Summertime camps boom: The 'Godless alternative' for non-believers

Even atheists are joining the rush to take the American way and pack off the kids for fresh air holidays. Jerome Taylor reports

Atheists have become the latest group to cash in on Britain's booming summer camp industry by creating the country's first-ever retreat for irreligious children. Billed as a "godless alternative" to traditional religious summer camps, the five-day retreat is being hosted by Camp Quest, an American organisation which uses the advertising slogan "Beyond Belief" and has a growing following in the States.

The existence of a humanist summer camp where religion is approached in a critical and rational manner adds to a growing pantheon of US-style holiday getaways in Britain ranging from evangelical Bible schools to fat camps for obese teenagers.

Camp Quest was founded in 1996 as an alternative to the Boy Scouts of America, which insists on members signing a "Declaration of Religious Belief". In response Camp Quest set up an alternative summer camp for the children of "atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and all those who embrace a naturalistic rather than supernatural world view".

The organisation has steadily grown in popularity and Camp Quest now holds annual gatherings in five American states and in Ontario, Canada.

The British camp, which will be held in Somerset at the end of July, is the first that Camp Quest has held outside of North America.

Samantha Stein, the 23-year-old organiser of the British version, attended a Camp Quest in Michigan in 2007 and decided to open up an equivalent camp in the UK.

"When I got back from Michigan I began researching summer camps in the UK and I was surprised by how many had a distinctly religious affiliation," she said. "There are many summer camps that cater for children with religious beliefs but there was nothing for children who are not religious and want to be able to discuss rational humanism with other non-believers."

In recent years Britain's summer camp industry has evolved to offer a vast array of American-inspired retreats, particularly within the evangelical Christian community.

The exact number of religious camps in the UK is unknown but Christian Camping International, an umbrella organisation which represents many of the evangelical groups that run religious getaways, claims more than one million Britons attend faith vacations through their affiliates every year.

Britain's growing obesity problem has also led to an explosion of American-style "boot camps" for overweight children and other versions, from rock camps to eco-retreats.

Camp Quest hopes that non-religious parents who might have been put off from sending their children to a faith-based retreat will now consider it instead. The organisers remain adamant, however, that the camp will not have a proselytising "atheist agenda".

"We don't teach children not to believe in God, we simply tell them it's OK not to believe in God," said Edwin Kagin, the 68-year-old founder of Camp Quest.

Miss Stein, studying for a Masters in religion at King's College London, said you do not have to be an aetheist to attend. "Most who have signed up come from non-religious backgrounds but the camp would be open to anyone who was religious as well," she said.

"We want to provide a space where people can learn that it is OK to be an atheist and that a lack of religion does not mean a lack of morals or ethics."

More than half of the 30 places have already been booked on the camp, which costs £275. Crispian Jago, an IT consultant from Hampshire, is sending his 12-year-old daughter India and 11-year-old son Peter to the camp.

"We're a non-religious family but not anti-religion," he said. "A lot of my religious friends insist their morality stems from a divine source rather than a natural one but I want my children to know they can have morals and ethics without needing to resort to a faith."

The five days in Somerset will consist of traditional outdoor activities such as canoeing and cycling, combined with discussions about religion and non-belief. The centrepiece of the camp is an ongoing discussion where participants are encouraged to try to disprove the existence of unicorns, which serve as a metaphor for God.

Campers are told that two unicorns live in the area and cannot be seen, heard or touched. The adult councillors pretend to believe in the unicorns on the basis that an ancient book handed down through the generations says they exist. The children are encouraged to try to prove that the unicorns do not exist. If anyone is successful they will be awarded a £10 note which has a picture of Charles Darwin on it and is signed by leading atheist academic Richard Dawkins.

In the US the prize is a "godless" $100 bill from before 1957, which was when the US placed the phrase "In God We Trust" on all its notes. No child has definitively disproved the existence of unicorns and won the prize. "The idea of the unicorn debate is not to prove God doesn't exist, it is to illustrate that having such debates with religious people is futile because in the end faith trumps everything," said Miss Stein.

In recent months British atheists have begun reasserting themselves against what they believe is the increasing political demandsof faith groups. In January, Christian evangelical groups were forced to launch an advertising blitz after a coalition of non-believers, led by the comedian Ariane Sherine and Professor Dawkins, paid for bus adverts stating: "There is probably no God: now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Forget 'Hi-De-Hi!': The new breed of camps

Street dancing camp: Want your child to wow the Britain's Got Talent judges? Try urban dance camps in Birmingham.

Rock camp: The YMCA at Fairthorne Manor near Southampton runs a School of Rock but without the drugs.

Eco-camp: Mill on the Brue is a non-profit Somerset based camp that teaches kids the benefits of a environmentally sustainable lifestyle.

Fat camp: Fit Farms in the Peak District has a series of "boot camps" for the overweight, including young people.

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