As the clocks change to daylight saving time Sunday, even though the climate doesn't yet display significant seasonal change, people are making plans for the future. Summer camp is on that list—faith-based for some people, scout camps of course, and arts- or athletics-oriented camps. And then there's Camp Quest, featured in a children's book written by Barbara Williams and illustrated by Phil Deckebach, both of Toledo.
There are “two invisible unicorns that roam the land” of the camp, its founder, Edwin Kagin, claims in the book, Welcome to Camp Quest. If a camper can disprove the existence of the unicorns, Kagin will give the child a “godless” $100 bill—printed before “In God we trust” was added to currency in 1954.
There is an instructive tie between the unicorns and God, for Camp Quest “is particularly geared towards building a community for children from atheist, agnostic, humanist and other freethinking families,” the website, campquest.org, says.
“I have talked with kids that have gone through, and they just love it,” said Ms. Williams, an organizer of Great Lakes Atheists in Toledo. “It was a great experience for them to come to a place which is a camp. It's just like a regular camp, basically, but —”
“— They don't feel marginalized,” Mr. Deckebach said.
“They don't,” Ms. Williams agreed. “They're free to be themselves, absolutely. They're free to express their opinions, they don't have to be afraid, they don't have to be in the closet.”
The unicorn story is told the first night. “That sets the tone where kids get to think and ask questions and do things skeptically,” Ms. Williams said. “They discuss issues, even death. They tackle serious questions in a comfortable surrounding. They're not afraid of being shut down for what they think or what they express. I felt bad that I never knew this existed when my daughter was a kid. I told my daughter the message was kind of, stay in the closet with this because you might get in trouble at school.”
These days Ms. Williams shares her atheism, so people can “find out a little bit more about us in a non-threatening manner. [They have] a chance to see that maybe we're just regular weirdos instead of awful, evil weirdos—or just regular people." She accepts that a religious person might say, “'Well, gee, I can see they're not right on this and this and this,'" she said, and "that should make them firm in their beliefs.” And a place like Camp Quest can help a questioner think about such issues as divinity and beliefs.
Quest stands for “question, understand, explore, search, test,” said Amanda Metskas, executive director of Camp Quest, Inc., in Columbus.
There are similar camps in 15 U.S. locations, and partner camps in Switzerland and the U.K. Camp Quest Ohio is descended from the first Camp Quest, founded by Mr. Kagin, who was the camp director its first 10 years, and others in the Free Inquiry Group of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. “The original camp started in 1996 and met in Kentucky at the Bullittsburg Baptist Church [Petersburg, Ky.] camp in 1996 and 1997,” Ms. Metzger said.
Mr. Kagin “had been an Eagle Scout,” Ms. Williams said; today he is national legal director of American Atheists, “and he thought it would be nice to have a camp devoid of religious references, primarily Christian references.” Believers in God are welcome, too, and staff realize that children's outlooks are still in formation, but “the chances are 100 percent are going to be from atheist families at Camp Quest,” Ms. Williams said.
Ms. Williams learned about the camp in 2012 when Mr. Kagin spoke at a Great Lakes Atheists meeting. To spread the word, she thought a book for camp-age children, age 8 to teenage, would be appropriate. “And I knew Phil was a good artist, and he had a lot on his plate when he agreed to do this. This is an amateur operation … It's all done with love and respect for Camp Quest. Phil … steps up to the plate and did the book, and I'm just grateful for that.”
“You coerced me, Barb,” Mr. Deckebach joked.
The 101-member Great Lakes Atheists has four events coming up, and all are open to the public. Sean Sherman, who writes the blog Godless in Detroit, will speak at Sanger Library, 3030 W. Central Ave., at 6 p.m. Monday. The PBS program Botany of Desire will be shown at Sanger March 17 at 6 p.m. On April 13 at 1:30 p.m. at Rossford Public Library, 720 Dixie Hwy., Rossford, the group celebrates Madalyn Murray O'Hair's birthday; Ms. O'Hair, a late atheist leader, “spent some high school years in Rossford,” Ms. Williams said. And on April 23, the group will hand out copies of the book Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, as well as atheist books, at the main TARTA bus stop in downtown Toledo at 5 p.m. as part of World Book Night.
Camp Quest Ohio will take place June 14-21 on the grounds of Camp Graham, a 4-H camp in Clarksville, Ohio. Camp Quest Michigan is July 20-26 at Camp Kidwell in Bloomingdale, Mich., also a 4-H camp. For Ohio, the cost is $585, with an early-bird rate of $550 if paid by March 31. For Michigan, the cost is $500, or $450 if paid before May 1. There are price reductions for more than one camper from the same family, and “campership” aid is available for both camps.
More information and links to individual camp websites are at campquest.org. The book Welcome to Camp Quest is available at amazon.com. The Great Lakes Atheists website is at meetup.com/Great-Lakes-Atheists.