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Richard Dawkins Jumps The Shark

News out of Great Britain indicates that Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous living atheist, is setting up a summer camp intended to help children and teenagers adopt atheism. As The Times [London] reports: “Give Richard Dawkins a child for a week’s summer camp and he will try to give you an atheist for life.”

The camp, based upon an American precursor, is to be financially subsidized by Dawkins. According to media reports, all 24 places at the camp have been taken.

AsLois Rogers of The Times reports:

Budding atheists will be given lessons to arm themselves in the ways of rational scepticism. There will be sessions in moral philosophy and evolutionary biology along with more conventional pursuits such as trekking and tug-of-war. There will also be a £10 prize for the child who can disprove the existence of the mythical unicorn.

The organizers of the camp are doing everything possible to emulate more traditional summer camps, generally organized by Christian groups or venerable organizations such as the Boy Scouts. Campers are to learn about evolution even as they go canoeing and swimming. Like their counterparts at Christian camps, these campers will sing songs around the campfire. As might be expected, the songs will be quite different.  “Instead of singing Kumbiya and other campfire favourites, they will sit around the embers belting out ‘Imagine there’s no heaven . . . and no religion too.’”

Camp Quest, established in the United States in 1996, has now expanded to six locations. While its numbers are small in terms of attendance, especially as compared to more traditional camps, the camps for atheists receive a good deal of media attention.

In this light, it appears that this announcement hardly adds to the reputation of Richard Dawkins. In the parlance of American popular culture, he appears to have “jumped the shark.” As this phrase indicates, some figures in the public eye become something like parodies of themselves. In this case, the recently retired Oxford University professor has thrown his public reputation behind an effort that appears to be profoundly unserious when it comes to reaching the masses. If Richard Dawkins is really so concerned to support atheism, it hardly seems that a summer camp limited to 24 children and teenagers represents a bold advance for his cause.

In recent months, Dawkins has spent his personal credibility on a project to put atheistic messages on London buses and, now, on this very small experiment in a secularist camp for children. The bus advertisement campaign became something of a joke, with the signs declaring only the claimed probability that there is no God. Londoners seemed more bemused than persuaded. Now, Professor Dawkins lends both his name and his financial support to an atheistic summer camp that will teach evolution to children by day and teach them to sing the songs of John Lennon by night. The Boy Scouts should not fear the competition.

At a deeper level, the existence of this camp in Great Britain and its sister camps in the United States indicates something of the intellectual insecurity of contemporary atheism and agnosticism. The effort to create a religion-free zone for summer camp makes for an interesting news story in the media, but it is not likely to draw the masses.

What comes after atheistic bus signs and a secularist summer camp? Time, as they say, will tell.