Camp Offers Training Ground For Little Skeptics Camp Inquiry in upstate New York seems at first like an ordinary summer camp, with familiar activities like hiking and swimming. But its thrust is to teach children to think skeptically about everything from religion to the supernatural.
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Camp Offers Training Ground For Little Skeptics

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Camp Offers Training Ground For Little Skeptics

Camp Offers Training Ground For Little Skeptics

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

At Camp Inquiry in Upstate New York, kids hike and swim and tell ghost stories around the campfire, all the usual stuff. They also spend time contemplating a universe without God. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty went to visit.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: The glow of a campfire on a warm summer night, kids in shorts and sandals, chocolate and marshmallows.

FEMALE: Older campers, please grab your s'mores. We're going to go take a walk.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: A few yards from the campfire, kids squint into a telescope as amateur astronomer Alan Friedman(ph) looks on.

Mr. ALAN FRIEDMAN (Astronomer): We're looking at Saturn.

Unidentified Male #1: Oh, cool.

Unidentified Male #2: I see it.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Just barely.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Camp Inquiry seems like an ordinary summer camp - for about five minutes. But as 12-year-old Chloe Morgan gazes at the stars, she does not see the handiwork of God.

Ms. CHLOE MORGAN (Camper): It seems like kind of like an accident, almost.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: But still beautiful, right?

Ms. MORGAN: Yeah. It's - it was a beautiful mistake or something.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Right.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Nearby, a dozen kids launch into a bull session guided by Nathan Bupp. Bupp works for the Center for Inquiry, the secular humanist group that runs the camp. Most of these kids don't go to church, and like 14-year-old Bria Sutherland, they have little patience with creationist accounts of the origin of life.

Ms. BRIA SUTHERLAND: Because you're going to have people like, oh, fossils are planted and they aren't really real. Like, if the whole theory of evolution is just like a ruse or a prank, we've done a really good job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SUTHERLAND: Like, we're really good at pranking people.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: From there, the young philosophers turn to the nature of faith.

Mr. RYAN LEE (Camper): As soon as someone mentions faith in an argument, the argument is over. Faith and the scientific method can't be combined into the same argument.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's 15-year-old Ryan Lee. As he talks, something unexpected happens - a believer moves into the circle.

Mr. TROY CILONE (Camper): I'm probably, like, the only one here. I was - I grew up not in a Christian home, but my grandparents are, and that's kind of what I believe in.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Everyone turns to look at 15-year-old Troy Cilone. They listen politely as he tells the group that unlike many of them, he wants to believe in God and in Christianity.

Mr. CILONE: But as a skeptic, how can I just look up and talk if I don't know that this person is up there, you know, listening to me? How can I pray, how can I believe in him because I've always been so much of a skeptic. And listening to scientific reason, I just can't.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Afterwards, Troy says he knows he's outnumbered. But he says he's passionate about science and wants to test it against his faith.

Mr. CILONE: That's one of the things that drew me to this camp in trying to kind of give me more reason to go with the scientific reasoning of the world and the universe and stuff.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Have you found that yet?

Mr. CILONE: No. But the week's not over. So…

(Soundbite of people talking)

Unidentified Female #1: We'll figure it out. Good morning.

Unidentified Male #4: Good morning.

Unidentified Female #1: (Unintelligible)?

Unidentified Male #4: Yeah. Sure.

Unidentified Female #1: You want (unintelligible) oatmeal or (unintelligible)?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The next morning, 27 kids line up for a vegetarian breakfast of oatmeal, yogurt, granola and strong coffee and tea for the adults. Fully caffeinated, Nathan Bupp says everyone has a camp; why not non-believers?

Mr. BUPP: Evangelicals have camps, Catholics have camps. And so, we believe that there's a need to have an alternative for students that are kind of exploring other options out there.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Bupp says polls show that people who believe in reason and not in God are among the fastest growing groups in America. 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.

Ms. ANGIE McQUAIG (Camp Inquiry Counselor): It's a brain spa.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Counselor Angie McQuaig says Camp Inquiry is a place where children can explore ideas freely without judgment.

Ms. MCQUAIG: It's just sort of a free thought extravaganza.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Are you guys trying to create little atheists?

Ms. MCQUAIG: Absolutely not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCQUAIG: Far from it. We want to create little thinkers.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: McQuaig says some parents specifically want their kids to be immersed in atheism, which she quickly adds is not their mission. In some families, though, the camp creates a little tension. Patrick and Jean Wahl dropped by from Delaware to see their two children ages 10 and 7. She's religious, he's not.

Mr. PATRICK WAHL (Parent): 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.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: As her husband speaks, Jean Wahl winces slightly.

Ms. JEAN WAHL (Parent): I do believe in God and I do believe in…

Mr. WAHL: Yes, you do.

Ms. WAHL: …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.

Mr. WAHL: As soon as they read Richard Dawkins, I'll win.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: If atheists and agnostics are in the majority at Camp Inquiry, they're often alone in their schools and neighborhoods where polls show that nine out of 10 people believe in God. That afternoon, the older campers gather in the shade of a large wooden shelter. They set up picnic tables talking with D.J. Grothe, whose "Point of Inquiry" podcast has made him a celebrity in the secular community.

Mr. D.J. GROTHE (Program Director, Center of Inquiry; Blog Writer, "Point of Inquiry"): How many of you are out as skeptics?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: A dozen hands rise.

Mr. GROTHE: Have people just really flipped out hearing that you don't believe what everyone else believes?

Unidentified Female #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Male #5: Yeah.

Unidentified Female #3: Yeah.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Grothe turns to Sam LaBarge, whose immediate family is not religious but who has many Catholic relatives.

Mr. SAM LABARGE (Camper): Well, I don't think I'm an atheist. I just don't have any belief.

Mr. GROTHE: Right.

Mr. LABARGE: So, I tell my family this and they think I'm the devil because I don't believe what they believe. So, it's kind of…

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Members of the group nod in sympathy. Bria Sutherland says she came out accidentally when she swore in front of her grandmother.

Ms. SUTHERLAND: She got really, really mad. Like, oh my God. Don't take the Lord's name in vain. And I kind of thought about it for a minute, I'm like, but he's not my Lord. And she's like, he's all of our Lord.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Every kid has a story. Finally, Troy Cilone speaks up.

Mr. CILONE: I have my religion that I call myself right now as a Christian. But like I've said, if, you know, I get proof that there is no God, that Christianity is just kind of a wild goose chase in a way, then I would completely abandon it.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Bria rushes to assure him that there is no God.

Ms. SUTHERLAND: I think if God really, really wanted us to like, know for sure that he existed, he would make, like, daily appearances. Like, oh, it's 3:15, God time.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The session is winding down. But oh, I have a question.

One reason people believe in God is because they don't like to think that when they die it's all over. Is this something that bothers you or you're okay with?

Ms. CHLOE MORGAN (Camper): If you think about it, before you go to sleep, you can't sleep.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Twelve-year-old Chloe Morgan finds the prospect of death unnerving.

Ms. MORGAN: It is kind of scary because I started thinking about it when I was, like, nine. I'd sit up a whole night because that's all I was thinking about. And in the morning, I was just like, oh.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The group fall silent as Jared Nauman, one of the quieter but more confirmed atheists in the group, speaks for the first time.

Mr. JARED NAUMAN (Camper): I'm terrified of not existing, and I'm kind of stuck there. I don't know what else to think.

Mr. GROTHE: But here you all are, skeptical of the afterlife, but you're not sitting alone in a room and just obsessed with it. You're at Camp Inquiry. You're having fun, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Female #5: Until now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROTHE: Yeah.

Unidentified Female #5: There is this awkward silence from…

Mr. NAUMAN: Deep down, it's tough.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: After a few uncomfortable moments, Jared and his friends stop pondering the meaning of life and death and move on to the water balloon fight.

(Soundbite of kids playing)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Because these campers are not just budding philosophers, they're also kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

(Soundbite of kids playing)

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