Volume 20 Number 4, Winter 2007
Matthew Provonsha reports on his disillusionment with life in a religious commune
LAST YEAR I spent two months inside a Camphill Community along with other volunteers of various ages from around the world, eager to help others and better myself. I was drawn to communal life, but more importantly I was put off by the society in which I grew up. As a teenage atheist and leftist in the United States I was appalled by the vast increase of religious fervor in public life and by our startling move to the Far Right even during my lifetime. Like so many Americans I was laden with a painful sense of hopelessness. I could only watch television, drink or get high to distract myself. Retreat in one form or another seemed to be the only suitable option.
I was quite enamored with British culture, as well, and wanted nothing more than to see the land which had produced so many of my favorite authors, comedians, rock stars and TV shows. The UK almost seemed (to my naïve self ) to be a totally different, more civilized world. So it was that I decided to find someplace in Britain where I could work for food and lodging. In truth I only chose to ‘volunteer’ at the Mount Camphill Community, a school for young adults with special needs in the South-East of England, because it offered the best benefits. In addition to organic food and lovely surroundings it offers a weekly stipend of fifty pounds, weekend outings and ample time off.
When I arrived I was shocked at how religious the place was. Granted, this was partly my own fault for not looking into it well enough, but their website gives little indication of just how much their beliefs influence most everything they do. There are blessings before and after almost every meal, a strange service on Sundays, and songs and recitations almost every morning. I was berated for not participating in religious rituals and, from even the first meeting I had to sit through about it, the message was clearly join in or leave. In my last meeting I was apologized to for having been given a false impression, and offered airfare home. I declined at first, but subsequently accepted.
When I was encouraged to leave, I was told that even if I sang and recited and smiled during services, ostensibly participating to a full extent, it would still not work because I would be “disapproving on the inside,” whether I knew it or not. There is simply no place for an atheist there. This means that irreligious Brits are funding an institution which would discriminate against them. I was told by the head gardener, whom I worked under, that almost all of their money comes from the government. He also said that I was a cause of concern for some of the “senior co-workers.” The whole place was terribly gossipy and quite often I worried about my words being repeated.
For all these reasons and more I would never want to work at a Camphill Community ever again. The most important reason, however, is that there is no real escape from the alienation of modern life. We literally cannot retreat, and we divert our attention with drugs and other distractions at our peril. The things that give us solace now merely console us to our conditions. They cannot change the fact that, almost a century after Bertrand Russell penned the words, it is still true that “almost all who work have no say in the direction of their work; throughout the hours of labour they are mere machines carrying out the will of a master.” Since then global economic inequality has gotten hideously worse.