Jul 16 2009
|Glad to be godless (Camp Quest article)|
Glad to be godless
Jul 16th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Reflections on a summer camp for the children of atheists
AS PART of a travelling Christian drama group, Don Sutterfield used to perform short plays. In one, a young man gives his girlfriend a rose and tries to persuade her to have premarital sex. The couple walk off, leaving the rose behind. Jesus picks it up and starts plucking the petals. “They love me, they love me not…”
Pious audiences loved it, says Mr Sutterfield. He and his chums would stand at the altar of a Pentecostal church, speaking in tongues, laying on hands and praying for members of the congregation to be delivered from sin, sickness and sexual perversion. Occasionally, they would attempt to drive out evil spirits. It was incredibly dramatic, says Mr Sutterfield: like the movie “The Exorcist”, only with lots of exorcists. At the time, Mr Sutterfield was “immeasurably proud” of his work. But with hindsight, he thinks it was a load of mumbo-jumbo. He is now a militant atheist. He organises secular groups at universities and, this summer, volunteered at Camp Quest, a network of summer camps for secular kids. Lexington visited one in Clarksville, Ohio.
In most ways, it is like other summer camps. Kids aged 8 to 17 share cabins in the woods. During the day, they paddle canoes, shoot arrows, go swimming and explore nature. At night, they chat beneath the stars. Like other summer camps, Camp Quest satisfies a demand that springs from America’s combination of very long holidays for children and very short ones for their parents. Unlike other camps, it is staffed entirely by humanists.
They are not pushy or preachy, but scepticism flavours nearly everything they do. Lunch comes with a five-minute talk about a famous freethinker. Campers are told that invisible unicorns inhabit the forest, and offered a prize if they can prove that the unicorns do not exist. The older kids learn something about the difficulty of proving a negative. The younger ones grow giggly at the prospect of stepping in invisible unicorn poop. There’s a prize for the tidiest cabin, too, because “cleanliness is next to godlessness”, jokes Amanda Metskas, the director.
Campers are not told that there is no God; only that they should weigh the evidence. They learn about the scientific method. An amateur biologist invites them to gather creepy-crawlies from a nearby pond. They are told how sensitive each species is to pollution, and asked to work out from this how polluted the pond is. They find several critters that can survive only in clean water, and conclude that the pond is in good shape. The kids are encouraged to explore ethical questions, too. The more argumentative ones sit in a clearing and debate the nature of justice.
The kind of people who send their kids to Bible camp are appalled. Answers in Genesis, a Christian fundamentalist group, berates Camp Quest for drumming a “hopeless” world view into young minds. But a humanist camp is less about indoctrination than reassurance that it is all right not to be religious; that it is possible to be moral without believing in the supernatural. Nearly all the kids at Camp Quest say they find it comforting to be surrounded by others who share their lack of belief. Many attend schools where Christianity is taken for granted. Many keep quiet about their atheism. Those who don’t are sometimes taunted or told they will burn in hell.
Atheists are broadly disliked in America. Only 5% of Americans admit that they would not vote for an otherwise qualified black presidential candidate, but 53% say they would shun an atheist. That makes the godless less popular than Muslims, Mormons or gays. Granted, the proportion of Americans who say they might vote for an atheist has doubled in the past half-century, and the polls are muddied by those who do not know what an atheist is.
Only one congressman—Pete Stark of California—openly admits to non-belief. When Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, he described America inclusively, as “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” But since then he has publicly invoked Jesus more frequently than George Bush junior did, according to Politico, a political newspaper. “I was surprised. I thought he’d be different,” says Valerie, a 12-year-old at Camp Quest.
The lonely 1 in 12
Although America’s atheists are not loved, they are not persecuted. Hate crimes against them are almost non-existent. In 2007 only six were reported to the FBI, and that included minor offences such as vandalism. (By way of comparison, there were 969 anti-Jewish hate crimes.) Of course, the fact that atheists are practically invisible makes them less vulnerable. A neo-Nazi can easily identify a synagogue or the Holocaust museum in Washington. But how do you spot an atheist? The guy you see walking a dog on Sunday morning could be planning to go to evensong.
Many atheists opt to remain in the closet, except perhaps with their closest friends. It is the path of least resistance. Deny the existence of God and you may be challenging your neighbours’ most deeply held beliefs. That could get you ostracised, so why risk it? Yet living in the closet has costs. Christians have their beliefs constantly reinforced by neighbours who proudly and openly share them. Atheists often wrestle with their consciences alone, even though they are perhaps 8% of the population. Christopher Hitchens, the author of an antireligious polemic in 2007, observed that half the people who came to his book-promoting speeches had thought they were the only atheists in town.
Isolation matters especially when it comes to bringing up children, a tough task at the best of times. Christian parents can call on a vast support network of churches, Sunday schools, Bible camps and incidentally religious organisations such as the Boy Scouts. Atheists have precious little to compare with this. Small wonder the kids at Camp Quest seem so cheerful.