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.

10 Comments on "Ruth Gledhill on Camp Quest: atheist camp?"

  1. Karen Armstrong laughed when she heard about the camp.

    Mind you, she would probably laugh if somebody asked her to explain what kind of god she believed in,if she was limited to using the medium of words arranged into meaningful sequences to do that.


  2. “Camp Quest’s organisers say they want to teach children how to think rather than what to think.”

    If one of the children at Camp Quest said, “I’m a Christian, and I don’t see it as incompatible with science”, do we think that the organisers would say, “We need to be open to the possibility that you’re right, since we’re here to teach you how to think and not what to think. Since we’re here to tell you how to think, we’re going to start by giving you certain principles…” or would they be more likely to say, “we respect your opinion, but we think you’re wrong”. If they say the latter, then they’re not interested in telling them how to think, but what to think.

    I suppose I want some more information on what it means to “think critically”. My view is that many Christians (fundies aside) and many atheists (fundies aside) think critically. However, I suspect that, despite their critical thinking, they often start with different assumptions, and those assumptions are not ones that can be blown away through the teaching of critical thinking itself.


    1. If one of the children at Camp Quest said, “I’m a Christian, and I don’t see it as incompatible with owing slaves”, , would you say that you think they are wrong?

      Would you like a list of Christians who have owned slaves? It would be longer than the list of Christians who were scientists.

      All I need to do to show that Christianity is compatible with science is to produce the name of one Christian who is a scientist.

      That is Christian logic, using ‘Christian critical thinking’, and it must mean that all I need to do to show that Christianity is compatible with slave-owning is produce the name of one Christian who was a slave owner.

      It is perfectly possible to teach people to think critically and also say to them ‘I think you are wrong’

      Which bits of Christianity are compatible with science?

      Joseph had a dream in which an angel gave him a real message.

      Does science teach us that what happens in a dream is not reality? That it is only a dream?

      Or do people like Francis Collins and Alister McGrath stand up in public and say that they believe that real angels can give real messages to people while they are dreaming?


      1. Of course I’d say that the child was wrong. But I’ve never been somebody who thinks that you teach somebody how to think by refraining from giving them information about what to think.


    2. I don’t know what the Camp Quest people would do, but I’d hope a discussion of whether Christianity is compatible with science would get into the details of what we mean by “compatible” (and indeed, “science”). Clearly, the fact that there are scientists who are Christians doesn’t mean the two are compatible, as Steven Carr’s slave owner example shows. People like Jerry Coyne have a strong case that Christian belief is incompatible with the methods of science. I’d argue while public science is not the only way of knowing, the other correct ways are the same thing writ small, as it were: we are talking about ways to have our maps match the territory, as I’ve mentioned before.

      To think critically is to know the answers to questions like “why do I have this belief?”, “how would I know if I were wrong?”. I do believe that Christians think critically, but to my mind, they are limited by the idea that faith is a virtue and that it is rational to continue a belief which they like but which is merely possibly true. I see this a lot in things like theodicy or in people’s reasons for believing theistic evolution. Contrast that with the Noble Twelvefold Path wherein we read that: “The third virtue is lightness. Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own… Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy. If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims.”


      1. Do you think that atheists (not agnostics) are limited by the idea of refusing to acknowledge the possibility of the existence of the Christian God?

        I accept your view that Christians think critically, but also that they have a limitation that some others don’t have. But I think also that somebody who is allowing themselves to be blown about like a leaf also has a kind of limitation placed upon them.


        1. Oh no! This is going to get into one of those discussions about what atheism and agnosticism mean.

          The only rational grounds I can see for denying the possibility that the Christian God exists are that the Christian God is an internally contradictory idea (like a square circle) or completely meaningless. It’s pretty hard to show that the idea of God is absolutely self-contradictory. I’ve seen people argue it’s meaningless. In particular, one philosopher I saw on YouTube argued it, based on the idea that statements like “God is spirit” don’t mean anything, because nobody can tell you what spirit is. I wasn’t very convinced by that, because it seems you could play the same game with a concept like “matter”, say. OTOH my problem with statements I’ve read by liberal Christians is not that so much that I disagree with them (as I do with Catholics or evangelicals) but that I can’t tell that they’ve said anything at all, that is, that their statements are “not even wrong”, as one physicist used to say. So I suppose I don’t acknowledge the possibility of that sort of God, because I don’t even know what the existence of that sort of God means.

          But those quibbles aside, it is irrational to deny the possibility that God exists, because someone who does that is effectively saying that there’s no evidence that could convince them. Such a person is the atheist equivalent of a fideist or a William Lane Craig (Craig’s response to the time machine question is particularly illuminating, I think). Even Dawkins doesn’t do that: he places himself on a scale.

          So, my position is that it is possible the Christian God exists, but very unlikely. To convince me that the Christian God does exists, the world would have to consistently look like it.


        2. I think also that somebody who is allowing themselves to be blown about like a leaf also has a kind of limitation placed upon them.

          After the discussion with woodpijn on the virtue of faith and previous discussion on simont‘s journal, I think I’d say that inasmuch as the virtue of faith is saying that you shouldn’t change your mind for bad reasons, I agree with Christians that that’s a good plan. But there’s something more to the virtue of faith than that, a narrative which lionises people who maintain their belief for bad reasons.

          Of course, when Saunt Eliezer writes about being like a leaf, we are not to understand this to literally mean we change our minds from one minute to the next. Rather, he writes to counter the our tendency to change our minds less often than we think, to become attached to our favourite ideas, and to see them as causes we should support.


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