Atheist Summer Camp Is Heaven on Earth for Nonbelievers

Camp Quest Northwest is a sleepaway camp for self-described "freethinkers."

August 23, 2012, 3:02 PM

Aug. 23, 2012— -- Most summer camps host kayaking, arts and crafts classes and campfires, but what makes Camp Quest Northwest different is that it is literally "beyond belief."

Located just north of Seattle, Camp Quest Northwest is a summer camp for atheists or children of atheists, self-described "freethinkers" or people not otherwise traditionally religious.

"We would encourage them to read, to go to church," said Chuck Wolber, one of Camp Quest Northwest's founders. "The best way to become an atheist is to study the Bible, and I definitely recommend the kids do that."

The secular sleepaway camp rents the area from another camp, and camp counselors used masking tape to cover any signs with religious or deity words on them, such as "Lord," "God," or "Gaia," and replaced those words with fantasy-like words, such as "Flying Spaghetti Monster," which they use to emphasize the imaginary nature of God.

The camp hosts different sessions, such as the Socrates Cafe, where campers are free to discuss anything on their minds, from the age-old question of "where do we come from?" to how to handle bullies who pick on them because of their agnostic beliefs.

"It's amazing. I love it here," said a 9-year-old camper named Elle. "With certain people, you have to limit yourself or feel socially obligated. This feels nice to be here and not have to limit yourself and know you won't be bullied or hurt."

Camper Chandler Garry is like most 11-year-old boys, except he calls himself an atheist. He said he doesn't have an answer for why he doesn't believe in God, other than he hasn't seen proof that God exists.

"All of my friends are Christian," he said. "Sometimes I do get bullied because of that, because I'm an atheist."

Chandler said he has occasionally been curious about other religions, but he insisted that he came to his conclusion about God on his own, separate and apart from his parents, Matt and Karen Garry. Matt was raised Jewish and Karen was raised Christian, but now both identify as atheists and decided early on to raise their kids in a God-less household.

"We wanted to raise our kids to make their own decisions," Karen Garry said. "If our children decided they wanted to be Jewish, fine, not a problem. We would love them just as much as if they were atheist or whatever, Buddhist. We just wanted them to be good, happy people."

"It was always very important to me to teach them about the scientific method; if something is provable, you have a hypothesis and you theorize, find a solution for it," Matt Garry said. "It boils down to when someone is sick or very sick or hurt, we don't pray to God, we pray to doctors and to the science that is going to fix them."

At Camp Quest, religion, in some form, is often a topic of discussion, but here they believe more in talking about evolution and logic. They think critically and question everything, and they don't believe in God.

Several of the campers said they had been exposed to religion through family, and some said their parents had been raised in religious households, and then chose to become atheists.

"Some of my family is Catholic so I've gone to a wedding and a funeral," said a 13-year-old camper named Bailey. "I understand how they might want to believe in something like that, but I don't really understand it."

Other campers believe people use God as a catch-all explanation for life's events, but they still have questions.

"They don't really know, when they think about when [and] how they were here," Elle said. "They have to find something to explain why was the first human here on Earth, and their answer, their go-to is God, he made them."

Despite her young age, Elle arguably knows as much about the Bible as many of her peers but said God is something she would have to see to believe.

"Personally, I don't believe in him, but if he were to come down and do something really amazing, I would be able to accept that he exists," she said.

The majority of Americans still identify themselves as Christian, but a survey from the 2008 U.S. Census reveals that more than 34 million Americans consider themselves agnostic, atheist or to have no religion. That number has more than doubled since 1990.

The first Camp Quest started in 1996 in Kentucky with 20 campers. Camp Quest Northwest, which opened this summer, is the 15th Camp Quest location and this year, camp enrollment exceeded 620 campers, more than twice the number of campers than two years ago.

But Lisa Miller, the director of clinical psychology at Columbia University whose research focuses on the spiritual awareness of children, said spirituality is incredibly valuable to a child's development and it has been shown to emotionally protect children against suffering, even depression.

"Consistently, it's been shown that spirituality is associated with health, greater academic achievement and, of great importance to teens, more meaning and purpose," Miller said. "Spirituality, globally, helps children and adolescents to thrive."

Most children are more spiritual than their parents, Miller said, and often the child will be the one to encourage the family to be more spiritual.

"We are inherently spiritual beings," she said. "Spirituality is, just like cognitive development, moral development and social development, that cornerstone of our whole personhood."

Several campers described Camp Quest as a support group of sorts and that this was a place where they are free to be themselves.

"I don't have any atheist friends or anything," Chandler Garry said. "So I would like to maybe make a couple of friends that live near me that I could actually go to their house and have dinner, not have to pray before eating. ? I can actually be the same as them and not have their parents hate me or whatever because I'm an atheist."

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