Stop me if you know this one.
I am a C! I am a C-H!
I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N!
And I have C-H-R-I-S-T in my H-E-A-R-T
And I will L-I-V-E-E-T-E-R-N-A-L-L-Y!
(repeat ad nauseum as 10 year-olds are wont to do . . . )
This is the chant that spontaneously broke out among several members of the robotics club at my eldest son’s school a few weeks ago. I’m a parent volunteer/coach with the club and we meet for about 75 minutes twice a week after school. I’ve noticed recently that talk of religion is pretty common among the students, particularly on Wednesdays, as many of the kids will be leaving robot club and heading for their respective churches for Wednesday night supper and services.
The kids who go to the same church will often speculate about what kind of food will be on the Wednesday night supper menu – these 10 and 11 year-olds don’t need to see that the clock on the wall is nearing 4:30 to know that it is almost time to eat. Those who go to different churches will ask each other which church they attend. Essentially, some level of church attendance is almost always assumed — it’s just part of the culture.
Summer Camp Blues
When I told my wife that evening about the chant incident, she shrugged it off. She was introduced to the same chant at the Christian summer camp she attended as a kid. She chalked it up to being a fun thing to say and nothing more. Kids don’t focus on the meaning, she told me, nor do they mean anything by participating in the chant.
The mention of summer camp brought me back to an unfortunate incident from almost a year ago. I wanted my oldest son to have a summer camp experience, but didn’t want to have him exposed to the indoctrination that goes hand-in-hand with Christian summer camps. Yes, I had seen the documentary Jesus Camp and, while recognizing the possibility that the film featured an extreme version of the usual Christian camp, I was committed to finding a dogma-free summer camp experience for my son. In looking for alternatives, I came across Camp Quest and, with my wife’s approval, signed him up.
As the date for camp approached, close relatives got wind of the name of the camp and looked it up. What they read as the mission statement on the website — “Camp Quest provides an educational adventure shaped by fun, friends, and freethought, featuring science, natural wonder and humanist values” – they translated as “atheist camp.” As the father who signed his son up for this “atheist camp,” I was now outed.
You’re Out of Here
There is a lot of debate within the non-believing community about when, where, and how much to embrace the term “atheist.” Some on the “firebrand” end of the spectrum would have everyone, at all times, wear it as a badge of honor. Others like Seth Andrews (host of “The Thinking Atheist”) argue that context is key – “Find the place where you are comfortable and where you can be you — at the volume you choose, for the reasons you want.”
When the relatives confronted me and asked me whether I was an atheist, I responded affirmatively. I realize now that was a huge mistake. At that moment, I took on all the preconceived notions and baggage that they had saddled the term with. While I rushed to clarify that I was an “agnostic atheist” and tried to define those terms for them, it all fell on deaf ears. The instant I took on the term, I was an “other” to them.
In retrospect, I wonder what might have resulted if I had taken a deep breath and slowed down. Rather than defining terms in precise academic fashion, I should have said, “All that means is that I don’t know.” Perhaps an even better response would have been to avoid the “atheist” label entirely, and adopt instead the moniker that my wife has given me – I’m a “questioner.” I could have, and possibly should have, responded – “I’m actually a questioner. All those things that you, as believers, are so confident about – as a questioner, I’m simply not as convinced.”
I am a Q-U-E-S-T-I-O-N-E-R
My son would be welcome at any of the dozens of Christian camps in our area, and he might perhaps find a wider circle of friends with whom he could chant, at a robotics club meeting in a public school building, about loving C-H-R-I-S-T all the T-I-M-E. But would it mean anything to him, or would the social dynamics and indoctrination force him into believing, saying and chanting things without good reason?
Hearing the kids chant made me realize that I, as a parent, had made the right decision last summer. The reason that I signed him up for Camp Quest in the first place was so that he would have the freedom to think for himself – to pick up and practice the skills to be a questioner, on religious matters and all others. Isn’t this what I wish for all children, and adults as well?
It’s time to change the culture – in robotics club and otherwise. Kids like to chant as a way of expressing social cohesion (we are a social species after all). While cheerleading is not my strong suit, I’ll write a robotics club chant for next season that will be inclusive to all members. A chant which is both fun to say and has a meaning that all can get behind.
As for a Camp Quest chant, maybe I’ll crowd-source that one. My oldest son will be a returning camper this year and he will be joined by my middle son who will be a first-timer. Feel free to post a comment with a chant that the boys and I can practice while we drive to camp in June. Here’s all that I can come up with – I’m sure there are more creative minds than mine out there:
I am a Q! I am a Q-U!
I am a Q-U-“E-S-T”-I-O-N-E-R
I will apportion my belief based on the quality of evidence
Admit when I don’t know and always keep an open mind
Interested in Camp Quest?
Date: June 24-June 30, 2018
Locations: Tishomingo State Park, near Tupelo, MS
Age Range: Campers ages 8-15, CITs ages 16-17
Typical Attendance: 40 campers accepted for the first year (2017)
Mortgage Hill Musings makes a living teaching science concepts. When he doesn’t have an answer or a sufficient explanation, he is happy to admit his ignorance. His hope is that, through the practice of Street Epistemology, others will come to enjoy the freedom that such honesty provides. Check out more of his content on his YouTube channel here.