Wednesday 5 August 2009

Camping it up

I've got a lot of time for Richard Dawkins, but every once in a while he comes up with a rather silly idea. One example was his suggestion that non-believers should describe themselves as 'Brights' (oh dear). Now he's organised an atheist summer camp, apparently to rival the 'faith camps' to which the children of religiously-minded parents are shipped off every year. The idea is a mistake on so many levels. Firstly, it contradicts Dawkins' own nostrum that imposing parental beliefs on children is a form of child abuse: is instruction in atheism any different, and do you really think any children are going to sign up for this without parental prompting? Secondly, spending your summer doing philosophy is going to sound pretty naff to all but the geekiest kids.

But most of all, the idea is wrong because it's another instance of atheists and secularists apeing the religious, and trying to get a piece of their action, rather than doing their own thing. Other examples of this include humanists campaigning for a slot on Thought for the Day (as if any philosophy worth its salt could be summed up in a trite five-minute sermon) and (going back in history a bit) nineteenth-century radicals setting up 'Socialist Sunday Schools'. It plays into the hand of those who characterise atheism as just another 'faith', with its own received dogmas and fundamentalist adherents.

Instead of consigning their offspring to a spell of godless indoctrination during the holidays, why don't atheist (or secularist, or humanist) parents simply take them along to art galleries, museums and concerts, or to the beach, or the countryside, to show them the (natural and human) world in all its glory - and to demonstrate that you don't need a faith, or even a substitute anti-faith, to find life meaningful and worthwhile.

Still, at least Dawkins' atheist camp is infinitely healthier than what's on offer for Gazan children this summer:
Children in Hamas summer camps reenacted the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit in the presence of top Hamas officials, according to pictues obtained by The Jerusalem Post.

According to Israeli defense officials, more than 120,000 Palestinian children are spending the summer in Hamas-run camps. In addition to religious studies, the children undergo semi-military training with toy guns.

At a recent summer camp graduation ceremony, the children put on a show reenacting the June 2006 abduction of Schalit.
Now that really is child abuse.


glenn hughes said...

TNC said...

I attended a few sports camps when I was young. They were fun.

As to why non religious parents do not simply take their children on outings to the beach, museums, etc, I think you know the answer. They have to work. I know that is the reason I was in camp. My mom didn't want me running wild in the streets and camp was a nice safe place for her kid.

Martin said...

I wasn't really criticising summer camps per se (though it's still quite an alien concept here in the UK, where we have much more generous holiday time), or even advocating endless museum visits, but just trying to say that there are better ways of encouraging secular and humane values than mimicking the religious instruction model.

TNC said...

"just trying to say that there are better ways of encouraging secular and humane values than mimicking the religious instruction model."

That's what I figured.

I just thought it was a bit unrealistic to expect working class parents to be able to take their kids around to the beach, museum, park, etc. when they have to work. I did not realize people had so much time off in the summer in the UK. If you do, and working class parents are able to do this sort of thing, that's fantastic and it is probably a preferable option to sending your kids off to camp.

Unfortunately it is not that way for the working class (even the middle class) in the U.S. Speaking as the child of single mom, I think camp was the best option given the alternatives (staying at home, getting into trouble with friends, etc).

That Guy Montag said...

I'm not sure it's either "send your kids to summer camp" or "visit museums". Parents could well do both.

As for the charges regarding humanist campaigns it seems a strange nit to pick. As far as I'm concerned this is about establishing political and cultural acceptance of non-theism as a world view. Equal time doesn't need to be about forcing our own world view but it's certainly the first step towards that acceptance.

Chris Lawson said...

Martin, I'm afraid this is something of a strawman. I don't believe Dawkins has ever claimed that 'imposing parental beliefs on children is a form of child abuse.' Dawkins was specifically talking about imposing threats of violence and intimidation by clergy, not imposing any and all beliefs.

Here's Dawkins' original article about child abuse:,118,Religions-Real-Child-Abuse,Richard-Dawkins

And here's Dawkins on labelling children with religious descriptors:

While I find lots of bones to pick in these letters (e.g. the clumsy minimisation of sexual abuse on the basis of his own very mild experience), I can't find much fault with the central points that religious instruction can in some instances traumatise children and that labelling babies with a religion is rather silly (although I don't think the latter is worth fighting over). I certainly can't find any intimation that Dawkins believes that imposing beliefs is in and of itself a form of child abuse.

Seb said...

One example was his suggestion that non-believers should describe themselves as 'Brights'

That was not his idea. He endorsed it, but clearly attributed it to Geisert and Futrell:

Now he's organised an atheist summer camp

No, he hasn't. In the very article you linked, his name only appears in one place:

The first Camp Quest took place in the US in 1996. Supported with a modest grant from the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Camp Quest UK has been founded [...]

Martin said...

Thanks for all the comments. Almost as soon as I'd finished this post, I realised that the reports had misrepresented Dawkins over all of this. But facts aside, I stick by my main point about the dangers of secularists and sceptics aping the rituals of belief.