The camp director’s housekeeping lecture met the usual disinterest from the dining hall full of sweaty, bug-bitten kids. Messy cabins are a staple of summer camp. Who wants to tidy up when you can swim, play games and goof around with your friends?
But August Brunsman finished his cleaning directive with a so-subtle-the-kids-probably-missed-it pun that made clear that Camp Quest is not the usual summer offering. “Remember,” he said, a slight grin crossing his face, “cleanliness is next to godlessness.”
Camp Quest is a sleepaway camp for the children of atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nonbelievers, though kids from religious families are welcome, too. Most of the time, the kids do normal camp stuff such as hike, compete in relay races, sit around campfires. But the overarching philosophy is that life without religion is a perfectly healthy, viable option.
Started in 1996, Camp Quest emphasizes critical thinking and the scientific method. Counselors lead philosophical discussions about topics such as the nature of happiness. Consideration for others is a key component of the “Rational Rules for Living,” posted on the wall of the dining hall at the 4-H camp where Camp Quest Ohio rented space.
Rule No. 1: “Remember that everybody is here to have a good time. Respect all people, whatever their beliefs, which you encounter while you are here.”
The weeklong Ohio camp in Clarksville, northeast of Cincinnati, is the largest with 78 campers, but other sessions are offered in Michigan, Minnesota, Tennessee, California, Texas, Ontario and the United Kingdom. An Irish woman is in Clarksville this week learning the model so she can take it to her country. The 30 or so counselors, many of them former campers, are unpaid volunteers who undergo state and federal criminal-background checks, said Amanda Metskas, executive director of Camp Quest Inc.
Katie Hladky, an atheist pursuing a doctorate in American religious history, teaches daily lessons about world religions and their belief systems. Hladky won’t bad-mouth faith or tell the kids what to think, she said.
“I feel really strongly these kids shouldn’t be indoctrinated,” she said. Many of the campers, who range in age from 8 to 17, “don’t know what they are” yet when it comes to beliefs. But Hladky doesn’t shy away from controversial discussions. When talking about Islam, she told the campers about the debate in France about whether women are oppressed by wearing burqas or whether it should be their personal choice. She detailed the diverse views within Christianity on homosexuality.
Despite the emphasis on open-mindedness, poking fun at faith isn’t forbidden.
Each day, the kids split into teams for competitions such as the human-knot race, where teams form a circle and grab hands at random in a tangle. They race up and down a field, then have to unwind the knot without releasing hands.
The team names included the Flaming Messiahs, a nod to the incinerated “Touchdown Jesus” sculpture north of Cincinnati struck by lightning last week, and the Dinosaur Jesus Riders, whose cheer goes like this: “Yeehaw, ride that Jesus!” At each meal, cabins present brief presentations on “famous freethinkers,” who were either known to be nonreligious or made comments questioning belief systems.
Wednesday’s freethinkers? Mark Twain and George Clooney. On Wednesday morning, a group of campers slogged into a creek to look for bits of animal bones and arrowheads as part of an archaeology lesson. They were led by Cambridge Broxterman, a counselor who studied archaeology in college before she decided to pursue mortuary science. Broxterman’s enthusiasm was typical of a camp counselor, but her look was not. She wore her blond hair shaved on the sides and longer on top, and she sported facial piercings and arm tattoos.
She explained how archaeologists map out grids of 2square meters before digging and showed the kids how to mimic that with sticks and yarn. One of the amateur archaeologists was Lizzie Fox, 12, of New Jersey, who was more focused on keeping her Chuck Taylors dry than finding artifacts. Her dad is an atheist, she said, and her mom was raised Catholic and still prays sometimes.
“I’m not really anything right now,” she said. “I’m still deciding.”
In a recurring gag, counselors tell the kids that two invisible unicorns run free at Camp Quest. Anyone who can prove that isn’t true will win a prize. The kids learn that you can’t prove a negative, such as God doesn’t exist, Metskas said. The burden of proof should be on those who say he does.
The challenge is a “fun, silly way to take on a serious conversation these kids will run into over and over again in real life,” she said.
The camp gives the kids “one week where their families’ beliefs aren’t controversial,” she said. “It gives them some confidence they can draw on.”
Juliana Panteloukas, 13, of New York, said most of her friends at home are religious.
“I’m an atheist,” as are her parents, she said. “I just think it’s really nice because I feel these are my kind of people.” Campers and staff “do talk sometimes about how silly … different religions are and what they have to do,” Juliana said.
But the main message at camp is “you can believe what you want.”
With that, she went back to her lunch table, where preteen girls scarfed hamburgers and chips before an afternoon swim.