Children's Summer Camp Teaches 'Free Thinking'

For kids, Summer means it's time to swim, play, and maybe go to camp. In this week's Faith Matters, Amanda Metskas with Camp Quest, an atheist and free thinkers summer camp for children, explains the mission of her group.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Every week, we try to explore issues of faith in our weekly Faith Matters conversation. This week, summer camp for nonbelievers.

If you went to summer camp, you might remember jumping in the lake, heading to arts and crafts, s'mores by the fire, maybe even singing a little Kum Ba Yah. Well, there will be no singing about God at Camp Quest. It's a summer camp for children of atheists, held in six locations around the country and in Canada.

Amanda Metskas is president of the board of Camp Quest Incorporated. She joins us from member station WAMC in Albany, New York. Ms. Metskas, welcome. Thanks for talking with us.

Ms. AMANDA METSKAS (President of the Board, Camp Quest Incorporated): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: How did the idea for the camp come about? Tell me about the founders Edwin and Helen Kagin.

Ms. METSKAS: Edwin is a lawyer from Kentucky, and he actually was an Eagle Scout, still is an Eagle Scout. And he wanted a place where kids from freethinking families could get together and do all the traditional camp activities that are so much fun like s'mores around the campfire and canoeing and swimming and those kinds of things, but also learn a little bit about famous freethinkers throughout history, learn about critical thinking skills. We have a kind of a focus on science education. In 1996, they had their first session with 20 campers. And now, we got about 150 campers across our six sessions.

MARTIN: What types of activities make this camp different from other summer camps?

Ms. METSKAS: A couple of things. Around mealtimes, we do famous freethinkers, which are little kind of five-minute things on a couple of famous people throughout history who - and also from the present day - who either didn't believe in God or had kind of more skeptical attitudes towards religion. So some examples would be Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist. Lance Armstrong, Tour de France winner several years in a row, who is not a religious person. Also, Alice Walker, the author of "The Color Purple."

MARTIN: Is the point of Camp Quest to discourage religious belief?

Ms. METSKAS: No, I wouldn't say that at all. We don't tell kids that they have to be atheist. We tell them to kind of be skeptical of claims that don't have evidence and to ask questions. We also do presentations at camp about different world religions that kids may not know very much about, being raised in a nonreligious family. And we sort of encourage kids to kind of think for themselves, to explore the world around them, and to learn about all sorts of different ideas and to come to their own conclusions.

MARTIN: Talk to me about the kind of experience kids have when they come to Camp Quest. Is it a very important thing for a lot of the kids to be around other kids whose parents don't embrace religious belief?

Ms. METSKAS: I think so. I think especially for some of our campers from rural areas, we get campers coming from all around the country. And one family that I remember, they started sending their daughters to Camp Quest because they came home crying from school one day and said, you know, are we the only family that doesn't believe in God?

And so I think that some of our campers do feel isolated or are teased at school, or just otherwise kind of have to deal with this as a controversy in their lives. And this gives them kind of a week where this isn't a controversy, where they can just be comfortable with, you know, who they are, who their families are and explore these ideas with people who might be more likely to think like them.

MARTIN: Do most of the campers or the families of the campers come from feel that they have to defend their beliefs?

Ms. METSKAS: That's a good question. I think that some of them feel that way kind of more than others. Some of them are may be less public about their non-belief in their kind of ordinary lives and they send their kids to camp, but throughout the rest of their lives, you know, you wouldn't be able to pick them out of a line up and say, oh, those are the atheists, right? But I think others of them, you know, are more involved in sort of either local humanist or atheist groups where they come from.

MARTIN: Well, I read an article about - describing the camp. But it - obviously, in a lot of ways, it sounds like, you know, any other fun camp for kids in the summer, you know, canoeing and, you know, fun stuff. But there are also seems to be practice being given in ways to stand up for one's beliefs.

But there was one thing that was described where, you know, the founder - one of the founders, Edwin, was giving a skit where he seemed to be impersonating a kind of evangelical preacher, saying, you know, who, you know, isn't safe enough? Don't you - who needs proof and, of course, every hands goes up. But that made me wonder, you know, how is this any different from proselytizing for non-belief to say, well, you know, our side, our team is the right team and the other team is the wrong team?

Ms. METSKAS: I'm actually really glad you asked that, because I think that that's a misconception that a lot of people have about what we do at camp. What Edwin was doing was part of an activity we do called the invisible unicorns. And there are two invisible unicorns that live at Camp Quest, and you can't see them, touch them, taste them, hear them, et cetera, et cetera. But they're there. And, you know, we tell the campers if you can prove that they're not there, you'll win a $100 bill from prior to 1954 when In God We Trust wasn't on the money.

And so campers were kind of presenting their proofs to Edwin for why these invisible unicorns didn't exist. And he was saying, well, you know, I have faith in the invisible unicorns. I know that they're there. So it's kind of a way for campers to engage an issue that is similar to debates they may have about religion with people, but kind of outside of its normal context. But we try really hard not to denigrate anyone's belief system.

We have a Ph.D. candidate in the religious studies who teaches kind of little talks about religions, you know, about Hinduism, about why people pray, about baptism, all kinds of different religious beliefs and practices. And she does this from a very objective, sort of scholarly, but, you know, age-appropriate for kid's perspective.

MARTIN: And finally, we are often told that we are undergoing our religious revival in the United States. So I wonder, where do you and those who share your views fit into that in this country?

Ms. METSKAS: What I see happening is that I think a lot of kind of the old mainline Protestant denominations are sort of losing membership, but membership is growing at more kind of evangelical churches, mega churches. And then you also see growth in nonreligious populations who don't go to church at all.

And I think that maybe people in America today are really thinking about these kinds of questions - why am I here? What is my purpose? What is the meaning of life? And they're really grappling with those questions, maybe more than they did 25-30 years ago when kind of people may have been more content to just go to the church they were raised in and not think about these issues as much. And I think we really feel - especially my generation, I think, compelled to understand what life is about.

MARTIN: Amanda Metskas is president of the board of Camp Quest, Incorporated. She joined us from member station WAMC in Albany, New York.

Ms. Metskas, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. METSKAS: Thank you.

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