Campers at Camp Quest Chesapeake in 2013.

Campers at Camp Quest Chesapeake in 2013. Photo by Siobhan Riordan, courtesy Riordan.

This summer Camp Quest (CQ)—a trailblazing summer camp for the children of nontheistic parents with locations across the United States and around the world—will launch its first camp in New England, with registration recently opening for campers and counselors.

What happens at an atheist summer camp? How do they avoid charges of “indoctrination”? And if atheists “don’t have no songs” as Steve Martin claims, what do they sing when gathered around the campfire?

To learn more I spoke with Paul Chiariello, founding Director of CQ’s Humanism, Ethics, Logic, and Philosophy Curriculum Committee and Program Director for CQ New England. Below, we discuss CQ New England, education for atheist, agnostic, and Humanist youth, and why they’re not “indoctrinating” children.

Chris Stedman: What’s the mission and history of CQ?

Paul Chiariello: CQ is the first summer camp aimed at Humanist, atheist, and secular families. It started in 1996 with the mission of providing a unique resource for Humanist parents, as well as the often-elusive fun educational opportunity for their kids. Given our growth I think we’ve been widely successful. We currently have around 18 member camps across the country, many of which can’t keep up with demand.

CS: You’ve worked as a counselor for CQ in the past. What sparked your interest? Why do you think it’s important? What have been some of your favorite experiences at CQ?

PC: I actually grew up going to a Christian camp. It was easily my favorite part of the summer. I made friends, mentors, and had what are to this date some of my most valuable learning experiences. Christianity obviously doesn’t hold any monopoly on these values, so when I found CQ it was a proverbial godsend.

As social animals we need community for it’s own sake, and also as a means for collaboration and learning. CQ has provided that for me, and for so many others. I’ve spent hours with campers discussing ethics and philosophy. I’ve had kids say that CQ is the one time of year they feel they can be themselves, since they’re picked on at school for not believing in God. I can’t imagine not doing all of this.

Camp Quest New England Program Director Paul Chiariello.

Camp Quest New England Program Director Paul Chiariello. Photo by Alex Dakoulas, courtesy Dakoulas.

CS: You’re also heading up CQ’s new curriculum development taskforce, which will be the first large scale Humanist education project for youth. Why is this happening and what do you hope to accomplish?

PC: CQ is growing more quickly each year. Previously, member camps were almost completely autonomous. However, as the number of camps continued to grow, a certain amount of quality assurance and cooperation was needed. The curriculum project, which also includes a science and a recreation taskforce, is one means of helping member camps. The curriculum project will consist of building a database that member camps can then take what they need from. This way, each camp has access to quality educational materials, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel themselves.

CS: A recent piece at Vox argued that atheism has the lowest “retention rate” with only around 30% of children of atheist parents continuing to self-identify as atheists as adults (and another 20% identifying as agnostic or otherwise religiously unaffiliated). Others critiqued this claim. What do you make of this, and what does it mean for the atheist and Humanist community?

PC: I haven’t delved into the numbers, but on face value I’m not too surprised. Calcified institutions are bad, but as social beings we live and breathe through the organizations we build. Humanism is only starting to build.

As you said, this is the first large-scale Humanist youth program and most religions are already good at this. In fact, many Humanist parents send their kids to Sunday school simply because there’s no quality Humanist equivalent. If life were just about abstract arguments then all we would need are bestselling books— but life is about much more.

CS: Programs like CQ or the Humanist Community at Harvard’s Learning Lab are creating Humanist education programs for youth. What does this kind of education look like? How does it differ from religious youth education programs?

Campers at Camp Quest Chesapeake in 2013.

Campers at Camp Quest Chesapeake in 2013. Photo by Siobhan Riordan, courtesy Riordan.

PC: Humanists have no set of prophets, revealed doctrines, or stories to teach from. Instead, Humanism is based on a method, not dogmas. At CQ, we rely on academic research from science and philosophy, where content is always tentative and changes as we learn. We take lessons from whichever story or “prophet” brings us one step closer to truth. Therefore, no conclusion is sacred and everything is put to the test of reason and experience. I’ve always liked the analogy of the pack rat: We store up anything that’s shiny and has a glimmer of truth without any mind to whether it’s a king’s ring or beggar’s button.

There’s also no God to worship or heaven to idealize. Instead, our curriculum focuses on finding awe and beauty in everything around us here and now—from the glow of the stars to the math that predicts their movements. Camp provides a perfect atmosphere for nurturing this kind of inborn wonder.

CS: Some atheists might feel that a summer camp for atheist, agnostic, and Humanist youth is too similar to a fundamentalist church camp and worry about “indoctrination.” How would you respond to these concerns?

PC: Indoctrination lacks critical thinking and questioning by definition, and this is exactly what we emphasize. Additionally, indoctrination usually involves a kind of emotional manipulation by nurturing an “us versus them” approach to differences. Humanism is certainly susceptible here. But knowing this, we’re all the more conscious of making sure we don’t do it ourselves.

23 Comments

      • Good to know! :)

        It would be great if they can expand into the Northeast a bit more. Even though there is a plethora of non-religious summer camp options in those areas. I can see this sort of camp fitting in well in NY or NJ

          • So, let me get this straight:

            When religious people do this, they’re indoctrinating their children.

            When atheists do this, they’re not indoctrinating their children.

            Talk about double standards.

            And before anyone butts in and says “they’re promoting free-thinking!” well they can’t be if they shoot down anything that mentions God. In our limited understanding and knowledge of the universe, anyone saying there is “no god” and then teaching their children that and discouraging them to think of a Prime-Mover, is guilty of indoctrination.

      • There are a lot of good campfire songs without Gods

        The American Songbook – woody guthrie has some great ones.
        Heddie Ledbetter
        The Joni Mitchell songbook ALONE will suffice for some kids:
        Big Yellow Taxi: (“don’t know what you got til its gone”)
        The Circle Game: (“goes round and round”)
        Woodstock
        Ladies of the Canyon

        Beatles:
        All you need is Love.
        Imagine
        Across the Universe
        All things must pass
        Free as a Bird
        Here Comes the Sun
        I Feel Fine
        I’ll Follow the Sun
        IN MY LIFE
        Norwegian Wood

        Goodness – who needs gods for a camp song !?!
        The more I think of it
        the good ones are all without any mention of god at all.

    • So, let me get this straight:

      When religious people do this, they’re indoctrinating their children.

      When atheists do this, they’re not indoctrinating their children.

      Talk about double standards.

      And before anyone butts in and says “they’re promoting free-thinking!” well they can’t be if they shoot down anything that mentions God. In our limited understanding and knowledge of the universe, anyone saying there is “no god” and then teaching their children that and discouraging them to think of a Prime-Mover, is guilty of indoctrination.

  1. The Great God Pan

    “Some atheists might feel…”

    That’s awfully vague language, isn’t it? “Some” atheists “might” feel that Mr. Stedman is using imaginary third parties to air his own opinions.

    I’ve never seen a religious interviewer ask the head of a religious summer camp about “indoctrination” and demand a justification for their camp’s existence.

    • Actually, I appreciated the question because it is something that a number of atheists are rightfully suspicious. It was also a chance to further distinguish a trait of many harmful religious camps from what we’re aiming for at CQ.

    • What is most needed is for everyone to start practicing the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all…”

      We have no chance of progressing toward any wholesome good until we live with such a spirit in a nation that practices the genuine freedom for religion and freedom from religion that is meant by the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution.

      • “You have your freedom. If you can keep it.” – Benjamin Franklin

        SCOTUS shot down freedom from religion yesterday because the Christian Lobby wants to push their nonsense on all of us.

        Where is the outrage? Who is leading the opposition?

  2. Freethinkin Franklin

    excellent… hope they open one here in Florida. one would hope these “followers” of christ, would be more christ like and not bully those who do not submit to superstitions.

    i do agree with the comment asking for Jerry Falwell, Tammy Fay Bakker, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Ken Ham and Kent Hovind to get questioned about indoctrination of children…..

    • Gee, Freethinkin Franklin, you left out “Franklin” Graham and his father.

      We know all the big ones. It’s the “followers” in both camps who need changes of mind and attitude sets.

  3. Religious people who hold negative attitudes toward non-religious people are really hypocrites. Most religions, in spite of the evil histories of most of them, and in spite of the nasty attitudes many religious people hold toward non-religious people, especially free thinkers, urge their members to be good, decent, respectful and caring of others.

    Sadly, that is not the practice of uncountable, loud members of the various religions. Numerous religious people are arrogant and consider themselves better, brighter, more inspired, or more informed than people who do not accept religion. In many cases, as with the Taliban of Islam or with so many religious extremists in our presumed democracy, they are downright nasty toward others in their conviction that belief trumps all knowledge.

    Just as sad is the arrogance of too many free thinkers who hold those arrogant,negative attitudes toward people with religious convictions. Definitely, the odds are stacked against free thinkers, but we will never have peace in this world or this country until there are good attitudes on the part of religious people and free thinkers toward each other. Separation of church and state means both freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

  4. Actually-they do have “prophets”, those of the failed predictions of the prophets of doom & gloom of the environmental/global warming/climate change prophecies.
    They also have dogma, such as their origins myth of macro-evolution or the big bang theory (or as some secular scientist who now reject the big bang have come up with the brane theory, MOND, etc.).
    As for “nurturing an “us versus them” approach –that is exactly what they are doing-isolating themselves among like minded individuals who deny the existence of God.
    You people can be so PHONY sometimes….u know what I’m saying?

    • Jamie who can't believe

      David, you are so right.
      Old fashioned religion is what we need. Perfection has always been a part of God’s plan and we need not look elsewhere for the TRUTH!

      God commands it….Kill the women. Rape the little girls:
      “Moses was furious with all the military commanders who had returned from the battle. ‘Why have you let all the women live?’ he demanded. …They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys and all the women who have slept with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.” (Num:31:18)

      David,
      The lessons we learn from this chapter is that keeping a number of virgins for yourself is exactly what God wants us to do so no wonder it comes naturally. Men have been given this right to do with women whatever the men want to do – and the women should be made to understand that this is how they are to be treated.
      It is not merely my opinion (thank goodness) but the word of the living, loving God.

      God’s laws are perfect and unchanging. They never were flawed. Ever.
      So they are still good in the sense that we can admire them even if we don’t practice these laws as often as the religious would like.

      Jesus loved these laws as much as we do. He was God, you know.

    • Isn’t that what Christians do as well? Lock themselves away to include only those who believe in god? If you are so wanting to integrate, why don’t you suggest Christians go to a Unitarian Church then?

      Churches can have all their religious camps and nobody says anything about them, but people have a heart attack over a camp because it is Atheist.

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