Thursday, July 24, 2008

Church Camp Brainwashing

From 7th-9th grades, I was subjected to the horror of church camp. It was 5 days in summer (normally June) at a beautiful place that was once a boy scout camp, but was now owned by our church. The purpose of the camp was to indoctrinate us into Christianity, of course. Many unchurched kids were recruited for what was advertised as fun, and many ‘scholarships” were available to them. (Camp cost only about $100 to cover food and transportation, as staff was all-volunteer.)

Each day started out with breakfast at the ungodly hour of 7:00. After breakfast was cleanup, then quiet time until the morning church service at 10:00. The preachers were often minor celebrities of the Southern Baptist youth circuit. The morning service was heavier on Bible study than the evening service, and was subsequently less emotional. Then we would play sports the rest of the day. Campers were split up into cabins, with 6 or so campers per cabin (plus 1-2 counselors) and there were 8 girls cabins and 8 boys cabins. These cabins all were named for a Native American tribe. Same-sex tribes played each other in sports and each girl tribe was matched with a boy tribe for brother-sister tribe prayer time. So we were forced to participate in sports, no matter what. If you didn’t want to mountain bike, they still made you walk the trail. I hated it with a passion. After sports, we had supper, then seminars. These seminars would revolve around some topic like “How to lead someone to Jesus,” or everyone’s favorite, “Abstinence”. After seminar, we had brother-sister tribe prayer time and maybe a canteen break for cokes and candy. Then we would have evening service, which revolved around music. Hours of repetitive, hypnotic music and alter calls with counselors at the ready. We were exhorted to confess our sins and to let the lord lead our life. We were told to keep the fire of camp burning and let it bleed into our daily lives. After the service, we went to the campfire, a huge bonfire by the lake. There we were told we were like the embers being sent out on a mission when we got back home, some of us would go out quickly, others would burn for a long time. After campfire, we went back to the cabins where we were supposed to have prayer with our bunkmates. By this time, it was often about 2 A.M. If the girls got giggly, it would be 3 or later until we were all in bed.

Camp was specifically set up for brainwashing and indoctrination. The isolated setting meant we had few distractions, especially secular ones. You weren’t allowed to have CD players or gameboys and such (This was 1998, slightly before widespread cell phones and ipods). The wilderness setting was frequently used to illustrate the grandeur of god. The repetitive music was like a meditation to close your mind from critical thinking. The sleep deprivation made us more emotional and suggestible. The constant activities left no time for solitude or thinking. Predictably, conversions and rededications were numerous. Most people burnt out within a few weeks of camp, but lasting harm was done to some.

The preaching at camp was generally poor, as far as preaching goes. It was far more emotional and anecdotal than the biblical preaching of “grown-up” church. Stories of dubious authenticity were told as gospel. One of my favorites was about a dumb, redneck type of Christian boy who has to deal with an evil smart atheist evolutionist boy at school. The boy faithfully brings his bible to school every day and leaves it on the corner of his desk in class. Atheist boy begins to pick it up and read it, making fun of it at first. Eventually atheist boy gets saved and becomes a Christian. There were also many cautionary tales about your friends dying in car wrecks and such and going to hell because you didn’t tell them about Jesus. Some preachers also made the boys and girls sit on separate sides of the patio during services, which infuriated me as my only friends at camp were always guys and not the bitchy girls.

Camp sucked in many other ways that had nothing to do with religion as well. The heat, mosquitoes, scorpions in the cabins etc…The food was good, though, and I liking tubing on the lake. That’s about all the good I can say about church camp.


Christopher said...

The church camp I went to used tribe names for cabins as well. I was counting down the hours until I could go home. The only part I remember was some small session about "respecting the Bible." Tether ball was cool, though.

thegecko said...

Ugh, that sounds more like prison than summer camp. We never had anything like that at my church, and of course, since my generation's youth group was known collectively for smoking up anything you could roll into a blunt (seemed like everyone knew about it except the youth group leaders), I was strongly discouraged from joining them for summer or weekend retreats.

Gustaf said...

Mmmm, If I may....

What if oyu change the RELIGION with something else such as COUNTRY name or WEAPON CLAUSE, whats the difference?

If they promoted a country or the that they should have the right to carry armes, both without any EVIDENCE for their claim (logic behind claim), it would be the same, would it not?

Sorry, I just see a tuny bit of hypocrisy here.


Microbiologychick said...


Um, what? I would be against any type of paramilitary indoctrination camps for young people as well. Otherwise, I don't have any idea what you're talking about.

Gustaf said...

I suspected you would not understand, which is what makes it 'none-hypocrisy', as its plain old ignorance. :)

No offence meant.

Okay listen. You are against a specific camp indoctrinating children into believing in rubbish.

Now, WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE between an entire NATION doing the same?

That was my point. If you show your disgust/dislike for this kind (the camp) of thing, but do not reflect on a NATION doing the same in school, media and at home, you get what we define as hypocrisy. :)


Microbiologychick said...

I was writing a blog post about personal experience. It does not follow that I am for indoctrination on a widespread level. Please give an example of what national indoctrination you mean.

Gustaf said...

I was writing a blog post about personal experience. It does not follow that I am for indoctrination on a widespread level. Please give an example of what national indoctrination you mean.

Are you serious? Wow, I guess I was holding you to high, you seriously asking me that?

Eh, okay.

Lets take two countries. United States and North Korea.

Both of these countries indoctrinate 'their' population by claiming 'they are the best country in the world'.

In North Korea, its by media and cultural references, false history and various other means.

In United States its by media, cultural references and false history (ie. 'United States saves the world during WWII etc).

Actually, the countries are VERY similar in their way of doing it.

I used these two countries because of the strong and clear way of doing it. Other countries may do it less openly and to less extent. As an american I assumed you knew about it, and actually was aware of it.

Anyway, back to the point, if a CAMP is 'bad' by the mean of falsely indoctrinate a child into believing something false (such as a God), then a Nation (government, media, schools and the mothers and fathers of the children) is equal to the standard, right?


Microbiologychick said...

Some Americans believe that America is the best country in the world, others do not. Our culture is somewhat nationalistic (no country's isn't), but we have lots of freedom to dissent as well. The indoctrination of children into the view of America as the best country is very subtle and is mostly done through parents, not the media. It is nothing like North Korea, or these Jesus camps.

spajadigit said...

I went to church camp too. It was not like yours, fortunately, but there was a bit of pressure in the evening session complete with the stories of dubious authenticity you've mentioned (I LOVE that description, BTW), emotional and anecdotal, and there were bible verses read and songs aplenty.

Songs, I might add, that are pretty weird if you think about them outside the context of a church camp. "Washed in the blood of the lamb" (ick) is one example that comes to mind right away.

I actually look back fondly on some of the stuff we did there, like the snorkeling, water balloon fights, watching the buffalo come through camp late at night, and I ignore the other negative stuff as much as possible. The camp was on the island of Catalina off the California coast so the church stuff was almost secondary to the epic beauty out there and hanging with friends.

I find that my own experiences with church and my path to atheism was so much easier than so many others... I was very lucky.

Thanks for the excellent post, Microbiologychick.

Martin said...

I recall one church summer camp when I was a young teen, that featured probably the greatest exercise in crowd manipulation I've ever seen from the youth minister. In a sermon designed to shame us all for not living as Biblically as we possibly could every single day, he shocked the entire youth congregation by tearing sections out of a Bible. "What about this passage? When was the last time to read it or obeyed it? Never? Well, why don't we just get rid of it?" RIIIIP. Gasps from the crowd. He finally wrapped up with something like, "Is what I did to the Bible just now any worse than what you do it every day?" Then he walked out of the room without looking back, as if he was just too disgusted with us to look at us any more. Talk about 5th degree black belt brainwashing! This would have had Goebbels cheering.

Gustaf said...

Some Americans believe that America is the best country in the world, others do not. Our culture is somewhat nationalistic (no country's isn't),

We are not talking about what 'some americans believe', we are talking about what they are TAUGHT to believe.

And the majority of americans i met in my life, both in the U.S and abroad (the vry few abroad), have generally hold that. I dont know if you think your un-biased in your view.

but we have lots of freedom to dissent as well.

Everyone does.

The indoctrination of children into the view of America as the best country is very subtle and is mostly done through parents, not the media.

Did you just say that?

I have seen american NEWS literally saying that the United States is the 'best'.

Majority of american movies continue to this message, and make sure that the 'evil doers' and anything but americans.

Now you ARE lying to yourself.

It is nothing like North Korea, or these Jesus camps.

I have been to North Korea.

In what way is the MEDIA, CULTURAL and other references NOT like the U.S?

The MEDIA (TV, Papers etc) is promoting that the country is the best. BOTH countries have this.

A vast majority of the population BELIEVE THIS, in BOTH countries.

Please explain.


Microbiologychick said...


Americans love America. Germans love Germany etc... Your country is like a crazy relative. You don't deny they have problems, but you love them anyway. I live in the south, a lot of it sucks, but it's my home, I can't hate it.

Thinking that your country is the best might be false (depends on what definition of "best" you use), but I think it's generally a necessary fiction. If you don't like where you live you can move.

The problem is not whether we believe that America is the "best country." The problem is when we believe that America has the authority to go meddling in other countries's business. Loving America and thinking that it is all powerful are two different things.
Maybe the media is somewhat biased, maybe there is some indoctrination. However, I have heard plenty bad things about America on the news, too. The information about our "sins" is not suppressed like in some countries.

And none of this has anything to do with the post. If you want to talk more about America, get your own damn blog. I hate to bitch at you, because you have been a fine poster in the past, but I don't have patience for this today.

Kazim said...

It seems to me that Gustaf is the second commenter coming over from Europe (the first being Sebastian) who is determined to string together a series of anecdotes in order to maintain an unchanging, ignorant stereotype. In a nutshell, both of them seem to assume that all Americans as being on the same page and holding the same beliefs.

Yeah, Gustaf, you have seen the kind of tripe that masquerades in certain circles as "news" here in America, promoting a mindless variety of patriotism over critical thinking. It's called "Fox News" or sometimes more generally, "cable news." There are whole newspapers dedicated to a mission of pushing that crap, and in many cases they aren't even owned by Americans. We've got one media empire owned by the Australian Rupert Murdoch, and another owned by the Korean cultist Sun Myung Moon.

Your mistake is in assuming that just because the crap is available, it automatically implies that everybody watches it and takes it seriously. In reality, the American media is deeply divided and segmented, and caters to different niche groups. A recent media study actually indicated that people who only watch the comedy "Daily Show" as their main TV news source tend to be much better informed than those who pay attention to some of these other forms of "journalism." I proudly count myself among this group, of course, but I don't JUST get news from TV. The internet makes it easier than ever to collect news from sources all over the world; there are plenty good journalists with integrity right here in America like Bill Moyers and Ron Suskind; and there are blogs, which these days (depending on which ones you frequent) often do better research than most mainstream outlets. In fact, traditional print media AND cable news are both losing mindshare to the internet every year, as a more technologically savvy generation grows up.

By assuming that all people from America pay attention to the same propaganda, you are falling into the same trap as that half-wit Aaron. Aaron says that Europe is a laughingstock and cannot compete with the awesomeness of America, and he believes this because he is a willfully blind idiot. But I submit to you that your own prejudice -- assuming that any American by definition must be stupid, indoctrinated, and hyper-patriotic -- is no less ignorant than Aaron's. Your respective prejudices are opposite sides of the same coin.

James, New York, New York said...

Microbiologychick, i think i know what he is saying. As an american (well, newyorker) i encountered your reaction amongst fellow americans i travelled with when they get very defensive when a none-American questions or critique America. And to be honest, his question/reaction got confirmed by your answer :)

Look, as americans we have a blindspot for just what he is saying. Look at our movies, EVIL arabian guy, EVIL german guy, EVIL russian guy. AMERICA saves the world (independence day anyone), AMERICA busts evil TERRORISTS and the list goes on. Its just what he says, propaganda to make us believe we ARE like that. I never see european movies work the same way. I Never seen chinese movies the same way. Japanese have a high nationalistic side to it, but its NOT shadowing FOREIGNERS either, like we do (does other EVIL people).

Of fear of getting stoned for this, just think about what he says, as a FOREIGNER, maybe its worth absorbing it? I travelled and met so many different cultures, and we are, as americans, very ignorant of the world around us, and a small thing like this is just an example of it.

sorry, i normally dont post, just a lurker, just wanted to chip in for the poor guy.

thegecko said...

The Daily Show is the only TV news program worth watching these days, in my opinion.

James, I think Microbiologychick's reaction stems less from a kneejerk defensive response and more from the fact that we seem to have veered off the original topic of the post. Kazim put it well, the fact that the propaganda is available doesn't mean that we all buy into its message or support its existence.

And we're hardly the only country whose government and media are fostering such attitudes. I knew a chinese exchange student once who flat-up refused to discuss any problems in her country, not because she thinks her country is problem-free, but because she intends to return there at some point and is afraid of what her government might turn up if they investigate her on the way back in. I've also seen plenty of foreign and racial stereotypes in other countries' cinema (for any anime fans out there: ever noticed that the token "american" character in some of these stories is always big, dumb, and loud?) I think a fair bit of the typecasting in movies is just the industry trying to make a buck off the target audience's fears and prejudices. That doesn't make it a good thing, but it's not driven so much by patriotism as it is by a desire to sell the movie.

I like this country well enough, but I think I could be perfectly happy living elsewhere too. My husband and in-laws are all foreign-born, and most of them still live in their home country. We've talked about retiring there someday, or perhaps buying a second residence there if finances permit. I will more than likely apply for dual citizenship at some point in the near future. There's pros and cons to living just about anywhere; every culture has something to offer if we can learn from each other.

Kazim said...


I hear what you're saying, and I think the objection in play is not that we DON'T object to the type of propaganda that Gustaf referred to; we object to assumption that all Americans are the same.

For instance, you said that "we" have a blind spot to those things in movies. Who's we? You're an American, but you seem to be implying that you don't think you have it. I don't think I have it; I am frequently aware of movie stereotypes, and I pay pretty close attention to whether they are being played as intentional stereotypes, or whether it might just be a coincidence or an over zealousness on my part to detect patterns, or maybe even an inverted stereotype. (Harold and Kumar movies are a good example of intentionally subverting typical racial stereotypes, and I would also point out that the heroes are of Indian and Asian origin.) Not all American movies have smart, noble Americans and wicked foreigners; many of them are the opposite. (In a comment elsewhere, I mentioned "A Fish Called Wanda." I just watched it again this weekend. Hilarious movie. Obnoxious American Kevin Kline gets smashed by a steamroller; British comedy veteran John Cleese gets the girl. British director, yes, but released by MGM and very successful in the US.)

I think the question is who Gustaf thinks he is addressing here. This being an atheist blog, I would think that the authors might be given the benefit of the doubt. Do many American movies portray other nationalities in an unfairly bad light? Yeah, absolutely. Is that MBC's fault? Of course not. When somebody comes in here accusing the poster of being a hypocrite, and patronizes her by saying "I suspected you wouldn't understand," that is no longer a statement about unfortunate trends. It is a personal insult to an individual, which is itself motivated by nothing other than a negative stereotype.

Microbiologychick said...

Okay, everyone,

I kind of did fly off the handle there a bit. I've got some shit going on in my personal life, and to tell you the truth, I am kind of an ignorant American. I think this attitude was more inculcated from my family than media, though.

It really bothers me that when I go to Germany to visit family that people make snap judgments about me. I can't pay for my country's sins, and it feels personal when people criticize my country. I have managed to shrug off the religion that was forced upon me, my too-vigorous patriotism maybe not so much.

I admit to being ignorant. Ignorance is correctable.

Anath said...

I went to a couple years of good old-fashioned Ohio Church Camp in Middle School, because a friend invited me along. I was technically Catholic at the time, and these were Lutheran camps. I do remember liking some of Church camp and having... the oatmeal and the woods, and the regular "camp" elements like an incredibly intense capture the flag game, but hating/resenting a lot of the religious bits. I felt out of place being Catholic and a closet "doubter" and had a lot of problems with the various "worship" sessions... My friend and I were also lightly hazed at the first camp we went to as we were the youngest in the cabin, "strange", and "different". I was also quick to take charge of the silly teambuilding activities and the other girls resented my boldness. That was also the camp I had to apologize publicly (and to Jeeesus) for calling a boy "weird duck" when we were playing Duck Duck Goose...

The worst though was the summer before my freshman year of high school, a group different friends invited me to a Baptist retreat near Cedar Point. Since a boy I liked/was starting to date was going, and since these people were supposed to be my friends, there was a Cedar Point trip involved, and my mom pressured me into it, I agreed to go. It was horrible. If anything really planted the seeds of dissent, it was this retreat. The preacher targeted non-Baptists constantly, as there were only two of us (myself and the boy who was UU/Agnostic), and scrutinized our behavior while overlooking that of the Baptist couples. Additionally there was this silly thing at the end where you were supposed to take the Baptist form of communion and after a period of meditation, go into another room to accept Jesus. I didn't feel like wasting my time, and I wanted to go to the bonfire, so I just walked into the other room, where there were several counselors to talk to us. After about five minutes with me, my counselor called over the guest preacher to talk with me because she didn't know how to handle me and my questions. That preacher and I ended up talking long past the bonfire and marshmallows, though I forget what it was all about.

I also went to a Catholic day-retreat, which is another story...

I think ultimately Church Camp can either make or break religiosity in youth. It helped to break it for me, but others seemed to eat it up.

baz said...

Haha! My experience of these summer camps was totally different. Being in the UK, they were usually a) terribly organised and b) let down by the weather! So rather than brain-wash us, all they did was make us look for alternative entertainment, i.e. going to the local pub (at the age of 14) and sneaking off to smoke. Actually, I seem to remember one of these summer camps being the point at which I decided I was no longer a Christian. The side effect was that they also confirmed me as a smoker :\

Tim D. said...

I "atheized" pretty early in my life (before I was ten, if I recall), so I don't have much memory of my time as a religious person (if I ever "really" was). But still, this part bothered me:

There we were told we were like the embers being sent out on a mission when we got back home, some of us would go out quickly, others would burn for a long time.

Maybe it's just my skepticism of religious backhanded compliments, but I sense a smack in there. Am I interpreting this correctly? It seems as though the entire group was told that some of them wouldn't do as good of a job as the rest. That's a little weird to me; it seems to imply favoritism.

I ask you, of course, because you were there and probably have a better understanding 0_0 So am I right, or am I reading into it too much?

Joe McCraw said...

Wow. Gustaf really got this thread off into arguing that you support nationalist indoctrination. I think he missed the point.
Anyhow, I never thought about the last of sleep adding to the many aspects of indoctrination going on.

AmberKatt said...

Sheesh. Gustaf reminds me of the fundies who, no matter what you are talking about, start screaming "How can you say that or be against (animal abuse/female genital mutilation/public stoning of girls/Repug or Bu$hCo corruption/corn syrup in everything/whatever) when ALL OVER AMERICA THERE ARE TINY INNOCENT BABIES BEING MURDERED IN ABORTION CLINICS??!?!?!?11!!1!???"

They have a pet Cause, and everything must in some way be about it.

As for Church camps, I was lucky -- I didn't go to any until I was in High School (where they were described as "retreats" instead of "camps", and they were actually pretty fun. And as I was still a Christian at the time, I didnt mind the preaching and praying and such, as that was kinda the point of going.

Now? I probably would get very bored by the whole thing.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

As a kid I went to a YMCA summer camp, which was Christian (we had chapel each morning after breakfast and vespers in the evening after dinner), but no preaching or anything of that sort. I actually really enjoyed it, and even as a grown-up atheist I have fond memories of the camp.

I didn't realize until much later the irony of naming our cabins after native american tribes, who were largely exterminated by Christians. The camp is still there, and i'm sure the irony is just as lost on the current occupants.

SgtPepper2789 said...

I still have fond memories of CYO camp. Yes it was religious, but it was surprisingly easy-going. I find it funny now that at campfire we'd sing songs by The Beatles, Joan Baez, and Dylan (pre Slow Train Coming) considering their political and religious stances.
I think we might have even sung Imagine, which is really funny now all things considered.

StarMaker said...

I'm not sure I could call myself an Atheist per se before I started going to church, but my lifestyle was based solely on the doctrines of Kindness and Love... and God was far removed from my daily life.

The only Christians I knew were hypocritical and pretentious. I felt going to church would force me to shred my identity to pieces and comply to their values. That I would become another sheep in the herd which was frightening to me.

It wasn't until a few years later, that I found myself stepping into a church and actually feeling pleasantly surprised at the difference. Everyone was gentle and never too overbearing. The lectures were based on the Bible, but never undermined me as a person of the world. I began to feel something that I had never felt before. A sense of peace. A sense of belonging. Not only had I held on to my identity, I felt it expanding. As I sat there, in the crowd of church-goers, I clearly felt a growing purpose and enthusiasm to achieve the impossible. No one had forced me to go. No one had brainwashed me to realize that God was present and working in me. I just felt it!

Not long after that, my business flourished. My family trengthened. We bought a home. I found the love of my life. I became a Sunday school teacher. This almost sounds like a Billy Mays infomercial bit, but it's as true as truth can get.

The world has become so cynical that it's difficult for us to believe in miracles.

Am I an exception to the rule? Or did I let go of my ego and I simply listened? Sometimes, you can choose to play deaf or you can choose to listen.

Church was a step I had to take to be closer to my maker. It was obvious that I didn't have to change my identity and my ways to be welcomed. I was simply surrounding myself with people who loved God. That love rubbed off on me overtime and His spirit lived through me to make me a happier, more peaceful and overall better person.

I have proof that God exists and would like to share it with you all in a series of emails I will be sending out in April 2010. Send me a note to and I will gladly add you to the list.

God Bless You.


PS: By the way, we are organizing a "Bring your friend to church" day at CAC - Christ Armenian Church in La Crescenta, CA. If you'd like to drop in, feel free to email me.