Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I have been recently asked to chaperone a former pastor’s youth group canoeing wilderness trip. I do not attend his church but have always kept in contact with him after leaving the church of my youth because he is just plainly an excellent human being. He does not know that I am an atheist. I am however an avid outdoors woman who has a lot of youth wilderness tripping experience under my belt. The church background that I came from is very open and quite easy going, but I am afraid if I say yes I would be doing something wrong. The most important thing to me is that these youth come away with some appreciation and skills for the great outdoors. I would never dream of having my non-belief be involved with the trip as that may be considered a violation of the parents trust that are sending these kids under their church’s leaders guidance. Any advice?
You’re the wilderness expert, not the religion expert. Your job is to teach the kids how to not drown or get lost in the woods, and to instill in them a deep respect for nature in all its gentleness and brutality, its beauty and ghastliness, its fragility and strength.
In wilderness we are confronted with the fact that the universe not only doesn’t care about us, it isn’t even aware of us. Its utter mindlessness is what we find simultaneously so awesome and so fearsome. We add mindfulness to the world. In wilderness we make decisions that could be pivotal several times a day, so our minds should not be clouded by fearful thinking or wishful thinking.
So I think that the realism and rationalism that tends to come with atheism makes you all the more qualified for teaching the kids the skills and the understanding that they’ll need.
I wonder if the high regard that you still hold for the pastor might be making you feel guilty about not being fully open with him and letting him assume that you’re still a believer. If it bothers you, you could out yourself and take all the risks that go with it, but be clear that that would only be about your personal relationship with him.
There is no ethical reason for you to do so because your duties as wilderness expert would not involve your beliefs, and you are conscientious about keeping them separate. You would only be doing something wrong or unethical if your duties included any kind of religious instruction where your lack of belief would constitute hypocrisy. Whatever the pastor or the parents might assume about your personal beliefs is not your responsibility in this case.
The pastor will teach the kids how to save their souls, and you will teach them how to save their asses. Have a wonderful time, and help give them great life-long memories and valuable life-long lessons.