Not skeptical about skeptics’ camp

questcamp I criticized an Associated Press story yesterday for failing Journalism 101. Another AP story, about nonreligious camp, does not suffer from this problem.

Reporter Valerie Bauman executed journalism’s fundamentals. In her first five paragraphs, Bauman gave her readers the five W’s:

When Joe Fox sends his daughters away to summer camp, he’s confident they’ll be surrounded by kids who share his family’s beliefs and values.

Caitlin, 16, and Elizabeth, 10, go to Camp Quest, which in 1996 created a niche getaway for children who are agnostic, atheist or just not sure yet what to believe.

Parents have plenty of summer camp options, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the YMCA, soccer, dance, music and drama camps. Many claim no religious affiliation, though others are Jewish, Catholic or evangelical Christian. The Camp Quest concept started in 1996 with 20 kids at a site in Ohio with the slogan “Beyond Belief.”

Since then, demand has grown, and weeklong camps have been added in Minnesota, Michigan, California, Tennessee and Ontario, Canada. In 2007, the camps accommodated 150 kids, generally ages 8 to 17. The projection for 2008 is more than 200 campers, and new camps are being considered in Vermont and the United Kingdom.

“They’re good, moral kids without organized religion,” Fox said of his daughters. “They can feel comfortable being who they are.”

Also, Bauman talked with an opponent of the non-religious camps — a skeptic of the skeptics, you might say; and amplified her earlier theme that non-religious Americans put their children in these camps partly to develop a sense of belonging.

I have no beef with Bauman’s reporting of the story. But I do have a beef with her confusing and misleading storyline.

Bauman writes that the camps are designed not just for agnostics or atheists but also those who are “just not sure what to believe.” She then quotes the camps’ founder who says that young children are unable to form their own worldview:

“We really try not to label the kids,” she said. “When a kid is 8 or 10, asking them to say, ‘I’m an atheist,’ or, ‘I’m a Catholic’ — at 8 or 10 we don’t think that kids are able to make a decision about their worldview.”

The passage above, as well as the lede, suggest that the camp teaches open mindedness about religion; religion might be true, it might not be. Well, the organization that runs the camps promotes nothing of the sort. On its website, the organization states that it opposes organized religion:

The Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS) promotes humanism, a nonreligious philosophy based on reason and compassion. IHS advances human rights, secular ethics and the separation of religion and government through advocacy, innovation and collaboration.

The examples in Bauman’s story also suggest strongly that the camp opposes organized religion:

The counselors will sometimes discuss world religions and philosophies. They say the focus is not on what is “wrong” about other beliefs, but they do sometimes use examples from religions when talking about errors in critical thinking.

In one exercise, counselors tell the kids about invisible creatures — such as unicorns or dragons — that live in the camp and then challenge them to prove that they don’t exist. The campers are told they can’t see, touch or taste the creatures.

The point is that a belief isn’t valid just because it can’t be proved wrong. The exercise is supposed to help kids prepare for questions from those who ask them to prove a higher power doesn’t exist.

So doesn’t the camp promote opposition to organized religion? Bauman should have resolved this ambiguity. Instead, she stated that the camp is not religious. The implication is that the camp has no attitude, and possibly even an open-minded one, toward organized religion. Call me skeptical.

Baumann either pulled her punches or wasn’t sufficiently critical about the non-religious camp. Either way, readers are not sure what to believe.

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  • Ben

    On its website, the organization states that it opposes organized religion

    Not from the quoted section you cite. There’s a difference between nonreligious and anti-religious. And supporting separation of church and state and secular ethics doesn’t mean opposing religion.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    On the contrary, the website seeks to separate religion and government, not just church and state; and the examples cited in the story seek to debunk religion, not question or reject it.

  • Dave

    I suggest a visit to Camp Quest’s website, at not exactly the address depicted on the T-shirt in the graphic, but it’ll get you there.

    First, it makes clear that the Institute is a primary supporter but not the operator of the camp. Differences in their stated goals do not imply deceptive advertising.

    Secondly, it also makes it clear that the camp is intended for children of atheists, free-thinkers, “brights” (a recently minted term of art of non-theists), etc. And that its purpose is to give kids exercises in critical thinking and non-theistic bases for moral behavior.

    Whether that constitutes opposing organized religion, YMMV. What’s for certain is that kids from any of those noted backgrounds, or from families that don’t have any particular religious beliefs, are going to be confronted as they grow up with well-honed church-derived arguments spouting from their peers’ mouths, and will need some training in theological self-defense if they are even to maintain their options until they reach an age at which they can make up their own minds.

    Been there, done that.

  • Dave

    Oops, I did not mean to imply I’ve been to Camp Quest. I’m a bit long in the tooth for such adventures. Camp Quest is not the first such camp in history, and some were around in my checkered youth.

  • Dave2

    I’ve never before encountered this distinction between ‘separation of church and state’ and ‘separation of religion and government’, but either way I fail to see anything anti-religious.

    There might be other good reasons to think this group is anti-religious, but their vision of a completely secular, religion-neutral government seems like something even a deeply religious person could heartily endorse.

  • str1977

    That distinction is quite simple and also quite important:

    -the separation of church and state aims at keeping the two institutions apart (church here stands for any religious group) so that both can performs its function without hurting the other
    -the separation of religion and government aims at keeping religious beliefs out of government, basically keeping it at home.

    Keeping religious beliefs out of government of course means giving an advantage of ideologies or views that are deemed or deem themselves non-religious. It also means curtailing the religious freedom of those involved in government.

    Also it means keeping religion at home it basically destroys most of freedom of religion.

  • Dave2

    str1977,

    So if you endorse the separation of religion and government, then your view is that e.g. people shouldn’t be allowed to vote for pro-life candidates due to their own religious views?

    And do you think IHS’s choice of the term ‘separation of religion and government’ (rather than ‘separation of church and state’) is sufficient grounds for attributing this view to CampQuest?

  • Dave

    Dave2 and str1977:

    Here’s a wacky-fun idea: Write to the camp at camp@camp-quest.org and ask them what they mean by separation of religion and goverment.

  • Dave2

    Well, hell, I don’t care that much.

  • Martha

    I had to smile, since as a Catholic, the first thing the letters “IHS” bring to mind for me is the devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus promoted by St. Bernadine of Siena, who devised a symbol — IHS (the first three letters of the name Jesus in Greek) — to represent it.

    So every time this organisation uses its initials, I’m sure St. Bernadine is praying for them! ;-)

  • Stephen A.

    Quibbling over government vs. state seems pointless. Even religious conservatives fear government or the state getting deeply involved in religion.

    Mark’s point in this post is a valid one. As I read the story, a camp that bills itself as a “niche getaway for children who are agnostic, atheist or just not sure yet what to believe” and which has children attending who are Jewish, Catholic or evangelical Christian (according to the article) is entirely consistent and reasonable.

    What’s puzzling is that it’s slogan, “Beyond Belief” and that slogan’s application in activities which question ANY belief (along with the great detective work here that uncovered the camp’s mission is “non-theistic”) seems to fly in the face of letting kids choose their own belief system, or at least prepare them to. Instead, it seems to be prepping them to be atheists, and leading them only in that direction.

    If a camper says “I believe in God” or even “I MAY believe in God” are they ridiculed by other kids for not getting with the program? Are they ridiculed by the camp counselors? Seriously. It would seem that this idea of “not labeling,” while very PC and sweet-sounding, like most New Age concepts, might come apart if only the reporter had asked, “Are kids allowed to speak in favor of the possibility of God existing?” or, “Since agnosticism is taught, does that mean the possibility of God existing is taught, too?”

    A real questioning of these claimes of tolerance should have been done.

    Like UUism, which pretends to respect ALL religions, this camp, in all likelihood is not allowing respect for even a bland agnosticism on the concept of God.

    And if that’s the case, the reporter should have asked, What’s the difference, in real psychological terms, between this and a “Jesus Camp” which some have critcized for going overboard in the Theistic direction in terms of indoctrination? “Don’t Believe!” is just as totalitarian as the opposite, isn’t it?

  • Stephen A.

    I have to mention, in fairness, that deep, deep into the story, the reporter does include a quote from a Theist opponent who does make the point that I do – that they seem to simply be preaching non-theism, not openness on the issue of God. While the camp is obviously labeled “non-theist” that doesn’t explain the apparent contradictions mentioned above.

    I hope the counselors are VERY convincing when it comes to explaining that their assserion that there are dragons in the camp is simply an imagination exercise. Otherwise, there will be a lot of scared agnostic children in the camp.

  • http://www.paintedprimate.com Marf

    I was a camp counselor for Camp Quest Class in 2001 and 2002. The second year there was a kid form a Catholic family. His grandfather was atheist and had suggested the camp. The kid himself was pretty neutral and still forming his beliefs. The other campers and staff welcomed this kid and his Catholic family.

    Many of the kids at Camp Quest feel very marginalized. I heard kids telling stories of losing friends when the friends’ parents found out they didn’t believe in God. Camp Quest is a safe haven for those kids, and yes, it is also a place where the philosophical underpinnings of religious skepticism are taught. The difference between the philosophy of Humanism and traditional organized religion is that Humanism isn’t a creed. It provides methods for thinking about big questions, but it never provides the answers. Sure, lots of Humanists come to similar or same conclusions, but other don’t. And the best thing about it is that no Humanist can claim any special link to THE truth about the meaning of life and THE correct morality. Humanists practice humility by not pretending to have any THE big answers and admit to just doing the best we can to be the best human beings we can be, despite our inherent human flaws. That’s what critical thinking is all about.

  • http://www.paintedprimate.com Marf

    Stephen A. wrote:

    What’s puzzling is that it’s slogan, “Beyond Belief” and that slogan’s application in activities which question ANY belief (along with the great detective work here that uncovered the camp’s mission is “non-theistic”) seems to fly in the face of letting kids choose their own belief system, or at least prepare them to. Instead, it seems to be prepping them to be atheists, and leading them only in that direction.

    Faith and doubt have always been close partners in the minds and hearts of those who bother thinking about the big questions. Someone with all faith and no doubt is self-righteous. Someone with all doubt and no faith is a nihilist. The sad thing is that our society only champions one of these as a virtue.

  • Dave

    Stephen A. wrote:

    Like UUism, which pretends to respect ALL religions [...]

    UUism does not claim to respect all religions. It strives to see the good stuff in any religion. It claims to respect all persons. (Individual UUs may fail to come up UU standards, as is the case in any religion.)

  • Stephen A.

    Marf, I appreciate the insight on the camp from an actual counselor who was there. Thank you. I do have a great deal of sympathy and understanding for those kids who are not fitting in religiously.

    I’ll simply note that while Humanism may not be a “creed,” per se, it’s certainly a philosophy that, as you note, says that there are no absolutes. That, in a discussion of religion, is a position, and a rather rigid one. I’m glad the kids are allowed to search and learn to question things at the camp, but the story and your testimony here implies they are being taught there IS a wrong answer regarding God. And I stand by my proposed questions the reporter SHOULD have asked to further clarify this and perhaps expose this rather obvious point.

    As for faith vs. doubt, the absolute of “All Doubt” seems to be the overreaction of Humanism, which cuts out faith altogether.

  • Dave

    Dave2 and str1977:

    The Camp Quest site refers to the separation of religion and government in accordance with the Constitution. That document has more to say about this than the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment. The original, pre-Bill of Rights text provides that there shall be no religious test for any office of the United States. So the term makes perfect sense without threatening anyone’s religious liberty. As conservatives are fond of pointing out, “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution, so an alternative formulation is just as valid.

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, I admit a bias re: UUism. I attend a UU Fellowship for almost a year, and I have never met a more bitter, hateful anti-religious group of people in my life. I’m sure other UUers are more open and tolerant, though the camp story we’re discussing seems to illustrate a pattern of reflexive contempt for organized religion in general and of God in particular among Humanists and the Religious Left, of which UUism is solidly a part.

    It just seems to me that Freethinking should also include the freedom to be a Theist, even a non-traditional one (and that it should *especially* include such a concept, one would think.)

  • Dave2

    I’ll simply note that while Humanism may not be a “creed,” per se, it’s certainly a philosophy that, as you note, says that there are no absolutes.

    Whoa there. There’s a difference between (i) saying that there are no absolutes, and (ii) humbly and modestly refraining from saying what absolutes there are. A enormous, hugely important difference.

    From what Marf says, the second is what’s going on in Camp Quest, not the first.

  • http://david-jaime-jason.blogspot.com Jason

    I suspect that the ambiguity in the story stems from an unspoken (perhaps not even consciously realized) assumption on the part of the camp that is perhaps shared by the reporter: if you put someone, especially a child, in a situation where they are free to explore a world without creeds, they will naturally reject religion. I think that this quote is telling: “They’re good, moral kids without organized religion,” Fox said of his daughters. “They can feel comfortable being who they are.”

    That is packed with a lot of assumptions–that organized religion believes itself to be the only path to being a “good, moral” person and that religion inhibits people being “who they are.”

    I don’t think these are overtly hostile assumptions. They are just part of our culture’s current baggage.

  • NorthoftheBorder

    I think the point is that although they wouldn’t think of themselves as “religous”, this does constitute a belief system which, if it claims to be true, would at least be in part oppositional to other religions.

  • Stoo

    Jason:

    “that religion inhibits people being “who they are.””

    I think the stance could be more that, if someone is brought up indoctrinated in a religion, they might never question it, or consider other belief systems that work better for them.

  • Stoo

    Sorry, meant to say – that *could* work better for them.

  • Dave

    Stephen A. (#18),

    I’m sorry you had a bad experience with a UU fellowship. It happens. In a town not too far from mine a small UU congregation — small enough that its own survival should have been its top priority — imploded after a fight between the Humanists and the Others. Bad scene.

    UUism generally is more open. There are national organizations of UU Christians, UU Buddhists, UU Pagans, UU Jews and, of course, UU Humanists, all with ties to the UUA. The UU fellowship in my town has a variety of traditions represented in its Sunday morning offerings.

    UU Humanists are split into what amounts to two liturgical camps. One side is open to borrowing stuff momentarily from other traditions — a Buddhist bell, a Christian hymn, a Pagan salute to the directions — and the other side wants to retch at the thought. You seem to have run into an outfit composed of the latter.

  • Brian Walden

    From the article Fox said, “They’re good, moral kids without organized religion” and Marf graciously provided us details about how the camp is focused on humbly admitting that we don’t know the Truth with a capital T. So how does Fox know that the kids are good and moral if he doesn’t claim to be able know the Truth? Does he mean that these kids have worked to form their own individual concepts of what is good and moral which they hold themselves up to but not others?

    I don’t ask this to pester anyone, it just seems like an immediate road block to me. But I’m sure it’s been explored and answered by Humanists and I just can’t see the answer from the surface. On the same note, my faith has many whoppers of seeming contradiction which can be resolved upon further examination.

  • danr

    “if someone is brought up indoctrinated in a religion, they might never question it, or consider other belief systems that work better for them.”

    True, but the same of course could be said about being indoc– er, raised in secular humanism. Everyone “indoctrinates” their children in something, intentionally or unintentionally… Who’s to say what’s nurturing vs. indoctrinating? Indoctrination isn’t inherently good or bad, it depends on the doctrine contained therein.

    You can be indoctrinated into an agnostic or athiest or thiestic worldview, a communist or democratic worldview, etc. I spent two years in China with students raised in strict Marxist atheism. It was my pleasure as a thiest to dig beneath their indoctrination and question their assumptions.

    The question is, is this camp indoctrinating, and into what? Are they truly taught to question all worldviews, or to question one and thereby to incorporate another?

  • Dave

    Brian Walden (#25) asks:

    [...H]ow does Fox know that the kids are good and moral if he doesn’t claim to be able know the Truth?

    There’s a wealth of philosopy from the Enlightenment from folks who tried to derive ethics and morals from first principles without reference to revelation. There’s also moral philosophy from the ancient Pagans, but I don’t know if a Humanist camp would care to include them among its sources.

  • Brian Walden

    Dave, I know there are arguments for ethics and morals that aren’t based on revelation. That’s not what I was asking.

    It’s my understanding that word morals usually means a universal standard as opposed to say politeness which can vary from culture to culture. If Mr. Fox truly meant that kids at the camp follow these universal morals, isn’t that getting into the realm of Truth with a big T? That’s why I asked. Maybe I’m wrong in my understanding of the word morals and most people actually use it to mean the standards accepted by the majority of the people in their culture rather than a universal standard.

    But your response that morals can be derived without revelation seems to suggest that the word morals is being used to mean a universal standard rather than a relative one. If this is the understanding that the type of Humanists at Camp Quest subscribe to, how do they know that their kids are moral without being able to know Truth? Maybe I’m mixing up knowing and proving – as in Humanists believe that they can know Truth but but can’t prove it empirically or something like that (I think most religions would agree with that statement). Or maybe I’ve misconstrued Marf’s views as being common to Humanists when in fact they’re not held by the majority. Whatever the case, I’m just looking for cursory introduction of how a Humanist can know what’s moral without claiming to know Truth.

  • Dave

    Brian wrote:

    I’m just looking for cursory introduction of how a Humanist can know what’s moral without claiming to know Truth.

    I think you’ve moved the goalposts as to what you mean by “Truth” but that may reflect the limits of my understanding.

    In any event, Mark sent me a warning to stick to the journalism or get spiked, so I’m not going further.

  • Dave2

    Brian Walden,

    I’m pretty sure it’s open to Humanists to believe in Truth with a capital T (whatever that is). They can hold the view that there are objective moral standards, just like Plato and G. E. Moore did.

    It looked to me (based on what Marf said) like the camp was trying to get people to challenge the assumption that they have the truth on matters moral, so that they think critically about their own moral convictions. But that’s perfectly compatible with thinking that there are objective moral truths.

  • http://www.scoutingforall.org Brian Westley

    Just for background info, how many people concerned about how Camp Quest treats possible believers among the kids have voiced similar concerns about atheist or agnostic kids in bible camps? How many newspaper articles about bible camps include a dissenting view from an atheist?

  • Stephen A.

    Just for background info, how many people concerned about how Camp Quest treats possible believers among the kids have voiced similar concerns about atheist or agnostic kids in bible camps? How many newspaper articles about bible camps include a dissenting view from an atheist?

    Brian Westley poses a good question here, and it’s an apparent double standard.

    But the camp sets itself up for questioning when it says it’s going to be open to ALL beliefs of its campers, even if they’re evangelical Christians or Jews – presumably firmly in the camp of Theism. Either they do accept all views, including Theism, or they don’t. Which is it?

    Leaders of Christian camps, by contrast, don’t go on the record as saying they will teach that all religions are equal or that they will simply applaud if a child starts preaching Atheism.

    Your (implied) concern for children who are non-theists forced to attend Christian camps is a valid one, to a point, though there’s a reason why children are called ‘children’, and not adults. Their minds are their own, of course, and may grow into whatever belief system they choose, but parents have the right to send them to a humanist camp, a Christian camp or no camp at all.

    Although if you ask me if it would have been interesting if the reporter had gotten one of the kids, off the record, to say if he/she was uncomfortable with this camp’s views on a/theism (or, in an alternate story, what a kid attending a Christian camp thinks about God) I would have to say, yes, that would have been interesting. There is ALWAYS a dissenting view, and readers can certainly learn by hearing that viewpoint.

  • O

    str1977 says:
    May 28, 2008, at 7:16 pm
    That distinction is quite simple and also quite important:

    the separation of church and state aims at keeping the two institutions apart (church here stands for any religious group) so that both can performs its function without hurting the other
    -the separation of religion and government aims at keeping religious beliefs out of government, basically keeping it at home.

    Keeping religious beliefs out of government of course means giving an advantage of ideologies or views that are deemed or deem themselves non-religious. It also means curtailing the religious freedom of those involved in government.

    Also it means keeping religion at home it basically destroys most of freedom of religion.

    What I find most perverse about your argument is that one of the main contributing factors to the neccesity of the establishment of organizations such as Camp Quest is the fact that the BSA actually does discriminate against children and adults based on their religious beliefs (i.e. not allowing atheists to become members). I’m trying to get my 6-year-old into a local Scout troop but have been told, in no uncertain terms, that he is not permitted to participate unless he takes an oath to God. This is an organization operating within my child’s Public School. Camp Quest is privately funded, no? Can anyone produce a shread of evidence to support the notion that Camp Quest is actually discriminating against Theistic children becoming members?

  • O

    The point is that a belief isn’t valid just because it can’t be proved wrong. The exercise is supposed to help kids prepare for questions from those who ask them to prove a higher power doesn’t exist.

    So doesn’t the camp promote opposition to organized religion?

    Nope, not at all. It promotes opposition to faith-based and fallacious assumptions, I fail to see how this translates into an attack on organized religions in general or any sort of discrimination against children of religious backgrounds whatsoever. Unless you are arguing that simply stating the position that deities do not exist ammounts to an infringement on the rights of theists. What, members of an organized religion cannot be asked to consider the possibility that they are wrong now?

    Come on, this is an organization designed to refelct the needs of humanist children in a very hostil theistic society. If anyone wants to see this conversation happen on a more level playing field, like say the BSA’s summer camps, then take it up with them, they are the ones actively discriminating on religious grounds. Get over your persecution complex and focus your outrage where it belongs.

  • O

    I have no beef with Bauman’s reporting of the story. But I do have a beef with her confusing and misleading storyline.

    Bauman writes that the camps are designed not just for agnostics or atheists but also those who are “just not sure what to believe.”

    Again, this is simply outrageous. I’m sorry, but you are going to need to present some real proof of discrimination here. Does this private organization actually prevent children from particular religious backgrounds from joining? There is nothing “confusing” or “misleading” here. Any child, regardless of their faith is free to attend. That is the point of Bauman’s statement.

  • Stephen A.

    O says:

    Any child, regardless of their faith is free to attend. That is the point of Bauman’s statement.

    Yes, any child may attend. And if that child believes in *some* kind of God-being, they will be ruthlessly hit over the head (methaphorically) with the concept that God is like Leprechauns or the Easter Bunny, and that God is a foolish concept.

    Yeah, really tolerant.

    Dave2, back at response 19, says:

    There’s a difference between (i) saying that there are no absolutes, and (ii) humbly and modestly refraining from saying what absolutes there are. A enormous, hugely important difference.

    From what Marf says, the second is what’s going on in Camp Quest, not the first.

    No, they are comparing God to a fairy tale, a boogyman in the woods and other scary, and unprovable, things that simply don’t exist. That’s not unbiased, or modest, it’s ironically and unabshedly absolutist in making the anti-theist argument. If the kids were simply exposed to “another” view about the existence of God, fine. But the kind of lesson described in the article has one effect on impressionable minds: denial of God because we cannot see or prove God.

    It’s the irony one discovers with many militant Atheists.

  • Dave2

    Stephen A., I wasn’t talking about the way the camp treats the question of God’s existence. I was talking about the way the camp treats morality. Remember when you said that Humanists think there are no absolutes? That was the topic under discussion. Not God.

    Also the term ‘militant Atheists’ is pretty ridiculous. Camp Quest is not, after all, a military camp.

  • O

    Stephen,
    Does your concern for tolerance extend to the BSA? Do you agree with me that since the BSA is operating inside of public schools that they should not be permitted to discriminate against my son based on religious beliefs?

    “And if that child believes in *some* kind of God-being, they will be ruthlessly hit over the head (methaphorically) with the concept that God is like Leprechauns or the Easter Bunny, and that God is a foolish concept.

    Yeah, really tolerant.”

    I believe Bauman said that the camp is designed for children who are not sure what to believe. Did he say it was designed for “Christians” or “Theists.”

    I stand by this:
    “There is nothing “confusing” or “misleading” here. Any child, regardless of their faith is free to attend. That is the point of Bauman’s statement.”

    Do you have any proof of Christian children being beat up side the head (metaphorically of course)with the concept that “God” is no more real then the pagan deities? (Ok, my bad, “God” is a pagan deity, the name “God” is another of Odin’s names that was used by the Visigoths to represent the biblical deity in the first translations of scripture into a germanic tongue). But I digress, my son is being discriminated against, not metaphorically but literally, by the BSA, operating inside his own publc school classroom. Now that is real intolerance. Where are you on this issue?