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School’s out for atheists

 The Big Issue in Scotland 03 June 2019

(Originally published: 08/2009) A UK summer get-together for non-believing children has been dubbed ‘Camp Dawkins’ after being backed by Britain’s most vociferous atheist. The Big Issue Scotland’s Jasper Hamill discovers what Richard Dawkins thinks of the evolving controversy many in the religious movement have been quick to attribute to him.  - By Jasper Hamill

Ah, summer camp! Even though most British children don't get to experience the ritual of marshmallow roasting, singing of songs and furtive snogging that defines the holidays for most American youngsters, we can all agree that it sounds like pretty good fun. So how much of a lark can kids expect at an event being hailed as "Camp Dawkins", where 'Kumbaya' is replaced with John Lennon's 'Imagine'and ghost stories are swapped for earnest wrangling about the theory of evolution? It sounds about as much fun as fat camp.

But plenty of parents think otherwise. The first atheist summer camp, called Camp Quest, is set to pitch tent in a field in Somerset this week. From July 27-31,a small squad of short trousered pioneers will embark upon an adventure into atheism, learning about evolution, science, astronomy and philosophy by night, whilst clambering up climbing walls and shooting with bow and arrow by day. Demand has been high: the camp sold out quickly, and one planned for summer 2010 looks set to be even larger.

"We want to give children the sort of education that isn't covered in school, such as philosophyand the scientific method," explains SamanthaStein, camp organiser."It's more a way of teaching them about the world, not telling them what to think.We're not about indoctrination and we don't pursue an anti-religious agenda.

"Most of the kids who come here are atheist anyway so it's very difficult to indoctrinate someone into becoming something they already are."

Try telling that to the evangelicals who are already lining up to slam the camp. Because arch-evolutionist Richard Dawkins's charity gave Camp Quest a financial donation(they say it is almost £500), Christian pressure groups have labelled the event 'Camp Dawkins' and claim it is part of an insidious attempt by the scientist-cum polemicist to coerce kids into some kind of atheistic cult.

Certain elements of the press have also associated Dawkins with the camp. One article in The Sunday Times, that began with a version of the famous Jesuit line ("give Richard Dawkins a child for a week's summer camp and he will try to give you an atheist for life"), irked Dawkins so much that when I asked  him about the article, he furiously replied:"Contrary to The Sunday Times - it is, after all, a Murdoch paper - Camp Quest has no connection with me, except that my foundation made a charitable donation to it of, I believe, £495.

"I know nothing of the camp itself and don'teven know where it is. That Sunday Times article was an outrage, saying that I was 'grooming' your atheists, and quoting that disgusting Jesuit boast."

Calming down a little, Dawkins blasted: "What little I know of Camp Quest sounds admirable. The quotation I gave The Sunday Times is, to the best of my knowledge, appropriate.

"Camp Quest encourages children to think for themselves, sceptically and rationally. There is no indoctrination, just encouragement to be open minded, while having fun.

"That should answer your specific question about whether the camp is 'appropriate' for children. Of course children should be left to make up their own minds, that is the whole point.

"Will they be taught to recognise the primacy of evidence over faith? Isn't that what making up your own mind means! Will it hurt their capacity for imagination? You must be joking!"

While Dawkins clearly plays no part in Camp Quest-and we would dare not invoke his wrath by implying so - religious critics on the opposite end of the scale still see the event as part of a war to brainwash kids into thinking there's no God, no purpose to life and that the Earth's construction took an awful lot longer than seven days' worth of divine labour.

For some, Dawkins is a kind of Trotsky figure, always scheming and plotting to bring down religion. But at the moment, Dawkins seems to be losing.

Creationism and intelligent design are beliefs that are resurfacing in society, with around half of adults convinced that evolution is not fact, according to a recent poll by charity Sense about Science (an independent group who "promote the benefits of scientific research to the public").

Their results found that 22 per cent of people believe that a Creator made the world, with about half of that group indicating that  the creation took place 10,000 years ago.

Evangelical Christian groups would like these numbers to swell and would rather there were no atheist camps. Justin Thacker, head of theology at pressure group Evangelical Alliance, insists Dawkins's fingerprints are all over Camp Quest. "I think it's quite amusing," he says."Perhaps Dawkins realises that his propaganda doesn't work with the adults, so now he's going to try it with the children, which, in a strange way, is as if he's taking his atheism and acting more and more like a religion. I don't think he'll find he's anymore successful there."

Thacker believes no child will respond to the thought that the existence of life is essentially a random occurrence and that life is meaningless. Far better to go to a Christian camp, propounding the message that humans are on Earth for a reason, he says. Thacker insists religious camps are more open-minded. "It's acceptable for a child on a Christian camp to say, 'I don't believe God exists'. The child is not ridiculed or told they're an idiot.

"What's going to happen at the Dawkins camp If someone stands up and says, 'I believe in God'? I can guarantee that child be will mocked and humiliated for that opinion.

"Who's having the most open debate?"

Yet for all this rather gentle arguing that is, let's not forget, taking place in an essentially secular country, it's easy to gloss over the admirable goals behind the first-ever Camp Quest. It was held on land owned and leased by Bullittsburg Baptist Assembly in Boone County, Kentucky, in 1996. The camp's founder, Edwin Kagin, lives 10miles from a creationist museum in Kentucky that claims humans ran around with dinosaurs. Kagin wanted to present a rational response to such claims.

It remains his mission to help what some Americans see as "dirty little atheists" come to terms with their lack of faith and learn about evolution and science, including Dawkins's theories.

 "Camp Quest is like a light in a dark and scary room for these kids," says Kagin. "Some of them have cried when they've been at Camp Quest, because it's the first time they've felt comfortable admitting their non-belief."

The camp was thought by Baptists to be so controversial that the state of Kentucky exempted the church from a key civil rights law-which stated that the church could not discriminate against Camp Quest if the group wanted to lease the land.

Some of the children who attended the camps have endured taunts from other children who tell them they will burn in hell for their beliefs. In Britain, it seems less likely kids would be bullied based on their refusal to accept God, but the resurgence of belief in creationism or intelligent design suggests there is still a need to make sure children don't fall for non-scientific mumbo-jumbo.

 It might not be much fun at "Camp Dawkins", and it may not have anything to do with him, but its aims are still noble. There's plenty of time for silliness during the rest of the summer, right?

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