Wednesday, September 23, 2009

V Goes to Jesus Camp

From behind a Guy Fawkes mask, reminiscent of V, he explains in his first video what we’re about to see as we click on one, and then another, “Camp Trip” video links.

“I've made about 300 videos on my [Youtube] channel, and most of them featured me, without any disguise. I started making the videos in September 2008, but after my most recent call to The Atheist Experience, my Youtube channel was suspended fraudulently. The Youtube atheist community is having a very hard time dealing with fundamentalist Christians and apologists, who falsely flag our videos as ‘inappropriate’ or file false copyright claims (which is, in fact, a crime). Once my channel was restored, I decided to play it safe and hide my identity, just to make sure that a cursory examination of my channel and videos would not draw suspicion from my family members or their church. Aside from that, the irony of a Guy Fawkes mask is not lost on me; though he was a Catholic conspirator trying to destroy a Protestant government, my use of the mask mirrors the motive of the V character. I am a strong supporter of free speech, and took up the mantle whilst Christians continue to infringe upon the rights of others on Youtube, and in the rest of the world.”

“Shwanerd,” as he bills himself on Youtube, originally surfaced during a phone call to The Atheist Experience. He gave the call screeners the name “James,” and described himself as a 16-year-old, from a Pentecostal home, living in Canada. Then, like V, live on the air, he proceeded to publicly broadcast his plans: to post a series of home-spun “Jesus Camp” styled videos chronicling his own experiences at a religious retreat over summer 2009.

He explained he had gone to camp as far back as he could remember, and said he had begun seriously investigating his faith only a few years prior to the call, with the intention of defending it against skeptics. Ironically, his research, intended to defend his faith, eventually led him to the conclusion that his faith was indefensible. He soon realized he had deconverted himself.

Asked to describe what he went through during that time, James said:

“My level of religious fundamentalism peaked around the age of 12, when I was watching Kent Hovind seminars and Ray Comfort’s Way of the Master series in church. My critical thinking skills must have been sorely lacking at the time, and much like Matt Dillahunty’s quest to ‘save souls,’ my efforts to reinforce my beliefs only made them less believable. I began to follow the Youtube atheism movement in late 2007, and by 15, I couldn’t reconcile my Christianity with real facts—real evidence.

“I was always interested in science, and when I truly grasped the concept of evolution, I realized how tenuous and foolish my religion was. I couldn’t compartmentalize my beliefs, as so many people do in the face of contradictory evidence. Rather, my whole worldview was forced to change dramatically. In the span of only about a year, I went from young-earth creationism to old-earth deism, ‘wishy-washy’ agnosticism, and finally the kind of ‘strong-atheism’ Matt often describes on the show (at least regarding all gods ever worshipped in human history).

“Even divorced from that scientific refutation of the Bible's teachings, I was also able to at last grasp the absolute moral repugnance of the God character in the Abrahamic religions. I just couldn’t bring myself to believe or worship such an evil concept.”

The videos are nearly all set to the same melodic, ominous tune. “The music you hear most often on my recent videos is the instrumental version of the song ‘Cells’ by a now-defunct band called 'The Servant.’ It is more commonly recognized as the theme song for Sin City. I think the music matched well with the current tone of my videos, as well as having a recognizable (and awesome!) guitar riff.”

Most of the clips include brief introductions by James, followed by simple video of the camp activities—consisting mainly of sermons by youth ministers. These preaching sessions are supplemented by religious messages in giant letters, presented on a projection screen on the stage behind the speaker. In the first video, Shwanerd zooms in to show the text:

“Because He lives, I can face tomorrow…Life is worth living, just because he lives.”

Presented to these children as a statement of affirmation, the group appears oblivious to what James is highlighting with his zoom, an ominous indoctrination “message behind the message” that without this religion, the adherent might as well be dead.

In other segments, we’re introduced to more “affirmations” that feature fear and control themes, to which the young audience also seems oblivious. The minister preaches on enthusiastically:

“Just be willing to go where god wants us to go.”

“You can’t have a casual relationship with Jesus…you ask him to come into your life and be your Lord…to be the one who is calling the shots. To be the one who is completely in control of what’s going on in your life.”

To some outside the faith community, these words may be either sad or frightening: a crowd of young people being instructed by a respected authority figure to relinquish responsibility of their choices and actions—to not dare to guide their own destinies. The question these segments present is, “If these young people do not guide their own lives, and there is no god, then who, exactly, inherits control over these myriad young minds?” It is the youth minister who acts as the mouth of god, telling receptive young minds what god demands of them.

Another indoctrination technique demonstrated in the videos includes taking advantage of something called compartmentalization, a mental technique of separating conflicting opinions and never considering them together—as a means to maintain two incompatible concepts within a single mind. In this way, an otherwise reasonable person can become unreasonable in isolated areas of his or her life. An example of this would include a competent professional accountant whose personal finances are in shambles due to poor money management application at home. The accountant has demonstrated money management competency, but fails to consider or apply this competency in a specific situation. Observers may be mystified at how someone so professionally competent with money, can exercise such incompetence in personal financial matters. But contradictions like this aren’t uncommon—demonstrated in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.

The minister shouts, “Put Jesus in a category all his own!” He explains Jesus is unique and unlike anything else these children will ever know. He encourages them to put this belief on a pedestal—to not place this belief on par with other beliefs. Other beliefs can be questioned or rejected, but this single, unique belief is special and cannot be viewed like, or compared with, other beliefs. It needs to be set in a specialized and separate compartment, away from other thoughts and ideas. The children can question or put aside belief in Allah. They can question or put aside belief in nationalism. They can question or put aside belief in family loyalty. But they cannot question or put aside belief in Jesus.

The next message James tapes is the minister telling the children that believing in things without justification is a valued attribute, that belief based only on belief, not on evidence or reason, should be their goal. Examples on the video include the following statement:

“Holy Spirit,” the youth minister prays, “…give me faith to believe.”

James understands that his skeptic audience will wonder why any person would request “faith” to “believe.” Beliefs, to the skeptic, are ideas built upon examination of evidence offered by reality—not on merely wishing to believe, what the minister calls "faith."

The videos are interspersed with visual messages of James’ own, skeptic humor borrowed from Internet sources. He often uses a cartoon image of a soldier in a tank labeled “Occam’s Howitzer: Blowing the [explicative] out of stupidity.” James credits a British Youtube atheist with the original idea.

He uses an unorthodox definition of Christianity that features a “Zombie Jesus” and a “rib woman” (Eve). James recognizes the images and text are inflammatory. He calls it a “crude…very humorous and blunt examination (more like, over-simplification) of the core beliefs in Christianity,” and adds that “it exposes the religion for its absurdity, and pulls no punches.”

Hits on James’ videos number in the thousands, with like-minded viewers posting comments like these:

Xphobe: “I couldn’t listen to the whole thing. I’d rather be waterboarded.”

Mickdornfad: “This is brilliant entertainment. I feel sorry for the people of the future (when religion will be gone) who will only get this sort of entertainment in the cinema.”

Percymate: “You should add a laugh track to this [explicative].”

James’ Youtube frankness is a contrast to his personal life, where most people have no idea what he believes or what he’s doing on the Internet. James’ father, a fellow atheist who only recently came out fully to his son, is also a victim of social pressure, and feels a need, for now, to remain closeted about his (lack of) belief.

“My father is definitely an atheist, albeit taking a less intellectual route in making his decision of nonbelief than I have. When I was a young child he rarely attended church, calling himself ‘Catholic,’ but being one in name only (not in practice). The family moved to my current town, and when my mother joined the largest Pentecostal church in the area, she slowly won my father over. He started attending church again—several years ago. I’d even go as far as to say he began to take Christianity seriously.

“As of late, however, we both confide in each other about our lack of belief. He’s always had trouble with tithing, and could never take Bible stories seriously—Noah's ark, Jonah and the whale, and so on. Like me, he is ‘in the closet,’ and, so far as I know, doesn’t talk to anyone but me about his atheism. The current situation in my family is our greatest concern; at this time it would be a bad idea to ‘come out’ as atheists, really for the sake of other family members. They would experience unnecessary grief and anxiety at a time when that is the last thing we want to do. It would also make it harder to 'deconvert' others in the family, if we wished to do so in the future.”

When I sent this article off to James for review, he added a brief note to his approval notice: “…the only other interesting news I have is the recent deconversion of a friend of mine. He used to be a Muslim and will be making videos that I'll be posting to my channel. He has to keep things even more secretive, since he knows his family has a 'moral obligation' to kill him for Allah if they found out!”

My initial instinct was to assume James was kidding about the killing statement. So, I asked. James wrote back, “Well, he has told me that very thing several times, in a way that seems like he wants to be joking about it—but he's actually concerned. He's much more afraid of being 'outed' than I am, that's for sure. He only became an atheist in the past month or so, but he certainly doesn't think he'd ever revert back to Islam again—knowing what he knows now.”

Don’t misunderstand. I know how parental threats or claims of disapproval can be exaggerated in the mind of a minor. I’d be the first to admit that I think it’s far more likely that James’ friend fears—and would face—a social familial backlash and not actual murder.

For the record, though, James and his friend, living as closeted atheist minors in their religious parents’ homes, do not represent a situation that is as rare as you might suspect. It’s fair to say that this represents one of the more familiar categories of letters we receive regularly on the AETV-list—minors writing in to say “I’m afraid my family will find out,” or to ask “how should I break the news to my parents?”

In the meantime, James will continue posting his sacrilege incognito, and hopefully keep us updated on anything significant at his channel.


  1. Oh wow. This article really makes me feel like I should support him. Just looked for his account on YouTube and I'm going to subscribe, it's the least I can do. If anyone else feels the same:

    I've never had to deal with persecution. Heck, when I came out as a homosexual, my sisters just thought it was awesome and my mother told me she'd known for ages; she'd actually been confiding in her co-workers that she was getting concerned that it was taking her son so long to finally come out.

    My atheism never had that much of an impact though. I went to Catholic school and one day in third grade I asked: "Teacher, the Bible says that God created the world, but science says that it was a meteorite with ice that eventually turned into earth over a long period of time. What's up with that?"

    The reply I got was basically "Well, that particular part of the Bible might not be true." Which meant for me that basically the whole thing shouldn't be taken at face value. I never spoke about it again, went through with the holy communion that year for presents' sake, but I refused to do the 'vormsel' in eight grade (not sure what the English word is... ah, GIYF: confirmation).

    I am really sympathise though with people who are persecuted like this, even though I can not even start to imagine how difficult it must be. I hope you well, ShwaNerd, and my thoughts will be with you.

  2. I went to similar camps as I progressed through school. Most of the ones I went to favor a happy-go-lucky attitude most of the time with usually one day of emotional, well, attack, basically. That usually occurs in the middle of the week.

    I attended one as a sophomore in high school that it took me years and research to realize how bad it had messed me up. They used every single brainwashing trick there is. Control of food, control of restroom use, get you in a pattern. Drastically disrupt pattern. We were taken to remote portions of the camp. Told we were kidnapped and sold into slavery. We knew that wasn't the truth because our youth minister was with us. However, we had to cook our own food over a campfire, use a privy, and sleep on straw and cheap woven blankets. We were then woken up at 3 or 4 am and made to march back to the main portion of camp. There we were told that that was the life third-world xtian martyrs lived and that we were lucky it was just a demonstration. We were told to accept Jesus. We were then allowed to go back to our dorms like nothing had happened.

    It took me until my sophomore year of University before I was able to shake that brainwashing and get my mind wrapped around the concept of atheism. Now I'm in the closet, and I'm glad that people, like ShawNerd are showing the rest of the world what happens behind closed doors at those Jesus Camps.

  3. Jesus Christ, that it seriously fucked! And frightening! I was naïve enough to think that such camp would only exist in the US, where religious wackos abound. I forgot that Canada is a big country. We even have a few creationists in the government, maybe the prime minister Stephen Harper himself. Well, I say "we", but I now live in England and I am a Quebecker, therefore coming from a more secular province where we managed to stay safe from evangelical movements. I am not sure we could find such crazy camp in Québec. Then again, I might be delusional about that. We do have our own brand of fundies too, the Catholic Church never quite accepted that she lost her influence over us and I think the Raëliens do have some kind of summer camp for adults, but that's more like a religious swingers club than anything else (or so I have been told). In any cayse, I admire ShawNerd's courage and commitment.

  4. This kid is my new hero.

    Man, I'm so lucky to have been raised in NYC with parents that don't try to control me. My mom & dad aren't HAPPY about my atheism, but once I'd realised that this is how I think, I didn't hesitate to talk about it with them.

    And honestly, deep down, I think my parents don't believe 100% what they say they believe. They're smart. I just think it's even harder for them to shake their upbringing and I think they're scared to scared to.

  5. On his original call to the show, James mentioned that he lived in Ontario, and not in Alberta, which he described as the Bible Belt of Canada. That is far from accurate. 25% of Albertans identify as non-religious in a Stats Canada survey of 2002 (the link to which I can provide).

    Based on that, I would wager that James has never BEEN to Alberta. Which is totally fine, but it necessitates a small bit of caution in accepting everything he says whole-hog, and leaping onto his bandwagon. I admire his obvious intelligence, but he's fallen into the trap of saying stuff about things or places one known not enough about. Yes, he clearly knows about Jesus Camp. But I question his knowledge on the broad religious bent of the rest of the country. I'm not saying there aren't religious whackjobs out here in the west. There are, but there are also religious whackjobs down the street from his parents' house in Ontario, undoubtedly.

  6. The terrible thing is i would genuinely be concerned for the young ex-muslim.

    Honour Killings and the like happen, if the lad has a concern then i think he has every need to be carefull.

  7. Hearing stories like this makes me SO HAPPY to be a European ... !!! The whole idea about being 'closeted atheists' and having to conceal one's lack of belief, that just sounds like fiction to me. And not very credible fiction, at that.

    I'll definitely be checking out this kid's channel, thanks to Ben for the url.

    MCDFB: Maybe he's not being entirely honest about his location as part of an effort to conceal his identity ... ? Just a thought which could explain some of the things you mentioned. :-)

  8. Hi Leisha,

    Yeah, I thought about that, though his initial call left no doubt of his beliefs about Western Canada regardless of where he actually lives.

  9. I was forced to attend a similar camp, except for Mormons when I was 15 or so. I didn't want to go as I always hated church, but my parents pressured me by saying it was what a recently deceased beloved relative would want me to do.

    Interesting side note. I had completely banished that memory because it was so painful. Just typing that sentence brought back all the grief and guilt of that period crashing back.

    I had taken a notepad and pen and was determined to ignore everything and just write down programming ideas the whole time, as I was very interested in C++ at the time.

    Sadly this didn't last long as I was never given the time to myself to even attempt this, after the first day.

    The meat of what I remember was daily arts and crafts with a mormon slant, where you'd earn beads. You put them on a necklace thing so everyone could see how many you had.

    There was daily "fireside" lessons as they call them, prayers over *everything* and mandatory scripture reading time for an hour every day.

    The absolutely worst part is that is worked. By the end I absolutely believed it all. It makes me sick to my stomach thinking back on it. I told my parents all about how much I loved Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon, the true living prophet, blah blah blah.

    I'm not always sure people understand me when I say try to explain this, but what saved me and broke the hold this all had over me was masturbation.

    You see the mormon church is very sexually repressive. See this talk:

    It is handed out in pamphlet form to all the young men. In addition you are forced to attend 1 on 1 meetings with your Bishop where you are drilled on all questions of "morality" Ie are you Petting/Masterbating/Having sex ect, and can and will be disciplined for it. This is usually something public like not taking part in the sacrament so all your peers and family can see.

    Anywho I was determined to stop, and prayed my heart out for help. The internal contridications and stress where enormous and eventually I had to make a choice -

    I could fold to the pressure and accept the demands church put on me, or I could break free and to hell with all of them.

    As you could probably guess I went back to my sinfully masturbating ways and went completely inactive from the church, and refused to serve a mission at 19.

    I never really stopped beiliving in some kind of higher authority god until just a few years ago at 22 or 23, when introduced to the concept of Skeptical and critical thinking by Dawkins "Root of all Evil" docu, watching Penn & Teller's Bullshit, and then reading everything I could possibly find on the subject.

    It was a long process and really quite painful. There was a ton for months that I was so angry for being duped and lied to that I thought I was going crazy. It passed in time though. That's really another story.

  10. James is almost certainly from Ontario. He'd only lie about that to protect his identity, but he's had the screenname (taken from his hometown's nickname) for his YouTube career, and he has only started disguising himself recently. I know this because I've been a subscriber for quite some time.

    I'm Canadian too, and I have to say that he's wrong to say that Alberta's the Canadian Bible Belt. I know this, because I was born and lived the first few years of my life there, and because I am currently living in the Fraser Valley (British Columbia), which IS the Canadian Bible Belt. My city (Abbotsford) is alleged to have either the most churches in Canada or the most churches per capita in Canada. I cannot remember which, and I do not know if either is true, but I can very easily believe it.

  11. I have comment on 2 items related to this post:

    1) To back up the perception of Alberta being the "Bible belt" of Canada. I grew up as the child of southern baptist missionaries (orginally from the U.S. Bible belt) in Latin America & the Canadian staff at the uber-fundamental Christian boarding school that I attended were as fundie as they come, all hailing from Alberta, not so much Calgary or Edmonton, but the more rural towns.

    2) I very much believe in the probability of the life-vs-death plight of the young closeted Atheist ex-Muslim. I have several fundie Christian friends that work as undercover missionaries in Muslim nations of Asia that have shared many times about the few converts that they win facing death threats & being completely shunned by their family members for leaving Islam. Very much in the same vein as the terrorist-leaning Islamist mindset, there is a very large contingent of fundamentalist Muslim believers that feel that any non-believer is an infidel that should be eradicated (including family members that refuse to believe). It's quite possible that a child might just THINK their family is THAT into the faith to kill their own, but trust me, I've heard enough accounts of this being an actual occurrence to believe that it could also be the ACTUAL situation that the young man faces.

    Great blog post, Tracie! Thanks!

  12. I should have been clearer with my comments about ShwaNerd's whereabouts. When he called the show initially, he was careful to point out that though he was in Canada, he wanted the hosts to know that he was *not* in Alberta, but in Ontario, lest they get a bad idea of him being from a Bible Belt province. He never made a secret of where he was from, but made a careful distinction to say where he *wasn't* from, ie. Alberta.

    To Josh, okay so you met some Fundies from Alberta. That proves nothing about this province as they were *missionaries(. They don't represent the majority of us, and unless you've been here and lived here and experienced life here, please don't judge us on the basis of some people you met once who were CLEARLY on some kind of bible-based mission. Those people tend to be Fundies, by definition. Alberta is not the bible belt.

  13. The anecdotal account I offer (I neglected to mention numbers, but there were about 4-5 families from Alberta) was simply that, anecdotal evidence. What it suggests to me is that either (a) the fundamentalism is extreme enough for only the very few that subscribe to it to dedicate their lives to "missions" work or (b) the number of people suscribing to the faith is large enough that a small percentage dedicate their lives to the "cause." Overall, I simply wanted to mention that my personal experience (& that's all I've got, after all, my own experience) also suggests that the most likely place for fundie Xians to originate is the Albertan countryside, as those I've met from other parts of Canada were not nearly as zealous in their religion.

    I'm not sure that a label such as "Bible belt" is so much a verifiable fact as much as a perception/reputation that exists in the minds of those that have a reason to consider it. I thought I'd explain the reason that I have that opinion/impression, as potential explanation for why SchwaNerd might also (perhaps a large percentage of his Bible camp buddies hail from Alberta?).

    I do appreciate & recognize the "unfairness" of communicating such an admitted opinion about an entire province, that could be assumed to effect innocent, thinking Albertans. It is not my intention to castigate or accuse, merely to explain an impression. I offer sincere apologies for any unintended consequences or offense taken.

  14. Oh yeah I remember this guy. He had a debate with migkillertwo on youtube a while back . Never cared much for his videos.
    I'm glad I never was to a camp like that tho.

  15. MCDFB:

    Thanks for clarifying James' location comments. At first I thought I had posted something in error and thought "Oh no, did I relay some error in my notes and undermine this poor kid's honesty?"

    James actually told me that his channel handle, "Shwanerd," was derived from the Canadian region of that nickname. I didn't include it as a hat tip to his anonymity. It was my opinion that most people outside of the country would probably not know what "Shwa" represented. But since it's been mentioned in the comments already, I just want to add that James did give me his location, I just originally chose not to publish that part of our conversation, as a token courtesy.

  16. I also want to clarify my comment about the Muslim youth and his concern about honor killings.

    When a Muslim once challenged me to read the Koran, I took him up on it. I read the first 1/4 of the book, until I got to sections that included instructions to adherents to kill infidels and apostates. Once I read that, there was, in my mind, little point of reading further. The challenge was that if I read the book I'd be convinced it was the handiwork of a god, and once I'd reached a point where I felt nothing that followed in the content would convince me of that, I put it down.

    However, I also, as you might guess, see my fair share of religious intolerance links, that do include stories of honor killings in predominantly Islamic regions. I don't doubt that this happens. And I didn't mean to imply I thought that it could not.

    My thought in this particular case is that since the boy is being raised and sent to school in the West, it's less likely his family would be that fundamentalist. It's an assumption for sure, generalized based on the reality that most of the honor killings (although I admit not all) occur in areas where it's most socially and culturally accepted.

    Could the boy be in real danger? I think so. But if I were to assert that, I would almost certainly be labeled alarmist and told this situation is much less common in the West (which would be true and a valid criticism of my position).

    It would be more accurate for me to say that statistically it's likely the boy would not be killed based on where he lives, but that I accept it's not an unrealistic possibility. I did not mean to take the concept of honor killings as a joke.

    Thanks to some of the commentor for mentioning this.

  17. there is a very large contingent of fundamentalist Muslim believers that feel that any non-believer is an infidel that should be eradicated

    Yeah, they feel that way because the quoran tells them to.

  18. About the Alberta being the Canadian Bible Belt debate, a little comment/hypothesis. I think we perceive Alberta as being particularly religious and the center of Canada's Xian fundamentalism because the public figures that are the most open about their faith come from there. Stockwell Day used to be an Albertan cabinet minister and prime minister Stephen Harper is from Alberta, for instance. It is from Alberta that the socially conservative movement that now leads the country was born and took shape. Yes, it does not mean that they represent the majority of people there, but this distorted perception has some roots in reality. That said, there are "Bible Belts" everywhere. I grew up in a city called Chicoutimi, and the current mayor is a devout Catholic, and I wouldn't be surprised if he was creationist. And this is in a province that has the reputation to be very secular.

  19. Oh yeah I remember this guy. He had a debate with migkillertwo on youtube a while back . Never cared much for his videos.
    I'm glad I never was to a camp like that tho."

    Really, you'd think that you would fit in.

  20. Josh: Oh, none taken! Thanks for clarifying your standpoint. As a fiercely loyal, atheist Albertan, I really do feel it's up to people like me when the province as a whole is mischaracterized. You didn't do that; I just felt it was important to speak up for my province, Stockwell Day notwithstanding (we're still living down his dumnf*ckery). And of course, stupid politicians come from every province.

    As a teenager, my husband wasn't able to admit his doubts till he left his Saskatchewan home and moved to Alberta!

    Guillaume: While I see your point (but don't agree fundamentally with your assertion that the perception must be based partially in fact), until a person lives in and experiences a certain place, I see no justification for basing one's opinion on the overly religious politicains of any given area. Just as I would never presume to say anything about Chicoutimi, a place I have never been, I do think it's important that one not form one's opinion solely on the fact that we seem to have more than our share of fundie windbags in public office. I am not suggesting that's your point of view, only speculating that people who are loud and proud about their faith tend to be in the public eye and in public office more than people who stand on stages saying into megaphones, "I am an atheist!"

    I've been down this road on other boards and don't really want to turn this into Whose Province Is Most Fundamental. That's not the point of the post, after all (Sorry, Tracie, for my initial lack of clairty). My main point was merely to caution those who want to wholeheartedly support this person's words that perhaps he doesn't know as much about Alberta as he claims to, demonstrated by his sweeping generalization of the province as the Bible Belt of Canada.

    Incidentally, 'Shwa' means nothing to us out here. I've never heard it before but I take it to be an abbreviated form of a specific Ontario region.

  21. @MCDFB-I understand what you mean and I will certainly be more cautious about Alberta in the future, but I was just stating that while its reputation for being the Canadian Bible Belt might be undeserved, there are reasons for this false perception, namely the preponderance of vocal Christian public figures from Alberta.

  22. Oh dear, Mabus, have the meds worn off again?

  23. Guillaume: yes, I absolutely agree with a lot of what you say. Nicely thought out, and respectfully put.


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