When I tell people that last summer I volunteered at an American summer camp designed for the children of atheists, agnostics and other non-believers, I get very mixed reactions. Some even react as if I were trying to abolish religion, brainwashing children with my 'liberal agenda', or force communism on the innocent little ones. So, now that Camp Quest is due to arrive in the UK in 2009, I feel I should set the record straight.
Camp Quest is a non-profit organisation that provides residential summer camps for children of those who choose not to believe in a god, and who want their children to learn the values of critical thinking, philosophy and science. It is the first summer camp of its kind in North America, started in 1996 by Edwin and Helen Kagin as an alternative to the pro-theist policy of the Boy Scouts of America.
In the Scouts, in order for a person to be granted membership or a position of leadership, he must sign a 'Declaration of Religious Belief', in which he must agree that "only a person who acknowledges his duty to God can be the best kind of citizen". It is not specified which god they must believe in, be it Allah, Yahweh, or Lord Xenu, but this discriminatory policy against atheists (as well as homosexuals) exists in the UK as well.
Since 1996, the original Camp Quest in Ohio has blossomed into five more across North America, including the most recent addition: Camp Quest Michigan. It was here that I volunteered my services. But sitting on the plane to Detroit, I certainly had my doubts about exactly what I was getting myself into.
To all intents and purposes I had just spent most of my remaining student loan on a plane ticket to a city about which I knew nothing (other than that a lot of people get shot there), to meet a group of complete strangers with whom I would work for a week at a YMCA camp, no less, in a state which ranks reasonably high on the scale of religious nuts. Not to mention the fact that I would have to spend my waking hours taking care of other people's children.
At immigration, I was reasonably concerned about telling them the true nature of my visit, and even more about telling them that I had not met one of these so-called “friends” I was visiting. I was greeted at the airport by the Camp Director, a gentle, soft-spoken bearded man who was exceedingly hospitable to me throughout my stay. As I was introduced to the other counsellors, I was thrown without warning into a group of individuals who were all articulate, passionate, intelligent and hilarious. Every single conversation with them was stimulating, inspiring and entertaining. I felt a part of the team immediately.
Although many of the campers were returning for a second year, several newcomers arrived on the first day just as unsure and wide eyed as I, burdened with the usual camp fears added to the fact that everyone knows that atheists eat babies, and very occasionally, small children. They were to be left, for an entire week, with lunatics who think that learning about Fibonacci numbers is more fun than hurling rocks at each other. Once the camp routine was established, and their homesickness settled down, some of them even began to - gasp - have a good time (you know, despite the weather, bugs and the lunatics... I mean, counsellors).
The most striking thing about these children was their minds. Without exception, the kids were exceptional.
Soon enough, the children began to open up, telling horror stories from their schools about anti-evolution teachers and the isolation they felt from other children, and it was then that I realised what a blessing (pardon my language) this organisation is. It became evident that for some of them it was the first time they were in a place where it was OK to believe whatever they believed; to express their thoughts and ideas without fear of mockery or reprimands and where they were allowed to question the supposed wisdom of authority. There was no “atheist agenda” imposed on the children; we made it clear from the start that we stood for free enquiry and respect for each other's views.
The most striking thing about these children was their minds. Without exception, the kids were exceptional. Their precociousness emanated from every aspect of their being, and while the younger ones merely thought that religion was a bit ridiculous, the older ones made a conscious effort to embrace reason and rationality.
In the evenings we had campfires, discussions about disproving the existence of invisible unicorns (as a metaphor for gods).
Not that we supervised a camp filled with the mini versions of Richard Dawkins: these are normal kids who enjoy sponge fights and soaking their counsellors with “water” (the filth in the bottom of the alligator tank) just as much as the next child. They are living, breathing, crying, bleeding kids - but I truly believe these children are our future, set to become the people that change the world: doctors, lawyers, presidents. Some of them might even grow up to be Camp Quest counsellors.
Aside from bleeding and boring them to death trying to be educational, the camp took on a very relaxed, informal atmosphere. The kids took part in high ropes courses, canoeing, archery, zip lines, and a number of other regular camp activities. In the evenings we had campfires, discussions about disproving the existence of invisible unicorns (as a metaphor for gods), astronomy lessons, talent shows, traditional American “S'mores” and near death sugar highs from Edwin's peach cobbler surprise.
Despite the mosquitos, long hours, and exhaustingly intelligent children (in addition to my jet-lag), it was bliss. On the last two nights of camp, we were fortunate enough to be able to watch the Perseid Meteor Shower from our camp fire ring. And staring up at the stars, I am convinced I felt both more alive and more at peace than any amount of religion or faith could induce.
I wholeheartedly echo Richard Feynman’s sentiments: “But I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose - which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn't frighten me."
I do hope that the children of Camp Quest will take great pleasure in knowing that they do not have to have all the answers to life. Pretty hard for a bunch of fantastic know-it-alls.