The Kids Got Phone Calls from God August 4, 2010

The Kids Got Phone Calls from God

What comes to mind when I write “Vacation Bible School”?

I asked a few atheist friends and the word “brainwashing” came up more than once. I was hesitant about using that word myself because it’s not like the counselors know they’re feeding fairy tales to the children. They believe the nonsense and they’re just passing it along. They don’t know any better.

I never experienced VBS myself, but after I read this story, I think my friends may have been right…:

Every child participating in this program received a call from God Wednesday as they took part in games, music and crafts all this week at the church’s vacation bible school.

“He told me to fish for people,” 8-year-old Noelle Nunes said, “and tell everyone about him.”

“He told me to follow in his footsteps,” 7-year-old Jack Dubois said. “The phone call really surprised me. He didn’t say an awful lot, he just told me to follow him.”


Hey kids, God didn’t call you. The adults lied to you. Go star-69 that number, trace it back to your counselor’s office, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

(And why is reporter Kendra Leigh Miller writing that as if it actually happened?)

I know the Christian media often likes to demonize Camp Quest, but at least the atheist counselors there don’t sit around plotting ways to lie to the campers.

These VBS counselors knew exactly what they were doing when they made the phone calls (or coordinated them with someone else).

It’s not cute or playful. It’s despicable.

(Thanks to William for the link)

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  • Citizen Z

    I was hesitant about using that word myself because it’s not like the counselors know they’re feeding fairy tales to the children.

    It’s not like cult members don’t believe in the crap they’re peddling. And it wasn’t like the Chinese Communists, from which the term “brainwashing” originated, weren’t sincere in their beliefs.

    It’s not about lying to the kids, it’s about coercing them through fear or other sorts of pressure.

  • Dan

    We need more of this, hear me out. Eventually the parents of these kids will have to tell them god didn’t really call them probably right around the time they find out there is no Santa….EPIC WIN!

  • Brett G

    Isn’t impersonating god a sin or something?

  • Aric

    That’s like putting presents under the tree and saying they’re from Santa, except that everyone expects kids to stop believing in Santa Claus some day.

    My VBS was no different from our Sunday school. I certainly wouldn’t call it brainwashing.

  • @Aric Well that would suggest you don’t consider sunday school brainwashing.
    It also must mean we have a different definition of “brainwashing”…

  • ABinMN

    That’s disgusting! (Although Dan makes a good point…)

    (Even worse than the VBS program I heard about – something called Truerassic Park – in which kids could learn that humans and dinos existed at the same time and that their sin was what caused the dinosaurs to go extinct!! Talk about making children feel guilty…)

  • Wendy B

    I especially love Nunes’ quote, “We’re teaching them life lessons about trust, love, caring and sharing and we’re connecting with them.” I must say I didn’t realize that the positive value of misrepresentation was one of the life lessons I was supposed to be passing on to my children. Perhaps it’s a kind of reverse-psychology thing….

  • Wendy B

    When I was a kid, I thought that cowboys rode dinosaurs. Nobody had to teach me that–I made it up! Laying such a guilt trip on a child, especially in the name of something that is supposed to give succor, is a perversion.

  • Matt

    I wish god had called me. I would have made him own up to some really difficult questions.

  • Catherine

    When I was a teen and still being force-fed god, I was a VBS counselor. We didn’t do the whole phone call from god thing but we did do a great deal of brainwashing. Every year our VBS had a theme and the year I was a counselor it was centured around missionary work to spread the gospel. The mascot was a puppet named Barnabus the Beaver. Every day myself and some of the other teenagers had to practically bite our tongues off to stifle the laughter and dirty jokes about the beaver puppet being used for little kids

  • Is it really that bad?

    At some point in their older lives they are going to tell someone that they went to VBS and got a call from God. At which point their fortress will come tumbling down.

    One of the big advantages “God” has over “Santa” is that there is no point where you can draw back the curtain – except in this case.

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    This is an epic fail for this camp. At some point all of the kids are going to be smart enough to know that God didn’t call them. When the do they’ll begin to see him on the same level as they do Santa Claus or any other pretend figure that adults tell them about.

  • Claudia

    I find the deception distressing of course, but really its the whole of these kids education that is more of an outrage. How many of these kids will be homeschooled**? How many will go to a “Christian academy”? How many will not go to college or go to some pretend Oral Roberts style sham college? They will be denied a proper education and encouraged to give their entire lives to evangelizing or, in the case of girls, being good little submissive wives and mothers. That is the outrage, of which a stupid “call from God” is only one tiny part.

    **I have nothing against homeschooling, per se. Homeschooling can be the best option depending on where your child is and if you have the time and capacity to provide a rigorous education. In the comment I’m talking about the fundie homeschooling which is done with the aim of keeping kids away from real science and real history in favor of their quack versions of the same.

  • littlejohn

    How ironic that this reaction would come from the same website where most respondents endorsed lying to children about Santa Claus just yesterday.
    I call self-contradiction. There is no significant difference. In both cases the kids will figure it out in two or three years. It will NOT help them learn to be skeptics.
    I humbly declare myself the winner of this debate, as I was one of the very few who is opposed to lying to children about anything, even if it does entertain them (or, more likely, their parents).
    I await the concessions of you Santa liars that I had a point. I have, however, decided against holding my breath.
    As for the tooth fairy, hey, definitely teach them about her. What’s the harm?

  • Samiimas

    Gotta wonder how many children’s faith has been shattered after God’s phone lost the connection and hung up on them in mid-conversation.

  • beckster

    @littlejohn – Of course when kids find out about Santa Claus the adults and older children will eventually confirm that they are correct in their skepticism. When they question god they are ostracized from their families and told to repent or burn in hell. Bit of a difference.

  • Luther

    The hypocrisy is the callers. They are pushing something they know is phony (no pun intended).

  • Hermes

    Mock phone calls from a god? It makes total sense that neither the counselors or the reporter thought it was strange or even immoral.

    They know their religion is like going to a Cosplay conference. Only, they want the show to never end.

    They have characters like prince Jesus and queen Mary, they have the king Yahweh, and they can talk about other people who are your father (Jesus/god/priest) or sister (nun) or brother (monk) — and most of them are hard core; they’re in costume all the time!

    Do you have a problem? Super Jesus will swoop in and solve it with his Omni-Powers!

    You thought making up rules to games when you were a kid was the best way to win? BAH! The adults do it too, and they have the ultimate trump card; the universal Controller and Judge. Not a bird will fall without Him knowing about it, so they say. You don’t want to go against Him or He’ll make you pay, so you may as well join our side before it’s too late! Buhahahaha!

    Do people bug you about the truth? Well, they don’t have the Truth(tm), so who cares about a lower-cased ‘truth’?

    Unlike Cosplay, though, it’s not OK to break the glass wall and ruin the fiction when you aren’t in the special meeting events. Why? The whole universe is the special place for the good girls and boys!

  • OverlapingMagisteria

    There is a significant difference between lying for Santa and lying for God. Telling kids that Santa brought presents is a lie to support a fantasy, something that no parent believes and every child will eventually figure out. Telling kids that God is on the phone is lying to support something that is believed to be true. Its the attitude that the ends justify the means; It doesn’t matter if we are dishonest as long as the little ones believe in God. With Santa, there is no goal; its a little childhood fun, and if they don’t believe it, so what?

    I think that both examples DO encourage skeptical thinking. They both force the kids to eventually realize that something they once believed was wrong. Being able to examine your own position is critically important to keeping an open mind.

    Though I do admit, the “call from God” has made me reconsider the whole Santa thing. The anti-Santas here bring up good points. I would never lie excessively about Santa, maybe just slight encouragement of the myth, and then let the kids run with it for as long as it lasts.

  • JD

    Lying about Santa Claus is debatable, parents know it’s fiction. People don’t worship Santa Claus as a religious figure. I really haven’t figured out my stance on that.

    This smacks of desperation. Fervently believing in God and teaching it to your children is one thing. Having someone *pose* as God, the figure you teach your children to *worship* is pretty scary, that’s not God. It’s a very big lie in my book.

  • Carole

    On the Santa Claus lie: there’s a pretty persuasive case made by Dale McGowan in Parenting Beyond Belief FOR telling kids about Santa. Ultimately, when they learn that Santa isn’t real, it enhances their critical thinking skills — and makes it easier for them to evaluate the god myth…..

  • L.Long

    Lets see religion starts right of with a totally massive WHOPPER of a lie, continues teaching other really big lies and people are surprised that they will do little white lies to kids???? Go figure!

  • Jeff

    The mascot was a puppet named Barnabus the Beaver.

    I’ve wondered about this – why do Christians deem it acceptable to have a talking animal explain theology to children? Or talking vegetables, for that matter? The Simpsons had Ned Flanders’ wife telling him that their son used to watch Davey and Goliath, until he decided “that a taking dog was blasphemous”. Why aren’t real-life Christians troubled by this?

    (Granted, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between real-life and cartoon Christians, but still… )

  • Nicole

    I don’t remember much of VBS. I think I blocked most of it out as the year that I attended VBS (my time in the Christian world was very brief as my mom sought life solutions elsewhere very soon, good for her) I was coming into an awareness that I was fat, poor, and unpopular. I remember doing the crafts. I don’t remember anything about God.

    I’m not trying to justify VBS. I am sure if I could remember anything from that period except for my own misery I’d be a bit startled–but again, I think it’s no worse than Sunday school. The difference between me and the poster above, however, is that I DO remember Sunday school and yeah… it’s a bit eerie now that I come to think of it.

    We also had a Wednesday night program called AWANAS. I should find out if that still exists. It was like girl/boy scouts but even more biblically focused. I took first place regional for Bible trivia knowledge with an obnoxiously perfect score and, as I recall, was almost entirely responsible for our church’s regional second place overall. I was still fat and poor, but slightly less unpopular. I don’t remember any of it and remember at the time the joy was entirely in memorization–it could have been Shakespeare or The Iliad and I’ve gotten as much out of it. Looking back on THAT, the AWANAS experience is distinctly creepy.

  • The “Eh”theist

    I think this will be a positive experience for the kids in the long run. The problem here isn’t with god, since “he” doesn’t exist.

    Instead, these kids will grow up and learn the truth about their phone calls and many will go on believing in god, thinking “it’s what he would have said to me if he actually called.”

    BUT, in the back corner of their brains they will have made a tiny little mental note that says “church people will lie to me when they think it is good for me.”

    That mental note will be a powerful thought virus for them to share with other believers throughout their lives and will help increase skepticism of religion from within its own ranks.

  • Kimberly

    I was a Bible School teacher one year-while being was a closet atheist. I just did it to put the volunteer work down for Girl Scouts and my college apps. I basically read through lessons and found something else to do the rest of the day. Looking back, I could’ve done much more with that power. 🙁 But I will a little too complacent with that stuff as a teen.

  • The phone calls from God serve another purpose from the evangelical perspective. When the kids realize (and they will) that the calls are not really from God, they will also learn that such techniques are appropriate and proper evangelical behaviors. Serving God supersedes man’s morals.

  • Allison


    I remember AWANAS! Although I never actually competed. I’m pretty sure it still exists, just under a different name. Looking back, it was pretty bad. Our leader used to give us candy for every bible verse we memorized.

    Concerning vbs and Sunday school, I would also be reluctant to call it brainwashing, but not for reasons I can articulate. For me, it felt much more cultural than religious (of course that’s an entirely different problem) – we never had any of that phone call stuff, it was really just to teach the kids bible stories. My family was also part of a fairly liberal church, so the moral messages tended to be less about converting others and more about being altruistic and compassionate. For that reason, when I became an atheist in my mid teens, but not out to my parents, I could still help out at church, but just with nursery and crafts (just because I didn’t resent and hate the church doesn’t mean I was comfortable teaching little kids stories that I didn’t believe to be true).

    I should clarify, AWANAS was actually at a different church. A baptist church, as opposed to the united church of Canada, which was what the one we actually attended was a part of.

  • Alan E.

    I went to a VBS with my best friend the summer after 3rd grade. I was the only white kid. There weren’t any issues until they wanted to do a little play at the end where I would be cast as Satan. I was given the part without my approval, but being naive, I didn’t see a problem with it. My mom wouldn’t let me go the last day, and she told them I was sick.

  • Allison

    Sorry that was replying to Nicole, not the ehtheist. My bad.

  • Andrew Morgan

    re: littlejohn

    Don’t feed the trolls.

  • littlejohn

    Sorry, I can’t help it.
    Luther, when I was a boy the local radio stations relayed phony radar sightings from the “Air Force” of a tiny sleigh. How is this different from phone calls from god?
    Furthermore, how many of you were encouraged to write – and post – letters to Santa?
    I stand my ground. Except for leprechauns. They’re real.

  • Aaron

    I just did a quick count. Of 76 comments on the Santa thread, only 18 said that they would teach that Santa was real. 28 made comments that I could not take one way or the other, and the rest, about 30 (there were some repeats) said they would be upfront with the kids that Santa is not real or not do Santa at all. A significant number (about half) of the one’s who said they would teach Santa was real said that they thought the child discovering that Santa was not real was a good way to teach them to be skeptical.
    So claiming that the majority would lie to their kids is plainly incorrect. Only 24% said they would be less than truthful, and about half said it would be a good exercise in free-thought. 12% is not a majority.

  • In my experience Vacation Bible School was a good test of my propensity for atheism.

    It was fun playing with the other kids and doing the crafts but I felt like a joke was being played on me any time the adults began talking about or making allusions to God or biblical stories and characters and that feeling only increased when they made us sing these ridiculous songs. No calls from God, though. I don’t think I could have handled it anyway. All the silliness killed the fun for me and I was glad to go home.

  • B.C.

    When I was starting to have doubts about Santa, my parents had my grandpa call me pretending to be Santa. This phone call had me believing for a few more years. I’m not sure what their motivation was – they’re both non-theists and fairly anti-religious.
    I’m not sure which lie is worse: my parents knew that the Santa story was a myth lied to me to protect my belief, but these VBS counselors (probably) sincerely believe god exists and lied to their campers to protect their belief.

    I disagree with both lies, but I feel like my parents’ was the most hypocritical.

  • littlejohn

    Well, yeah, but only in your what-you-see is real universe. In my universe, you can divide by zero and women find me irresistible.
    Besides, I know Santa and Jesus are equally real. Don’t you watch South Park?
    I’ll pray for you.

  • Mark

    It is despicable when adults are so deceitful and manipulate little children this way. I do believe that this is a form of child abuse. A non-violent form, but still very damaging. Also, why is the reporter reporting this as if it actually happened. It isn’t cute or fun. It is simply a lie. A hoax designed to brainwash children. Another thing, since when is VBS news? I don’t understand how this story qualifies as worthy of reporting on at all except for to call attention to the fact that these adults are brainwashing children.

  • Silent Service

    AWANAS still exists. My wife had our son go through it when he was little. He found it laughable because I started teaching him critical thinking from day one. By the time he was done with AWANAS his mom (my wife) was agnostic. Now she’s an atheist, and all it took was watching a 6 year old punch holes in the Jesus stories they tried to spoon feed little kids. Hopefully a couple of other kids in my son’s AWANAS classes caught on and moves beyond believing in super santa too.

  • neil

    I want that job at camp, the voice of god. as long as it comes with a business card

    And we do lie to kids at camp. In the west we are all tied up with the idea of Shree. The difference is we are telling the kids all day ways to critically examine such claims. And hoping that they dont believe us

    on that note, Albatross soup for lunch!

  • L. Vellenga

    i have very mixed opinions about vbs, even though my church runs a pretty decent-sized one every year. my objections: often it’s simply free childcare (kids make the rounds of all the vbs opportunities in the area) and often it’s preaching to the choir. from a pragmatic standpoint, it’s usually not a great use of resources. from a parental standpoint, i don’t want my kids given a hard sell about christianity (even though i’m a christian). the end never justifies the means.

    free t-shirt? cool! phone call from god? lame!

  • I went to VBS as a kid, and honestly? I loved it. We didn’t have anything like phone calls from God- we had costume parties (though you weren’t allowed to dress up as something scary or violent. I wanted to go as the Pink Power Ranger, but couldn’t. I settled on being a queen instead), and we did little arts and crafts things.

    We were also given tons of candy, and we sat around and sang Christian songs. We also put on skits of stories in the Bible.

    Were we encouraged to be good little Christians? Of course. But I don’t have any negative memories of it. In fact, I think it was really the only time I was happy when I was a part of that church.

  • AnonyMouse

    You don’t have to be hesitant about using that word. I definitely believe that the fact that these people have been indoctrinated from adulthood mitigates some of the blame, as they are clinically incapable of knowing that they are spreading a lie. But that doesn’t mean they’re not brainwashing others.

    My mother always had a saying: “You can say someone’s acting like a brat, but don’t call them a brat.” While it sounds suspiciously like “hate the sin, love the sinner” it has merit. Just like well-meaning, anti-racist people can say or do things that are racist, well-meaning, clueless people can still brainwash others.

    Or “The shark may not be evil, but it is still eating you.”

  • Richard Wade’s Evil Twin

    Man, I wish I could get that phone number.

    Johnny (a 7-year-old VBS member): “Hello?”

    Me: (really scary, deep, gravelly voice that sounds like salted, chunky style malevolence): “Hey Johnny, you nasty little brat, this is SATAN! I want you to flush ten sanitary napkins down the toilet, microwave the camp director’s cell phone for thirty seconds and put it back on his desk, and spread raw egg whites on all the camp counselors’ bedsheets! And then after All Hell breaks loose (heh heh) and the staff wants to know who did it, I want you to stand up in front of everybody and tell them that I called you up and made you do it! If you don’t, I’m gonna ruin your X-box at home and make your mom always think that broccoli is your favorite food! Now get going!”

    Johnny: “Y-y-yes, sir!”

  • Perfect!! Take advantage of malleable young minds, trick them into believing god called them, and make them a devotee to delusion. The ultimate deceit.
    But then, all religion/superstion is deceit…this just takes it to a new level, confirming what we already know about religionists.

  • Jason

    I agree with Claudia. But I was watching a wife swap awhile back and there was an extremely christian home schooled family. They had 3 kids with the oldest about 16 I think and the swapped wife got them a real teacher and he showed them for the first time in their life evolution and the history of the earth and that it wasn’t 2,000 years old. It made me sad that they didn’t know about it and happy they were finally exposed to real education.

  • J Cole

    When I was a kid I used to get a phone call from “Santa” every year around Christmas. Of course I later found it was a friend of my Grandmother, after I realized that “Santa” wasn’t real. Think the same thing will happen to any of these kids?

  • CaptainExistential

    I used to get in trouble for asking questions like “Where did god come from?” – “Who created god?” – “My Mom said I can just be a good person” and they were like, YOUR MOM IS WRONG! I cried and then they sent me home. Thankfully I had a bad experience with Christianity at a young age. A pastor once threatened to burn my house down if I didn’t come back to Sunday school. I started asking questions and became critical pretty fast.

  • Bill

    When I was about 6, during a children’s message, the Presbyterian minister of our local church gave each of us a polished stone. He told us that if we had enough faith, the color would change.

    The color never changed. I still don’t know what was up with that.

  • trixr4kids

    Bill, I suspect your minister was a Zen master in disguise..

  • I guess he was too busy to show up in person. In this day and age, I would have thought God would have caught on to texting… or email.

  • L. Vellenga

    i know this is not the main point of the thread, but not all christians adhere to a literal 7-day creation/young earth position on creation. just sayin’.

  • i know this is not the main point of the thread, but not all christians adhere to a literal 7-day creation/young earth position on creation. just sayin’.

    Well, yes, of course not. As it happens, the church featured in the article is St. Nicholas of Myra Catholic Church in Massachussetts. I’m quite sure they are not creationists. Funny, though, I’ve never heard of Catholics holding Vacation Bible School before. Is that common in other parts of the country? I’ve never seen it here in California.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    Anna: At the Catholic church I was forced to attend, in the southern US, they hold Vacation Bible School every summer, and Wednesday night youth classes the rest of the year.

  • Wednesday night services, too? Maybe they’re copying the evangelicals, since I hear that kind of church involvement is pretty common in the South.

    Over here, it doesn’t seem like Catholic churches do anything like that. There’s CCD, but that usually takes place on the weekends, and it’s not advertised to the general public. Sometimes Catholic schools and churches hold fairs and summer camps to raise money, but they don’t seem to be religious in nature.

    I went to a sports camp at a Catholic high school for several summers when I was a kid, but there was nothing religious about it. I also went to a Halloween carnival (real Halloween, not the fake Harvest Festival stuff) for a couple of years growing up that was open to the public. Just the usual haunted house, candy, costumes and games there, no evangelism.

  • Brian Macker

    God becomes Santa. Next they’ll be leaving gifts under the tree from God and claiming he came down the oil burner flue pipe.

  • Dev

    Hello all,
    I’m a Christian minister at a small congregation in Texas, and I have to say I agree with the author of this post.  It isn’t cute or playful.  It’s dishonest, disingenuous, and manipulative.  As a believer I also did a *facepalm* when I read the story. 
    However, in a country where over 90% of people claim to believe in God your going to find those who promote their faith in irresponsible, uninformed, and even malicious ways.  Its a shame and it should be called out confronted.  But I don’t think it says as much about God’s existence as it does about people’s ignorance and stupidity. 

    Not looking for an argument.  Just wanted to say that there are those of us in the Christian community who are just as disgusted by these kinds of practices. 

  • Good to hear 🙂 Thanks for chiming in.

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