Ruth Gledhill on Camp Quest: atheist camp?

Ruth Gledhill has written about Camp Quest UK, which describes itself as “the first residential summer camp for the children of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and all those who embrace a naturalistic rather than supernatural world view”. She doesn’t seem to approve, and spends much of the article telling us how good Christian summer camps are, before giving way to Celestine Heaton-Armstrong, a theology student who writes excitedly but a bit incoherently about the evils of Dawkins and his involvement in the camp. Dawkins! Can anything good come from there?

When I was a Christian (although, of course, not a real one), I used to help out on a LiveWires, a Scripture Union holiday for teenage Christian geeks, and good fun it was too. If you’ve seen Jesus Camp, you might come away with a terrible impression of such places. I, like many Christians, would object to a camp which used psychological manipulation or put the fear of Hell into children, but thankfully that was not my experience. It was a lot of hard work for the leaders, but very rewarding too. But for the deficiency in my current beliefs, I’d probably still be helping out. It’s nice that someone has started a camp for the rest of us, though.

So I’m not quite sure what Gledhill and Heaton-Armstrong’s objection to Camp Quest is. It seems to be that the organisers pretend to be neutral but are in fact anti-religion. The evidence for this is that the UK organiser, Samantha Stein, is “in stark contrast” to the camp’s stated policy of accepting people of any faith (I’m not sure what it means for a person to be in stark contrast to a policy, but never mind); that Stein read about the American version of Camp Quest in a footnote in The God Delusion; that the camp will teach children that religion and science are incompatible; and, worst of all, that Dawkins, a neo-strident fundamentalist atheist neo-sceptical rationalist, is involved (although not that involved, as it turns out).

I suppose that Camp Quest might be anti-religion, in the same sense that a Christian camp is anti-atheism. Looking at their web site, I’m not sure Camp Quest do pretend neutrality. That does not seem to contradict a policy of welcoming people of faith, in the sense of, say, allowing them to attend, being courteous to the when they get there, being willing to discuss things with them, and so on. I hope that Camp Quest would extend the same courtesy to theists as LiveWires did to the non-Christian teenagers who attended.

What if Camp Quest does teach that, say (so as not to use a vague term like “religion”), Christianity and science are incompatible? In one sense, they’d be wrong, but in another, where “science” is extended (perhaps over-extended) to cover good cartography, they’d be correct. Let’s have no more of this non-overlapping magisteria nonsense: Christians shouldn’t believe it, and neither should the rest of us.

What’s Dawkins’s motivation for giving a donation, if it isn’t to ensure that the kids on the camp will be forced to participate in The God Delusion study groups nightly before bed? Camp Quest’s organisers say they want to teach children how to think rather than what to think. Perhaps Dawkins, arch-enemy of religion, is confident that if people were to think critically, they’d be less likely to be religious. That was true in my case.

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TULIPs from Hamsterdam

In this issue: more Alpha, more de-converts copying me, and more liberal Anglicans doing the Devil’s work. Yes, it’s time to close some more browser tabs before Firefox seizes up completely.

Beta

Chat continues over on my previous posting about Channel 4’s documentary on the Alpha course. I found Jon Ronson, the documentary maker, had been on Alpha himself back in 2000 and written about it for the Graun. The link comes via Metafilter, where there’s some discussion of the article and of Alpha, into which I’ve dipped my toe.

I de-converted before it was fashionable

Jamie Frost sounds like he had a experience of Christianity at Oxford which was similar to mine at Cambridge (except, of course, the Cambridge one was just better). He went to St Ebbes, which is the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust church in Oxford, as StAG is in Cambridge. He was, and is, a science student. He also left Christianity, and his tale (of struggling to keep the faith, being buoyed up by emotional sermons and then realising he didn’t have reasons to believe) sounds awfully familiar. He writes about it in a meaty essay (I think it’s even longer than mine), which is worth a read.

The link to Frost’s essay came to me via the indefatigable Steven Carr, who helpfully posted it to the Premier Christian Radio discussion forum.

OK, so I’ve been watching The Wire

Yeah, so after the Templeton boys got lit up in a drive-by by PZ, I heard it was going down over at the Premier Christian Radio discussion forum, so me an’ my boy Carr grabbed our nines and mounted up. I done showed that Richard Morgan (who used to be tight with the Ditchkins crew before he snitched to the Christers) how we do it, then I had interesting discussion on epistemology [You seem to have slipped out of character – Ed], and shit. [Better – Ed]

Bishops Gone Wild

Those crazy Anglicans and their schisms: I can barely keep up these days, so I don’t usually bother. One thing caught my eye: Ruth Gledhill reports that Bishop Greg Venables, of the Fellowship of Mainstream True Christians Except If You’re Gay, had said of the fight against the godless liberals that “We must remember we are not fighting flesh and blood. This is about principalities and powers.”

If you weren’t a CU Bible Study group leader, you might not be able to complete that quote. It ends “and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms“. Yep, liberal Christians are in league with the devil. John Broadhurst, Bishop of Fulham, allegedly said “I now believe Satan is alive and well and he resides at Church House.” As Roy Zimmerman would say, “That was out loud, did you know that?”

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Revelation: documentary on the Alpha Course

Channel 4 recently screened How to Find God, Jon Ronson’s documentary on the Alpha course. You can watch it online for a few weeks. Edited to add: Ronson also went on the Alpha course himself back in 2000: you can read about it in the Grauniad, and find some interesting discussion of his article on Metafilter.

The documentary follows one group of people taking the course at St Aldates, Oxford, a charismatic Anglican church. The group were a mixed bunch, from Dave, a psychology student who was feeling a bit guilty about drinking 12 pints in an evening; to my favourite, Ed, the unemployed freegan who liked to look for spare food round the back of supermarkets.

What we see of Alpha’s apologetics is pretty bad: there’s Josephus‘s reference to Jesus, Lewis’s Mad/Bad/God argument, as appropriated by McDowell, and what ophe1ia-in-red‘s own review (which you should also read) rightly calls a false dichotomy between a life of meaningless debauchery and Christianity. At one point, the male small group leader says that God once spoke to him in his head to tell him he didn’t have to give a talk he was nervous about. When the non-Christians ask how he knows it was God and not his imagination, his wife gets annoyed and accuses them of calling her husband stupid. A rationalist with too much time on their hands could probably have a bit of fun attending an Alpha Course, and it seems some have.

Nevertheless, I doubt that these arguments have a lot to do with Alpha’s success rate (quoted as being about 1 person in each small group of about 8). As Ronson says, “Alpha is all about rigorously structured, almost mathematical, niceness. And this structure is a huge success.” The free food (and the attractive Christian ladies serving it), friendly people and small group discussions are the most important parts of Alpha’s methods.

Despite accusations of bias from the commenters on Channel 4’s site, Ronson’s style is non-confrontational. Rachel Cooke’s review in New Statesman describes it as “like a religious version of Springwatch: instead of wondering which egg was going to hatch first, we were invited to wonder which agnostic would find Jesus first.” I found it a bit like the “who’s going to die this week?” stuff you used to get in the opening scenes of Casualty: Bob’s using the threshing machine and once felt a “sort of energy” when he was a bit down, Alice is on the motorway behind a tanker full of petrol and is unemployed and a bit directionless: who’s going to get Jesus’d?

The “Holy Spirit weekend”, where the potential converts go off on a weekend break and are encouraged to try speaking in tongues, is the most controversial part of Alpha. Indeed, it’s partly what lead the more conservative evangelical churches to replace Alpha with Christianity Explored (that and the conservatives’ feeling that more emphasis is needed on the fact that we’re all sinners who deserve to be tortured forever, and will be if we find ourselves unable to radically change our lives on the basis of insufficient evidence: this is what conservatives call “the Good News“). It certainly made for the most interesting part of the documentary.

After a few explanatory shots of the Toronto Blessing, we follow the group on to a conference centre near Oxford, which it turns out they’re sharing with a conference for Ford GT40 fans. There’s a Derren Brown Messiah suggestion session where everyone stands with their eyes closed, but alas, it’s interrupted by the noise from the GT40s outside (modern day iron chariots, as one of Channel 4’s commenters has it). They carry on, with the Christians singing songs and the pastor singing in tongues, but one of the non-Christians feels he’s been manipulated and walks out of the room. However, the beer-drinking psychology student likes the atmosphere, asks people to pray for him, and says he’ll be going on another Alpha Course. In the end, two of them walk away saying the experience has put them off Christianity, and the freegan says he respects Christians more now. I’d call it a no-score draw.

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