Invisible unicorns

So, Richard Dawkins is helping to start a new atheist summer camp.

It’s more than just an atheist summer camp — it’s a skeptic indoctrination summer camp: "Camp-goers aged eight to 17 will also be taught how to disprove phenomena such as crop circles and telepathy. In the Invisible Unicorn Challenge, any child who can prove that unicorns do not exist will win a £10 note"

Somehow that makes the whole enterprise sound so utterly joyless. I imagine it turning out legions of prim and literal-minded little pendants, children who adjust their glasses before informing you that, actually, they are not interested in telling ghost stories around the campfire because ghosts don’t exist.

Many summer camps are run by various religions and feature heavy indoctrination. In fact, I went to one when I was fourteen or fifteen where there was an official attempt to indoctrinate me into being anti-abortion, and there were many slightly less official attempts to indoctrinate me into things like young-earth creationism and the evils of rock music.

Let me tell you, as a teenager, there is nothing that will turn you on to skepticism faster than a really incompetent indoctrination attempt.

And I certainly don’t think the answer is equal and opposite indoctrination.

Why does it have to be specifically a skeptics camp, designed to get kids interested in disproving various unlikely things? Why not a science camp, designed to teach kids about nature and the scientific method? I mean, you learn the scientific method, and the skepticism pretty much takes care of itself, right?

Anyway, I imagine that proving the existence of invisible (to the naked eye) tiny organisms in pond water would be a lot more exciting to a bunch of kids than proving the non-existence of invisible unicorns.


  1. I thought the same thing when I heard this on the radio. I mean, camps are outdoors, where nature is! How hard would it to teach the cool details of what is around them? Look, cliff! See the stratification!

    What got me into reading about various forms of paganism and the origins of the Abrahamic religions was a Jehovah propaganda pamphlet explaining the evils of Easter and Halloween.

    I would love an history or anthropology class for kids instead of Sunday School. That would be so fun!

    1. Author

      I actually went to a camp that was like that, when I was in California — they called it “outdoor school” but it was basically summer camp with extra science. So you would take a hike in the chaparral and a naturalist would tell you about the plants and the animals and things, and then you would go down to the river and a geologist would tell you about the rocks.

      It was super cool.

      And completely a-religious.

  2. Amen. This sounds like a grand way to make skepticism uncool.

    1. Author

      Maybe somebody should start a Flying Spaghetti Monster camp. Now, that would be cool!

  3. Sounds like a bad idea as the “OK to cry Corrall” day camp from a Daria episode.

    Why not just do a regular camp with the boy/girl scouts instead of going for so much of a religious slant? Makes sense from where I’m standing. Also, the anti-abortion camp sounds like it was developed by people with far too much free time on their hands.

    1. Because you can’t be an openly atheist boy scout, for one thing. Against the rules.

        1. Didn’t realise there was such a Christian Ethos in the US scouts the say way that that the Irish scouts did. I thought it wouldn’t be to as much an extent as the camp described in the entry at least as they aren’t hellbent in indoctrinating you into believing in the big JC.

          1. Author

            Yes, it’s appalling.

            Girl Scouts seem to be doing a little better in that regard.

          2. My memories of the Boy Scouts was that while there was always a certain Christian element, it was never too heavy handed and was a lot better then then what we did in school. But then that’s Ireland for you.

          3. Yeah — I don’t know about international scouting, but the Boy Scouts of America is a mess of an organization. There was a well-publicized case in this area a few years ago of an Eagle Scout who was expelled for being an atheist. And then there’s the whole homophobia thing.

            The Girl Scouts of America — a totally different organization — is significantly less exclusionary of both gays and atheists, though it’s still arguably a little weaselly. In the early 90s the GSA voted to allow scouts to substitute a word more suited to their spiritual beliefs for “God” in the Girl Scout Promise. (Our local GS council took the lead on that. Yay!)

            That said, the actual wording of the policy change is kind of squirrelly where atheism is concerned. They’ve been walking a careful line there, trying to allow for the presence of atheist girls without, imho, being seen as entirely approving of them. (They’re also trying to include other non-Christian girls, but it’s easier for them to talk about those.) All the same, a few thousand families still stomped off in a huff in the mid-90’s and formed the American Heritage Girls. They charge that the GSA is a tool of radical feminists and a filthy hotbed of secular humanism that has been infiltrated by lesbians and yoga practitioners.

          4. Author

            the GSA is a tool of radical feminists and a filthy hotbed of secular humanism that has been infiltrated by lesbians and yoga practitioners

            Sure makes me proud to have been a Girl Scout.

    2. Author

      It wasn’t *primarily* an anti-abortion camp. It was just one of the things going on — one afternoon they showed us this very blatant propaganda film and then had a discussion session afterward. Other things included a big campfire gathering, where this guy told us the Cherokee Trail of Tears story, then had an alter call*, and a one-on-one Bible study with an older person who was supposed to function as a kind of mentor, but since she was a proudly anti-intellectual ignoramus it couldn’t possibly work.

      Oh, the memories.

      *Alter calls are a peculiar feature of American evangelical culture, so you might not know what I mean. It’s where they have some Christian-themed event — like a speaker, or a concert — and then afterward there’s this big revival tent sort of thing where you’re supposed to come forward and “be saved” or if you’re already “saved” you’re supposed to come forward and “re-dedicate your life to Christ.”

      1. Talk about vicious!!! I’ve gotten the same not-all-too-intellectual vibe from my all too devout housemate (some of the post she gets is scary. The letter asking her to promote an anti-contraceptive book for example). That stuff sounds all too scary though.

        Back in the past Ireland had a very strong Cathloic influence, including a few institutions that have a number of parallels to the Nazi concentration camps. But a lot of that has died back now.

        The whole thing does reek of a lot of insecurity though.

  4. I had the same response when I heard about Dawkins camp as you and Lisa, sort of a sinking feeling. Maybe it won’t be so bad, but I don’t know…

    Nature camps though – hell yeah. In 4th, 5th and 6th grades I went to “Outdoor Education” for a week at Fort Flagler, then went back as counselor when I was junior? I think, maybe senior. So you know I must have loved it, to be a counselor with children, you know, of my own volition. *grin*

    1. Author

      Best possible outcome: the publicity associated with Dawkins’ name draws people’s attention to a more general need for non-religious summer camps.

  5. Oh, I dunno. I see that in at least one of the US Camps Quest, you get to make your own UFO photos. I’d be into that even now. Mocking crop circles might be fun if you got to make your own. (“Let’s play Drunken Wallaby!”)

    As a baby atheist, soon to be a baby atheistic Buddhist, I was pretty interested in philosophical whatnots such as being unable to prove a negative. I think I would have had fun watching my counselors scale the heights of insufferable nonsensicality as they defended the existence of the invisible unicorn. All depends on the counselors, really.

    1. Author

      Well, I was responding particularly to the text of the quoted press release, which makes the whole thing sound rather grim.

      A press release that was more about what fun you’ll have learning to make your own crop circles and amaze your friends with parlor tricks like cold reading would probably have elicited much more of a go team! response

      1. That’s the thing, though: that wasn’t a press release. And I doubt that article was all that much like the original press release, even considering how press releases tend to be handled. (I was kind of amazed when I was a naive young thing working at Amazon that the PR flacks there could just go ahead and have their press releases printed in the paper pretty much verbatim. Yuck.) That article was something of a mess.

        The article has a wee slant of OOH OOH LOOK SCARY ARCH-ATHEIST DAWKINS OOOH going on, but the truth is — according to Camp Quest UK — that Dawkins isn’t particularly affiliated with the camp. The Dawkins Foundation made a one-time startup contribution to the camp, and it looks to me like some of the early organizing was done on the Dawkins boards. Big whoop. Camp Quest isn’t so much as mentioned on the front page of He didn’t even send along his own signed ten-pound note — that was donated by somebody else.

        An actual blurb from Camp Quest itself last year is much more along the lines of “we’ll have fun hiking and making crop circles!”

        1. Author

          Well, that’s what I get for taking BoingBoing at face value…

          The article quote (that I took for a press release) did put me in mind very strongly of the stuff I read in an issue of Junior Skeptic magazine, so it didn’t seem out of line for how such a camp might be presenting itself.

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