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.