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Meditation 101
Camp Quest: An exposition on an alternative agnostic ministry

by the Rt. Rev. Len Zanger

A discussion has been opened on this Meditation. To contribute your own thoughts to this exchange of views, please use the Contact form.

What do we mean by “an Apathetic Agnostic ministry” and “promulgating the concept of Agnosticism”? Suppose we are successful in our efforts to incorporate as a tax-exempt church—what will follow as an organized means of gathering the dis-believers and forming communities?

In Patriarch John Tyrrell’s Meditation #10, he writes about his discussion of agnosticism with an eighteen-year old, and whether it is proper to discuss such things with a young person. I agree that this is not only proper, but necessary, and an obligation of adults to educate and inform children and young adults so that they can make informed decisions about their lives. I had a similar argument with a neighbor friend, and tried to explain to her that raising a child in a particular religion from birth defeats the intent of allowing a child to make informed decisions “when they’re old enough.” A child’s thought-processes are quite firmly established by age seven, and the Catholic church for one knows this. The teachings of most religions also tend to engender a distrust if not an outright dislike for competing faiths—religion is all about exclusivity. Where are alternative views supposed to come from? The fact is, except for rare cases, a person tends to remain in, and pass on the beliefs he or she grew up in. Alternative views to their religion are ignored at best, and are sometimes violently opposed. The idea that a child can “choose their own religion when they’re old enough” is simply a bad joke under these circumstances. Choosing no religion is not an option.

So, what about parents who have already shaken off these mental traps and are raising their children outside of any religious dogma? How do they preserve their values and personal liberty against the intrusions of a society that is daily becoming increasingly theocratic? And how do they preserve their ideas of ethical conduct, and morality based on humanistic principles, and fairly representing opposing views without becoming dogmatic themselves? Western educational and social institutions tend to reinforce theism, especially Christianity, and the non-believing parent is more hard-pressed than the Fundamentalist to protect their children from the influences of society, as supporting institutions are nearly non-existent.

There are certainly a few refuges for an adult freethinker, secular humanist, atheist or agnostic. With a handful of exceptions, these are all based in cyberspace and are all virtual communities on the Internet. The exceptions are scattered freethought or atheist groups, who meet in homes or in public libraries or in dorm rooms to complain about how they’re taken advantage of, and to rant and laugh about the myriad errors and contradictions in religious texts, wallowing in minutiae. I personally joined an atheist group, not because I identify myself as such (and don’t), but because their statement of principles is agreeable to my own, and because I wanted to get involved in activism supporting the First Amendment.

The problem with these groups is that they are targeted to ADULTS. Are there any social or educational institutions to reinforce secularly-based ethics and morals in children of parents who are non-believers? The public schools are supposed to be a secular arm of a secular government, but I don’t think anyone is fooled by the current reality. Despite this, I’ve found one that’s consistent with the questioning nature of agnosticism, and my views on early childhood education, and consistent with an Apathetic Agnostic ministry.

In 1996, Edwin and Helen Kagin, with the support of the Free Inquiry Group of Kentucky and Eastern Ohio, opened the first residential summer camp in the history of the United States for the children of atheists, secular humanists, humanists, freethinkers, and called it Camp Quest. In addition to a nice variety of recreational activities, there is also an educational program, covering science, the arts, and a bit of critical thinking. So, in addition to turning hikes into a form of nature study, and star-gazing into astronomy, kids are challenged in amusing ways, such as trying to prove that the two invisible unicorns residing at the camp don’t exist. There’s an unclaimed prize for that one. I highly recommend visiting the Camp Quest site at www.camp-quest.com to read about some of the challenges to campers in past years, and to visit Edwin Kagin's personal site. There's some interesting reading there.

It should be easy to see how this kind of program is consistent with a desire to promote agnosticism, or secularism in general. Camp Quest stresses knowledge over belief, and provides access to that knowledge. It distinguishes between the two by presenting religious ideas in the mythological framework they originated in. So there’s an introduction to cultural literacy as well. Not a lot, but enough to start making connections, and enough to generate more questions.

I contacted Mr. Kagin to ask if there were any plans to expand into Michigan, because our choices of a summer camp for our (now) eight-year-old ranged from joining the Cub Scouts (hah!) to sending him to an indoctrination camp where he would learn “Jeezus is my friend.” Unfortunately, there were no such plans, although they had opened a second camp in the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee. However, if I wanted to start it up myself, they would support me in any way possible.

To make a long story longer, I decided to jump in head-first. Camp Quest of Michigan is now organized as a non-profit educational and recreational corporation, and I am busy trying to secure a campsite. Like the Original and the Smoky Mountain Camp Quest, I will pay a fee to an existing facility, just as any independent educational organization (such as a school) would do. I have two very good prospects: One is a YMCA camp with very plush dining and recreational facilities, the other is a State-operated conference center, set-up as an educational facility, with lodging, dining hall and recreation and nature study opportunities nearby. Either way, Camp Quest of Michigan will offer its first camp sometime in July or August of 2003. As soon as I can launch a website, I'll post a link here.

So, does it make sense to this, to provide an alternative to the plethora of religious-based camps? Well, economically it doesn’t, but then, I’m not in it for the money. It’s also been a lot of work, with much more to be done. But in the sense that it provides a useful resource for a few dozen kids here, yes, it’s necessary and needed, given the level of response I’ve received.

Does it make sense to operate Camp Quest as a UCTAA operation? I’m convinced that it doesn’t, and I’m equally convinced it doesn’t matter. Camp Quest of Michigan is an independent non-profit corporation, whose only ties are to Camp Quest Inc. of Kentucky. There is a huge credibility factor involved in getting this thing off the ground, and there may be a lot of parents who don’t want their kids involved with an organization that relies heavily on satire—being outcasts on a single basis is quite enough for some people. It may also be quite dangerous to conduct a freethought activity as a “religion”, even though we’re not, really (a church, yes, but not a religion -- difference). Creationists have been trying to claim for decades that evolution, and indeed the scientific method itself, is the religious belief system of secular humanism, or whatever. Theoretically, this would permit the teaching of their religious belief system in schools out of fairness. Of course, science is not religion, and vice versa, and when creationism becomes testable and verifiable by natural means, then it should be allowed. But then, it wouldn't be religion any more--it would be science. The problem is that the fundygelicals have been getting away with that argument. They are saying that secularism is a religion and that science is its belief system. The Intelligent Design types have been arguing that supernaturalism is as viable an option as naturalism. And fools (read: school boards and legislatures) are buying it! Best to not give them any more ammunition.

Still, Camp Quest is my ministry. Other “traditional” ministries don’t have an overt element to them—education and medicine and historical research for example, can simply be personally fulfilling by answering a need, without also evangelizing on top of it (although this happens seldom). I can be apathetic about this not being an “official” UCTAA operation and risk accusations of copping out, because I’m accomplishing what I ordinarily would in a ministry: I’m providing a philosophical balance, helping kids think in ways and about things they might not otherwise, reinforcing and informing their decisions, and very very importantly, I’m passing it all on to another generation.

This is going to be very cool.

Rt. Rev. Len Zanger - email

Bishop of Oakland County Michigan

Director, Camp Quest of Michigan, Inc.

P. O. Box 656, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan 48303-0656