Our kids want to go to Christian summer camp

We're both atheists raised by fundamentalists, and we're afraid they'll be indoctrinated.

By Cary Tennis

Published April 4, 2008 10:32AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My wife and I were raised as born-againers but have fallen away. We tried to go to more liberal churches for a while, but now we've lost our faith and have quit going. My wife's parents are strict Baptists. Her sisters went to Bob Jones University. Her older sister now works at a fundamentalist Bible camp. We let our kids go there for a week a couple of summers ago because Grandma and Grandpa paid for it, and they promised us the kids wouldn't be exposed to the kind of hellfire and brimstone teachings we experienced at camp as kids. They came away determined to honor their mother and father and read the Bible and pray and go to church, but within a few weeks, they were back to normal.

Now the kids want to go again this summer, mainly because it's a really fun camp, and they love their aunt, who is very fun and kind. Grandma and Grandpa, who are also very good to them, are willing to pay.

Are we crazy for even considering sending them to a camp where they learn things that are so diametrically opposed to our values? Or is it OK to let them catch a glimpse of the crazy fundamentalist world their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles were all a part of, and trust that they won't be poisoned? The kids say they won't be unduly influenced by the brand of Christianity the camp teaches, but we know how manipulative the Bible camp setting can be. Besides, they've probably got the God gene.

Born-Again Atheists in a Hell of our Own Making

Dear Born-Again Atheists,

You are asking how your children will process certain experiences. You know that if they go to this camp they will hear certain words and see certain images and sing certain songs, but you do not know if those words will have emotional impact or will be ignored. I think you can assume they will experience it differently than you did when you were kids. But you don't really know if they will hear certain stories in a literal way or a figurative way, or if they will form a bond with the instructors, or will ignore them, or heatedly dislike them, nor if what they are told will have resonance and long-lasting emotional power or will be just more junk that kids get told by adults at camp. It depends on the individual personalities of your kids and the personalities of the people running the camp and on a thousand other unknowable things.

So, not to oversimplify, but in a way you are left with this: Your kids really, really want to do something that you're really, really not that into having them do. It is in your power to grant your kids a wish. But it's not something you would ever wish for.

Let's get out of the realm of Christian fundamentalism for a moment, as it's hard to be objective about it. Let's imagine that your kids really, really wanted to go to French language camp, but you were concerned that they might return with deep suspicions about the contaminating effect of American slang words. Could you handle hearing your kids come back speaking French? Would it freak you out? Would it give you traumatic flashbacks of high school French? Could you respect your kids enough to let them do what they really, really want to do, even if it's something you're not into? Or do you feel more strongly an overweening responsibility to protect them from some harm that might come to them, especially since it's a harm that they, being children, are not capable of foreseeing?

I lean toward letting kids do what they really, really want to do. I have a kind of instinctive faith in kids, in their ability to sort through stuff.

But then, I'm not a parent.

Moreover, I am admittedly an idealist. I begin with the truest, most radical, most dreamlike vision of human society and work backward from there, asking at every point of compromise, Do we really have to give this up? Or have we just reached some imaginary limit in our capacity for good?

Being an idealist, I favor universal love. I ask, Is universal love inherently ridiculous? Or do we simply lack the courage to persist in it?

Being an idealist, I wish that the secular left could love the fundamentalist right. I wish we could be bigger than they are. I wish we could be secure enough in our beliefs not to be threatened by theirs. I wish that we could take what is admirable in the words of Christ and put it into action, while leaving the bullshit behind. I wish we could muster for real the kind of universal love they profess but do not practice. I wish we could practice a love that transcends difference.

I don't know if that is a Christian idea or a crazy hippie idea or a Buddhist idea or just an idea from deep in the heart of an innocent little kid who finds delight and wonder in the world and doesn't know enough to protect himself from "poisonous" ideas. I don't know. The argument against it is, I guess, that the fundamentalist Christian right wants to take rights away from atheists -- the right to abortion, the right to certain kinds of free speech. I guess the idea is that they oppress us or would oppress us if given the power.

But as we descend from an idealistic height of universal love and tolerance into the "real" world of war, terrorism, poverty, hunger, crime, oppression, prejudice, murder, ignorance, drug addiction, suicide, avarice, systemic unfairness, homelessness, disease and a million forms of private mental suffering, how much of ourselves do we have to give up? Do we really have to give up anything? Or can we remain somehow pure, idealistic and immune? Can we retain a radical innocence? Can we conduct ourselves nobly and purely in a secular democracy full of dictators, hucksters, demagogues, buffoons and confidence men?

Or is our very desire to retain radical innocence itself a sign of our failure to grow up and face the world as it is? Ironically enough, does our very desire to preserve a perhaps mythical innocence lie at the root of fundamentalist Christianity's appeal? Is this idealism a regressive fantasy?

Run this by me once more: On what basis do we on the secular left condemn Christian fundamentalists to the point that we would keep our kids out of their summer camps, even though our kids really, really want to go? Is it because they infuriate us with their holier-than-thou insistence that we are damned to burn in hell while they will be enjoying some white-themed social club complete with dry ice, Vegas costumes and flowing robes reminiscent of "Ben Hur"? Is it because they want to institute vice laws and outlaw abortion? Because their leaders often turn out to be hypocrites and their arguments are so intellectually flawed and poorly constructed as to be in the aesthetic category of the ugly?

Well, OK, yeah.

But say you're a kid. You don't know all this. You just want to go to summer camp.

So we're back to this fundamental question: Your kids really want to do something that you really are not into. My mother really disapproved of Disneyland. I don't know why. She disapproved of football and people from Maine and the Army Corps of Engineers. As a kid I had no clue why. I don't know what effect her peculiarities had on me. But I would have preferred that she take a more balanced view of the various recreational activities available to a kid.

As a former kid, all I can say is, Trust us in what we want to do. Trust us in what we need. We need to be with our grandparents and our beloved aunts and uncles and go to camp and see the angels and the wise men on the felt boards or whatever the fuck audiovisual aids they use. We can handle it. If we can handle the daily news, we can handle Christian summer camp. That's me talking from the standpoint of a kid. I could be right or wrong. What do I know, I'm only a kid.

You're the parent. You have to decide.

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