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For nonbelievers, this is a summer oasis

Children at Camp Quest can escape the stigma they often feel in their daily lives. The concept has inspired four similar retreats.

July 15, 2007|Ron Grossman | Chicago Tribune

CLARKSVILLE, OHIO — While youngsters at Bible camps nationwide are reciting, "Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep," kids at Camp Quest are climbing into their bunks, confident there's no one out there to hear those prayers.

Proudly proclaiming the motto "Beyond Belief," Camp Quest bills itself as the nation's first sleep-away summer camp for atheists. Founded in 1996, it has inspired four similar camps for children whose parents are either opposed or indifferent to religion.

Much of what goes on here, amid the cornfields of southwestern Ohio, is little different from any other camp. Campers canoe on the Little Miami River, practice archery and go on nature hikes.

To be sure, they also engage in some unusual rainy-day discussions of philosophical issues. Children who barely come up to an adult's waist toss around terms like "circular logic." And those nature hikes focus on the beauty of evolution, unaided by any unseen hand.

Atheism has been experiencing a revival, as it were. Some national surveys show the numbers of nonbelievers growing. Books hypercritical of religion are best sellers. The biologist Richard Dawkins argued in "The God Delusion" that religion is just that. Faith as the source of all evil was explored with burning passion by Christopher Hitchens in "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."

But more than a training ground for a movement, Camp Quest is a place to set down the burden of being different.

Children who grow up in Christian households have the emotional security of being in the nation's majority. Members of religious minorities have similarly minded friends and relatives. But coming from a family that does not believe in God often sets a child on a lonely road.

Frieda Lindroth, a first-year camper, recognized that her first day at Camp Quest.

" 'Wow!' I said to myself, 'I'm not alone,' " said Frieda, 12. She recalls being an atheist since second grade.

For its inaugural season, Camp Quest drew 20 campers. This year, it enrolled 47, ranging from age 8 to 17, for its weeklong session at a campground rented from a 4-H group. About 100 others will attend Quest's daughter camps in Michigan, Minnesota, California and Ontario, Canada.

A Harris Interactive survey in 2003 found that 9% of Americans don't believe in God, while another 12% are uncertain about the issue. Even if their numbers are lower, the Secular Coalition for America calculates that the ranks of nonbelievers are larger than the combined number of religious Jews, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Presbyterians, Hindus, Muslims and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Camp Quest's founder, Edwin Kagin, thinks nonbelievers have become more outspoken as a reaction to the religious right. School boards have inserted the theory of Intelligent Design into their curriculum almost as fast as the courts can veto such measures.

Kagin and his wife, Helen, founded Camp Quest out of frustration with what they saw as a forced march to theocracy. His father was a minister in a family line of Presbyterian clergy tracing back to John Knox, the great Scottish reformer.

"But I went to college and started reading books my father had preached against," said Kagin, 66.

Edwin Kagin became active in atheist causes but was frustrated by lawyers hired to fight them. So he got a law degree and became the legal director of the activist group American Atheists.

In the 1990s, the Boy Scouts, a chief sponsor of camping in America, began excluding atheists and gays from its leadership. That prompted the Kagins to create an outdoorsy alternative for nonbelievers.

"We wanted a camp not to preach there is no God," said Edwin Kagin, "but as a place where children could learn it's OK not to believe in God."

Many Camp Questers have wrestled with that issue on their own, among them Sophia Riehemann. She long avoided the words, "under God," during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at school.

"This year, I stopped getting up and saying the pledge," said Sophia, 16, who, like other campers, reports that it is taxing to constantly negotiate with the world of believers. "Here at camp, that little barrier is finally down."

Like many campers, Sophia comes from a home that stresses a scientific explanation of reality in place of the biblical account. Similarly, the dining room walls at Camp Quest are hung with portraits of notable free-thinkers and scientists, ranging from Darwin and Einstein to Woody Allen, honored for giving comedic expression to religious skepticism

Sophia notes that a secular perspective takes away childhood joys other kids have, such as Christmas. But that doesn't bother her.

"They have Santa Claus," she said, "and we have Isaac Newton." Apparently the irony escaped her; Newton was devout.

Like Sophia, other campers report the painful experience of publicly declaring their lack of religious belief. Like gays, they call it "coming out."

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