Ellie Levenson: An atheist camp is a terrible idea

Myone summer camp gave me the opposite view than the one intended

Wednesday 29 July 2009 00:00
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The trouble with summer camps is that, because they are often based around a shared belief or hobby, they introduce children to other children just like them. This means children don't learn that life is actually populated mainly by people who aren't like us at all.

So Richard Dawkins' five-day atheist summer camp in Somerset this week, in which all the children will be taught about rational scepticism, moral philosophy and evolutionary biology, is bound ultimately to disappoint them when they realise that most people they will come across in life are rationality-challenged.

What's more, it may well teach children the opposite of its intention, and set them up for a lifetime of God. After all, the only people I know who have fundamentalist religious beliefs are those who were brought up in resolutely atheist households, leading me to conclude that the best way to ensure children are not religious is to give them just enough religion to put them off.

My one summer camp experience did just this, giving me a romantic view of precisely what the organisers wanted me to think was bad. It was a Jewish youth group who set up camp at a boarding school in Giggleswick for the week and one afternoon ran an activity exploring the different political parties of the Israeli Knesset.

I was put in a group that was meant to represent one of the communist parties and taught communist songs, though we were told that we must remember this was pretending, and that actually communism was not a good thing.

They then taught us the song "Red fly the banners high" to the tune of "Green grow the rushes oh", with my all-time favourite lyric, "Five for the five-year plan and four for the years it took them". This, coupled with watching the cartoon of George Orwell's Animal Farm on one of the rainy afternoons gave me political ideas far beyond the comprehension of a normal child.

An atheist camp strikes me as a terrible idea even though I am an atheist, albeit a Jewish one, and albeit a woolly one with occasional lapses in which I suffer moments of what I guess can only be called "spirituality", despite that word making me want to vomit. Who is it that said "I'm agnostic. I'd say atheist but what would God think"? Probably Woody Allen, or Groucho Marx, or William Shakespeare. Whoever said it, that's my kind of atheism.

I enjoy reading Richard Dawkins. I think he is probably right about God and I took a childish glee in the fact that, when I visited the Vatican, my friend had The God Delusion, Dawkins' book, with her as holiday reading, and we took photographs of us posing with it in St Peter's Square. But his dogmatism makes me hope he is proved wrong one day.

I have an idea for Dawkins' camp and for readers generally. At Dawkins' camp, children will be told they are being protected by two invisible unicorns, and there is a cash prize for any participant who can prove that these two unicorns, which do not exist, do not exist. My idea is this: one commentator suggested some time ago that Dawkins and his atheism has been sent to earth by God to test our faith. I do not believe this, but I too offer a cash prize to anyone who can prove otherwise.

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