Ungodly fun


from http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities/living/9355971.htm

Posted on Mon, Aug. 09, 2004

At this summer camp for kids, there are meals without
grace, campfires without blessings, lights-out without
prayers.

BY RICHARD CHIN

Pioneer Press


There's horse camp and piano camp and chess camp and
church camp.

Now, there's godless camp.

Minnesota atheists, humanists and free thinkers just
finished holding the state's first summer camp for
kids who don't believe in God.

At Camp Quest Minnesota, "The Secular Summer Camp,"
the program was modeled after an Ohio camp for atheist
children also called Camp Quest that has been in
operation for nine years.

In most ways, the Minnesota program was like a typical
summer camp. The kids lived in cabins at the Voyageur
Environmental Center near Mound. There was canoeing
and campfires, archery and arts and crafts, skits and
s'mores. Just no God, please.

Local atheists and humanists created the camp because
they wanted to give their kids a sense of belonging in
a free-thought community. They thought bringing
unbelieving kids together for a week of fresh air and
impiousness would counteract feelings of loneliness
and isolation in a world many atheists feel is awash
in religious and superstitious beliefs.

"I think this camp, unlike all the other camps, will
focus on critical thinking and skepticism to fantastic
claims and supernatural claims," said August
Berkshire, one of the co-founders of the Minnesota
camp.

"A vacation from Judeo-Christian culture," said camp
director Rick Rohrer.

Edwin Kagin, who founded the original Camp Quest, said
the Ohio program has attracted kids from as far away
as Canada, Japan, England and the Netherlands because
they couldn't find a God-free camp experience anywhere
else.

"Kids come there and they cry," Kagin said. "They say
it's the first time in their life that they're able to
express that they don't believe in God."

YOUNG ATHEISTS

The Minnesota Camp Quest had 11 campers ranging in age
from 8 to 16, watched over by six volunteer
counselors. Most of the participants were from the
Twin Cities area, but one camper came from Georgia,
and one counselor came from California.

They looked like typical kids. No horns or cloven
feet, despite being infidels. They didn't seem
particularly bothered that there isn't any higher
power to answer prayers, bestow eternal life and make
sure the wheels don't fall off the universe.

Unlike lots of atheists who left the fold when they
were young adults, many of these kids have been raised
by atheist parents. They don't miss God because
they've never believed in God.

Brothers Joseph, 12, and Michael, 10, of Shorewood
described themselves as nonbelievers as they spent
some of their free time at camp playing with a
unicycle.

"Half for me," Joseph said.

"How can you be half?" Michael said.

"I can be half. Like a Unitarian," Joseph said.

"We celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah. My mom's Jewish,"
Michael said. "We don't, like, say prayers. We just
give out presents."

"Most of the time, I'm an atheist, but sometimes, I'm
an agnostic," said Chad, an 11-year-old camper from
the Atlanta area. "Instead of Christmas, we celebrate
winter solstice. We get gifts."

Many of the kids asked that only their first names or
just their middle names be used in this article.
They're not eager to be identified as the only atheist
kid in class, they said.

"It's sort of hard. You can't tell anyone," Michael
said. "They'd treat me different."

"They would be friends. But they wouldn't play with us
as much," said his brother.

"We like being in this camp. There are other people
who don't believe in God, so you don't feel so alone,"
Michael said.

"It's better than Boy Scout camp," said Andrew, 16,
Robbinsdale. "Whenever we ate, we had to do a prayer.
It got rather annoying."

"It was really hard in elementary school, pretty
much," said Collin of being a child atheist.

As he surfed the Internet in the camp's computer room,
the 15-year-old Apple Valley resident described how
his mother has been an atheist activist, vigilant
about keeping religion from creeping into public
schools.

"After 9/11, there were some signs like 'God bless the
U.S.A.,' and she got those taken down immediately," he
said. "She got the religious holidays taken off the
school calendar."

He said he sometimes wished she would give it a rest.
"But there are times when I see that she sees it's
important, and I realize that."

"I look at it now and I'm glad I'm atheist," he said.
"I just don't think (religion) makes a whole lot of
sense."

"There's no hell you're going to," said another
camper, Paul, of being religion-free.

"And I'm not scared of dying," Collin said. "Hey, why
would I want to give up pop for Lent?"

FREEDOM FROM RELIGION

Being atheist means dodging Bible study and prayer
meetings, but that doesn't mean the born-just-once
campers didn't get their own dose of spinach. At Camp
Quest, they had to attend lectures on topics like
critical thinking, game theory, overpopulation and
ethics.

At one point, a group of atheist adolescents gathered
around Jerry Rauser, a board member of the Minnesota
Civil Liberties Union. He came to talk about the
separation of church and state.

On a wooden deck surrounded by rustling birch trees,
Rauser set up a flip chart. On one page, he had drawn
stick figures representing people living in a society
where conflict between the state-sponsored church and
competing religions led to "wars, bloodshed,
persecution and prison." The stick figures had frowns
on their faces.

The next page showed the situation when there is a
wall of separation between government and religion.

"Here's the free thinker," Rauser said, pointing to
one of the stick figures. "He has a nice smile on his
face, because he can ignore the church if he wants to.
So there is freedom of religion and freedom from
religion."

More pages got flipped over as Rauser went on to ask
the campers whether posting the Ten Commandments in a
public school or having prayers at graduation violates
the separation of church and state.

"Here's a sticky one: the pledge of allegiance," he
said. "This is a big problem, because this is wrapped
up in an expression of patriotism."

Some fidgety campers weren't exactly riveted.

"It's like school," Michael said afterward.

"I lost it after a few pages," his brother Joseph
said. "There was, like, a hundred there."

But he does believe in the separation of church and
state.

"I don't like it when kids come to school with a cross
necklace," he said. "I think you have enough time in
church to celebrate Jesus. I don't think you need to
bring it into the classroom."

During the lecture on evolution, Berkshire argued
against the theory of intelligent design by noting
that humans have a blind spot in their eyes. "If we
were going to design our eye, we wouldn't have that."

"The squid eye is developed better than ours," said
Rich Sinda, another counselor. "Either the real God is
a squid god or they like them better than us."

During a lecture designed to debunk astrology, the
campers still were interested in how many stars the
newspaper horoscope gave them that day.

"We've just discovered that these things are no more
accurate than throwing a dart, and you still want to
know how many stars you have?" said Berkshire, whose
Minnesota license plates say "ATHEIST."

The campers also were told that an invisible dragon
lived at the camp. If any camper could prove the
dragon didn't exist, he or she would win a godless $20
bill. That's a piece of currency printed before
Congress ordered that money say "In God We Trust" 
"religious graffiti" in the words of one atheist.

Berkshire said the kids quickly made a connection
between belief in God and belief in invisible dragons.

"You can't disprove a dragon, and you can't disprove
God's existence," he said. "But that doesn't mean that
the dragon or God exists."

Camp organizers decorated the dining room with posters
of famous free thinkers  Lincoln, Washington,
Einstein, Edison, Goethe, Freud  along with their
thoughts on religion.

"Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd
and bloody religion that has ever infected the world,"
read the quote under Voltaire's picture.

"It's just like normal camp," said Laura, a
12-year-old from Apple Valley. They sang the same
corny camp songs around the campfire, she said.
Although, "there was one atheist song."

Atheists have songs?

"The one that goes, 'Imagine there's no heaven or
hell,' " she said.

"By John Lennon," said Rita, a 12-year-old from Tonka
Bay.

IDENTITY CRISIS

Near the end of the week, Edwin Kagin, creator of the
Camp Quest concept, paid a visit to the Minnesota
program after driving up from his home in Kentucky.

"I wanted to come see and have an appreciation of it,"
he said. He declared the site "absolutely one of the
prettiest camp facilities I've seen."

"I wish there were more campers, but Christianity
started with less people than we have here," he added.

A lawyer, Eagle Scout and atheist, Kagin said he
started thinking about setting up a camp for atheist
kids after incidents in which the Boy Scouts barred
nonbelievers.

"I was outraged when the Boy Scouts announced they
would not take those dirty little atheist boys and
they were kicking people out," said Kagin, who is also
Kentucky state director of the American Atheists
organization.

The Minnesota project was started with a $5,000 grant
from the Institute for Humanist Studies, a secular
humanist think tank based in Albany, N.Y. The camp
cost $550 per child.

Shoreview resident Shirley Moll sent her grandson to
the camp. She grew up in the only atheist family in a
small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania.

"My childhood years were very, very difficult because
I was an atheist," she said.

"There's a general negativity associated with the word
atheism," said Sinda, who sent two sons to the camp.
"People automatically think you're immoral, communist,
you're a Nazi."

"I think that's one of the misconceptions, that we're
devil worshipers," said Paul, a 13-year-old from
Hopkins.

"It's good for kids to understand that there are other
families that are free thinkers," Sinda said. "We want
our beliefs to have a basis."

Bernie Schatz sent his grandson to the camp. He also
showed up to give a lecture on beekeeping wearing a
T-shirt that said "Discover Humanism," which also
included a quote from himself: "When individuals fully
understand religion, they will no longer support a
belief system."

Schatz said he considered becoming a preacher before
deciding there isn't a God. "Religion is not needed,"
he said. "I prayed like hell, and it just didn't
help."

Counselor Norm Barrett said he had a
road-away-from-Damascus experience when he was 16, the
same age as some of the older campers. But it took
several years before he worked up the nerve to tell
his parents he no longer believed in God.

"I probably could have benefited from a place like
this," he said.

"I admire some of these kids. In a way, some of them
are a bit more courageous than I was," he said. "It
kind of gives me hope for the future. We are kind of
succeeding in passing our values on to the next
generation."

Next year's Minnesota Camp Quest is scheduled for July
24-31 at the Voyageur Environmental Center. For
information about the Minnesota Camp Quest, go to
www.campquest.org.


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