Rain drums down on the roof of the marquee where the 24 children attending Camp Quest are listening to a talk on astronomy. The fates appear to have conspired against what is being described as Britain’s first atheist summer camp, but its organiser, Samantha Stein, insists: “We’d like the rain to stop but, no, we aren’t going to pray for it.”
This soggy field at a Somerset activity centre is attracting a lot of attention as the site of Britain’s first overtly non-religious summer camp. Cameramen trip over lighting equipment and a Danish journalist insists on asking deep philosophical questions.
In the midst of it all the intended audience of children, aged 7 to 15, are being taught the difference between astrology and astronomy. There are no prayers or religious services and even the camp fire songs have been vetted for covert references to a deity.
Camp Quest’s founder, Edwin Kagin, a 68-year-old American lawyer, is here to see for himself how his British branch is shaping up. He set up the organisation in 1996 after hearing of a Scout turned away from camp because he admitted to being an atheist. There are now six Camp Quests in the United States and one in Canada. The response to the camp at the Mill on the Brue centre in Bruton, has been overwhelming and next year’s event is already nearly fully booked.
To some extent, though, Samantha Stein is preaching to the converted.
Only Courtney, 15, from Nottinghamshire, admitted to regular church attendance. She says: “Mum and dad are atheist but my grandmother is a Christian. My dad thought this would be a good idea because he wants me to form my own opinions.”
One of the tasks the children have been set is to disprove the existence of two invisible unicorns they have been told are roaming the camp. Miss Stein says: “We have told them they can’t be seen or heard or sensed in any way but we all have faith that they exist. So far no camper has been able to prove they don’t exist.”