Camp Quest UK

By Mark Trodden | June 29, 2009 7:46 pm

Way back when I blogged all on my own over at Orange Quark, I wrote a post about the wonderful Camp Quest organization, that provided a welcoming summer camp for the children of atheists, agnostics, secular humnists, etc. I was delighted to hear of such an enterprise, and touched that Len Zanger, the then director of Camp Quest of Michigan, dropped by in the comments section.

I was therefore ecstatic to see that the trend has caught on back in my home country, and that there is now a Camp Quest UK. The web site lays out what it is all about, and it just makes you smile to read it:

Camp Quest’s purpose is to build a strong, healthy community among the young participants aged 8-17. In addition to fun camp activities such as swimming, canoeing, fishing, archery, campfires, stargazing and outdoor sports. Camp Quest’s knowledgeable counsellors and guest volunteers will lead the youth in learning activities that teach them about science, free thought and humanist principals. Activities cover critical thinking, science, history, human rights and ethics. Campers develop and improve their rational thinking skills in fun, hands-on learning activities and programs.

Here’s the Director, Samantha Stein, discussing the event

This first year is sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and the theme is Evolution (since this is Darwin year). The associated activities all sound like fun, but I particularly liked this one, reported in the Guardian

On top of cooking, hiking and canoeing, activities for campers include a competition to disprove the existence of the mythical unicorn – with the winner receiving a £10 note on which Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, has signed his name.

Have fun kids!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and Society
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  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Sounds like an interesting idea, but Ms. Stein lost me with the “Invisible Unicorn” bit. I’m sorry, but I’m going to find it very difficult to accept that such an exercise in critical thinking isn’t built upon a foundation of unbecoming ridicule of believers, given that particular game’s pedigree. Despite disclaimers to the contrary, the fact that the camp hands out prizes autographed by Richard Dawkins leaves me even more suspicious that its foundational ethos, however subtly inculcated, is one of indoctrination in Dawkin’s brand of strident, intolerant atheism.

    Which is a shame, because in many other respects it looks like a wonderfully-designed educational experience, with its emphasis on fun-based science instruction in the out-of-doors, as well as the multidisciplinary interest in world religions and philosophy. Sounds a little like a liberal arts college in camp form. If only evangelical atheists could simply BE better than their theistic counterparts, and skip the compulsive faith-bashing now and then. It’s always grossly oversimplified, and does nothing but inspire contempt. The kids will have plenty of time to be disappointed by humanity in the real world, so why bother them with it during their time off?

  • Ellipsis

    What about a summer camp for people who wish to be free of indoctrination in all forms; who maintain that there exists absolutely no evidence for unicorns, nor for a supreme being, but also maintain that there is an important difference between that and “disproving” their existence (whatever the latter could mean, outside the context of mathematics); and who maintain that it is important for people to precisely understand these distinctions?

  • Eleanor

    This was on the Radio 4 news a couple of times over the weekend, but there, the activity which was deemed most worthy of reporting was that they are going to have to sing “Imagine” by John Lennon. I don’t recall hearing anything about the kids learning science there. Maybe the reporter didn’t think that aspect would interest people…

  • PhilG

    This is a great idea and I would have booked for my kids but all places are taken. I hope they expand the project next year.

    You have to remember that in the UK all schools are required to privide religious education throughout primary and secondary schooling from first to last year. This is in contrast to other European countries where education is required to be secular and moral philosophy is taught instead. Religion is not prevalent in UK society and most kids recognise the lie when they reach their teens or before. This leaves them with no basis for morals and a distrust of teachers at the time when they need it most. No wonder we top the league tables for teenage pregnancies, drug use and youth crime.

    This is not about intolerance. It is an alternative to indoctrination and superstition. I can understand that the Church of England sees atheism as a threat to the unwarranted power they hold in education and government but atheists are not trying to stop people practising religion if they choose to. We just want the right for our own children to have a moral education based on facts and reason rather than religion.

    I hope Richard Dawkins movement takes hold and he has the courage to take on religious education in schools.

  • Neal J. King


    Reminds me of the private school I attended: We had compulsory religious service in the morning and had to sing hymns. (Only one student was permitted to skip it, because his family was Quaker, and part of their religious practice is to NOT participate in ceremony.)

    So Camp Quest’s hymn is “Imagine.” What happens if you don’t want to participate? Do they dock you 10 Dawkins pence?

  • Joanna

    Worth mentioning that in the UK the English £10 note at least has a picture of Darwin on it. (One of the Scottish ones though has a missionary on it.)

  • RD

    In my locality there are so many deeply committed believers working hard to alleviate grinding poverty and suffering.
    See this link for just one small example: The Missionvale Care Centre
    These are not liberal humanists who spend one brief year appeasing consciences before devoting their lives to indulging their other appetites. These are people committed to the long haul, earning respect and support in these communities. Their religious faith motivates them and sustains them. They deserve admiration, not the snide contempt of the Dawkins clique.

    I respect the right of atheists to make their choices. I expect people of all persuasions to practice critical thinking as a healthy antidote to the pervasive attempts of society to direct our choices. But I am deeply suspicious of the snide intolerant way that fundamentalist atheists attack people of faith.

    Sister Ethel Normoylehas earned huge respect for her caring love for the poor and unfortunate. By contrast fundamentalist atheists such as Dawkins are more noted for their snide nastiness.

  • hendrix

    so, children of religious people cannot go ?

  • Christina Viering

    Sounds like fun!

  • Mariano

    How quickly we move from the militant activist atheist telling religious parents that they are “child abusers” for raising their children according to their faith to those very same atheists raising their children according to their lack of faith.
    This is all part of Dawkins’ tactic of having “society stepping in” to stop religious parents from doing so and his hopes that this “might lead children to choose no religion at all.”

    Interesting descriptions of the camp are found here:

  • Mark

    hendrix – the chidren of the religious can indeed go, although it is true that the various descriptions of the camp one finds in various places occasionally make it sound otherwise (and I think the way I wrote my post mistakenly gave that impression also).

    Mariano – you can try to draw an analogy between these two types of behavior, but it would be a bad one. And I don’t see how this camp is stopping religious parents doing anything. I’d argue further, but a quick look at your links reveals statements like

    Scientific observation and philosophic consideration of the universe infers a creator and can even alert us to certain characteristics

    which makes me pretty sure it would be a waste of time.

  • Mark

    RD – you’re way off topic. Nowhere in this post do I claim that religious people can’t do nice things. But in any case, whether they do or don’t has no bearing on the correctness of the beliefs they hold. Given that you state

    I respect the right of atheists to make their choices. I expect people of all persuasions to practice critical thinking as a healthy antidote to the pervasive attempts of society to direct our choices.

    I’d think you’d support Camp Quest UK, which is all this particular post is about.

  • Matt

    None of this feels creepy to anybody? None of this feels like its own kind of indoctrination? Geez. When I used to go to summer camp, we never thought about any of this stuff. Just tennis, and softball, and horse-back riding, and arts and crafts. And the lucky kids get to go to math camp or computer camp. Awesome stuff!

    Why do people have to go injecting religion or atheism or any other ideology into all of this? (I shudder whenever I hear that kids are being intentionally indoctrinated with any set of ideological “principals”.)

    Why can’t we let kids just enjoy their youth, expose them to ideas, expose them to a diversity of other children and people from other philosophical and religious backgrounds, help them maintain their natural openness, and resist the urge to close their minds with ideology or burden them with all of our adult fixations and political battles?

    Two wrongs don’t make a right—if you have a problem with evangelical camps that indoctrinate kids into a particular religion, don’t go and start up a camp that indoctrinates kids into a particular brand of “humanist principals” and Dawkinsism. (This weird adulation of Richard Dawkins—autographed money?—is really disturbing.)

    Nothing builds character like exposing a child to a diversity of viewpoints and then allowing him/her to figure big things out for him/herself, with guidance of course. Indoctrination makes for weak minds, and you all know that. It breeds shallowness.

    This is all really disturbing…

  • wds

    @PhilG surely it’s not as dire as you describe it. As far as I’ve been told most kids aren’t very religious to start with, and RE isn’t taken very seriously in most english schools. Also, not all schools in all european countries are secular. Case in point: Belgium.

    @Mark: I must say the camp sounds kind of seedy. There’s plenty of camps already that don’t have any religious association. This also seems to be conflating science with atheism, which might be fine for some but I find it an unnecessary relation to make. So children who are religious aren’t supposed to like science now? Or they need to be “deprogrammed” by Dawkins’ camps?

    edit: looks like Matt beat me to it, and did it better…

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    @Matt, yes I do find it a bit creepy. The idea of singing “Imagine”, seemingly as a sort of anti-hymn, is especially close to self-parody, and that the irony of such an alternative indoctrination tactic (packaged, I’m sure, as “counter-indoctrination) is lost on some is remarkable, IMO. It looks rather a bit too much like warring memes, as far as I can tell, when meme-freedom would be so much more fun.

  • DP in CA

    Camp Quest sounds like a GREAT idea to me, and I considereed volunteering for the closest one, except I already have obligations for part of that week. (Besides they probably have their volunteer needs filled already.)

    And I thought it was great that they expected 40 kids at Camp Quest.

    Then today my brother tells me he’s sending his kid to summer camp… … and I read about it and throw up my arms in resignation. “Over 16,000 children, youth and families each summer attend sessions at five Christian Youth Camps… all for His glory!”

  • tacitus

    Man, I think some people are getting their knickers in a twist for no reason. There are summer camps for all sorts of people — Christians, Muslims, Mormons, the overweight, physical/mentally disabled, gay, kids with dwarfism, gifted musicians, artists, and on and on and on.

    The common thread between all these camps is the value of networking with people who share some common bond, or some common need. They help kids (and often the parents) get to know other kids like them, forming friendships and gaining a sense of community that may be hard to find in the outside world.

    Now obviously I would object to any kid being forced there against their will (or beliefs) and I would personally go light on the overtly “atheistic” activities that could make some kids uncomfortable, but I suspect (and hope) the reality of the situation is that it’s nowhere near as doctrinaire as the vast majority of Christian camps out there.

    The bottom line is that this is an entirely voluntary thing — families send their kids there with the full knowledge of what to expect, and I would bet just about any amount that any religious kid who happens to ends up there will be treated with more sensitivity and understanding than any atheist kid who is sent to a Christian camp (where they will no doubt want to pray for and with him in his “difficulties”).

  • Follower

    As it was an atheist camp, and therefore devoid of all morals, I suppose it was all sex, drugs, and rock and roll?

  • Brian137

    This camp sounds like a case of parents trying to influence their kids to be like mom and dad, to move them in the direction of a particular set of perspectives. If the parents were indoctrinated into their perspective by someone else, then why should they (or anyone else) believe in it? If the parents adopted the perspective mainly through their own insights, then why don’t they trust their children to rely on the childrens’ own, at least somewhat independent, insights? Are we atempting to make our kids into clones of ourselves, chips of the old block? God, Plausible God, Implausible God, or No God – according to your preference – save us from parental hubris.

  • Mark

    Brian137 – since one of the core principles is to teach critical thinking, I don’t think indoctrination is at all what it is about. It is true that it is run by nonbelievers, but that doesn’t mean there is an equivalence between teaching kids to mindlessly believe, and teaching them to observe the world and think critically about the proposed explanations for why it is that way.

  • Brian137

    I did not use the term “indoctrinate” in relation to the parents’ relationship with their children – I used the word “influence.” Teaching critical thinking is wonderful, but the references to Richard Dawkins and the fact that the camp is organized by “atheists, agnostcs, and secular humanists” made me think that the camp was in some way, no matter how slight, intended to expose students to those points of view.

  • Brian137

    I don’t remember ever being “taught” critical thinking. Do you remember being “taught” critical thinking? How did they “teach” it to you?
    Trying to prove math theorems certainly developed an array of skills, as did taking physics courses, but the idea of an atheist or agnostic teaching a child “critical thinking” related to whether or not God exists seems just as insidious as having a relgious person do so – the teacher is biased as to what the outcome should be.

  • Mark

    One isn’t taught it as a topic Brian. One is taught it by being educated in an environment in which whatever topic is being taught is openly analyzed and students are encouraged to question and discover realities about the topic. The precise opposite of being told to take things on faith.

  • Brian137

    That’s fine as long as no one lends any however subtle suggestion that this investigation should lead one to atheism, agnosticism, or social humanism – as long as there is no concomitant desire to influence the final point of view.
    Maybe my suspicions are unfounded. If I heard that the Republican Party had opened a camp to teach kids “critical thinking,” I would be suspicious. Same with the Democrats. Maybe I sould trust the atheists, agnostics, and social humanists more. Still….

  • coolstar

    Thanks to LMMI, Matt, wds, Brian137 and others for expressing my feelings about this camp better than I probably could. Personally, I fear “evangelicals” (which usually equates to “fanatics”) of all religions, creeds, philosophies, and lack of same pretty much equally. This sounds like a “re-education” camp to me and I don’t give a rat’s ass about what otherwise “good” things such a camp might accomplish.
    Tacitus, I have to disagree with “The bottom line is that this is an entirely voluntary thing — families send their kids there with the full knowledge of what to expect….”.
    Damn little I did as a kid, leaving out basic bodily functions, could truthfully be described as

  • capitalistimperialistpig

    Because what our society really needs is more indoctrination in your silly religion rather than somebody else’s.

  • chemicalscum

    From the “Fact Corner” on the UK Camp Quest website:

    “The Earth spins at 1,000 mph but it travels through space at an incredible 67,000 mph.”

    I hope that they have got some kids with sufficient critical faculties to ask “relative to what ?”

  • Mark

    I hope so too chemicalscum – that would be a good question, although both are, of course, completely natural definitions in this case.

  • Neal J. King

    Another voice for non-overlapping magisteria:

    Vatican should learn from Galileo mess, prelate says

    VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Catholic Church should not fear scientific progress and possibly repeat the mistake it made when it condemned astronomer Galileo in the 17th century, a Vatican official said on Thursday in a rare self-criticism.

  • Peter Coles

    This quest doesn’t look very camp to me

  • Mark

    It’s a quest Peter – they’re working on it.

  • Neal J. King

    The religionists strike back!

    Turkish TV gameshow looks to convert atheists
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – What happens when you put a Muslim imam, a Christian priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk in a room with 10 atheists?

    Turkish television station Kanal T hopes the answer is a ratings success as it prepares to launch a gameshow where spiritual guides from the four faiths will seek to convert a group of non-believers.

    The prize for converts will be a pilgrimage to a holy site of their chosen religion — Mecca for Muslims, the Vatican for Christians, Jerusalem for Jews and Tibet for Buddhists.

    But religious authorities in Muslim but secular Turkey are not amused by the twist on the popular reality game show format and the Religious Affairs Directorate is refusing to provide an imam for the show.

    “Doing something like this for the sake of ratings is disrespectful to all religions. Religion should not be a subject for entertainment programs,” High Board of Religious Affairs Chairman Hamza Aktan told state news agency Anatolian after news of the planned program emerged.

    The makers of “Penitents Compete” are unrepentant and reject claims that the show, scheduled to begin broadcasting in September, will cheapen religion.

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  • Space Camp « In the Dark

    […] thanks to cosmic variance for the inspiration, and apologies to Barry Took and Marty Feldman, who wrote the original Julian and Sandy sketches […]
    P.S.: Forgot to mention great post!

  • David Haines

    I don’t know where the idea came from that Camp Quest would be adopting “Imagine” as it’s anthem. The moment I heard about Camp Quest on the radio a few weeks ago, I Googled it and wrote to Samantha Stein offering a free workshop on my science-inspired songs. In her reply she said:

    Hi David,

    I just had another look at your website – the song Mr Darwin is really fantastic.
    Do you have any other songs we could teach them around the camp fire? I think it would be good if the workshop songs were evolution based, but we are open to all suggestions (Just no John Lennon songs, please! 😉 )

    We are really looking forward to having you at camp.


    My business partner Sue Blake and I visited today and spent a wonderful few hours there, teaching the kids a few songs (Mr Darwin, Stargazing, Planets and Mutate) then chatting to Camp Quest founder Edwin Kagin, the UK Camp leaders Sam Stein and Richard Craig and other members of the counselling team, especially the delightful Jens Christensen.

    The idea that this is some sort of atheism indoctrination camp is so wide of the mark it’s laughable. It is simply a secular summer camp that – alongside all the usual physical activities and challenges – is offering campers the chance to develop their critical thinking. I witnessed a conversation between Edwin Kagin and a young camper about the invisible unicorns and was amazed at the degree of sophistication that young Esmee employed (I would guess she was maybe 10 or 12 at most) in her scepticism over Edwin’s declared faith in the mythical beast.

    In the UK we attempt to pump our kids full of facts and – paradoxically – quite a lot of unproved and unprovable dogma through our bizarre insistence on religious education in schools. We do so little to develop the ability of children to think for themselves. At some point some kids (thank goodness) do go on to develop the faculty of independent thought (though the mindless output of the popular press and television would imply that many adults never attain this degree of sophistication). They then realise we’ve been pumping them full of undigested data combined with religious nonsense. No wonder they get disillusioned with the educational process!

    Camp Quest is a tiny chink of light – trying to stimulate a bit of rational, analytical thought in our youngsters. I wish them every luck this year and into the future.

  • Crispian Jago

    I dropped my kids off at Camp Quest UK on monday morning and I’m sure they’re having a great time. Despite a few negative press articles here in the UK, I think the public generally support the promotion of science and reason of myth and superstition.

    Links to lots more articles, blogs, videos and radio interviews on my blog if you’re interested.

  • Len Zanger

    Thanks, Mark.

    Congrats to Sam, Richard and all on a successful camp and especially for having a thorough understanding of what makes a CQ and pulling it off perfectly.

    Now on to CQ Michigan. And yes, I’m still the camp director there.




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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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