Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day One)
This time tomorrow, I will be wearing a wristband: not a brightly coloured rubber one with a slogan on it, like the kind which were fashionable during my GCSEs, but a thin paper one with an adhesive end – the sort you might be given at a theme park or a music festival. It’s not Reading or Leeds where I’m going, though. It’s Soul Survivor, the annual evangelical summer camp which aims, in its own words, to help young people meet Jesus.
At the start of this year, I crowdsourced the cost of the ticket on my blog, with the promise I’d write daily posts if I went. A lot of people worried I’d be thrown out, which remains a possibility – but I doubt it, because while the organisers might not choose this phrase, I genuinely think it’s a conversion drive. I’ve been told that at similar festivals which followed Soul Survivor, guests sometimes sign pledges reading ‘I will now follow Jesus’ and the like; while I don’t know if that occurs at Soul Survivor, it does claim attendees will learn how to ‘live [their] whole lives for him’.
Another concern was that these efforts might work, and I’d return to the blogosphere an out-and-out believer. Like any good skeptic, I’m always happy to be convinced, and if it turns out I’ve been missing something crucial since my teenage deconversion I’ll be glad to learn what it is. But I wouldn’t bet on Soul Survivor changing my mind. As a charismatic gathering, it seems little more than an extended emotional appeal.
I use the c-word in its religious sense, and not as one might to describe cult leaders or dictators, but it’s true that aspects of the liturgy (or ‘worship’, as it’s fashionably called by evangelicals) have troubling connotations, at least for me. Swaying to guitar-led hymns in a YouTube clip from a previous year, a crowd of thousands hold their right hands palm-open on the air – a gesture which even as a Christian, I never understood, and which I now find uncomfortably reminiscent of a Roman salute. I don’t mean to Godwin this early on, but there is something Nuremberg-esque about the scene for me.
Mike Pilavachi, the festival’s founder and leader who I hope to see preach, is a celibate man and believes according to an interview on jesus.org.uk that ‘sex is between one man and one woman in the context of marriage’. Yes, this means he thinks queer sex is wrong, though he does say ‘We have to love people who are homosexual’. How, one wonders, do you tell someone lovingly that their harmless, enjoyable, mutually consensual sex life is disapproved of by a perfect being, so needs to end forthwith? By adding ‘Here, have a scone’?
As for the being in question, it seems reference is made usually to Jesus and only seldom to God. Specifically, attendees are encouraged to develop a ‘relationship’ with him – obscuring all the complex truth claims and presuppositions of Christianity as if conversion were as simple as an introduction to someone. To gloss a belief as a relationship is admirable sleight of hand, because it leaves so little room for awkward questions like ‘What evidence supports that?’ or ‘What makes you think so?’ It seems clearly effective or at least popular too, because I’ve seen this rhetoric everywhere, from a pamphlet I received at university about ‘encountering Jesus’ to my sister’s making sure that her four-year-old ‘loves Jesus’.
On hearing this from adults, I feel at once as if I’m listening to a child with an imaginary friend. That’s not a sentence I mean to sound rude or demeaning: that’s simply the closest experience I’ve had, perhaps the only similar one, to hearing about ‘meeting Jesus’. There’s something understandably convenient about calling your religion a relationship in the absence of supportive evidence, yet a great many Christians, including evangelical, theologically conservative friends of mine, are happy to express their views in the format, ‘I believe [x] is the case. Here are my reasons.’ This strikes me as a skeptic as far more honest, and as an ex-Christian as a less degrading approach. Whatever the faults of Christianity are, and they’re innumerable, you sell it short and ignore its vast history by pretending it isn’t about ‘[x] is true’-style claims.
I’ve been keen not to go into this with preconceptions, but those are my concerns about Soul Survivor’s methods based on what I’ve seen. When I get there tomorrow, perhaps I’ll be proven wrong.