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Originally published Monday, July 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Kids' camp for nonbelievers

At Camp Quest, campers may not believe in God, but they do have faith in their community.

McClatchy Newspapers

Religious war

U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, a California Republican, wants Congress to spend nearly $100,000 to engrave the words "In God We Trust" and the Pledge of Allegiance in prominent spots at the Capitol Visitor Center.

Lungren's proposal was passed last week by the House of Representatives 410-8.

But the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation last week sued to stop the engraving, accusing Lungren of trying to force his religious beliefs on the 15 percent of all U.S. adults who are "atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers, none of whom possess a belief in a god," according to the lawsuit.

The Senate has approved a similar plan introduced by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

McClatchy Newspapers

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NEVADA CITY, Calif. — At Camp Quest, campers may not believe in God, but they do have faith in their community.

On July 12, 49 children from across the Western United States arrived at the camp nestled in the hills outside Nevada City. It is one of five summer camps in the country for the children of atheists and other nonbelievers.

In a campground in Malakoff Diggins State Historical Park, the campers have many of the traditional summer experiences. They practice archery in the meadow, participate in team competitions and gather around the campfire at night to sing.

Their activities, however, have a decidedly secular twist.

Campers play games that encourage critical thinking such as one called Evolution and another where they are asked to prove something invisible doesn't exist.

Before meals, they learn about freethinking heroes such as Margaret Sanger and Isaac Asimov. Many of their camp songs promote rational thought, such as their version of this children's classic:

Twinkle twinkle little star

You're a ball of gas that's very far

32 light-years in the sky

10 parsecs which is really high ...

Here, it's all about celebrating their belief in not believing.

"It's important for them to have a place to learn how to investigate the world and to not accept what they hear," said camp director Chris Lindstrom of Los Altos, Calif. "Plus the kids enjoy meeting other kids from similar families."

It makes them feel a part of a larger community.

Atheism has been a subject of several recent best-sellers, including Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and Christopher Hitchens' "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."

Nonbelievers make up a small part of the population. According to the Pew Forum's 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 1.6 percent of the adult population consider themselves atheist; 2.4 percent call themselves agnostic.

Camp Quest, which started in 1996 in Ohio, is now offered in Minnesota, Michigan, Tennessee, Ontario and California. Attendance at the California camp, officially called Camp Quest West, has gone from 14 to 49 in four years. Campers attribute the growth to positive word-of-mouth on atheist chat sites.

Soon after the campers arrived last Sunday, they gathered outside the dining hall. The children's ages range from 9 to 17. Most campers are from California; some traveled from as far as New Mexico.

After a brief introduction, they heard how Socrates questioned the religion of his day. Afterward, the campers headed inside for a spaghetti dinner. One joked aloud that here, at least, they wouldn't have to say grace.

Everyone who heard him laughed.

Many campers said they were relieved to be with kids from other atheist families.

"I live in a small town and at my school a lot of the kids will flaunt their religion," said Cameron Musser, 16, who wanted to attend the camp to be around other nonbelievers. "We don't have to worry about that here."

Rebekah Hinckley, 12, learned about the camp from her parents, who thought it was worth the drive from Oxnard, Calif., and the $450 cost of the six-night camp.

While their parents are atheists or freethinkers, many of the children said they are unsure of their beliefs. Hinckley said she is not ready to label herself an atheist.

"I don't really believe in God," Hinckley said. "But really, I'm just not sure."

That's the kind of thinking-for-yourself that is encouraged at Camp Quest.

One lesson in critical thinking involved a campfire story about an invisible monster name Schree. Staffers pretend they believe a monster exists because their parents told them so or a friend who told them about it is really cool. They vow to pay a camper $10 to prove it doesn't exist. No camper has won.

"It helps them learn that these kind of arguments don't go anywhere," Lindstrom said. "And that they shouldn't believe everything they hear."

At 10, Lili Thorson is one of the youngest campers. Her father picked out the camp for her. Lili does not know what she believes or doesn't believe, though. "My dad told me I'm too young to decide yet."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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