I went to Sunday school along with everyone else. I played Joseph by the plastic manger holding a baby that probably came from Toys R Us, sat in a circle with twenty other six year olds as we listened to the story of how David managed to win one for the little guys, brought home worksheets meant to brush kids up on how much Jesus loved them. At the same time, my parents had never, and would never, so much as step foot inside the tiny neighbourhood church where they dropped us off. It wasn’t because they were bad Christians. Not at all. It’s that they weren’t Christians.
None of us were, not really; of those twenty in the circle, there may have been four or five who’s family actually went to a church for reasons other than cheap babysitting and “broadening” their kids’ worldview. We were vaguely spiritual in the way that didn’t challenge the few religious people in our lives, because, even if we don’t believe, why ruffle feathers? And anyways, all the best child-rearing resources tend to be Christian in some way: our preschool that rented space in another church not too far from the Sunday School’s, the YMCA-sponsored after school programs, or one of the many, many summer Bible and Christian camps that are strewn across the lower mainland along with its associated camping region. One of the Bible camps that I, and virtually all of my friends, went to for eight summers in a row, never thinking it was weird that not one of us heard a word about any god from September to June.
But it is strange, that even while we separate church from state during the school year, there’s a tacit and comfortable agreement that all of our city’s children will get an education steeped in a specific religion’s interpretation of morality.
And that’s not abnormal, not here. British Columbia ranks as the least Christian province or territory in all of Canada, with Vancouver pushing the farthest ahead in the trend. In the Metro Vancouver area, we had only 41 percent describe themselves as one of the various denominations of the religion otherwise synonymous with Western culture; Canada in general declares an average of 67 percent Christian, America exceeds 70 percent, while Mexico tops out the scale with 88 percent declaring themselves specifically Roman Catholic. Vancouver holds its own as one of — if not the — least Christian, and least religious, major city in North America.
Because our having only 41 percent Christians is only half the story. The same exact survey found we have a pretty large number of people who don’t have any religion at all. The exact figure?
Forty one percent.
So why was I always in Bible camp?
There are various religious groups pressed up against one another, different places of worship all throughout downtown; anyone of any religion is welcome, but at the same time we have “God” in our anthem, and in the lives of our leaders.
It’s not an uncommon experience. Nearly everyone goes to some sort of Bible or Christian camp when they’re young; the strange thing is that nobody questions it. Given the fantastically secular nature of British Columbia and Vancouver specifically, it’s something of a shock to learn that the lower mainland has over 25 dedicated Bible camps inside and adjacent to it, making Christian camps the vast majority of all sleepaway camps available to kids from Metro Vancouver; from Victoria to the West, Chilliwack to the East, Gambier to the North, and the border chopping off the South, you’ll find Camp Evergreen, Camp Imadene, Douglas, Double VM, Daybreak, Qwanoes, Kawkawa, and of course that juggernaut of summer retreats, Keats Camps, where I and my friends spent every summer alternating between wakeboarding, mountain biking, and Bible study. I was never Christian, but in those early pre-adolescent, preteen years of figuring out who I was, who I would be, and what I should believe from what grown-ups told me, I’d spend a summer wondering: I guess I may not be Christian, but does that mean I’m going to hell?
I may not have been religious, but I was observant enough to pick up the rules. After a rugby game that somehow devolved into a question and answer session, I ended up again sitting in a circle, this time a few years older, while our counselors — cool, late-teens and early-twenties guys we couldn’t help but adulate — told us exactly why it is that you’ll go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus. I wasn’t six anymore, by then I was nearly twelve, an age old enough to start having my own doubts, but not old enough to be sure of them. It didn’t seem like there was much to the whole god thing, but, at the same time, couldn’t really trust myself.
“Does everyone go to Hell if they don’t believe, even if they don’t know about God?” I asked him.
“God reveals himself to everyone. It’s your responsibility to accept him.
The message was simple: religion was everywhere, and it was my fault I didn’t want it.
There’s an unspoken understanding that one religion is the default of the land, is normal, and so pervasive we don’t even need to acknowledge it, or even notice it.
Going to a religious camp as a non-religious kid isn’t inherently damaging, and Keats Camps never employed counselors solely trying to rack up their conversion stats by any means necessary. The camp was actually more of a kid-utopia than anything else, with all the actual summer activities outside of religious study. I doubt more than a few other kids as neurotic as I ever stayed up after the nightly Bible study, grappling with the new knowledge of the Sin of Onan and – going against everything my parents had told me up to that point — thinking that maybe I was a bad person for “giving in to my carnal desires”. But it is strange, that even while we separate church from state during the school year, there’s a tacit and comfortable agreement that all of our city’s children will get an education steeped in a specific religion’s interpretation of morality. Because that forty one percent and forty one percent, taken together, makes up the largest block of our religious ascriptions, one has largely decided to follow after the other. Families send their kids in droves to these camps without even a consideration of whether it’s slightly odd to have their equally non-religious children study only a single religion’s tenets — it’s hardly a broadening of view if you’re studying just one additional viewpoint — because they don’t see it as abnormal. If it were a Sikh camp, Muslim camp, Buddhist or Bahá’í,sending your kids to it would at least be a statement, at least a conscious choice. But when it’s a Christian camp, it isn’t. We’ve let one religion absolutely dominate a field of early childhood education without so much as noticing it, for one reason: as a society, we still associate Christianity with morality.
It’s the same reason we celebrate Christmas, Easter Monday, Good Friday, why we take our hats off inside, close banks on Sundays, still learn in elementary school when to capitalize “He” and “Him”, and say “bless you” to sneezers and “damn you” to liars.
It’s the vestiges of an old mentality we largely assume our progressive country has left behind — and we have, in many ways. There are various religious groups pressed up against one another, different places of worship all throughout downtown; anyone of any religion is welcome, but at the same time we have “God” in our anthem, and in the lives of our leaders. We have only had one Prime Minister not associated with a definitive organized Christian denomination, and that one — Kim Campbell — wasn’t even elected. There’s an unspoken understanding that one religion is the default of the land, is normal, and so pervasive we don’t even need to acknowledge it, or even notice it. Nearly every one of these camps announces their longevity like some great accomplishment — “since 1960”, “over 60 years”, “over 70 years”, “over 90” — when really, it’s the only reason they continue to exist.
It’s the same reason I found myself in the same Sunday school nativity plays, the same summer camp year Bible studies, the same almost surreal situations of sudden religiosity that then disappeared just as soon as they came up. It’s the same reason we celebrate Christmas, Easter Monday, Good Friday, why we take our hats off inside, close banks on Sundays, still learn in elementary school when to capitalize “He” and “Him”, and say “bless you” to sneezers and “damn you” to liars. They’re vestiges, holdovers from when it was the outright truth that we were a Christian country, and we were Christian people. Now, we’re just people, people in a city with near equal populations of the non-religious and Christian, and only one of those groups is shrinking.
But we hold on to the words, the sayings, the celebrations, the after-school activities, because they have been here for so long, because it’s not worth it to get rid of them. We hardly even notice them; really, we don’t notice them at all.
That is, unless you’re a kid, at a camp, in a circle, wondering: if it is ok not to believe in something, why does the world still seem to be defined by it?