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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