U.K. offers atheist summer camp

.- The Richard Dawkins Foundation is sponsoring a "free-thinking" summer camp in Britain this month that discourages faith and religious belief.

While Camp Quest U.K. claims that it is "open to all" and does not promote a nonreligious agenda, statements by the camp’s leaders and on the website admit to teaching children atheism and trying to disprove religion.

Camp Quest was founded in the United States by Kentucky Eagle Scout Edwin Kagin and his wife, Helen, as a summer camp for "free-thinkers." The first session of Camp Quest was held in 1996 with 20 campers. This year, there will be about 150 campers across six locations nationwide. In addition, Britain will be introducing Camp Quest U.K. for the first time this summer.

The camp, which is scheduled to take place the last week of July, just south of Bath, England, will include normal summer camp activities, such as archery, climbing, canoeing and a ropes course, but will also feature games and activities that challenge traditional religious beliefs.

In an NPR interview, Amanda Metskas, president of the board of Camp Quest Inc. explained that Camp Quest was created as an opportunity for "kids from free-thinking families" to do "all the traditional camp activities" while also learning about principles promoted by "famous freethinkers throughout history."

Metskas denied that the point of the camp is "proselytizing for non-belief," calling it a "misconception" about the camp. "We try really hard not to denigrate anyone’s belief system," she said, citing one camp employee, a PhD candidate in religious studies, who gives talks about world religions "from a very objective" perspective.

"We don’t tell kids that they have to be atheists," Metskas continued. "We tell them to be skeptical of claims that don’t have evidence and to ask questions." She went on to say that the goal of the camp is to "encourage kids to think for themselves, to explore the world around them, to learn about all sorts of different ideas, and to come to their own conclusions."

But despite these repeated assertions, evidence to the contrary abounds. Camp Quest of Minnesota declares in its statements of principles that it deplores efforts to "seek to explain the world in supernatural terms" and to "look outside nature for salvation."

In addition, Metskas said that the camp is designed to help children explain and defend their atheistic beliefs. Each day, campers are taught about prominent atheists and other figures who expressed skepticism about religion.

Similarly, the British version of Camp Quest, new this year, has claimed that it is "not designed to rival ‘faith-based breaks’." At the same time, however, Camp Quest U.K. advertises itself as a "godless alternative" to traditional religious summer camps.

Samantha Stein first read about Camp Quest in a footnote of Richard Dawkin’s book, "The God Delusion," and became curious. After learning more about it, she volunteered as a camp counselor for a week. "I immediately felt part of a big family of atheists and other nonbelievers, so I knew that I was onto something good," she said.

Now, Stein, who is currently studying for a Masters in Religion and Contemporary Society at King’s College in London, is directing the inaugural year of Camp Quest UK.

The goal, according to Stein, is to "take science out of the classroom and get the kids to look at trees and smell the dirt and look at the stars themselves and really make it something that’s quite hands-on and practical."

Statements on the camp’s website, however, would suggest that the goal is to promote antireligious beliefs.

Like its American counterpart, Camp Quest U.K. claims that it does not try to spread atheist beliefs to its campers, but simply offers the children the "tools to go off and come to their own conclusions about a wide range of topics."

However, the upcoming U.K. camp’s description of its activities seem to be far from objective and unbiased on the matter of religion, including references to "debunking creationism" and using "examples from religions when talking about errors in critical thinking."

The Camp U.K. website claims, "There is no ‘atheist dogma’ or agenda" and says that the camp will "welcome children from families who may hold any religious belief."

However, the website also states, "Campers are taught that ethical behavior is not dependent on religious belief and doctrines" and that "religious belief and doctrines are sometimes a hindrance to ethical and moral behavior."

One prominent feature of both the American and British versions of Camp Quest is The Invisible Unicorns Challenge. Throughout the course of the week, counselors repeatedly refer to two unicorns that live at the camp. There is no physical evidence for these unicorns, but an ancient book, which the campers are never allowed to see, offers proof of their existence.

At the end of the camp, campers are challenged to prove that the unicorns do not exist. If they succeed in doing so, they will win a godless 100-dollar-bill, printed from a time prior to 1957 when In God We Trust was not printed on American money.

In the U.K. version of Camp Quest, campers will win a £10 note with a picture of Charles Darwin and signed by Richard Dawkins. Since the challenge was first offered in 1996, no one has successfully proven that the unicorns do not exist.

Camp Quest U.K. is scheduled to run July 27-31. The campsite capacity is 48 campers and, according to the website, the camp is fully booked.

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