Why should there be an “Atheist Sumer Camp” like Camp Quest?

I recently posted an appeal for help for Minnesota’s Camp Quest, and one commenter noted that atheists should not have summer camps. Others have chimed in with reasons why that commenter was wrong. Here, I’d like to tell a simple story of one girl’s experience and why it may have been better for her to attend an atheist summer camp than the camp she did actually attend. This story was told to me by a good friend who’s name I’ve slightly altered.


I’ll call her Diane. When Diane was about 11 years old, she went off to summer camp for the first time. On the first day of camp, when all the girls were getting to know each other, one of the questions that came up was “What church do you belong to?” All the kids seem to be Christian, but they were from a diversity of churches. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, and so on.

When they got to Diane, and she was expected to say what church she went to, she didn’t know what to say. Her parents were, she later understood, atheists, and she was raised in the absence of religion. But she didn’t have a ready answer for the other girls. She didn’t know to say “I’m an atheist” and she didn’t even know to keep her mouth shut and her head down and to lie to protect herself, which is really what godless children typically learn to do. So she said, simply, that her family was not in a church, that they didn’t go to church. A few more questions from the other girls established clearly that Diane was not religious. At all.

Later that night, Diane woke up in a panic. She could not breath. There was a heavy weight on her chest, and her airways were blocked. She realized there was also a weight on her face. Eventually, in a matter of seconds, really, she realized that one of the girls from her dormitory was sitting on her chest and holding a pillow down on her face, in an effort to smother her to death.

There was a scuffle, and someone pulled the girl off just as Diane was about to slip into unconsciousness. There were adults, there were conversations, and there was a confession.

One of the religious girls was simply trying to kill the daemon.

Trying to kill the daemon. If you know Diane as I do, your jaw would drop to the floor. The daemon indeed.

Camp Quest. It’s not about atheism. It’s about not getting your ass smothered to death because you are not part of somebody’s sorry excuse for a belief system.

This blog, and the snark therein, is not directly connected with Camp Quest or its affiliates.

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23 thoughts on “Why should there be an “Atheist Sumer Camp” like Camp Quest?

  1. I wish I could say that this story is too far-fetched to be believable. The rhetoric used in today’s social and political discourse makes this sad tale all too believable. The girl who was trying to murder Diane can easily have thought she was doing a good thing; somewhere, there are adults who would have approved.

  2. A Sumer camp? Now that would be cool – would it involve reading cuneiform?

    Poor kid – filthy murderers and liars for jesus. I used to see a hell of a lot of boiled babies in a certain bass ackwards country, thanks to the catholic church and the widespread belief in demons.

  3. WWPWTTKBTJD–What would people who think they know better than Jesus do? Quite a mouthful, but it does go all the way around the rubber bracelet.

  4. Wow, that’s disgusting.

    I’m not sure however that’s an argument for atheist summer camps per se so much as an argument to make sure to send kids to camps that aren’t full of religious wackos. Any math or science camp will almost certainly do nicely for that. (And this isn’t just being obnoxious. It is very clear from personal experience that such camps have many fewer religious individuals and of the religious individuals present they are rarely extreme).

  5. Having grown up in and later been a counselor for many years, I am acutely aware of how wonderful/terrible such an experience can be. As a Jewish child,(although now an agnostic/atheist) I came to understand that exposing oneself to young “believers” out of immediate reach of hopefully caring/protecting adults could lead to more than a little physical and even more emotional turmoil.
    Having said this, I do not think that an “atheist/agnostic/humanist” supported camp is a good idea.
    1) Children of non-believers must, of necessity, learn to cope with/survive in a society that will always be made up of people who not only do not share their lack of belief, but who often feel it is their duty to remind non-believers that their lack of agreement with (fill in the blank) Church dooms them to eternal fires of Hell.
    2) Although it is annoying that this is so, it behooves those of us who are raising such children to teach them enough about the dominant religious ideas they are surely going to encounter in orer to arm them for what will be a continuous attack on their non-belief.
    3) And this is obviously a personal bias…..
    Atheist/agnostics must constantly try to remind everyone else that we are NOT just another “religion” with agreed upon scripture, pastor/leader/Pope types who “speak for us”, or meeting/rituals that we attend on some tyope of regular basis. It seems to me that an “atheist” summer camp smacks too much of Bible Camp, thus playing into closely held belief of religious types that we are “just another religion”.

  6. Of course atheists should have summer camps – not because most kids are in danger of being smothered to death by believers, but because summer camps cater to every cultural difference – there are summer camps for every kid, and some kids are atheists.

    That said, I think the problem with this story is that it overstates the urgency of such a camp – there are probably 10,000 camps in the US that an atheist family could send their child to where their lack of religiousness would not only not garner such a response, but wouldn’t garner any response at all. Among them would be many math and science specialty camps, most generalist camps in the northeast, religious camps from most liberal denominations (where the majority of children probably don’t come from that religious background anyway), camps associated with ethnic and cultural communities that aren’t traditionally members of conservative faiths, explicitly secular political camps like workman’s circle, and many, many others. But why not an atheist camp? It makes at least as much sense as sending your kid off to “computer science camp” so they can spend their summer indoors, getting pasty in cabins, instead of your house ;-).


  7. I’m agree with the concept but not the name. I think that they should be called Secular Summer Camps. I don’t consider atheists a group so much as just a description of “Everybody Else”. It is hard to bind a group of people based on non-belief since there really is nothing there to bind them with. Religions are successful units because they are bound by a shared belief. As pointed out before, getting Atheists together is like herding cats!

    The problem is that finding a common ground, or a set of ideals is difficult in our “community” as the idea of it seems contrary to what seems to define us in the first place: freethinkers

  8. Brent –

    Greg wrote the post and used the term Atheist Summer Camp. With Camp Quest, we refer to it as the Secular Summer Camp. We’re quite aware of the nuances of labels and the importance people place on terms which they use to identify themselves.

    Harvey –

    One of the components of Camp Quest usually include some part where a person from outside of the freethought community gives a presentation on his or her religion or culture. The kids will ask questions and get answers right from that particular representative. Does this mean that if we have a Baha’i speak to the kids that they will convert, probably not, but it gives kids the chance to ask questions, get answers, and have a better understanding of someone else’s culture and beliefs.

    Camp Quest isn’t about indoctrination. In fact, we have kids coming from many different backgrounds, pagan, humanist, atheist, liberal Christian, Catholic, and plenty of mixed beliefs where one parent may be an atheist and the other is religious. People keep sending their kids ot Camp Quest because the kids have fun, learn a bit about ethics, science, culture, etc., but mostly have fun with friends who won’t harass them for a lack of belief.

    We also make a point of not referring to the campers at Camp Quest as Atheist Kids. Some campers aren’t sure what to believe and others are comfortable identifying as atheists or humanists, but that’s not a label we apply to them.

  9. Stories like this make me wonder what kind of society the US are… It’s so completely opposite to how it goes here in Belgium.

    People here feel more embarrassed to tell they go to church weekly, than to say they are atheist (even among their peers in Catholic schools).
    The former ‘Flemish organisation of Catholic Scouts and Girl Guides’, has recently changed it’s name into ‘Flemish Scouts and Guides’.
    Churches are transformed into libraries and disco’s, because there aren’t enough people to come to services anymore…

  10. Sharon: Good point about the urgency. I don’t mean to over state it, but rather, to put on the table one data point that is one we should not forget. This event also was the result of one kid’s activities, not the nature of the camp itself. Yet, we do live in a society in which many children are raised with belief systems that would allow for this sort of behavior.

    I assume a religious kid would be welcome at Camp Quest and probably would not be smothered.

  11. Harvey, I’m a bit disturbed by your assertion that atheist kids shouldn’t go to a one-week secular summer camp because they need to “learn to cope”. This has a “suck it up, kids” feel that strikes me as unnecessarily cruel. What do you think the kids are doing the other 51 weeks out of the year? Not only can they use a respite now and again, but one of the best ways to learn to see the influence of the majority on society is to spend a bit of time surrounded by the minority.

  12. As the father of two boys who are currently living in TN and with the strong likelihood that I will be finishing my undergrad in Knoxville, I am extremely heartened to note that there is a Camp Quest in the area (even more excited about the Freethinkers of East TN also local). While the Knoxville area isn’t quite as bad as the majority of TN (Oak Ridge National Labs being close probably helps), it is still a place where religious diversity largely consists of different brands of Christianity. My eldest is being raised by non-religious parents, in my case atheist. Yet he is terribly fond of “Jesus” or “the Lord” books and wishes he could go to church. While I suspect this is largely due to the fact that he currently lives in the middle of nowhere and wants to make more friends, this is, nonetheless very disturbing.

    I am actually looking forward to moving to the area to help provide him with more friends, almost as much as for simply being able to see my boys with great regularity. It is more than a little helpful to have completely non-religious options for exposing him to kids his own age, with whom he can form relationships. At the moment, he has exactly zero options for making friends who are not religious to some degree or another. School and daycare, he doesn’t know any kids he is aware are not religious.

    I would love to be in a position to just pretend that everything is fine and if I just talk to him a little about it, he will be well positioned to just deal with whatever the religious throw at him. When we finally make it out to Portland this will be much easier. But right now he doesn’t have any non-religious options for friends and we have gone through losing friends because I’m not religious.

    And Harvey, I am really glad that doing what you suggest is so very easy for you. I am glad that you apparently live someplace where it is as easy as all that. Not all of us have that easy of an option and by necessity have to seek out people for our children to engage with, who will not freak out simply because our children’s parents are atheists. And I could give a fuck if this somehow gives the ignorant the impression that atheism/skepticism/science is a fucking religion. I didn’t live my life in accordance with the biases of those around me when I was a Christian – I am not about to start now.

  13. I am Wiccan, rather than Atheist,but find myself facing many of the same issues. In rural Southern Indiana, there aren’t too many options for summer camp that don’t involve “learning about the promises and love of the Lord Jesus Christ.” My children, ages 10 and 11 have both chosen Wicca/Paganism as their paths as well, but face constant pressure at school and with their friends. They are the ONLY Wiccan kids at their school. I am thankful that they have not been totally ostracized, but they still get plenty of teasing from several students.
    I would love to send them to summer camp, but everything available around here is decidedly Christian in nature. Even the math/science camp option posited by another poster doesn’t seem to be an option anywhere in my vicinity. Sigh.

  14. Nothing is preventing anyone from having a summer camp based on whatever they want. If you can’t find a camp for your beliefs/hobby/sport/group/whatever, start one. How’s that for free thinking?

  15. I really really hope you merely forgot to mention the part where the attacker was ARRESTED FOR ATTEMPTED MURDER, right?
    Or did the camp staff COVER UP AN ATTEMPTED MURDER? And if so, didn’t Diane’s parents report the ATTEMPTED MURDER to the police?

    Because the way you wrote the story it sounds like no one involved bothered reporting this extremely serious crime to the police, which is damn-near as appalling as the attack itself.

    (And yeah I realize the attacker was a minor, but they damn well still should have been dealt with harshly by the juvenile court system.)

  16. I was hoping you know, or could find out, what the aftermath was. Were civil authorities ever notified? Were there any consequences? Did anyone point out the fact that, as part of rescuing the victim, the use of LETHAL FORCE against the attacker could have been a morally and legally justified possibility? Did the attacker go home believing she was a good and faithful servant of God? Or did she realize she nearly murdered a person? Did the attacker’s parents approve of the attempted daemon-slaying? Did they simply shrug off the whole incident? Or, by some small miracle, did it dawn on them that *they* were responsible for filling their daughter’s head with evil insane shyte and that *they* were responsible for raising a would-be murderer? Unfortunately I have little faith in miracles :/

    The whole thing is so outrageous that it’s hard to let go of it without some idea how it turned out.

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