Sunday, July 30, 2000

At summer camp, beliefs unite gatherers

No God here, just fun

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        OREGONIA, Ohio — Ah, the pleasures of summer camp: swimming, roasting marshmallows, riding horses ... and never once being asked to thank God for it.

        Nearly everyone at Camp Quest rejects the existence of God, which makes it unique among thousands of camps across the nation. Founded five years ago by the Free Inquiry Group of Cincinnati, it rents space every July from the YMCA's Camp Kern near Lebanon.

        For one week, children from all corners of the United States — and this year, two from Great Britain — come to Camp Quest for fun with their own kind.

        It's a relief, the kids say. Nobody refuses to play with them because they don't believe. Instead, campers fall into an easy camaraderie over chess, archery, star-gazing and fossil-collecting.

(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        Woven throughout are lessons about the natural world and humankind's ability to thrive in it. Guest professors give talks on the sex life of spiders and the merits of philosophy versus science.

        Around the campfire, Bible stories are told as just that — fictional tales that influence Western literature.

        Camp Quest's focus is secular humanism, which embraces science and reason as the proper tools for understanding the world and solving moral dilemmas. It works, the children say.

        “It's just your inner self,” explains Alvita Akiboh, 10, of Indianapolis. “If you do something bad, you're going to have that guilty feeling for the rest of your life, whether you get punished or not.”

        Camp Quest is believed to be the only camp of its kind. It began after Edwin Kagin, a lawyer from Boone County, proposed the idea at a meeting of the Council for Secular Humanism in Amherst, N.Y. The project was adopted by the Free Inquiry Group of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, which made Mr. Kagin the director.

        His quirky critique of organized religion has become part of the Quest experience. It also has made the camp an awkward fit in the Bible Belt.

        Three years ago, Quest rented space in a Boone County campgrounds owned by Baptist churches. When campers arrived that summer, they found “Jesus loves you” written on mirrors in the cabins. This year, the Baptists successfully lobbied to have Kentucky's civil rights law changed so they could deny access to atheists.

        Camp Questers are still annoyed by the snub. They say it's difficult to reason with religious people.

        Every year at Camp Quest, Mr. Kagin issues his unicorn challenge, telling the children there are two invisible unicorns on the premises. If they can prove otherwise, they win $100.

        One of the lessons: humanists cannot prove a negative and shouldn't try. Everyone, including atheists, should have the freedom to believe what they want.

        “There are a lot of differences in the world, and if people didn't have their rights, then a lot of people would be minorities,” Alvita says.

        For all the humanist propaganda, the 47 children at this year's camp seemed most impressed by the sheer fun of it all. They painted, went canoeing, waded in the river and climbed rock walls.

        For Sophia Riehemann, 10, the week was a chance to be a kid without interference from the pious.

        At Grandview Elementary School in Bellevue, Ky., a classmate once asked Sophia whether she believed in God, then told everyone Sophia was going to hell.

        “I don't believe it, though,” Sophia says. “I think they're all stupid.”

        Last week, those clashes were far from her mind. She lived in her bathing suit and rode piggyback on anyone who would oblige. Her favorite activity was “marshmallow cooking — yum, yum, yum!”

        Leave it to a 10-year-old to find the essence of camp — even one where invisible unicorns roam.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at