There’s an article on the TIMES ONLINE today about a new kind of summer camp – where kids can go and learn how to think critically (read: skeptically) while having fun in the outdoors. It’s an atheist camp, subsidized by Richard Dawkins. As an idea, it’s faultless. Most camps that kids outdoors and having fun and religiously themed. Even the Boy Scouts of America (of which I and my similarly open-minded friends sneaked through by being ambiguous about our religious beliefs) still requires a belief in a higher power. Poor atheists kids don’t have as many opportunities to get away from their parents, make new friends and experience the splendid grandeur of living in the great outdoors. There should be a place for them, and I’m glad Dawkins is offering it.
Unfortunately, the camp sounds pretty boring. They will have a hunt for an imaginery unicorn, but rather than try to find it, kids are supposed to try and prove that it doesn’t exist. So instead of looking around for clues, listening to noises, sneaking around at night and being scared – they will have to think up philosophical theorums (and more likely than not they’ll just be frustrated, bored, killing time and waiting for the adults to teach them). We had the same game in scouts, we called it a Snype hunt. Most summer camps have some version. Campers are told about a special creature and have to go catch one for a prize. Campers don’t know whether or not it’s real, but staffers insist, and then go out and make noises or leave clues. The result is a fascinating and thrilling night-time activity.
Incidentally, I’m not convinced that kids can be taught to think critically or be open minded at all. If you teach them to believe in Jesus, son of god – they will believe it. If you teach them that there is no magic or mystery in life, that if it can’t be proven scientifically it has no merit, they will believe that too. You are still indoctrinating your kids to be a certain kind of people. While atheists and skeptics probably have the rational upper hand, I’ve mentioned before that it is much more difficult to get people to behave without threats or rewards. Teaching morality and ethics and humanism to an atheistic teenager is much harder than teaching it to a Christian. (Or… maybe not. Perhaps the prohibitions and guilt and torment and what make Christians ultimately so eager to sin and then feel bad about it later. Maybe Atheists can do without the object of their desires. Jury is out.)
The best way to create skeptical people is to keep making them believe stupid things and then telling them it was all a lie. Parents do this all the time. We teach our kids about the Easter Bunny, about Santa Claus, about the Tooth Fairy. We LIE LIE LIE. And then we say, “Honey, we’ve been lying to you for years. But now you know never to trust anything that we or anybody else says.” (And then some parents say – “except for Jesus. He’s just like those other things only he’s real.”)
What I’d like to see, is a ‘rite of passage’ camp where parents leave their kids in the wilderness, or put them in a homestay in China or Mexico, where they have to work hard and learn to communicate and fend for themselves. Or – put 30 of them on an island for a month and let them work things out. The ones who come back will be much stronger and definately free-thinking and open minded. Kids are freaking spoiled. They have too much time to think.
Finally – teenage kids are going to be led mostly by their natures anyway. They are going to want to have fun and be adventurous and have sex. Regardless of what camp they go to, kids are going to be kids. They’ll probably sneak around at night and make out and ignore the rules and rebel against their teachers.