Do Kids Really Need an Atheist Camp?

Do Kids Really Need an Atheist Camp? August 14, 2015
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Counselor Dave Jackson, right, holds a laminated poster of Alan Turing — one of many “Famous Freethinkers” discussed at Camp Quest.

I am standing on a sloping hillside in the middle of a forest. Pine trees shoot up from the ground toward a clear blue sky. Simple cabins — dark brown with green roofs — are situated at various intervals along a winding dirt path.

I have come here, to Wrightwood, Calif., to visit a weeklong summer camp called Camp Quest, and the setting is so traditionally camp-like, all I can think about for the first 15 minutes is The Parent Trap. I half expect two long-lost twins to reunite right in front of me.

But that’s kind of misleading. Because there are some decidedly nontraditional things about this particular camp. Namely, it’s run by atheists.

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When I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, the only types of summer camps readily and locally available were Vacation Bible Schools.

This wasn’t a bad thing, at least to me. I remember having a fine time with all my friends, chitchatting in between activities, being silly at every conceivable juncture. But what we actually learned during these day camps was minimal. Like, really minimal. We learned to paint wooden JESUS tchotchkes. We learned some key Bible passages. We learned to sing “This Little Light of Mine.”

But I do remember this one time — being alone in the chapel at one of the church camps (a Lutheran, one, I think?) — looking around at the glossy pews and the massive cross above the altar and knowing, pretty definitively:

This isn’t me. I don’t belong here. 

That was one of the reasons I’ve long been curious about Camp Quest, which started with only a few kids in 1996 but has seen incredible growth over the last 19 years. Begun with a mission to provide “educational adventure shaped by fun, friends and freethought, featuring science, natural wonder and humanist values,” CQ’s goals include: fostering curiosity, scientific inquiry and critical thinking; cultivating reason and empathy; raising awareness of positive contributions made by famous nontheists; and demonstrating atheism and humanism as positive, family-friendly worldviews. This summer alone, more than 1,100 children participated in Camp Quest in 15 states, including California.

The other reason Camp Quest interested me was professional. As a secular parenting blogger and author, I wondered if it was really necessary — or even beneficial — to separate nonreligious children from religious children in a camp setting; couldn’t a science or nature camp instill the same respect for evidence-based thinking and empathy and reason, while being open to all children?

Furthermore, I had some pretty strong feelings about how we should go about addressing religion in secular families — and how we shouldn’t. Often, particularly in families that identify strongly as atheist, religion is not “talked about” so much as it is dismissed out of hand. And I wondered if a camp like CQ might inadvertently push atheism on children who were still working through existential questions for themselves, in the same way that cuckoo-bird Jesus Camps push faith.

Now, let me be clear. I never thought the folks at CQ would knowingly do this; I knew “teaching atheism” wasn’t part of the curriculum. But I wondered if fostering a community that celebrated skepticism and generally viewed religion as mythology would inevitably give rise to pockets of judgment. I thought it was possible that Camp Quest could, rather accidentally, foster religious intolerance.

The only way to find out if that was true was to arrange a visit.

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In many ways, Camp Quest is exactly like any other cool nature camp. Swimming, kayaking, archery, hiking, horseback riding, singing, campfires, crafts and team sports are all part of the week’s activities.

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Campers engage in a round of Tug of War.

But there are some things that set it apart — including a daily series of activities dubbed “Freethought Extravaganzas.” The activities vary widely but all, in one way or another, celebrate humanist values: Compassion, kindness, critical thought, skepticism, independence, creativity and reason.

Although most kids here are the children of  nonbelievers, anyone open to a belief system built on critical thinking is welcome, says my tour guide and Camp Quest West president David Diskin. Does that mean religious kids don’t sign up? Not at all, Diskin says. In fact, each camp usually has at least one or two every year. But “freethinking” implies a level of comfort with skepticism that won’t always be encouraged in more traditional Christian or Muslim or Jewish families, so the religious families who take part are usually on the progressive end of the spectrum.

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To develop empathy for those whose sight is compromised, campers try to put together a puzzle using vision-impairment goggles.

Over the course of three hours, I observe a few different freethought activities. One is a music activity, another a cartography lesson. A third, called “Monopoly,” teaches campers how the distribution of wealth gives some people huge advantages in life while stifling others — and it explores the emotional impact of that reality on both sides of the equation.

“Our vision about what we present has a lot to do with justice, understanding and compassion.” Diskin says.

A fourth activity develops compassion in children by asking them to temporarily step into the shoes of people who are hearing-impaired, vision-impaired, missing a limb or limited in their physical range of motion. At the end, the children discuss what they can do to be better friends and neighbors to the “differently abled” among them.

A freethought activity planned for another day, Diskin tells me, encourages kids to plan, organize and stage a mock protest of something. (Usually it’s Justin Beiber) He also tells me about an evidence-gathering game that requires the children to engage in the scientific method — pretending they are archeologists, then forming and revising hypotheses based on evidence collected over time.

Cool, right?

I ask if any of the activities directly encourage skepticism. Diskin tells me about one where the kids are broken into two groups and told about the placebo effect. One team is given a “magic nickel,” the other is not, and then each team tries to predict what playing card is going to show up next in a deck of cards. The counselors tabulate the results in private and then return to the group with the results: The magic nickel holders win by a landslide.

All the kids are, of course, incredulous; none of them believed the placebo effect would work on them. (See, they’re little skeptics already!)  Then they learn the truth: The counselors had lied. They had rigged the game. There was no placebo effect.

“Sometimes,” Diskin tells me, “science lies. Sometimes we lie. We are fallible people, and you have to be critical about everything you see out there.”

At noon, the campers — all of 104 of them, ages 7 to 17 — assemble for lunch. Counselor Dave Jackson stands in front of them with an 11-by-17-inch laminated poster of Alan Turing.

He asks for a show of hands: “Do you all know who Alan Turing is?”

A bunch of hands go up, mostly older kids who have seen or heard about The Imitation Game, a movie based on Turing’s life. Jackson reads a bit about how Turing cracked the Enigma Code, helping to end World War II. He was a patriot and a pioneer, Jackson explains.

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“Famous Freethinker” Marie Curie

“And do you know how he died?”

Fewer hands this time.

Turing died, he says, because the British government found out Turing was gay and, as was the policy at the time, they forced him to be sterilized; he died during the procedure.*

It’s heavy stuff, and the subtext is clear, even to the youngest campers: Here was a brilliant man and national hero essentially murdered because he was different from mainstream society.

Yeah, I thought, this is no Jesus Camp.

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Shortly into my visit, two comedians walk into the camp.

Yes, I realize this sounds like the beginning of a joke. But they are literally comedians, and they literally did walk into the camp. Ian Harris and Steve Hill both have their kids enrolled at Camp Quest and have come to take a tour, as well. They know each other from stand-up gigs throughout California, and I ask them if they ever touch on atheism in their acts.

“That is our act.” Hill says.

Not just comedians, then, atheist comedians.

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Counselor Carolyn Lewis models her Camp Quest T-shirt. (“Fun, Friends, Freethought.”) Comedian and father Steve Hill can be seen in the background.

That interested me. Because these were no shrinking violets when it came to their beliefs, and, as I would find out, neither were their kids. Harris’ daughter, Bella, a floppy-hat-wearing 7-year-old with a mouthful of braces, lets me interview her for this story.

“Do you consider yourself an atheist?” I ask.

“I am an atheist,” she answers both confidently and matter-of-factly, as if I’d just asked if she considered herself American.

No apologies or qualifiers, no hesitation or defensiveness. Just simply: I am an atheist.

I ask her about the camp: “Is it a relief to be around other kids like you? Or does it matter?”

“Well,” she says, “sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. My best friend in the whole world goes to a private religious school and she’s, like, very, very, Catholic. And my mom was Catholic when she was little. But sometimes it gets annoying when… I’ll say something about how, like, I don’t believe in God or something, and she’s like ‘Ok, let’s just stop talking about that!’ It’s like ‘You can talk about your religion, but …’”

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Ian Harris and his daughter, Bella, take a moment to catch up. This is Bella’s first time at a sleepaway camp.

Then she adds: “Sometimes it’s good to be around people like me. Sometimes I don’t care.”

It’s pretty obvious that Bella didn’t come to this camp to get away from religion or to let loose all the religion-bashing jokes pent up inside her. She is just a kid who happens to not believe in God and wants it not to matter. Can’t blame her for that.

I ask a few of the counselors if kids here ever joke around about religion just because they can.

“Jokes get made,” says program director Brian Parra. He gives me an example: The day before, he says, he made a comment to some campers about how many health problems would have been solved if hand-washing had been part of the 10 Commandments.

I had to admit that was a pretty tame joke — not to mention just plain true.

Interestingly, this particular campground, which is leased for the week from an organization supported by the Lion’s Club, comes complete with an outdoor stone chapel. The chapel is picturesque, with standium-seating built into the hillside, and campers often gather here for events and activities. A big cross hangs at the front.

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The outdoor chapel serves as a picturesque venue for presentations and activities. One year, some kids covered the cross (not visible) with a hand-drawn Flying Spaghetti Monster.

“That’s where they have the sacrifices,” Ian Harris interjects.

Everyone’ s a comedian, I think, and then remind myself that he actually is one.

A year or two ago, Diskin says, one of the campers attached a picture of a Flying Spaghetti Monster to the cross. The kids got a kick out of it, and the counselors allowed it to stay up for the remainder of the week.

I thought about that one a bit. On the one had, I thought it was cool that campers were aware of the Kansas State Board of Education’s decision to teach intelligent design in school (which gave birth to the FSM). On the other, was it possible that covering up the cross with a joke symbol was sending a message that Christianity itself was a joke?

I bring this up with Steve Hill and his wife, Anna. At a place like Camp Quest, how does one hold the line between allowing kids to be loud and proud about their true beliefs (or lack thereof) while not encouraging them to disparage religion or judge believers as ignorant or less worthy of respect?

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Trying to wrap a present with one hand is a chore, campers found out. A lesson in how it might feel to be missing a limb.

I wish I had recorded the conversation that followed because it led to my “Aha Moment” of the day.

Anna Hill tells me that she often feels the clash of those two things at home. She says she advises her daughter (age 10) not to talk about her non-faith at school, and then immediately feels guilty for doing so. She doesn’t want her kids to be confrontational, she explains, but she also doesn’t want them to feel ashamed of who they are.

Although secularism is growing in the United States, particulary in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, the assumption is still that you’re religious. Kids, adults, all of us. Steve says these assumptions are compounded for him personally because of his skin color. It’s as though people don’t even, for a second, stop to consider that a black man might not be a gospel-singing Protestant. He is constantly on the receiving end of religious rhetoric. And it gets old very quickly. That’s not who he is, after all. It’s not what he believes.

“It’s just nice to know [my kids] don’t have to lie or defend themselves here, and they can talk about and think about things and ask questions,” Anna says of the camp.

It is at this point that I officially stop looking for the ways the camp might be failing the religious, and starting recognizing the myriad ways the camp is benefiting these kids.

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Counselors at Camp Quest will tell you this isn’t a camp for atheists. It’s a camp for freethinkers, for humanists. It’s a place where if you happen to be a nonbeliever, you won’t be alone and you won’t have to hide it. If you don’t yet know where you stand and are still figuring it all out, that’s cool, too.

And the longer I’m here, the more I realize: It’s not that faith is discouraged at Camp Quest; it’s that atheism isn’t discouraged. And that’s huge. It’s just huge.

Here, existential questions and comment are never off-limits. Here, you can voice your true feelings and, yes, even hang up a silly Spaghetti Monster poster on a Christian cross, and no one is going to knock it down (or knock you down!), or accuse you of being offensive or of going too far.

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For this cartography activity, campers took a tour of the camp and then designed a map of the property.

Because, honestly, who would be offended by that here? And also? You shouldn’t have to spend your life tiptoeing around other people’s beliefs.  That’s not what Harris wants for Belle. That’s not what the Hills want for their children. That’s not what I want for my kid, either.

Toward the end of my visit, I find myself standing in a loose circle with the folks I have met — Diskin, Harris, Steve and Anna Hill, and some camp counselors. We are talking about what we have seen today. It seems really cool to all of us to be in a place where adults are actively teaching children what compassion and empathy look like; discussing the virtues of science and skepticism and independent thought; and modeling unconditional friendship and acceptance, despite — and perhaps even because of — the things that make them different from others.

I look around the circle and feel this uncanny sense of — What is it? Relief? Gratitude? Comfort? Yes, all of those. It’s a little like living in a town full of people who speak 100 different languages and then, one day, walking into a room filled with people who only speak yours. It’s not that I want to stay here forever — I like international cities! — but it sure is nice for a while.

I can only imagine how nice it is for the kids.
* The cause of Turing’s death is actually the subject of considerable debate; you can read more about it here.

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