Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Three)

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Day Two

My first night’s sleep at camp is less than adequate. After witnessing conversion en masse at the evening’s meeting and falling back to my tent to blog, I pull my sleeping bag around me, now regretting that I didn’t bring a mat as heat is sucked out of my body; for late July, it’s a surprisingly cold night. The camp is expected to be quiet by midnight, but the group of adolescent boys camped next to me natter on for several hours. Amongst the banter, various comments make me uneasy. I hear several boisterous references to men sharing tents, some of which refer disgustedly to being ‘buggered’ and paint men who like men as sexual predators. (Earlier, I’d heard both them and the teenagers opposite use ‘gay’ as a word for for ‘bad’.) I think about reporting them to someone, but the site rules never mention homophobia.

In the end, I get what must be three or four hours’ sleep. While I’d planned to attend a seminar this morning on how to read Leviticus, followed by a morning meeting like last night’s, I decide to stay away from both and catch up on some sleep. The day begins to warm, and by half past eleven I feel more or less rested, so buy lunch and work for a while on a book review I’m writing. As I head toward the buildings in search of food, I’m glad to be missing the main meeting. This isn’t just for the reasons you’d expect; it also tells me something new about Soul Survivor. In the run-up to this series, people who’d gone before often told me guests ‘hung out’, avoiding the central sessions. This isn’t my experience. Strolling around with my teeth in a pastry, the place is quiet. Apart from a couple of teenagers playing swingball and some people charging phones inside, it seems obvious most of the 3000 delegates are worshipping.

My iPhone died last night at the end of the meeting, and my iPad – I’m an Apple fan, okay? – is almost out of battery, so I head into the ‘office’, an assembly of aged desktop computers, and pay for some internet time while I plug in my devices to the sound of more Christian rock. With any luck, this means I’ll be able to live-tweet throughout the day as I did in last night’s gathering. Today there are two more seminars, and these I won’t miss. The first, given by Mike, Andy and a third speaker named Esther Davenport, is titled ‘Soul man meets soul sista: sex’.

If the title wasn’t a beacon of heteronormativity, the first remarks in the discussion certainly are. Predictably, we get that quote from Genesis about men cleaving to their wives and becoming one flesh. (Stephen Green quite likes it.) The session quickly becomes a guide to abstinence, as Andy says it’s ‘a proven statistic’ that committed couples have better sex. He omits to give a source, before he goes on to call sexuality an ‘appetite’ that ‘needs to be controlled’, and adds that ‘sex outside marriage has caused harm’, naming AIDS as an example. There’s some good stuff too, particularly in Esther’s comments, about not feeling pressured to have sex when you don’t want it and not being incomplete because of that choice – but all three seem determined to have sex, or not, exactly how God says they should, which rather undermines any notion pressure is bad. It doesn’t make you incomplete to be a virgin, but nor does liking lots of sex with lots of people. It’s your body, so it’s your decision what sex you have and no one else’s, including God’s.

The second seminar, at four o’clock, is Andy on his own discussing suffering and why God permits it. Though I think his arguments are crammed with derailment and fallacies, I’m grateful that he at least makes some – with none of Mike’s blustering charm offensive, this is a theologian with a Cambridge first whom I can see on the public speaking circuit, if he isn’t there already. This doesn’t mean I’m convinced by him, but as with certain individuals (Tony Blair, Sam Harris, Saruman in Lord of the Rings) I feel as if I could be taken in despite my reservations, and perhaps I would be if I just went on personal charm. His arguments seem to be:

  1. That atheists have no right to call anything wrong.
  2. That we, not God, are the source of our fallen suffering – a distraction from the fact a God would still be letting tsunamis kill innocent people even if he didn’t cause them to, and an erasure of the many times in the Bible when God does cause people to suffer, for example in his many genocides.
  3. That Christians ought to trust in what they do ‘know’ about God – an outright evasion.

His repeated reference to the Fall in Genesis makes me wonder if he actually sees Adam and Eve as literal individuals; not something one might expect from a Cambridge graduate, but there are those who do. If so, I wonder at what date he thinks natural disasters first occurred, since he says he thinks the Fall caused earthquakes and hurricanes as well.

I haven’t yet decided if I’ll go to tonight’s main meeting. While I feel that perhaps I should, and know that everywhere else will be shut, I’m not wholly sure if I can sit through another two hours like yesterday’s. Whatever I decide, I’ll tell you tomorrow.

Day Four

@AlexGabriel #GoingSoulo

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