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

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Day Six

It’s done. I’ve been home from Soul Survivor twenty-four hours, and I’ve now more or less recovered emotionally and physically. I won’t deny that this project’s been hard – a lot more so than I expected on devising it. (My thanks go out, once again, to the readers of my blog who made it possible.) But am I glad I did it? Absolutely. Because being torn out of my skeptical bubble’s taught me a lot, and since it seems appropriate to make some conclusions in my final post, this blog will be a mixture of hope and fear.

To start with, the fear: my first night at Soul Survivor made me re-remember why we need skeptical activism, and how badly we need it. And it made me afraid of what we might end up facing without it.

For the record, none of the organisers struck me as bad people. They didn’t strike me, at least, as malicious or dishonest; my impression is that Mike P. and his missionary colleagues really do believe what they preach, and think they’re making planet Earth better. The problem is how easily they’re persuading people.

On night number one, 204 people converted according to Mike. Hundreds more followed in next few days, and given two more Soul Survivor camps down south will follow, it seems likely this year will have a four-figure total. (Add to that any converts from the various standalone events the Soul Survivor church holds throughout the year.) Of course, everyone should be free to believe what they like and follow whatever religion they choose – but why did these people adopt the beliefs Mike et al share? Not for any evidential reason, as far as I can tell; not in the wake of any logical argument, à la William Lane Craig. They were persuaded Mike’s beliefs are right because he said them a certain way; because other people sang them; because a crowd of thousands clapped and cheered, amid a sound and light show.

I believe that, as JT Eberhard likes to say, reality-based beliefs are a moral obligation. When other people will be subject to a lifetime of things you do, making sure the beliefs are accurate which determine what you do is more than just important: it’s vital. And that means only believing things for good reasons – not because of authority or subjective feelings. Feelings, as I wanted to scream in the main meetings at Soul Survivor, don’t amount to facts.

If the camp’s attendees could be so easily convinced of Christianity’s claims – that a God exists, that the biblical account of him is accurate, and that we ought to devote our whole lives to this creature – what’s to say they won’t be convinced just as easily of other baseless claims? That MMR vaccines cause autism, say, or that climate change isn’t real? And what’s to say their God-beliefs, formed for entirely emotional reasons, won’t result in them wasting thousands of pounds, spurning tried and tested medicine, traumatising children with images of Hell or spreading destructive lies about gender and sex?

It frightens me to have seen hundreds display such poor criteria for belief. (William Lane Craig may be touted as the best apologist God currently has, but I’m willing to bet more Christians are made at Soul Survivor than in his lectures.) Some secular activists focus on church-state issues, like removing bishops from the House of Lords and ending religiously segregated schools. That’s a legitimate choice, and I’m glad someone is taking that line. The ultimate issue for me, though, is that people believe things they shouldn’t.

But I also have hope.

In the run up to Going Soul-o, and in the course of live-tweeting my time at camp, I’ve encountered what must be more than twenty atheists who attended similar camps. The conversion rate is clearly high, but how many people who gave their lives to Jesus there will later want them back?

The use of charismatic worship and emotional appeals means, yes, that Soul Survivor is effective in the short term, but it also means something else: it means the leaders there are building their church on sand. It’s far more simple (if not always easy) to tear down beliefs based on emotion than it is to attack a fallacy-filled academic argument, and it seems to me that many of the camp’s converts might reconsider their position if they heard the less convenient things the Bible tells us about God. That’s the trouble with packaging beliefs as a relationship – relationships may be popular, but so are breakups, and a church built on sand might well begin to crumble should a wave of reason hit.

It’s obvious many people’s time at Soul Survivor taught them about Jesus, but mine taught me all about myself: what makes me uncomfortable, what makes me angry and what makes me sad; what I want to do in the sceptical community, and the fight I think we all have on our hands. I’m ready for that.

@AlexGabriel #GoingSoulo

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