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

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

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

  • Friday, 3 August, 2012 at 0:03

    I have found your blog incredibly interesting as I was at Soul Survivor this same week with a Christian view point already. I agree with what you have said about Mike and found myself worrying about the people who gave their lives to Jesus with what we can guess is purely an emotional experience from all the hype in the main meetings. I cannot say I know the Bible very well so can say I personally have fact and reason with biblical quotes and references however and I do believe there is definitely an element of emotion that goes with any religion as belief can be base on what you think your connection has been as everything has some aspect of doubt or uncertainty from not being able to really explain it. Depending on the individual, some may be conned into religion from such emotional encounters from things such as Soul Survivor but there are those people who are aware of certain tricky and do question the authenticity of some of the goings on but do have these emotional connections in other forms other than from what is being said from the stage. Maybe religion is hope, maybe people get so wound up in it all because all they long for is a bit of stability and fear what will happen at the end, I don’t know, but I do know for myself I have had encounters with God outside and inside Soul Survivor and I am aware than some of the emotion I have felt is self0-healing and recognition not necessarily a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit. I have found in your blogs you have failed to recognize that there are people, Christians at Soul Survivor all have different views on the goings on that occur in the main meetings and have felt you have largely grouped everyone assuming that the other 90% who didn’t give their lives agreed with the explanation given.
    I also agree with what you have said about the seminars and some of the things said in the main meetings which you have highlighted in your blogs, as I found myself disagreeing with what some of the speakers said, particularly about how they glossed everything to be in a light in such a way that was hetrosexualist and anything that was not deemed ‘pure’ was not the way of Jesus when in fact it is society which has left a print that a man and woman should get married and wait to get intimate until that day, not the Biblical messages as the book only states what the social norms were back then, which was the feel I got from the week.

  • Friday, 3 August, 2012 at 0:15

    “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?”

    To be fair, most people, including self-styled “skeptics” are just as easily convinced. In my experience, most people just believe what the people they want to hang out with believe. That goes for christians and skeptics and everything else alike. That’s not to say there aren’t christians who at least have reasons to believe and that there aren’t skeptics who have good reasons not to believe, but those reasons are often just after-the-fact justifications (even if independently they are good justifications). At the end of the day we are social animals and we just want to belong with the group we want to belong to. And that’s why things like Soul Survivor are so successful.

  • Friday, 3 August, 2012 at 9:06

    Very grateful for the care, and gentleness, you used with this critique. I’d enjoy a conversation with you I’m sure. I’m a piece of grit in the machinery of the church rather than throwing stones from the outside. I think I cause more damage there. But I also think the God I believe in is bigger than the one many of these temporary comunities present.

  • Friday, 3 August, 2012 at 12:05

    “Depending on the individual, some may be conned into religion from such emotional encounters from things such as Soul Survivor but there are those people who are aware of certain tricky and do question the authenticity of some of the goings on”

    I don’t think it’s the intention of Soul Survivor or its organisers to con or trick anyone into faith but it’s easy to develop a belief for the wrong reasons. That’s true of any beliefs not simply religion, hence the value of trying to critically examine the evidence upon which ideas are formed.

  • Friday, 3 August, 2012 at 12:29

    Alex, a very interesting read, I commend you for going along and doing this. A couple of observations.

    Unsurprisingly (given you’re an atheist) you assume that the default position for everyone should be non-belief in God therefore conversion through experience at Soul Survivor is irrational. However, conversion is not merely becoming a believer in God, but choosing to trust him with your life.

    Therefore is it not possible that many of these people converting already believe the Christian God exists, but have not made their decision to become a follower of Christ and entered into a relationship with him. It is this second thing that is taking place at Soul Survivor for some.

    I’m sorry that you overheard some homophobic comments, this is not excusable at all, but bear in mind that some people bring their own prejudices to the table before becoming christians, and it takes time to apply the christian doctrine that all people are made in the image of God to treating everyone in such a way. Basically, we Christians are all imperfect work’s in progress!

  • Friday, 3 August, 2012 at 12:34

    Have you come across the idea of liminality? I’m sure you have.
    Soul Survivor is a liminal place, for groups of teens who choose in modern british secular society to be part of churches and regularly attend youth groups. (not the easiest path.)
    They do their ongoing critical and emotional evaluation of faith and atheism in their secular humanist schools, amongst their mainly antagonistic peers and friends. They daily make these choices and conclusions.

    Then in the summer at a conference they choose to go to, knowing what it’s about, they enter a liminal place with their peers and leaders to experience and formally take their place in the culture of christianity as followers of Jesus in their own right when and if they choose.

    This is the pattern of thousand of years of humanity, call it sociology or anthropology. Emotion is key, but your rejection of Soul Survivor as an entity in and of itself is less valid to me because you ignore the fact that Soul Survivor is in a symbiotic relationship with local church and youth groups where the hard yards are done in terms of answering rational questions and working out the whys and wherefores, and this will continue throughout adult church life.

    Few of us believe the same things we did at 18 or younger, but decisions we make as teenagers do help define us.
    Souls Survivor as the churches liminal annual space is fine by me.

  • Friday, 3 August, 2012 at 12:37

    Also final comment, what does it mean for me to love friends that are gay while not accepting their sexual relationship? It’s not just buying a cake and then disapproving! It means believing the truth that you are more than just a sexual being. You are an image bearer of God, and so I treat you with dignity just like I would anyone else, and respectfully disagree with your lifestyle choice.

    Homophobia is not disagreeing with a lifestyle choice (as it is often portrayed in the media), it would be if I were to ignore you, show hatred and contempt towards you because of your sexuality. To treat you as sub-human, something no christian ever should do.

    • Saturday, 4 August, 2012 at 11:22

      Labeling homosexuality, contrary to all facts, as “a lifestyle choice”, and objecting to it while disregarding the damage that misguided attempts to “quit” this “lifestyle” cause IS showing contempt to people, and to their well-being, because of their sexuality.
      You don’t get to redefine love in order to call yourself loving.

      • Monday, 6 August, 2012 at 10:20

        As someone who is bisexual can I just point out that while my sexuality is not a lifestyle choice, how I express it is.
        Which sexual partners I choose, how many, which clubs I go to, whether or not I go to Bi-con, are not predetermined by my sexuality, they are my choices. So I think it is possible for someone to disagree with my lifestyle but for me to not take that as them disliking me because of my sexuality.

  • Friday, 3 August, 2012 at 15:28

    I think that your comment of the church on the sand is profound and it is even said in the bible that you shouldn’t build your foundations on the sand however I do think that the fact that most of the people going to soul survivor unless over the age of 18 are part of a youth group which is based in a church which are bible based and have similar views to soul survivor, if they didn’t then yet hey wouldn’t take there Youth to it. So I think that soul survivor does give a mountain top experience and real life is not like soul survivor, but they have considered how to grow the new Christians. New Christians are like babies, you need to look after them properly and support them but also show disapline in order to see them grow as Christians but also as moral people.

  • Friday, 3 August, 2012 at 22:50

    “Those who can be made to believe absurdities can be made to commit atrocities” – Voltaire

  • Saturday, 4 August, 2012 at 11:07

    Congratp on escaping with your mind intact. I see the apologists and “No True Scotsman” brigade are here to tell you how much they love you, they just disagree with your “choices”. Ugh.

    Funny you should mention JT Everthehomophobe. He’s not a big fan of us queers either. At least the saccharine sanctimonites have Yahweh as an excuse for their hatred, and their persecution complexes (“Ickle baby Chwistians are brave martyrs in nasty secular England!” What rot. I got shit for everything but my religion when I was in school, and I was from hardcore charismatic evangelical stock)

    I hope you’re well rested now.

  • Saturday, 4 August, 2012 at 17:40

    Very interesting read, thank you! I must commend you on your patience and endurance. I don’t think I’d have been able to force myself to stay through the whole week and I certainly wouldn’t have made it through without getting into a few arguments.

    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.)

    I have a strong suspicion that the overwhelming majority of these converts were not thoughtful atheists or sceptics. Most likely they were (like most people who are drawn to events like these) already Christians and their conversion was mostly a case of being swept up and carried away by the tide of emotion, inspiring them to stand up and reaffirm their already existing faith.

    I do not think that such conversions necessarily have any real long term effect. When I was a teenager in South Africa, a number of my classmates underwent a similar conversion at a rally held by a visiting American televangelist (I was already a non-believer and although my parents are devout Christians they were very cynical about the whole thing so fortunately I was not pressured into attending). All these classmates were already firm believers and although they talked about the experience quite a bit for a few days after the event, nothing much changed for any of them in the long term and after a few weeks it was all but forgotten. At least one of them eventually also lost his faith and became an atheist.

  • Sunday, 5 August, 2012 at 7:12

    I read all seven days over the course of the last few hours, Alex (between reruns of ‘Fringe’, which IMHO is the best SciFi since ‘Firefly’)… and…


    For one thing, it’s always a pleasure to read a talented writer, and you’ve got chops, my friend.

    As for the six days you spent at the modern equivalent of a Revival Meeting, I have to say I really appreciated the insights you offered into our fellow earthlings ways of life. I imagine I would have had all the same reactions, including trying to understand conversion. Unlike you, I wasn’t raised religious, but there was a period of my life where I quested and at times I think I did believe in some sort of deity.

    Even then, though, raw (‘pure’?) emotional belief is an alien worldview. So I did feel a little like a voyeur or a zoo-goer reading your accounts, but then in the next sentence (or even better, the next clause of the sentence) you explained it to me so that I could understand what I was ‘seeing’ through your eyes. You were a most helpful guide for this godless heathen on a farm in rural Missouri.

    Thank you.

  • Sunday, 5 August, 2012 at 15:25

    Thanks for your posts, for entertaining us and giving your perspective. It was a shame you didn’t attend most of the main sessions as in my experience this is the meat of Soul Survivor. In particular you deserve an award for camping on your own with a few thousand teenagers ( Momentum is the equivalent week for those 18 to thirty something).

    As a teenager I went from being an Anglican Agnostic to a devout Atheist. Now I’m a Christian and ordained a Priest in the C of E (via the Alpha Course) this coming Sunday I’m off to Soul Survivor with 20 or so teenagers and hoping they all meet Jesus (for the first or hundredth time).

  • Sunday, 5 August, 2012 at 16:58

    Thank you for your insightful comments over the last few posts.

    I am a Christian for the reason that I have been able to see God’s answered prayers over many years.

    I am highly suspicious of events such as this where God is oftp

  • Sunday, 5 August, 2012 at 17:02

    ** edit.

    Im suspicioys of his kind of event because Im not sure i can subscribe to emotional manipulation. I dont like theidea of a mass conversio. As i worry about follow up and support for people.

    Im sorry about the homophobia. I feel a sense of shame regardinf those who speak such cruel words.

    In all i have loved the blog

  • Monday, 6 August, 2012 at 2:44

    Hi Alex

    When you pointed to low points of your experience I wasn’t surprised. I’ve been to Soul Survivor before and know well how much the feeling of community flows through the whole experience. I can imagine being an individual participant would be tough for anyone. I hope that this hasn’t been part of the cause of your negative feeling toward Soul Survivor, although I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. I wonder if you talked to any participants during your time.

  • Monday, 6 August, 2012 at 7:54

    if its any comfort to you, the vast majority of those converts are nothing of the sort. I’ve been to church youth rallies where people who already considered themselves to be christians gave into the emotion and conditioning and got caught up in the fervor and claimed to be newly convicted, blah blah blah…then saw the same preacher the next night say there’d been x number of ‘new believers’ as a result of his youth rally! Other than a rare skeptic, who goes to a week long young adult christian camp who isn’t already a believer or someone who wants to believe? (that’s who I was – I kept going hoping to finally have that moment where I actually, truly believed, but deep down I always knew it was fairy tales)

  • Monday, 6 August, 2012 at 8:30

    I’ve only read Day 0 and Day 7, but I like what you’re reading. Thanks for approaching the whole thing with a level head, unlike a certain Guardian columnist! We worked with Soul Survivor on last years follow-up materials for youth groups in September – would you be interested in having a look at them?

  • Wednesday, 8 August, 2012 at 15:37

    I really enjoyed reading this.

    My family is Christian, and I was raised as such, meaning that I visited Soul Survivor a couple of times. However, my teenage years were marked by growing doubts, and by the time university rolled around I felt ready to officially come out as an atheist.

    My sister, a few years younger than me, and about to start uni in the autumn, has privately told me that she is experiencing similar doubts, and currently considers herself agnostic (in the sense of ‘somewhere between religion and atheism’, rather than ‘do not believe it is possible to ever know the truth for sure’). We’ve had some interesting debates, as both of us approach the issues from different angles. However, she has not been able to bring herself to share these feelings with the rest of the family – my parents are wonderful people, and accept my choice, but both I and my sister are aware of how hard it was, and still is, for them.

    This week, she’s away at Soul Survivor with members of her church youth group, and I’m very interested to see how it’ll affect her opinions and beliefs on the matter.

  • Thursday, 9 August, 2012 at 15:30

    You might be interested to know that Soul Survivor are aware that they often get things wrong: http://www.youthworksummit.com/inspire/show/2612

    I expect you disagree on what you think is right and wrong, but still. At least they know they’re not perfect.

    I’ve only been to Soul Survivor once, but I have also been to a Momentum meeting – I much prefered it. There was much less hype and ‘mood lighting’, and so it felt like a more genuine experience.

    • Friday, 10 August, 2012 at 21:24

      I would agree with that, as a regular Momentum attendee. We find that the older age-group makes for less hype and a more chilled-out atmosphere which is preferable.

  • Saturday, 11 August, 2012 at 4:32

    A boy who was smitten with me in college became a Christian after some effort on my part to “share” my faith. I was a reasonably adept apologist and an intelligent person but mostly I was cute and he liked me. Many in our IVCF (college christian group)doubted his conversion saying it was clearly based on reasons other than the holy spirit’s conviction. They were right and wrong. We later married and served God and our consciences together for 20 years at which time he came to me with the honest and brave admission that he no longer believed. He considered himself an atheist. By this time I had had many chances to doubt the claims of Christianity but I had stayed firm (partly by sheer determination.). His coming out as an atheist freed me to really examine my own faith. After all, I was invested. I’d converted many people to Jesus, had worked as a worship leader and had raised three children to ( I hoped) believe as well. If I was wrong I was culpable of some serious crap. As you can see by my moniker here, I did leave the faith and so have all three of my kids. My husband and I are still together and happier than before for sure.. My point in telling this long story here is that the strength of ones religious convictions can be difficult to shake. And until a mind is free of them the cognitive dissonance can be overwhelming even in a reasonably intelligent, generally honest, well meaning person. Individual relationships with good skeptical people can make all the difference.

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