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A Summer Beyond Belief

An Increasing Number of Parents Are Sending Their Kids to Atheist Camp

by Molly Sabourin

Nothing says summer quite like s’mores, archery, and cabins full of sunburned boys and girls making memories to last a lifetime. But long gone are the days when the quintessential coming-of-age tradition known as summer camp was limited to a one-size-fits-all approach to enhancing American childhoods by way of nature walks, ghost stories, and leather crafts. Today’s youth have more choices than ever before when it comes to a custom-designed camp experience intended to meet their individual needs and reflect their values. For no group of kids is this more true than the children of atheist parents, who can now enjoy a safe summer haven away from the convictions of their “superstitious” peers and religious neighbors.

In 1996, Edwin Kagin, legal director of American Atheists, founded the “secular humanist” Camp Quest in Clarksville, Ohio, as a response to such popular organizations as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, where leadership positions are still openly denied to atheists and gays. What began as a small gathering of 20 attendees has expanded to over 150 campers in six different Camp Quest locations around the U.S., with plans to launch a sister camp in the U.K. next summer. Twelve years ago, on opening day, Kagin clarified for his fellow pioneers and their volunteer counselors what he meant, exactly, by “secular humanism”:

Humanism just means believing in human beings. . . . Secular means believing in this world, and in the real things that are in our real world, and not believing in some imaginary pretend world that no one can prove is real. . . . Secular humanists believe that people have to take care of themselves . . . because no god is going to help them, and that all the praying in the world won’t do any good.

Kagin has since claimed that the purpose of his atheist camp is not to disparage religion, but to provide a place for young people to think for themselves using scientific evidence instead of “unprovable” faith. “We wanted a camp not to preach there is no God, but a place where children could learn it’s OK not to believe in God,” he told the Chicago Tribune. Such assertions seem rather suspect, however, in light of a talk that Kagin recently delivered to his campers, in which he mocked evangelical preachers by pretending to be one. “Who needs proof if we have faith?” he asked his “parishioners,” which prompted all of the kids in attendance to raise their hands.

This past August, the NPR program All Things Considered did a segment on Camp Inquiry, which also offers a God-free alternative for atheist campers and their parents. One of its counselors, Angie McQuaig, an elementary school administrator, described it as a “brain spa” where kids talk about “deep questions that many into adulthood don’t even consider and contemplate.” Campers here study fossils, divorce morality from religion, and discredit seemingly supernatural occurrences such as crop circles and weeping icons. When asked if the camp was trying to “create little atheists,” McQuaig, in a reply similar to Kagin’s, responded, “Absolutely not! We want to create little thinkers. Little thinkers that explore their own capacity and the external world, with all of the tools of science and humanity. That’s why we’re here.”

Comments by the campers themselves tell a different story. For example, when a staff member, playing devil’s advocate, asked campers, “Shouldn’t you take some arguments about God on faith?” 15-year-old Ryan Lee responded with an answer that he had obviously learned by rote: “As soon as someone mentions faith in an argument, the argument is over. . . . Faith and the scientific method can’t be combined in the same argument.”

It’s enough to make one wonder just how free the thinking actually is at these camps, not to mention whether a quest is really a quest when the destination has been so transparently pre-selected.

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