This one time at atheist camp…

It appears that an increasing number of parents are willing to send their children to summer camps that elevate reason over religion and promote atheism as a “positive family-friendly worldview.” To a conservative Christian this is ludicrous at the least, and dangerously satanic at the most. Despite strong Christian opposition, these camps are available to “free-thinking” parents and their children. And, more notably, they are popping up all across America – even Texas has a camp, TEXAS! Welcome to Camp Quest!

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Camp Quest began in 1996. Since then other states have followed suit. The camps are much like other summer camps; they include all the fun activities that are characteristic of summer camps (canoeing, swimming, rock climbing, T-shirts, camp fires, etc.). However, Camp Quest, unlike church and bible camps, focus on learning activities that celebrate reason, science, critical thinking, and the scientific method of inquiry. And rather than preaching the idea that morality is inherently linked to God and the Bible, Camp Quest teaches how reason and compassion are the foundations of morality and will lead to a fulfilling and productive life. I could tell you more, but their mission statement says it all (see below). Summer camp anyone? If interested, I have provided a link to their website at the bottom of this page.

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http://www.campquest.org/

Jesus and Darth Vader – Metaphors be with you.

The holiday season is upon us, and Christians around the world will be celebrating their virgin birth story. Most Christians read the story literally. And it is obvious from worldwide literature that miracle conceptions and virgin births are common and popular, even today (as evident in Star Wars Episode I). However, what if these stories were never intended to be taken literally? What if these stories were originally intended to be read metaphorically? Is this possible? Maybe Joseph Campbell has an answer.

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Joseph Campbell was a “giant” in his field, a leading scholar in mythology. He did not view God as an actual being, but rather as a metaphor for the ultimate mystery of life. In May of 1987 (at the age of 83) he was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times. Below is an excerpt from the interview.

“The virgin birth has nothing to do with a biological accident,” Campbell explained. It symbolizes instead, he said, “the awakening of spiritual life in the human animal. It’s a mythic symbol. It should not be read, finally, as historical fact. All mythology is misread when it is read as referring to historical events or geographical places. The Promised Land is not a piece of land to be conquered by military might; it is a condition of the heart.”

If Campbell is right, then the Christmas story is not just for Christians, but rather for everyone, “believers” and “nonbelievers” alike. While the “free-thinking” secular humanist may scoff at the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth, Campbell is inviting us to read the story differently, and to take it to heart.

Happy Holidays everyone! And, in the words a true Jedi Knight, “Metaphors be with you!”

Biblically awkward demon possessions.

When my son was three he had a seizure while sleeping. His convulsions were so violent that the sound of his bed shaking woke my wife and I. It was a terrifying event. But rather than calling an exorcist we called the hospital. My son was fine, and we left the hospital with a handful of literature and “First Aid” information. Needless to say, the literature and information was “comforting,” and I’m thankful to live in our modern age; I can’t imagine how people 2,000 years ago dealt with this kind of terrifying event. Oh, wait, maybe I can – demon possessions!

In my World Religions class I make it very clear to my students that people during Jesus’ time had a limited understanding of the world. And, more importantly, I want them to understand that people of the Bronze Age, like today, sought answers.

Answers bring comfort. And in the absence of medical science it is easy to understand how people once diagnosed epileptic seizures and convulsions as demon possessions. It was the best answer they could formulate, and it is understandable. But for many of my students the dichotomy between “alleged” demon possessions (as described in the New Testament) and our present-day understanding of epilepsy can raise some serious questions: Were epileptic seizures misdiagnosed as “possessions”? And if so, does this cast doubt on the credibility of the Bible as actual “truth”? And if the Bible has it wrong regarding demons, where else might the Bible have it wrong? These are questions I let my students answer for themselves.

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Religion as entertainment (aka “drug”).

Have Americans become entertainment junkies, constantly in need of bigger and more frequent hits? In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman makes the case that we are at great risk. He argues that America, by its incessant need to be amused, is becoming a brain-drained-land of docile sheep led to the slaughter of complacency. If it is true, if constant entertainment and our need for it has a way of slowly turning us into numb-minded audience zombies, will religion in America (particularly Christianity) try to capitalize on this? Or has it already? I’ll let you decide. Below are a couple quotes from Postman’s book, along with some thought-provoking photos. All food for thought!

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Are liberal states more educated?

I found the below data very eye-opening and disturbing, but not surprising. Republicans certainly should not be surprised. Last year in September Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and contender for the Republican nomination for president in 2012, told the audience at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C. “We will never have the elite, smart people on our side.” It appears that Mr. Santorum was right, and I applaud his insight and honesty. However, the very fact that a leading Republican would say this (out loud!) speaks to an ugly division in our country. As a country we have always been divided politically in regards to social and economic issues. But do we now need to add ‘education’ to the list? Are we truly becoming – educationally speaking – a divided country of haves and have nots? Yikes! And what does this mean for the future?

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“In God we trust” vs. “In Reason we trust.”

Last Friday I decided to poll my students in my World History class. I was curious about how they felt about the words “In God We Trust” on our coins and currency. I handed out the survey question without any front-loading discussions. In other words, I did not prepare the students by engaging them in discussions pertaining to the issue ( i.e., separation of church and state, the Age of Reason, etc.). To prevent students from being influenced by their peers, and to ensure that they answered the question privately and in silence, I handed out the question (see below) during a test they were taking on the Roman Empire.

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The results were surprising. Out of 27 students, only seven did not support the change, two did not care, and 18 supported it. Wow… didn’t see that coming! Only 25 percent were against the change – I thought it would be higher. Conclusions?

My students are more curious about “why” than “what.”

A new school year has begun and I am back blogging! Whoo Hoo! So… here goes. On one of the first days of school this year I decided to poll my students. I was curious about what aspects of religion and belief they were interested in. I created two courses for them to choose from (see below). “If you had to pick one above the other,” I asked, “which one would you choose?”

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I was very curious about what my students would pick. Over the years I have noticed a strong spike in the number of students genuinely miffed with religion; and they are not shy in expressing their disbelief and confusion. They want answers. They want to know why people believe in “unscientific” things such as the Rapture, the devil, angels, demons, hell, Judgement Day, and talking serpents. Since 1996, when I first started teaching my religion class, more and more students are clearly not content in just learning about what people believe, they want to know why.

The results of the poll were eye-opening, but not surprising. My students overwhelmingly picked the course that focuses on why people believe over what people believe by a 2:1 ratio. So what does this mean? Does it mean that kids are willing to critically examine religion in ways their grandparents would find hard to believe and/or blasphemous? Does it suggest that students are “losing their faith?” Or does it simply mean that kids demand “scientific proof” and “material evidence” in ways unprecedented in human history?

Regardless of the answer (s), my job has changed since 1996. In recent years I have had to do my own research into why people believe so I can better help my students explore their curiosity. Three books that I have found very helpful are below. Needless to say, any teacher who truly wants to objectively teach about religion should read them.

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She thought he was dead. He never knew she existed.

For most of my wife’s life she believed her father was dead. This is what her adoptive parents told her, and this is what the adoption agency told her. He was dead. He died in 1968 in a motorcycle accident before she was born. And then, three years ago, the truth was uncovered – he was alive. Alive! And, to make the story more amazing, he never knew she existed!

There are too many bizarre and amazing twists and turns in this story for me to mention. For childless Mark Shaw, my wife’s biological father, the discovery of a daughter and two granddaughters was nothing short of a miracle for him, a miracle he felt compelled to write a book about: Road to a Miracle (People’s Press, 2011). Needless to say, he still tears up every time he tells the story of how he discovered his “miracle daughter” and grandchildren. The below photo was taken two years ago on Father’s Day. Mark has just opened his present as his “newly discovered” daughter, Marni, watches on.

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Any adoptee will tell you that a reunion with a birth parent is stressful and “crazy-making” in good ways, bad ways, and ways that language cannot describe. But a reunion with a “dead parent” after forty years adds a surreal level of craziness that is beyond words. If you can imagine two parallel universes colliding and collapsing into a single quantum field where multiple realities coexist, you’re getting close to catching a glimpse of my wife’s world. It has been an incredible journey for everyone involved. And the journey continues. It continues…

I’m writing this because next week my wife and I will be in San Francisco on a family vacation with Mark and his wife, and I’ll be taking a little vacation from my blog (we fly out on Saturday). In the mean time, feel free to check out Mark’s website. His resume is very impressive. His new book on the Kennedy assassination will be released on October 1, 2013 and is sure to be bestseller – well&… this is our hope! Mark will be a featured speaker at the JFK Lancer Conference in Dallas in November commemorating the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death. Here is the link to his website: http://www.markshawbooks.com/

My students were deeply disturbed with Jesus Camp

I recently showed the documentary Jesus Camp to my students. Many were deeply disturbed by what they saw. For nearly all of them this was their first look inside the evangelical Christian movement. If you have never seen Jesus Camp, I do recommend it. It is a documentary about an evangelical camp for young kids. If you click on the following link you can see a little clip that captures the essence of the camp. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSwZJ55g80Q

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After finishing the video I instructed the students to write a reaction essay. I told them to explain why they would or would not send their children to this camp. Not one student said they would want their child to attend this camp.Not one! Here are some excerpts.

I would never send my child to such a camp. What this camp does is cruel!

- Abram

This movie was hard for me to watch. The way the adults brainwashed these young kids was frightening. These kids have no chance to think for themselves, or even develop any independent beliefs or ideas.

- Sophi

This movie is very disturbing. The adults are way too involved in trying to make these kids believe in something that may not even be real…This camp was just really disturbing to me…I don’t know how to express how I feel other than disturbed.

- Mary

This film evokes many emotions for me, ranging from anger to hate. And it shames me as a human to know this is actually happening in my society.

- Marc

It is my belief that religion is an important life decision, one that should not be made until you have “seen all sides.” The legal drinking age is twenty-one. Drinking before your brain is fully developed can harm it. The same goes for religion. Introduce a harmful thought too soon and there is damage. This camp is nothing more than a brainwashing facility and the leaders should be locked up.

- Harrison

As a person, I carry my own beliefs. I also expect my children to have their own beliefs. Hence, I would not let my children anywhere near this camp. There would be a fifty mile radius around the camp that my child could not cross.

- Mikayla

I would not want my child raised this way. These kids were brainwashed. This was too extreme and weird.

- Hannah

I would never send my child to a camp like this…The director wants to turn the kids into Christian soldiers willing to die for their religion…There is no excuse for trying to do something this terrible to a child.

- Josh

This camp brainwashes children into thinking that the Bible can run the United States. The director of the camp says the children are learning, but they are not because learning is about gaining knowledge to help you form your own ideas. …but children can’t do that if they are being brainwashed.

- Megan

I find this video horrendous. This camp is absolutely ridiculous! As a parent, I would never send my kids to this camp

- BreAnna

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I received a handwritten letter from Emmy Award winning actor Leslie Jordan

Last year I received a handwritten letter from Emmy Award winning actor Leslie Jordan. Jordan, an openly gay actor and very short (4’11”), won an Emmy in 2006 for his role in Will and Grace. In the series he played Beverley Leslie, Karen’s nemesis and “frenemy.” (see below). I love this guy!

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Jordan responded to a survey question I sent out to hundreds of different people from all different walks of life. Each person was asked the same question: “What(if anything) should public schools teach children about religion?” My mailing list included prominent gay and lesbian figures in America, among others. What is interesting is every gay or lesbian person who responded to my survey question supports the teaching about religion in public schools, and many made it very clear in their letters that children need to understand how religion has been used and misused to inflict harm on people. Not surprising! Religion, and specifically the Bible, has certainly been used to justify hate and condemnation of homosexuals for hundreds of years. Consequently, what Jordan wrote did not overly surprise me. Excerpts from his letter can be seen below.

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Personally, I greatly admire Jordan’s statement about “the religion of kindness.” Perhaps it is time to create a religion entirely focused on kindness and nothing else. No theology, no hell or heaven, no miracle stories, just kindness. Hmmm… maybe we could call Kindnessism or Kindnessianity? Just a thought. Any takers? Seriously, with a face like Jordan’s, how could you not trust this man to be a credible founder of a new religion of kindness? I would be his first follower!

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