Camp Quest and Atheism on Front Page of Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-campatheist_27jun27,1,4522407.story?page=2&coll=chi-news-hed

A camp they can believe in

Ohio’s Camp Quest lets young atheists enjoy summer fun with like-minded children

By Ron Grossman
Tribune staff reporter

June 27, 2007

CLARKSVILLE, Ohio — At the same time youngsters at Bible camps across the nation are reciting, “Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep,” kids at Camp Quest are climbing into their bunks, confident there is no one out there to hear those prayers.

Proudly proclaiming the motto “Beyond Belief,” Camp Quest bills itself as the nation’s first sleep-away summer camp for atheists. Founded in 1996, it has inspired four similar camps across the nation for children whose parents are either opposed or indifferent to religion.

Much of what goes on here, amid the cornfields of southwestern Ohio, is little different from any other camp. Campers canoe on the Little Miami River, practice archery skills and go on nature hikes.

To be sure, they also engage in some unusual rainy-day discussions of philosophical issues. Children who barely come up to an adult’s waist toss around terms such as “circular logic.” And those nature hikes focus on the beauty of evolution, unaided by any unseen hand.

Atheism has been experiencing a revival, as it were. Some national surveys show the numbers of non-believers growing. Books hyper-critical of religion are best-sellers. The biologist Richard Dawkins argued in “The God Delusion” that religion is just that. Faith as the source of all evil was explored with burning passion by Christopher Hitchens in “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

But more than a training ground for a movement, Camp Quest is a place to set down the burden of being different.

Children who grow up in Christian households have the emotional security of being in the nation’s majority. Members of religious minorities have similarly minded friends and relatives. But coming from a family that does not believe in God often sets a child on a lonely road.

Frieda Lindroth, a first-year camper, recognized that her first day at Camp Quest.

“‘Wow!’ I said to myself, ‘I’m not alone,’” said Frieda, 12. She recalls being an atheist since the 2nd grade.

For its inaugural season, Camp Quest drew 20 campers. This year, it enrolled 47 young people, ranging from 8 to 17 years old, for its weeklong session at a campground rented from a 4-H group. About 100 others will attend Quest’s daughter camps in Michigan, Minnesota, California and Ontario, Canada.

A Harris Interactive survey in 2003 found that 9 percent of Americans don’t believe in God, while another 12 percent are uncertain about the issue. Even if their numbers are lower, the Secular Coalition for America calculates that the ranks of non-believers are larger than the combined number of religious Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Presbyterians, Hindus, Muslims and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Camp Quest’s founder, Edwin Kagin, thinks non-believers have become more outspoken as a reaction to the religious right. School boards have inserted “intelligent design” into their curricula almost as fast as the courts can veto such measures.

Kagin and his wife, Helen, founded Camp Quest out of frustration with what they saw as a forced march to theocracy. His father was a minister in a family line of Presbyterian clergy tracing back to John Knox, the great Scottish reformer.

“But I went to college and started reading books my father had preached against,” said Kagin, 66.

Kagin has a full beard, a rolling gait and a sardonic delivery reminiscent of Mark Twain, as played by Hal Holbrook. He became active in atheist causes but was frustrated by lawyers hired to fight them. So he got a law degree and became the legal director of the activist group American Atheists.

In the 1990s, the Boy Scouts, a chief sponsor of camping in America, began excluding atheists and gays from its leadership. That prompted the Kagins to create an outdoorsy alternative for non-believers.

“We wanted a camp not to preach there is no God,” said Kagin, “but as a place where children could learn it’s OK not to believe in God.”

Many Camp Questers have wrestled with that issue on their own, among them Sophia Riehemann, a 9th-year camper. She long avoided the words “under God,” during recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance at school.

“This year, I stopped getting up and saying the Pledge,” said Riehemann, 16, who, like other campers, reports that it is taxing constantly negotiating with the world of believers. “Here at camp, that little barrier is finally down.”

Like many campers, Riehemann comes from a home that stresses a scientific explanation of reality in place of the biblical account. Similarly, the dining room walls at Camp Quest are hung with portraits of notable free-thinkers and scientists, ranging from Darwin and Einstein to Woody Allen, honored for giving comedic expression to religious skepticism.

Riehemann notes that a secular perspective takes away childhood joys other kids have, such as Christmas. But that doesn’t bother her. “They have Santa Claus,” she said, “and we have Isaac Newton.”

Like Riehemann, other campers report the painful experience of publicly declaring their lack of religious belief. Like gay people, they call it “coming out.”

Allison Page, 9, read a book of Bible stories and decided they “were just silly.” When her classmates found that out, they called her names and threatened her. That prompted her parents to home-school Allison. They sent her to camp so she would have summertime playmates.

Allison reports finding the Bible incompatible with her experience of life. An only child who’d like to have siblings, she was stumped by the story of Cain and Abel.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Allison said. “A brother wouldn’t kill his brother.”

Sheridan Scott, 10, encountered hostility on the front lines of atheist activism. He and his mother are part of a group of Florida atheists that raises the banner for non-belief in public places.

“As a hobby,” he explained. “But some people are so hostile, yelling at us: ‘You will go to Hell.’”

Ed Golly, a camp counselor, belongs to the Florida atheist-activist group. When members saw Christian revivalists preaching on the streets of a Tampa night-club district, they mounted counterdemonstrations.

“We hold up banners saying, ‘Jesus is not Coming’ and ‘No Prayer in School,’” said Golly, 55, a volunteer like all the staff.

A small-craft pilot, Golly flies his airplane to camp and takes campers up in it. They gleefully report that, at least as high as a Cessna can go, there is no evidence for a God in the sky.

Much of the learning at Camp Quest is similarly non-directive. Atheism isn’t so much advocated as set alongside traditional belief systems. There are meal-time talks on various religions. Campers debate questions such as, “Would the world be better off without religion?”

Many of the young people come to more measured conclusions than Dawkins and Hitchens, acknowledging religion has some virtues, like providing some people a sense of community.

But at the final campfire, it was obvious how most Camp Questers come down on the question of belief. The young people giggled and laughed through skits and songs, savoring for one last moment being just one of the gang.

For the concluding act, Edwin Kagin stood in front of the crackling flames, pounding an oversized walking stick worthy of a biblical prophet. He broadly impersonated an evangelical preacher, exhorting his congregation to believe in the unseen.

“Who needs proof, if we have faith?” he asked.

All around the campfire, young hands went up.

———-

[email protected]

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

Wonderful Article in City Beat on the Rally for Reason

http://citybeat.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A139674

City Beat

Cincinnati, Ohio

The Big Story

Cover Story: Fantastic World

Creation Museum tells a whopper of a tale, with a literal interpretation of Genesis only the beginning

BY Lew Moores | Posted 06/13/2007

Gene Kritsky, evolutionary biologist, walked through the museum. With a camera strap around his neck, he listened to the sound of falling water and walked past a model of a child offering a carrot to a squirrel as two model juvenile dinosaurs played just feet away, past a glass display of live finches, past a dinosaur model perched on a ledge, looked down at another display and learned that poison dart frogs were once benign creatures, “very good,” just like every living creature until Adam went and sinned.

Kritsky raised his camera to his eye and captured the images, this record of life explained through another lens called the Book of Genesis. A film crew from the BBC approached, lifted camera to shoulder and asked Kritsky for an explanation: What is the Creation Museum all about?

“It’s bait-and-switch,” Kritsky would explain moments later, BBC interview concluded. Get them in with dinosaurs, then let the message morph. Adam sins, Noah’s ark arrives.

Then it’s on to more biblical history and on to a subterranean world that is wrought by sin and animated with a basement of lurid graffiti garishly lit that exposes and excoriates abortion, homosexuality, pornography.

Evolution and the culture wars. In this dank, subway-like atmosphere of headlines that scream of teen pregnancies and drugs among those other vices, AiG and the museum tries to connect the dots.

“Over the last four decades, historic Judeo-Christian values have been under attack, causing many Christians to become actively engaged in areas of politics, entertainment and culture,” according to a museum position paper. That includes abortions, consideration of same-sex marriage, religious displays “removed from the public square,” prayer and the Bible being removed from public schools.

Absolute moral truth is being replaced with secularism, says AiG. “Rising reports of violence, sexual deviance, and other social ills all stem from the fact that America has lost its moral footing,” the position paper says. America needs to return to a Christian worldview, a “return to the authority of the Bible … beginning in the book of Genesis.”

Reject Genesis, if you will — this is where it leads.

“The dinosaurs?” Kritsky continued. “They’re eye candy for kids. A lot of kids get into science because of dinosaurs. I did. For me it was Frito Corn Chips. Seven years old and little dinosaurs were in Frito’s. I asked my mom what was that, and she said, ‘A dinosaur.’ So they’re using dinosaurs as an eye candy.

“At the risk of sounding really mean, it’s almost like intellectual molestation.”

Scopes redux
Kritsky is a professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Delhi Township and an adjunct curator at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. He was one of some 4,000 people who showed up May 28 to take a walk through biblical history at the Creation Museum, a 60,000-square-foot institution costing a whopping $27 million built on more than 40 acres of land in suburban Petersburg near the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. The Museum is dedicated to the belief that the Earth is but 6,000 years old, that a science that suggests life on this planet is millions of years old is wrong, that the first man looked like a hippie, the first woman looked like Grace Slick.

“The purpose of this museum is not science, the purpose is not to improve the intellectual understanding of the natural world,” Kritsky said after touring the museum, which opened Memorial Day weekend to much fanfare and media attention from around the world. “The purpose of this museum is sectarian, and it is a ministry designed to promote a very narrow view of and interpretation of Christianity.”

The Creation Museum is located among rolling hills of farmland, with metallic stegosaurs standing sentry at its gates, and its closest neighbors are soybeans and killdeer. The locale is deceptive; it is less than 10 miles by interstate from the airport — a 10-minute drive in a rental car — and, as the museum staff points out, within 650 miles of two-thirds of the country’s population.

It was some seven years in the making, groundbreaking to completion. When the making finally arrived, it turned out to be a dizzying weekend. A ribbon cutting was attended by close to 1,000 guests and media, including reporters for foreign publications and for Christian radio.

An opening held two days later attracted 4,000 visitors. A protest organized just outside the gates packed more than 100 — many of them academics, scientists and a smattering of agnostics and atheists — onto a corner of a field. They held aloft banners and signs just off the side of the country road and cheered when passing motorists honked car horns in approval.

Ken Ham, the museum’s media-savvy founder and president of Answers in Genesis (AiG), the ministry that built the museum, reached back 82 years to a day in Dayton, Tenn., when the Scopes trial began, an event immortalized by play and film and yet largely misunderstood today.

He said at the museum’s May 26 ribbon-cutting ceremony that back in 1925 the “world’s media” gathered to cover the Scopes trial, a case that challenged a state law banning the teaching of evolution in public schools.

It was, he said, a time in which “the world’s media gathered for an event in which the Bible was openly ridiculed. The first time the world’s media saw that … it was the turning point in Christendom in many ways. … I believe in 2007, as the world’s media is interested in this place, what they’re coming to is a place that doesn’t ridicule the Bible.”

Sin causes weeds
The Scopes trial, of course, didn’t end the debate about creationism; that would go on legally another 62 years. John Scopes and evolution lost in 1925. The trial, unlike later cases, wasn’t about teaching creationism; it was about outlawing the teaching of evolution. But his conviction was overturned on a technicality.

The trial was something of a staged affair; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wanted a case it could take to a higher appellate court for a ruling more definitive, and Dayton wanted it to attract attention and commerce to the community. Scopes’ defense team of ACLU lawyers feared the inclusion of Clarence Darrow, an agnostic, whom they thought would detract from the issue of academic freedom — teaching evolution. They also feared the trial would be reduced to an argument of God’s existence.

Some of those same fears were manifested just weeks ago when the Rally for Reason was being planned to protest the museum. Rally organizers included atheists, while another group, Campaign to Defend the Constitution (Defcon), was wary of appearing to align criticism of the museum with atheism. As it turned out, both mostly avoided references to whether or not there is a deity.

Edward J. Larson is a professor of history and law at the University of Georgia and winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for history for his book, Summer for the Gods (Harvard University Press), which is about the Scopes trial. Larson said he toured the museum a year ago before completion.

He and others point out that Inherit the Wind, a play of the 1950s and film of the 1960s that shaped how many viewed the creationism debate was not so much about creationism as it was about McCarthyism and conformity of thought. William Jennings Bryan, the flamboyant former presidential candidate who helped with the prosecution, wasn’t nearly the anti-intellectual he appears in the play to be. He was actually something of a progressive in Larson’s book, a majoritarian — people speak through their legislature, and that is something sacrosanct — who railed almost as much against cut-throat capitalism, social Darwinism and eugenics as he did against evolution.

Larson isn’t as derisive of the museum as some of his academic peers.

“I think it is an important cultural edifice,” he said. “For me, as a scholar who doesn’t believe like they do, it’s interesting to see what they’re visualizing. It captures visually what many people see in their mind when they read Genesis or when they read Ken Ham’s materials. It recreates what they see and adds force to it. … I think Ken Ham and Genesis are sincere when they raise social concerns.”

Are you sympathetic to what they believe?

“I don’t think ‘sympathetic’ is the word,” Larson said. “People are people, and they should be able to believe what they want to believe. And what they want to say.”

Take that walk through the museum and you pass from science to Bible to biblical history to science again. You pass through a Garden of Eden and learn that, before Adam sinned, there was no death.

There was no venom, no disease. All creatures were vegetarians. There were no carnivores — T. Rex apparently used its sharp teeth to crack open coconuts — no scavengers, no aging. There was no burdensome work. Indeed, there weren’t even any weeds. There were apparently no metal fixtures.

Yet Kritsky noticed that, as Cain killed Abel in one museum display, Abel had metal fixtures on his sandals.

The new Rome
The response has been good, Ken Ham said at the press conference and ribbon-cutting two days before the museum opened. He had done 43 interviews with various media in that week alone, media from eight countries. The previous week Ham spent more than an hour with Chris Comer and Rob Ervin on the Chris & Rob Show on WAIF (88.3 FM).

The Australian native talked about how he arrived in this country 25 years ago.

“One of the things I recognized is, if you want to get a message out around the world,” he told Comer, “or you want to affect the Christian world, America is the place to do it from. It really is the center of the Christian world.”

Ham told Comer of his dream of building a museum, “something using cutting-edge technology, something as good as what the secular world could do, so Christians could have something first class and professional that helps people understand that science actually confirms the Bible’s history.”

Two weeks after the radio show, the museum was dedicated. A single-engine plane flew overhead trailing a banner that said, “Defcon says, ‘Thou shalt not lie.’ ”

“They say our science is bogus,” Ham was saying. “But it is exactly the same science that these people study. We all study the same genetics. … It’s the belief about origins — that’s what’s different.”

What’s been the response so far?

“One of the overwhelming responses has been, ‘Wow!’ ” Ham said. “This place is so professional, so first class. … We believe some of them will actually be converted to Christianity.”

Ham was asked about the banner overhead.

“They’re quoting the Bible, which is interesting,” he said. “They don’t believe in the Bible. They have a particular agenda. They defend abortion, they defend gay marriage, they defend embryonic stem cell research. They’re against the religious right, which they accuse us of being a part of, which we’re not. That’s their agenda. It’s a front for what I call a liberal agenda.”

The ribbon-cutting attracted a fair number of Northern Kentucky politicians: State Rep. Addia Wuchner, State Sen. Dick Roeding, State Sen. Jack Westwood, Boone County Commissioner Charles Kenner.

Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore thanked AiG for choosing Boone County, calling the museum a “fantastic facility.”

“What a momentous day, what an accomplishment,” he said. “What it will mean to our county in terms of tourism, in terms of economic impact and impact from a conservative-values point of view. We know the message you will promote here is a message the world needs to hear.”

‘Bad religion’
It was as Gene Kritsky entered the graffiti-laden subterranean area that he felt the museum gave up all pretense of being a science museum. He turned and said, “What does this have to do with science? This is a political statement made by the people who run this museum. This is an insult.”

But when he finished his visit, Kritsky was asked how he would characterize it.

“You could talk about the quality of the exhibits,” he began. “Construction is very good. They have the eye candy going real well. They have all the right bells and whistles going in there. As any museum, it’s overwhelming. It should tire you out, it should barrage your senses. But it also insults your thinking. I saw nothing new that I haven’t read in creationist literature before. To me, the science is bad. The religion is sectarian and parochial. People who come in with that as a foundation will love it. People coming for the sheer joy of laughing will have a good laugh.

“They’re promoting a very narrow, sectarian view of religion. We don’t teach this at Mount St. Joseph. We’re a mainstream Catholic institution. If evolution turns out to be wrong, it’s just another theory that’s bit the dust. But they are espousing political statements as opposed to any kind of science. Not only is it bad science, it is filled with bad religion, and it’s also bad sociology and bad history, too.”

Not even the museum’s fiercest detractors argue that the museum shouldn’t be allowed to exist. They say that upfront; it was, after all, built with private money. But they will also tell you they wish it hadn’t been built.

Lawrence Krauss is a professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University. His objections to the museum are two-fold, much like Kritsky’s: what it might foist on an unknowing public, especially children, and its suggestion that to reject its literal interpretation is tantamount to denying God. (In fairness, Ken Ham did say at the May 26 press conference that those who believe in God and reject a literal Genesis “does not mean they’re not Christian; it means they’re inconsistent.”)

“I think what the people who made this museum want to happen is for scientists to complain about the museum make it appear as if they’re complaining about religion,” Krauss said. “This is an institution designed to mis-educate children. That is precisely what is happening here. This is an example where a group is effectively misinforming and mis-educating children. This is nothing but an institutionalized lie and a scientific fraud. My concern is whenever people complain about science is that we already do a poor job of teaching science in this country. The last thing we can afford is to make it worse.

“In order to argue earth and life are 6,000 years old, you have to deny essentially what we know about chemistry, physics, geology, biology, astronomy, the basis of all modern technology.”

Krauss had been asked to rate the museum on a scale of one to five after his walk-through.

“I gave it a four for technology, five for propaganda and a minus-five for content,” he said.

Edwin Kagin is a Union, Ky., attorney who is legal director of American Atheists, although he tries in this controversy to avoid references to atheism. Instead, he gets in the face of scientists whom he believes for too long avoided confrontation with creationism and its derivative cousin, intelligent design (ID), a school of thought that believes some organisms are so irreducibly complex that their existence cannot be explained fully by science and must have been created by an intelligent designer.

For the past several years — until recently — scientists generally avoided confrontation and debate with creationists and those who believe in ID for fear it would legitimize those beliefs. Kagin thought it a dumb strategy.

“The scientists have this ludicrous idea that it’s (a debate) not worthy of any kind of consideration, we should just leave it alone,” he said. “Well, that’s not working. When no one disagrees, people think it must be true.”

To ignore the Creation Museum is to give silent consent or acquiescence. It is a strategy, Kagin suggested, that allows stealth candidates with those beliefs to get elected to school boards.

“They are teaching children to ignore the basis for Western civilization and thought, which is the scientific method,” he said. “If people reject the hard-won truths of science, we could in a generation be back in another Dark Ages.

“What they are doing is no less an attack on the very way that science and enlightened thought works to produce the modern world. They want to substitute mythology for knowledge. Ignorance is a form of terrorism.”

Rick Boyce, a professor in the department of biological sciences at Northern Kentucky University, attended the Rally for Reason protest outside the gates on opening day — not as a scientist, but as a Christian.

“I agree with Lawrence Krauss when he says it’s a fraud,” said Boyce, who carried a sign at the rally that said, “Bad science, worse religion.”

“I am a biologist, but I’ve also been concerned about this as a Christian,” Boyce said. “I am a Quaker. As a Christian, I kind of resent being tarred with the same brush and lumped with the creationists. As a scientist, I’m offended when they say the earth was created 6,000 years ago. The story we tell is based upon what nature is telling us.”

Boyce is also somewhat surprised by the success AiG had in raising $27 million to build the museum. Young-earth creationism, he thought, was so yesterday.

“It’s definitely been revived here, even though we thought that it was history,” Boyce said.

It could be worse
To whom will the museum appeal? Certainly Christian fundamentalists, perhaps Sunday school groups and classes. Perhaps some children who are home-schooled.

Almost no one, including museum officials, believes public school students will be making field trips to the museum because of legal and constitutional issues. Kritsky would also include Catholic parochial students among those not attending on field trips.

“I’d be very surprised if they did,” Kritsky said. “Pope John Paul II said the Bible shows us how to get to heaven, not how the heavens were made. Catholic scientists must teach what is scientifically true and be ready to stand back if the Vatican or the pope issues a statement about the soul.”

In its first 10 days since opening, the museum attracted more than 21,000 visitors, according to the museum’s public relations firm, A. Larry Ross Communications in Dallas. About 4,000 attended the first day, a number that didn’t impress Krauss.

“I’m on the boards of three different science museums,” he said. “For something that was widely advertised and promoted by many in the media, having 4,000 on opening day is not so great. When I heard that number, I thought ‘That’s not that impressive.’ ”

It’s also difficult to assess what this might mean to the debate or whether a new battleground will open. It’s all but clear that creationism and/or intelligent design cannot be taught in science classrooms in public schools. Court cases such as Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968 (overturning a state law that essentially outlawed teaching evolution), McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education and Edwards v. Aguillard (a U.S. Supreme Court case that originated in Louisiana) in the 1980s chased creationism from public school classrooms.

The Kitzmiller v. Dover case less than two years ago put the kibosh on promoting intelligent design in Dover, Pa., classrooms. U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III, appointed to the federal bench by President Bush, wrote a scathing opinion, suggesting intelligent design was a smokescreen for religion, thus violating the Constitution.

“The breathtaking inanity of the (school) board’s decision is evident,” Jones wrote.

“Dover really stopped ID,” Kritsky said. “(Jones’) decision was so thorough it’s going to be very difficult for school boards to overcome that.”

Krauss has a similar assessment.

“For the moment, I think you see intelligent design on the run,” he said.

But Edwin Kagin believes the battleground is “right here” and the “Scopes trial is not ancient history. You see the movie Inherit the Wind and you think that’s that, the issue is settled.”

Then the Creation Museum opens, and people like Kagin wonder — and worry — about its resonance.

What might an institution like the Creation Museum do to a region’s reputation?

The Cincinnati Post weighed in with an editorial two days before the museum opened.

“Frankly, we wish the Genesis museum had been built somewhere else,” the newspaper wrote. “We wish the 250,000 men, women and especially children expected to visit this year were getting a view of science that comports with what science really knows about the world. Why? Because Greater Cincinnati is trying so hard to market itself, nationally and internationally as a hospitable home for a knowledge economy.”

Kritsky had said essentially the same thing in an interview with CityBeat on May 24.

“It doesn’t help,” he’d said. “This is a museum coming into an area that says there is a significant number of people here that are anti-technology, that are anti-science. If you want to get into the high-tech business today, if you want to get into robotics, if you want to attract companies here that want an educated workforce, that’s not going to help us convey that.”

Krauss also said the museum doesn’t help, but it’s not as damaging to a region as, say, when a school board or state legislature introduces intelligent design or creationism into a public school curriculum.

“Then the business community gets really concerned,” Krauss said. “But it’s not going to help give the impression that (Greater Cincinnati) is a center of enlightenment. It’s not going to help.”

Kritsky shared his photos of the museum with colleagues. They were astonished, he said.

“You can’t prove faith,” Kritsky began. “If you’ve got a problem with your faith, if you’ve got to distort science in order to prop up your reasons for believing, you need to talk to your rabbi, your priest, your minister, and then talk to yourself and look at yourself on the inside. Because if that’s what you have to do, distort science, then your faith’s not there. And that’s what this museum ultimately says.” ©