounding secular society was able to adopt these religious traditions and usefully repurpose them to manage the rest of our lives. The religious origins of the traditions don't matter as much as the good they can do us now.

Or to use an even better example, Douglas Adams, the novelist whose work was approved to replace the Last Supper tradition, was a self-described "radical atheist" and was openly hostile to creation myths. The restaurant scene that now serves as the title of the tradition is itself an extended discussion of humanity's fascination with creation and is openly hostile to creation myths. To think this replacement has removed any offensive discussion of religion is a testament to how careless and narrow the request actually was. 

For what it's worth, Adams himself had this to say about religion:
 "I love to keep poking and prodding at it. I've thought about it so much over the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing."
This is precisely what CTY's policy prevents the students from doing. Part of the point here is that the student's repurposing of these religious traditions is a clear sign that these traditions matter to them a lot (whether they believe in the traditions or not), and they feel the symbolism continues to have a meaningful place in their lives. It acquired this importance partly because of the long history of religious traditions embedded in the environments they are developing in. In the same way that remixing is a way of keeping our history fresh and a relevant part of our ongoing cultural development, the student's reproduction of these rituals keeps those traditions alive and active in these kid's minds. Never mind that it is a corrupted, perhaps unrecognizable form from other incarnations; it is a mutated meme that is it trying to make its way in the world like all the others. Regardless of your views of the religious traditions themselves, there's something beautiful about that.

I'm talking about a meme being "alive", and this deserves a little care. In The Will to Believe, William James makes a distinction between "living" and "dead" options. The belief in Zeus, for most people, is a completely dead option. There's virtually nothing I can do or say to convince you to seriously entertain the idea of adopting Zeus-centric religious traditions in your life; it's not remotely in the realm of possibility, and its not an idea that occupies much of your thoughts. But for some people, Catholicism may be an open, live option that represents a serious possibility for the future of their lives, and this possibility will matter a lot for not just their abstract metaphysical beliefs, but for the pace, rhythms, and communities that will occupy their lives. Having these traditions as live options means that potential believers will be engaged in the practice of weighing those practices and values against other practices and values they may want to adopt. In doing so, that set of practices can come to have significant influence over the dynamics of their lives. When a meme exerts this kind of on-going, dynamic influence in a person's practical deliberation, it's alive in the sense I'm using here. 

For better or worse. I'm not trying to argue against  (or for) any religious practices, and don't take my position to be substantively derived from my own radically atheistic beliefs. In fact, in a sense I'm encouraging the students to participate in their own religious traditions, even though I don't share them, in the same way I might encourage students to remix music I don't like. A learning environment is fostered by encouraging creative self-expression, not restricting it. That environment is put under pressure when people feel that they can't participate in the activity, but by trying to be inclusive CTY inadvertently doubled down on the restrictions to participation. In so doing it is essentially stealing a reservoir of rich cultural heritage for the children to poke and prod at. 

Porcelain in a glass case isn't dinnerware, it is art. But unlike porcelain, traditions that aren't practiced will die from disuse. At the time, I used the analogy of two different parenting strategies: the first keeps their child indoors and away from dirty or dangerous things to prevent the child from getting hurt or sick; the second lets their child explore so she can develop the skills and immunities to thrive out in the world. The latter has to deal with the discomfort of bruises and sniffles but may ultimately turn out more resilient and adaptable, while the former must keep on constant guard because any lapse might be tragic. Keeping religion in a glass case tells the kids that that tradition can't handle their rough hands, and will break if they poke it too much. It tells them that it is an inflexible tool that isn't theirs to toy with. It tells them that it has no place in their world, because it belongs to a world that was already dead when they got here. 

It tells them to stop using it. CTY's policy is quite clearly telling the students to stop using religious symbolism in an environment where they are otherwise encouraged to express themselves. In so doing, we are telling the students that the religion is not a way for them to express themselves. 

This is how we kill religion.