Nathan Bupp for NPR
Angie McQuaig, a Camp Inquiry counselor and elementary school administrator in Georgia, wants her son Zack to make his own choices based on facts, not just faith.
Angie McQuaig, a Camp Inquiry counselor and elementary school administrator in Georgia, wants her son Zack to make his own choices based on facts, not just faith. Nathan Bupp for NPR
Angie McQuaig for NPR
D.J. Grothe leads a discussion on how a secular child can survive in a religious culture.
D.J. Grothe leads a discussion on how a secular child can survive in a religious culture. Angie McQuaig for NPR
Angie McQuaig for NPR
Ryan Lee, 15, says it is difficult for him to reconcile faith and science.
Ryan Lee, 15, says it is difficult for him to reconcile faith and science. Angie McQuaig for NPR
Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR
She's religious, he's not: Jean and Patrick Wahl (shown here with son Jonas) want to expose their children to secular and religious ideas. They enrolled their sons Joseph, who's 10, and Julian, 7, at Camp Inquiry this summer.
She's religious, he's not: Jean and Patrick Wahl (shown here with son Jonas) want to expose their children to secular and religious ideas. They enrolled their sons Joseph, who's 10, and Julian, 7, at Camp Inquiry this summer. Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR
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Camp Inquiry in upstate New York seems at first like an ordinary summer camp: the campfire blazes as camp-goers in shorts and sandals toast marshmallows in anticipation of s'mores. A few yards away, some teenagers take turns squinting into a telescope to see Saturn.
As 12-year-old Chloe Morgan gazes at the stars, she says she does not see the handiwork of God.
"It seems kind of like an accident almost, like the Big Bang that created the universe was an accident," Morgan says. "It was a beautiful mistake or something."
Chloe and a dozen other campers begin discussing God, the planets and humanity's place in the universe. But at Camp Inquiry, which has a secular humanist focus, God takes a back seat to reason. Of course, the camp schedules familiar camp activities like hiking, swimming, and arts and crafts for kids ages 7 to 16; but the thrust of the camp is to teach children to think skeptically about everything, including religion and the supernatural.
Struggling For Answers
Most of these children do not attend church, and most come from families that are agnostic or atheist. They have a high view of science, and like 14-year-old Bria Sutherland, they have little patience with biblical accounts of the origin of life.
"People are like, 'Oh, fossils are planted and they aren't really real," she says, laughing. "Well, if the whole theory of evolution is just like a ruse or a prank, we've done a really good job. We're really good at pranking people."
But what about faith, one counselor asks? Shouldn't you take some arguments about God on faith?
"As soon as someone mentions faith in an argument, the argument is over," says 15-year-old Ryan Lee, who skipped high school and is entering his junior year of college in Arizona. "Faith and the scientific method can't be combined in the same argument."
Troy Cilone, 15, is hoping Camp Inquiry will help him answer some fundamental questions he's been struggling with. His grandparents have strong Christian beliefs, and he considers himself a believer as well.
But he's also a scientific skeptic.
"How can I just look up and talk to God, if I don't know that this person is up there listening to me? How can I pray? How can I believe in Him?" he says to the other campers.
Cilone says he knows he's outnumbered by the atheists. But, he says, he's passionate about science and wants to test it against his faith.
"That's one of the things that drew me to this camp — to kind of give me more reasons to go with the scientific reasoning of the world and the universe and stuff," Cilone says.
The next morning, Nathan Bupp explains why his organization, the Center for Inquiry, started this camp three years ago.
"Evangelicals have camps. Catholics have camps. So we believe there's a need to have an alternative for students who are exploring other options out there," Bupp says.
Bupp says polls show that people who believe in reason, not God, are among the fastest growing groups in America. And this camp is designed to teach children to investigate and question everything. They study fossils, they learn about morality without religion, they meet an expert who debunks mysteries like weeping icons and ghosts and crop circles.
"It's a brain spa," says Angie McQuaig, one of the counselors. McQuaig is an elementary school administrator in Georgia.
"As an educator, I like to teach critical thinking at a deep and erudite level, because it's not embedded in the curriculum as much as I'd like to see," McQuaig says. "And this provides a place for kids to talk about deep questions that many into adulthood don't even consider and contemplate."
Are they trying to create little atheists?
"Absolutely not!" McQuaig says. "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."
McQuaig says some parents specifically want their kids to be immersed in atheism, which, she quickly adds, is not their mission.
In some families, however, the camp creates a little tension. Patrick and Jean Wahl have dropped by the camp from Delaware to see their two children. Jean is religious, Patrick is not.
"I had no objection to their being raised Catholic so long as when they were old enough to understand, I would have just the chance for rebuttal," Patrick explains.
As her husband speaks, Jean winces slightly.
"Well, I do believe in God," she says, "I do believe in miracles, and I do believe in faith when you're at the lowest of the low. And I want to give that to my children.
"As soon as they read Richard Dawkins," he counters, "I win." Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford and author of The God Delusion.
Coming Out As A Skeptic
If atheists and agnostics are in the majority at Camp Inquiry, they're often alone in their schools and neighborhoods, where polls show 9 out of 10 people believe in God. That is why a few hours later, the teenage campers gather in the shade of a large wooden shelter to discuss their situation with D.J. Grothe, whose "Point of Inquiry" podcast has made him a celebrity in the secular community.
"How many of you are out as skeptics?" Grothe asks. He looks around. "I see all but two or three hands raised. When you've come out as a skeptic, have people just flipped out hearing that you don't believe what everyone else believes?"
Camper Sam LaBarge speaks up. His immediate family isn't religious, he says, but he has several relatives who are Catholic.
"I don't think I'm an atheist," he says. "I just don't have beliefs, but I tell my family that and they think I'm the devil because I don't believe in God."
Members of the group nod in sympathy. Sutherland, the 14-year-old camper, says she accidentally revealed her position as a nonbeliever when she swore in front of her grandmother.
"And she got really mad at me, and said, 'Oh my God, don't take the Lord's name in vain!' And I thought about it for a minute, and I said, 'But he's not my Lord."
Cilone speaks up.
"I call myself a Christian," he says, "but if I get proof that there is no God and Christianity is a wild goose chase, then I would completely abandon it."
Sutherland rushes to assure him, there is no God.
"If God really, really wanted us to know he existed, he'd make daily appearances: Like 'It's 3:15. Oh, it's God time!'"
But what about the afterlife? Are these kids comfortable with the idea that when people die, that's it?
"It's a scary thought, not existing. But it's not anything I can stop, so I'm going to use what time I have to do everything I can and would like to do," Lee says.
The group falls silent as 15-year-old Jared Nauman, one of the quieter but more confirmed atheists in the group, speaks for the first time.
"I'm terrified of not existing," Nauman says, his voice shaking. "I'm kind of stuck there. I don't know what else to think."
A long pause ensues, broken by Grothe.
"Yeah, but here you all are, skeptical of the afterlife, but you're not sitting in a room obsessed with it. You're at Camp Inquiry, having fun," he says.
His words hang in the air for five long seconds.
"Until now!" someone says, and they begin to laugh.
After a few more moments, the campers stop pondering the meaning of life and death, and move onto the next important task at hand: hurling water balloons with as much force as Newton's laws of motion allow.
For in the end, these campers are not just budding philosophers. They're also kids.