You might have been forgiven for thinking the BBC was introducing a new presenter of one of its ‘yoof’ shows. Small, mousey-haired, personable Samantha Stein was given prominent airtime right across the BBC network yesterday to talk about a children’s summer camp with a difference that she has set up in Britain.
For Ms Stein has an axe - a very big one - to grind. She is an atheist who believes that traditional faith-based summer camps are bad for young minds. So she has set up her own version, where children are encouraged to reject traditional religious teachings.
Around Ms Stein, 23, was a scene redolent of a Scout or Guide camp. In a lush, green corner of Somerset, Army-style tents were scattered in a clearing among trees. In the middle, makeshift log benches surrounded the compulsory, rock-ringed camp fire where, in the evening, the flames would play a merry dance across the circle of young faces.
This is not a modern take on Swallows And Amazons. Kumbaya is not sung here and the closest there is to a game is Hunt The Unicorn, of which more later. No, here at Camp Quest the hymn of choice is John Lennon’s Imagine, with its opening line: ‘Imagine there’s no heaven.’
Welcome to Britain’s first atheist summer camp for children aged between eight and 17.
Camp Quest - which stands for ‘Question, Understand, Explore, Search and Test’ - is supported by some of Britain’s leading atheists. Not surprisingly, the nation’s most prominent unbeliever, Richard Dawkins, a former professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford University, is among them.
The organisers insist that the week-long course at the Mill on the Brue outdoor activity centre will encourage youngsters to develop an open mind and their own belief system.
But others fear that it is little more than an attempt to indocrinate children with atheist views, closing their minds to all forms of organised religion.
Billed as ‘the first residential summer camp for the children of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and all those who embrace a naturalistic rather than supernatural world view’, Camp Quest UK this week opened its tent flaps to 24 children.
With the motto ‘It’s Beyond belief’, its organisers hope to provide an alternative to traditional faith-based breaks, such as those run by the Scouts and local church groups. Parents are paying £275 for their children to attend the event.
And to help get it rolling, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has made a donation of £500 to fund a ‘philosophy for children’ counsellor at the retreat.
Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, the atheists’ ‘bible’, says: ‘Camp Quest encourages children to think for themselves, sceptically and rationally. There is no indoctrination, just encouragement to be open-minded, while having fun.’
Ms Stein, the camp director, and new darling of the BBC, is more explicit. She says: 'I think that people are possibly getting tired of the influence that religion has in society, possibly an unearned influence, and trying to come up with alternative things that will instil values that they want to transmit to their children.
‘We are not prepared to just be quiet and shut up. We want to have our own point of view and have something for our own children.’
Ms Stein is doing a Masters degree in religion and contemporary society at King’s College, London. Born and raised in Buckinghamshire, she is the daughter of a non-practising Lutheran mother and a father who is a non-practising Jew. As Stein explains it, she was raised to ‘make up my own mind’.
The Camp Quest concept originated in the U.S. and Stein first read about it in the footnotes of Dawkins’s book The God Delusion while studying psychology at York University. She was so intrigued that she organised a private visit to a Camp Quest in Michigan two years ago, where she was inspired to set up an affiliated ‘mission’ in the UK.
She insists that the British camp will not take part in ‘Bible-bashing’. It will simply be a way of encouraging children to think for themselves.
But she admits that part of that process involves ‘encouraging the children to ask questions about beliefs’.
The British camp has, however, imported one prominent element from the original concept: a mind game centred on imaginary unicorns. The children are told to imagine that the camp is surrounded by unicorns which cannot be seen or touched, but which are there because there has to be ‘faith’ that they exist.
They are then encouraged to develop rational arguments to prove that the unicorns cannot and do not exist, with anyone who manages it awarded a prize - a £10 note signed by Richard Dawkins.
It does not take a genius to work out that the ‘unicorns’ are, of course, an unsubtle metaphor for any ‘invisible’ deity, whether Christian, Muslim or otherwise, though Ms Stein denies this is the case. ‘The unicorns are not necessarily a metaphor for God,’ she says. ‘They are to show kids how to think critically. We are not trying to bash religion, but it encourages people to believe in a lot of things for which there is no evidence.’ For example, the children will also study astronomy, ‘pseudo-science’ such as tarot cards, and question why horoscopes are so popular.
An expert from the Natural History Museum in London will give a talk on fossils, and a musician will perform ‘sceptical scientific songs’. A debate on ‘Can you believe what you see?’ will look at optical illusions. There are also physical activities such as river rafting and an assault course. Yet the whole event is part of a growing trend that has seen prominent atheists become increasingly vocal - some would say, zealous - in their determination to spread their belief that there is no God.
What do you all think about this?