Saturday, July 18, 2009

Atheist Summer Camp

The Economist has an interesting piece called Glad to Be godless, about a summer camp for the children of atheists. Here is a selection:

In most ways, it is like other summer camps. Kids aged 8 to 17 share cabins in the woods. During the day, they paddle canoes, shoot arrows, go swimming and explore nature. At night, they chat beneath the stars. Like other summer camps, Camp Quest satisfies a demand that springs from America’s combination of very long holidays for children and very short ones for their parents. Unlike other camps, it is staffed entirely by humanists.

They are not pushy or preachy, but scepticism flavours nearly everything they do. Lunch comes with a five-minute talk about a famous freethinker. Campers are told that invisible unicorns inhabit the forest, and offered a prize if they can prove that the unicorns do not exist. The older kids learn something about the difficulty of proving a negative. The younger ones grow giggly at the prospect of stepping in invisible unicorn poop. There’s a prize for the tidiest cabin, too, because “cleanliness is next to godlessness”, jokes Amanda Metskas, the director. (Read the whole thing here)

One of the things that bothered me about this article was the way in which "humanism", "atheism" and "secularism" seemed to be used interchangeably as if they all meant the same thing. It is possible to be humanist or secular while believing in God and/or being religious. Even atheism in itself does not necessarily mean being non-religious or anti-religious (atheistic forms of Buddhism are one example). Another concern was the implication that one cannot practice scepticism or be a "freethinker" and also be religious. Whether the language used in the article only reflects the biases of the author or also the philosophy of the camp is at times unclear. The concept of the camp is interesting in any case and I'm glad the author sought to draw attention to it and the challenges associated with being an atheist in our society. My hope though is that the effort to create a place of acceptance and support for atheist kids does not involve perpetuating inaccurate and perhaps stereotypical views of religion and religious people. The last thing our society needs is more people, especially young people with misconceptions about those who see the world differently than they do.

You can read previous posts related to atheism, here, here, and here.


  1. Anonymous2:37 PM

    Hi Phillip,

    Thank you for the 3 sides of the coin in such nice clear terms. Another reason why education is so important is that even though a part of my consciousness was prodded with the article, I would not have been able to articulate the cause of the prodding, that you have so clearly put in your response. So thank you!

    I has given me yet another stepping stone for dialogue in a school system where "God" is left at the gate so to speak. I particularly appreciate the comment about giving our kids the opportunity to appreciate people with viewpoints other than our own. That religion and God are left out of a school (in our case Montessori) where the stated objective is collaboration with the peoples of the world has been and remains to be a fundamental flaw in the foundation of the social and academic impetus.

    I do appreciate the challenge of trying to prove a negative though because in time that can result in an understanding of one manner of challenging faith based concepts that is unproductive.

    Thank you for all of your posts in the last year. I have enjoyed watching your family grow, and the critical thinking that I get to semi-formally engage in--I believe I am someone who believes that the God that others do not believe in doesn't exist (because our imagination is ever so small comparative to God), I am someone who believes in the God that everyone who prays believes in, and the humanitarian who believes that our sacrifices in this world and the efforts we make on behalf of others is our most important purpose regardless of how we percieve the Reality of God.

  2. As someone in the atheist/secular/humanist movment, I can tell you that those on the inside do use those terms interchangilby when one has more relevance than the other. If the conversation is about theology, I'm an atheist. If its about ethics, I'm a humanist and if its about government, I'm a secualist. Religious people love to define us and insist that we are all differnt groups when in fact those of the rational bent have more in common with each other than the next closest religous person. Those three words are not mutally exclusive in anyway and you'll find that most "atheists" will freely admit to also being humanist and secular and very few people are one wihtout being the other. As a non-atheist, why don't you leave the defining of atheism to us.

    As someone who just got back from a week of Camp Quest as a volunteer camp counselor, I can tell you that we mentioned religion almost not at all. It was about discovering our own simlarites and thinking about ethics, critical thinking and having fun.

  3. It seems the same ignorant zealotry from one side was transferred to the other.

    This is less of a Theistic vs. Atheistic battle, but more so displays a critical handicap of the human mind when it refuses to recognize difference and push that aside for the common good. Humanity must get past this if we ever want to fully unite and move on with our global civilization.

  4. Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.