**CRACKED READERS** Thanks for clicking on the link at Cracked. If you read this article, you’ll see that the camp director also says “We do not label the campers with a worldview, but instead encourage them to explore different ideas and come to their own conclusions.”
I disagree that using the example of an invisible unicorn as a metaphor for an unfalsifiable premise is considered “brainwashing”. If that’s how low we set the bar, then we are all brainwashed.
Amanda Metskas is the co-author of Raising Free Thinkers: a practical guide to Parenting Beyond Belief and the Executive Director of Camp Quest. She has been busy moving into new offices and planning for this year’s camp, but she took the time to answer
my questions about the camp. If you know of any atheist or agnostic families who may be interested in sending their kids to a freethought friendly camp, direct them to the Camp Quest web site or to this interview. Also, I have a best friend who would like to send his kids but can’t afford the price – donations go toward camper scholarships and making this camp better for the kids.
Can you tell me a little bit about the history of Camp Quest? Who started it? How has it grown and changed?
Edwin and Helen Kagin started Camp Quest along with several other members of the Free Inquiry Group of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. They held the first camp in 1996 with twenty campers ages 8-12. Edwin came up with the idea for Camp Quest because he wanted there to be a place for kids from nontheistic families to belong. Seeing the Boy Scouts of America become increasingly insistent that boys profess a religious belief was part of what prompted the realization that there was a need for Camp Quest.
Camp Quest has grown quite a bit since 1996. This year 8 different, independently-operated Camp Quest camps will have sessions in three different countries! Last summer about 250 campers registered for Camp Quest camps, which is quite jump from our original 20. Also, throughout the years, Camp Quest has expanded the age range of eligible campers from 8-12 to 8-17, and in some cases includes younger campers attending along with parents for family camp programs.
We’ve also learned a thing or two over the years of operating Camp Quest camps. The biggest thing we’ve learned is that educational programs need to be hands-on at summer camp, and need to be intermixed with plain old summer camp fun. In the first few years, camp was sometimes a little bit too much like school, but since then we’ve developed a wide range of hands-on educational activities and a good balance between education and fun.
What is it, when is it, where is it, and how much does it cost?
Camp Quest is the first residential summer camp designed for the children of Atheists, Freethinkers, Humanists, Brights, or whatever other terms might be applied to those who hold to a naturalistic, not supernatural world view.
The purpose of Camp Quest is to provide children of freethinking parents a residential summer camp dedicated to improving the human condition through rational inquiry, critical and creative thinking, scientific method, self-respect, ethics, competency, democracy, free speech, and the separation of religion and government.
Camp Quest camps are typically week-long sleepaway camps for campers ages 8-17. Although our programs are aimed at kids from nontheistic families, we welcome campers from religious families as well. Some Camp Quest camps are also starting to offer family camps where younger kids can attend with their parents. Each camp session offers a slightly different mix of activities, but all adhere to the Camp Quest mission and provide a summer camp experience focused on fun, friends, and freethought.
* Ohio: June 20 – June 27, ages: 8 – 17, cost: $550 ($50 sibling discount for additional campers from one family).
* West (CA): July 12 – July 18, ages: 8 – 17 with family camp July 16 – July 19, cost: $500 ($50 sibling discount for additional campers from one family).
* Ontario: July 19 – July 25, ages: 7 – 16, cost: TBA.
* Minnesota: July 25 – August 1, ages: 8 – 17, cost: $395.
* Smoky Mountains (TN): July 26 – August 2, ages: 8 – 17, cost: $575 ($50 sibling discount for additional campers from one family).
* United Kingdom: July 27 – July 31, ages: 8 – 15, cost: £275 (approx. $430)
* Michigan: August 16 – 23, ages: 8 – 17, cost: $475 (Early bird rate good until May 30; $50 sibling discount for additional campers from one family).
* Florida: December 25 – January 1, ages: 8 – 17 plus family camp, cost: TBA
Some parents may be worried about brainwashing anti-religious rhetoric. Do you preach atheism? Is it like Jesus Camp, only instead of creating an army of evangelicals, you are creating an army of heathens?
I’m so glad you asked that. At Camp Quest we are very careful to avoid precisely those things. Most atheists, humanists, and other freethinkers came to their views for themselves after a lot of thought, and they want to provide the same opportunity for their children. Camp Quest is dedicated to providing that opportunity. We seek to provide a place where kids can explore ideas, learn critical thinking skills, and build a community with other kids from similar backgrounds. For some of our campers, this is the one week of their year where their parents’ beliefs aren’t controversial, and they can discuss these topics freely. We do not label the campers with a worldview, but instead encourage them to explore different ideas and come to their own conclusions.
What kind of activities can kids expect?
We do a mix of educational activities along with all of the traditional things you’d expect to find at summer camp. We go canoeing, toast s’mores around the campfire, make crafts, go swimming, and play sports and games. Some Camp Quest camps offer horseback riding, ropes courses and climbing walls.
In terms of educational activities, we offer a variety of programs that focus on ethics, freethought history, pseudoscience, critical thinking, comparative religion, and scientific inquiry. We do activities that draw out freethinking themes through drama and stories as well as experiments. Campers at Camp Quest create and perform skits that answer the “challenges” that counselors put to them at the beginning of camp. One example of a past challenge was to design a humanist myth. We explained that a myth was a fictional story that presented a message or moral, and gave campers mythical creatures, magical items, and strange places that had to be included in their story. Campers came up with skits with morals like being true to yourself, being compassionate to others, encouraging questioning, and not judging a book by its cover.
We have five-minute talks at meal times about a few “famous freethinkers” or “humanist heroes.” The famous freethinkers program lets kids know that there are people who, like their parents, are skeptical of traditional religious claims, and who have also achieved great things in all different fields from science, to government, to sports and the arts. We draw our famous freethinkers from history as well as from the present. One example of a famous freethinker that we talk about is Thomas Jefferson. Almost all campers have learned about Jefferson in school, but they may not know was a deist and skeptical of traditional religious claims. Lance Armstrong is an example of a contemporary famous freethinker that we talk about at camp.
Activities at Camp Quest vary from location to location and year to year depending on the host camp we are renting from, and the volunteer counselors attending that session.
Do you specifically teach critical thinking and skepticism? Like, will you be sharing with the kids what a “straw man” fallacy is or why alternative medicines are placebos?
We do a number of activities related to critical thinking and skepticism that vary from location to location and year to year. We have done activities on logical fallacies and alternative medicine in past years. One year we did a homeopathy activity where we diluted a solution with dirt and a solution with lemonade powder the way homeopathic medicines are diluted, revealing that they are just water by the time they are completed.
Another example of a hands-on critical thinking activity is the dowsing activity that Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert developed for Camp Quest. We give each camper a bottle of water set of dowsing rods – these are simple to make from bent pieces of wire that are inserted into pieces of PVC pipe. The campers then wander around with their dowsing rods until the rods cross consistently when they are over a bottle of water. Then we put out four mystery boxes, one of which contains a bottle of water, and each camper individually goes to test each mystery box by passing their dowsing rods over it. They then whisper to a counselor who is keeping the tally which box they think has the water in it. When all the campers have reported their results and the tally is revealed, the results wind up being completely chance with approximately one fourth of the campers selecting each of the boxes. This leads to an opportunity to discuss the scientific method of testing using a blind or double-blind experiment (it’s only double blind if the counselor doing the tallying doesn’t know which box the water is in), and also to explore the pseudoscience of dowsing and talk about why people think it works, and what is actually happening to cause the dowsing rods to cross when you know that water is there.
I heard something about a contest to find an invisible unicorn. Isn’t this an unfair contest since it’s inherently impossible to win? Or am I misunderstanding the contest?
There are two invisible unicorns that live at Camp Quest. You can’t see them, touch them, hear them, smell them, and they don’t leave any visible signs or tracks. If a camper can prove that the unicorns do not exist he or she will win a godless $100 bill (a $100 from prior to 1954 when “In God We Trust” was added to U.S. paper currency). So far the prize is unclaimed.
Since I don’t want to spoil this contest for any future campers who may be reading this, that’s all I’m going to say about that.
How can people help Camp Quest?
There are four main ways that people can help Camp Quest:
1. Send a camper — Send your child, grandchild, niece, nephew, or child of family friends to camp (with their parents’ permission of course).
2. Volunteer — All of our counselors volunteer a week of their time to come to camp and lead activities and stay in cabins with the campers. I think the counselors have almost as much fun as the kids. Our volunteers range in age from 18-80. We also have volunteers who visit us at camp to lead an activity. Additionally, we can use volunteers to help with planning and other things throughout the year if that is more your speed.
3. Donate — We raise money for camperships so that we can reduce registration fees for families with financial need. We also use donations to reduce registration fees for all campers by subsidizing particular activities. Additionally, donations and grants support our efforts to expand Camp Quest to additional locations.
4. Spread the word — Know people who might be interested in Camp Quest? Send them our way!
To get involved, go to our website at www.camp-quest.org. From there you can click on the camp location that interests you — Ohio, West (California), Ontario, Minnesota, Smoky Mountains (Tennessee), United Kingdom, and Michigan. Most camp locations allow you to register, donate, and fill out a volunteer application online. Those that don’t provide you with information for who to contact.
Do you have any positive feedback from former campers that you might be willing to share?
Campers fill out feedback forms at camp every year, and generally we get rave reviews. We also have a really high camper retention rate, the vast majority of campers who attend in one year return the next year. Coming back for another year is probably the best measure of whether campers had a good time. Many of our campers also come back as volunteer counselors after they turn 18.
We do get some really amazing things written on our end of camp survey. One of our questions asks “What did you learn at Camp Quest?” A few years ago one camper wrote “That it’s okay not to believe in god.” I think this quote says a lot: she didn’t learn that there is no God, she learned that it is okay not to believe. Last year we had a Christian camper come to camp because he wanted to attend with his cousin. On his evaluation form under what he learned at camp he wrote that he learned “that people are the same whether they believe in God or not.” Reading that made my day.
Thanks Amanda for your responses. Best of luck with this year’s Camp Quest!