A dispatch from atheist summer camp:
At Camp Quest Chesapeake, 34 campers have been asked to create, in the name of self-governance, a list of five rules that everyone should follow for the week.
"Be friendly to everyone." Camp director Sarah Menon reads an item from one picnic table's list before moving on. "Have your water bottle filled with water." "Don't attempt to fight telepathic bears without a helmet."
The goal of the exercise is to get campers to think about the democratic process: What is the purpose of creating and following rules? What if a rule passes that they don't agree with? Are they obligated to follow it anyway?
"We have a rule over here," Menon calls out cheerfully, "about worshipping."
The camper whose paper she has been reading looks affronted. "That," he says, in an exasperated verbal eye roll, "was a joke."
Perhaps one should begin with what these campers believe in. They believe in critical and creative thinking. They believe in mutual respect and living ethically. They believe in arts and crafts. But here in a wooded national park south of Manassas, Va., under shade trees and American flags and the mosquito haze of a swimming hole, they do not believe in God.
Camp Quest Chesapeake is a summer camp for atheists. Or the children of atheists. Plus: agnostics, secular humanists, freethinkers and other self-identified members of the non-religious community. This summer is the camp's first year here, and the second-largest launch in Camp Quest history.
The first Camp Quest opened in the Cincinnati area in 1996, founded by Edwin Kagin, an Eagle Scout who was annoyed with the religious overtones in modern Boy Scouting. Camp Quest had about 20 campers. In 2002, it incorporated, launching a branch in Tennessee. A few years ago the organization hired its first paid employee. There are now 10 Camp Quests in North America (including one in Toronto) and a few more in Europe.
At the picnic tables in Manassas, 30 miles southwest of Washington, the campers are asked to come up with a cabin cheer. Someone from one cabin -- which the campers have named Chocolate Rain -- elatedly suggests, "We Don't Believe in Cheers!"
"I don't have any freethinker friends at home," says Jake Monsky, thoughtfully. He's 11, with blond hair damp from spending his free time at the lake. At some of his friends' houses, the families pray before dinner. Jake says he bows his head because he doesn't want to be rude. He likes these friends a lot, but sometimes he thinks that if he told his friends that he isn't religious, "then they might not be my friends anymore."
Which gets at one of the camp's main purposes: It's the first chance that many attendees have ever had to be around people who will listen to their beliefs -- or lack thereof -- without fear or ridicule. In the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, 15 percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation, with nearly 2 percent specifically identifying as atheist or agnostic.
"I was a believer," says Amy Monsky, Jake's mom, who is a volunteer counselor at Chesapeake. She grew up Catholic. When she left that faith, "I feel like I lost that village that a lot of religious people have." Monsky wants to launch a Camp Quest branch in South Carolina, closer to her home.
"Think of how many hundreds of religious camps there are in this country," Kagin says. (The Christian Camp and Conference Association alone has 865 members, and there are many more that don't belong to the organization.) "Camp Quest is a night light in a dark and scary room for children of freethinking parents."
The site for Camp Chesapeake was the group's second choice. They originally tried to rent from a Methodist camp, but the Methodists edged away when they learned whom they were renting to. One religious blog has dubbed Camp Quest a "Re-Education camp."
"We want kids to know what critical thinking is and how to use it," says Menon, who works for the federal government. "And there's an ethics component. We want kids to know that they should do the right thing" even if they don't believe in heaven.
Which some might. Camp Quest offers daily lectures on world religions from an informational perspective. Also, lectures about famous freethinkers such as iconic physicist Richard Feynman and "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe.
Other atheist camp activities include atheist swimming, atheist nature hikes and atheist stargazing.
One of the more popular elective sessions on a recent afternoon is called Socrates Cafe, in which a counselor leads campers in a series of philosophical questions. The question today is, "What is knowledge?"
"Knowledge is common sense," suggests one of the counselors in training.
"What if your cultural values were cannibalism?" a camper named Valerie responds. "Wouldn't that be your common sense then?"
Soon the discussion goes broad, as philosophical discussions tend to do. Does knowledge relate to intelligence? To instinct? Is there any relationship between knowledge, and good and evil?
"No man considers himself evil," says Jacob Maxfield, 12. Even Adolf Hitler probably didn't think he was evil, Jacob continues, though he definitely made very, very bad choices.
"I'm an atheist, personally," Jacob says later. "But I don't get angry at other people for believing in God. I respect them. But sometimes I rub them the wrong way."
So, what has been his favorite part of camp so far? The Socrates Cafe? The deep discussions of ethics?
"Well," he considers carefully. Meeting other people like him has been really great. "But when I got here, someone asked me if I fence. Then I got a foam sword" and he and the other camper ran around the woods, between the cabins and through the fresh air, happily bopping each other. "That," he says, "was fun."