As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

May 1999-August 1999: 

After I read The Portable Nietzsche in the first ten days of my summer break after my junior year of college , my belief in Christianity was rattled. I was starting to countenance, with horror, the prospect that I might not be able to believe anymore and that I might have to leave the faith. I remember deciding I would write a philosophical dialogue to work out the reasons for and against the faith but as I tried writing it, all I had were reasons against it.

At this time I was also committed to be a Christian camp counselor for my second summer at Ligonier Camp and Conference Center. Before our nine weeks of actual camp, we had a couple of weeks of training. I remember showing up the first day of training feeling like an unbeliever. But I was hopeful that immersing myself in the community of my devoutly religious peers I would come to believe again in time for the first day of camp. Yet, despite a wonderful couple of weeks bonding with some terrific people, the first day of camp arrived and I remember feeling a hollowness in my stomach and a slight panic as I still didn’t believe. There I was preparing to welcome the campers as their Christian counselor, feeling for the first time in my life like I might actually be an atheist.

While we were essentially talking about Jesus any chance we could at camp, the times a counselor specifically devoted to teaching and preaching to his or her campers were primarily their daily morning Bible lessons and their nightly devotional talks before bed as the kids were all in their sleeping bags in the cabin. Camp started on Sunday afternoon so my first talk to the kids was an evening devotional.

Instead of giving these 13 year olds something light and introductory, and pitched in an accessible way, I worked from my doubt. I launched into as sophisticated a philosophical defense of theism as I could muster. I may have in many ways shot way over their heads, though I imagine they got the basic gist. I essentially just took on the theistic perspective I hoped I could still believe in and did my best to argue the case for it and convince myself. And afterwards, I felt decent about it. I didn’t lie, I worked out an argument and I found it plausible, at least that night.

At Ligonier, all the counselors were expected to have a one-on-one sit down with each of their campers at some point during their camp experience. Some counselors saw this as all about making sure the kids were saved and giving them the hard sell in case they were still resistant. My first summer at the camp I had a number of campers who the previous summer had the same beloved counselor. It disturbed me when they would tell me that he sat each one of them down for their one-on-one and told them in imaginative detail about the horrors of hell in order to convince them to be saved if they weren’t already.

I saw the one-on-ones as primarily about talking to each kid about whatever his most pressing personal or spiritual need happened to be. Sometimes this meant a personalized version of the gospel, sometimes it meant talking about family problems or troubles relating to other kids or working out theological issues that interested them particularly.

This particular week, through my Bible studies and devotionals for the kids I was trying to piece back together my theological views and my philosophical justifications for them. And in my tribe I had a camper who was a Hindu named Vivek. Vivek was as remarkable and memorable a 13 year old as I have ever met. He had an easy going temperament, a broad frequent smile, and a precocious intellect. When we sat down for his one-on-one on the deck of the cabin, I opted not to try to convert him but essentially to engage in comparative theology with him. We had a fantastic discussion, in which we translated our respective religious traditions’ myths and symbols into the more abstract philosophical categories that theologians and philosophers had devised for intellectualizing and rationalizing them.

In that conversation I worked out for myself what I would take to be the fundamental philosophical divergence between the Hindu god and the Christian one. The Hindu god encompassed both good and evil as realities within it (hence the existence of evil avatars for god in Hinduism), whereas Christianity conceived of God as only good and relegated evil to being merely a negation. Having, on Sunday night, satisfied myself for the time being that there was a creator God of some type, I now felt a bit of clarity that, when considered on the most abstract philosophical levels, I found the Christian philosophy of God more workable than the Hindu one.

And on it went like that for most of the rest of the summer. I fought my way back to faith out of the necessity of my role as a Christian counselor. I re-convinced myself of each bit of my Christian beliefs one by one through each Bible study and devotional for my campers as the summer went on. By the third week my campers were 16 and 17 year olds so I could dig into ideas with a reasonable degree of sophistication.

It also helped that I was surrounded by enthusiastically committed peers who bolstered my faith in every way possible. I was engulfed by Christian community, rapidly developing spiritually intimate friendships with my colleagues. With my campers I was constantly engaged in challenging team building exercises done on ropes courses, climbing walls, and whitewater rafting trips. Frequently these experiences were physically exhilarating and exhausting, emotionally intense both personally and socially, fun both socially and physically, and powerfully interwoven with religious meanings. All involved, campers and counselors alike, would regularly become connected to each other emotionally, socially, intellectually, physically, and spiritually through these experiences in a way that led to a deep sense of community and religious integration of all aspects of life.

Those were intensely satisfying weeks of my life. They involved working a grueling schedule. Counselors would only get between 1 and 2 hours (if lucky) off per day and only one day “off” a week. And I put the word off in scare quotes because on our days off we had to work until 11am, doing some of the most concentrated tasks of the counselor’s day (giving Bible study, teaching a skill, and leading our tribe of campers in an activity of our choosing). Then we’d be off for 21 hours and have to get back to work the next day in time for the next Bible study, skill, and group activity time.

But the intensity of community, bonded by shared beliefs, values, and commitments, was something I have rarely experienced replicated in my life. Everyone was so intense about being as good people as they possibly could and about being as loving towards each other as they could humanly manage. As I have talked about before, to this day the thing I miss most about being a Christian is my time at Ligonier. I still periodically have nightmares that the only way to return to camp is by feigning belief or by being at camp in some non-counselor role where I couldn’t influence the kids.

By the end of the next to last week of camp, I had restored enough of my Christian philosophical and theological beliefs that I remember adamantly trying to convince a camper to accept some of the finer points of Calvinism. It felt like I had come a long way from struggling just to convince myself of some metaphysical god principle at all that first day.

But then the last week of camp, for the first time in two summers, I finally accepted a week off from having my own tribe of campers and took on the role of a “rover”, a fill-in counselor who had a lot more time off and a lot less responsibility. After two summers never having had this kind of reduced workload and having worked with exclusively older kids at the camp, I decided to spend my last week at Ligonier just playing with the 6-9 year olds working as a rover for the youngest tribes, not having to do anything at all sophisticated by way of philosophy or theology, and, of special importance, not having to do any substantive teaching or preaching.

And it was that week, freed from responsibility to preach or teach Christianity to anyone, that I remember sitting on a bench lost in thought one afternoon next to a 12 year old who asked me what I did. I told him I was a college student. He asked me what I studied. I told him I studied philosophy. Then he earnestly asked me, “Do you believe in God?” And I looked at him and, for the first time in my life that I remember, I unguardedly answered, “I don’t know.”

The emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and communal walls of defense against doubt that I had determinedly built up so that I could fulfill my commitments all summer were already starting to crumble now that the work was done.

Your Thoughts?

In a related post, I offer advice to a Christian teenager in a similar situation to the one I was in that summer. Here is what I think that people in Christian ministry or working as Christian camp counselors should do when they are having doubts.

Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • smrnda

    This sort of reminds me of something I noticed in college – whenever I ran into a Christian, I noticed that they would be constantly reading book of Christian apologetics. At the same time, I felt that this wasn’t helping them make a very solid case for their beliefs with unbelievers.

    I’ve sometimes wondered (and your posts make me think) that the real purpose of all of this is to keep already converted believers from slipping away. If you spend hours and hours (and it sounds like you spent a lot) constantly making a case for something you’ve started to doubt, you’ll probably hang in a bit longer. If (like you) you take on the responsibility of convincing other believers, you’ll more likely convince yourself.

    Perhaps the difficulty is that total self-deception isn’t going to be possible. I’m sure lots of people in your position can make convincing arguments but that, at heart, they really don’t seem so convincing.

    A question – with the Hindu kid you mentioned, how did he end up at a Christian camp?

  • http://songe.me asonge

    In my own experience, I had a time when I despaired my own damnation because I could no longer maintain my belief. I’ve feared hell and been scared of not believing my entire life…I remember dreaming of being in a tall burning building and thinking that this fear is nowhere close to what hell would feel like. This was before I was in kindergarten. Now, at 2 summer Bible camps when I was 15 and later again at 16, I knew my own sinful nature could not be changed by my will and that God had not transformed me into behaving any better than what I was capable of under my own power. I could go on and on on this subject (I swear, I could write almost half as much as you about my own deconversion), but I just remember that odd feeling of being alien in a foreign body of some kind. Before, I had truly believed and I had felt like part of a functioning whole. After a while, I no longer felt that way. I felt like I was just taking up room, or maybe it was like a ghost and no one even noticed me in my crisis of faith…I was certainly not going to talk about it. I don’t know if anyone there would’ve understood except those that I knew were more alien than I…some former friends who didn’t talk with me so much because things were now uncomfortable over our whole age span being denied leadership roles (which can really stifle personal growth within any system). Two years later, one of them would die due to drug complications, and I would leave for good (with several of my friends) when his death was used as an opportunity for evangelizing his non-church friends who attended. No one said a word to us, some of whom still believed very much, but had left.

  • http://mymusingcorner.wordpress.com Lana

    I am enjoying your story. I am very familiar with Ligonier. I used to be a five-point Calvinist, and I am slowly moving away from evangelical Christianity. I also studied philosophy. I can’t move away from theism altogether, but I understand those who do. I live over sees around missionaries, so many, and while I do not consider myself one, I do a lot of outreaches and work with them. Its hard because if I reject any of the tenants they hold so strong to, do I reject the work that goes along with it? similar to your camp story.

  • http://www.pinesummit.com/ pine

    nice post it’s spiritually near to our hearts and an encompassing gain ful camp.


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