Atheist Vs. Christian Summer Camps: Which More Effectively Taught Their Worldview This Summer?

By Natasha Crain

A blog reader sent me some information recently on an atheist summer camp (thanks DD!). I was fascinated to read all that they are doing to promote an atheistic worldview with their young campers. It immediately made me wonder how Christian camps stack up. After all, about 40 percent of all U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 have been a camper at least once at a religious summer camp—making camp a perfect opportunity to give large numbers of kids an understanding of why there’s good reason to believe Christianity is true and how to defend their faith in a secular world.

So are Christian summer camps imparting this critical knowledge? To find out, I Googled “Christian summer camps” and visited the websites of 100 camps across the country. I spent hours going through these sites to see what they offer so I could share the findings with you.

I wish I could say I had a positive report.

Before we look at what I found, however, I want to first give you a glimpse of an atheist summer camp for comparison.

 

What Happens at Atheist Summer Camps?

The largest atheist summer camp is called Camp Quest. Camp Quest started 20 years ago and has grown to 14 locations throughout the United States. According to its website, “The idea to offer a summer camp program designed for children from atheist, agnostic, humanist, and other freethinking families originated partially in response to the Boy Scouts of America’s increasing enforcement of their policy requiring boys to profess a belief in God.  It became clear that children from nontheistic families needed their own place to belong and enjoy the summer camp experience.”

The camp’s tagline is, “Summer camp beyond belief!” Campers participate in all kinds of traditional camp activities—for example, archery, canoeing, climbing, crafts, dance, horseback riding, and swimming—along with an important core of “freethought” activities in line with the camp’s secular mission.

So what do they mean by “freethought”? They define it this way: “Broadly, it means cultivating curiosity, questioning and a certain disdain for just taking the word of authority; demanding evidence and knowing you can make your own observations even if they lead you to disagree.”

In other words, they do activities that aggressively teach kids their worldview in the context of others.

You might not immediately conclude this from their freethought definition. After all, doesn’tevery parent want to cultivate curiosity, encourage questions, and teach kids to think for themselves? Make no mistake, however: Camp Quest and all self-identified “free thinkers” ironically believe that freethought inevitably results in the same atheistic/agnostic conclusions.

One of the most loved freethought activities at camp is the Invisible Unicorn Challenge. The children are told that there are two invisible unicorns who live at Camp Quest but that they cannot be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched. They cannot escape from camp and they don’t eat anything. The only proof of their existence is contained in an ancient book handed down over countless generations. The challenge: Can you disprove their existence?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that these kids are supposed to see that the idea of God is just like these invisible unicorns. While the kids will learn that you can’t strictlydisprove God’s existence (how can you disprove invisible unicorns?), they’ll also learn that there’s no evidence of them, so there’s no reason to believe in them. (The claim that there’s no evidence for the existence of God is pervasive today but flawed—see chapters 1, 7, 8, 21, 27, and 28 in my book, Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith, for help talking to your kids about this subject.)

With activities like these, kids are actively learning why they should believe their worldview is an accurate picture of reality.

Meanwhile, at Christian summer camp…

 

What Happens at Christian Summer Camps?

I went to a Christian summer camp for several years as a kid and remember those weeks rather fondly. I remember the excitement when it was time to go to the snack bar for afternoon popsicles; I remember the smelly but fun cabins where everyone would stay up late talking; I remember being sent off by camp counselors with a notepad and pen to write a letter to God and having no idea what to do; I remember nightly songs around the campfire; and I remember having my first crush.

What I don’t remember from those years is growing in my understanding of Christian faith. Of course every camp is different, and every camper is different, so that’s not to say that my experience is representative of all or even most. But, after seeing what happens at Camp Quest, I was keenly interested in seeing how Christian camps today compare.

Here’s what I found from my survey of 100 Christian camp websites.

First, many say nothing of their Christian mission outside of generally promoting a “Christian camp” label. If you’re considering sending your kids to “Christian” summer camp, make sure you know what exactly that means. At many places, it doesn’t mean much.

Those that did detail the faith-based component of their camp were quite similar in focus. The key words repeatedly found on camp websites were: worship, relationship, good values, community, devotions, experience, and growing close to Jesus.

I want you to see first-hand the specific descriptions these camps offered. Here’s a good representation of the key phrases found throughout the sites…along with some side notes I couldn’t help but make:

  • Wholesome Christian atmosphere
  • Excellence in Christian camping (This made me laugh out loud. I get the term “Christian camp” but “Christian camping” makes me wonder how Christians camp differently…)
  • Take the next step in your faith
  • Fun, faith, friends (alliteration is fun, but it doesn’t say much)
  • Demonstrate that the Christian life can be one of meaningful fulfillment (Another laugh out loud moment—“can” be?)
  • Enjoy recreation in a Christian atmosphere
  • Dynamic speakers (I’m glad they’re dynamic, but what will they speak dynamically about?)
  • Show kids you can be a Christian and still have fun (What kind of message does this send? That everyone assumes Christians can’t have fun and this camp will prove the universal assumption wrong? How about showing kids why there’s good reason to believe Christianity is true so they understand why they should be a Christian in the first place?)
  • Special moments to learn about a loving God
  • Exciting Christian campfire programs
  • Gain deeper insight about God (I like how that sounds, but insights could mean anything…)
  • Grow strong in a welcoming Christian experience
  • Transformative worship
  • Campers come to know Jesus and pass on God’s love with excitement
  • Give kids a moral compass and learn God’s Word
  • Be encouraged and strengthened in the Lord
  • Wholesome recreation consistent with Christian standards and purposes (“consistent with” is about the least committal descriptor I can think of)
  • Enjoy God’s wonder
  • Enthusiastic speakers (enthusiasm is great, but, again, what content are they enthusiastically sharing?)
  • Establish goals to move closer to Jesus
  • Provide a life-altering experience
  • Enjoy high energy worship (I’m glad they clarified it’s high and not low energy…)
  • Conform campers to the character of Christ
  • Bring kids to a saving knowledge of Christ
  • Explore faith and God’s creation while you enjoy outdoor time around the campfire
  • Promote a lifestyle that honors God
  • Provide strong Christian role models
  • Nightly cabin devotions
  • Explore actions and teachings of Jesus Christ
  • Each adventure-packed day ends with campfire singing and a Bible message
  • Daily group Bible studies
  • Awesome worship music, live speakers, and meaningful Bible study
  • Activity-based application of biblical principles
  • Bible-based teaching based on shared adventures
  • Values-based camping
  • Help campers build a relationship with Jesus
  • Experience Christian community
  • Provide programs allowing campers to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ
  • Emphasize Judeo-Christian values
  • Be inspired and challenged as the staff brings the Bible alive in new ways
  • Christian lifestyle is demonstrated through Bible study, devotions, music, and personal interaction
  • Experiences that strengthen the spirit, mind, and body under a strong Christian emphasis
  • Steadfast focus on the Creator in the midst of adventures (I’m imagining a kid sliding down a zip line with camp counselors yelling, “Focus on who ultimately created this!”)
  • Focus on values important to all faiths (now we’re just going to focus on the lowest common denominator?)
  • Speakers sharing from their heart on how God’s Word has transformed them

If you read through all those “talking points,” it’s clear that Christian camps overwhelmingly focus on the experience of being a Christian. And, of course, facilitating opportunities to experience God is hugely important! But one of the ways we experience God is with our minds and stems from the confidence of our convictions. Out of 100 camps, just TWO explicitly mentioned anything related to teaching Christian worldview in the context of other worldviews and how to engage with our secular culture:

  • Prescott Pines: “Stand up for your faith in the face of adversity” (funny enough, this is a camp in my hometown—but not the one I attended!)
  • Camp Kanakuk: “Helping your child grow in their character, and ability to communicate and defend their faith”

While other camps may address these topics as part of their general Bible teaching or messages, it certainly wasn’t a focus enough for them to explicitly mention it on the other 98 sites. I’m not saying that every single camp should have this as an emphasis, but given the challenges kids are facing today, the fact that 98% of camps are at the very least not promoting that they’re going to talk about Christianity in the context of other worldviews is both surprising and disappointing.

 

What Should We Make of All This?

In terms of numbers, the attendees at Christian camps far outnumber those at atheist camps. But if you’re tempted to think that means we shouldn’t care about this comparison, you’re missing the point.

Atheists are still a small percentage of Americans overall (5-10%), but their numbers are quickly gaining because they aggressively promote what they believe to be the truth of their worldview versus the falsities of other worldviews. Meanwhile, the number of Christians in America continues to decline in response. Churches have been slow to realize the urgent necessity of teaching apologetics given the increasing challenges to faith today…and it’s clear that Christian summer camps are no different.

This is a shame. Truly. A lost opportunity with thousands of kids.

I hope that this post will reach the inbox of people involved with camps and encourage them to think of how their program next summer might be more tailored to these subjects.

Importantly, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be “exciting campfires,” devotionals, “high energy worship,” fun speakers, and so on. All of these things contribute to a memorable camp experience. But there may be nothing more important today for helping kids draw nearer to Jesus (a stated goal of most camps) than helping them know confidently why there’s good reason to believe Christianity is true.

If you’re involved in camp planning for your church or other organization and want some content ideas for teaching apologetics at next year’s camp, please email me through my contact form.  

 

Addendum: Two Camps to Consider

There are two fantastic programs for teens that do focus on equipping kids to engage critically with other worldviews and I want to make sure you know about them as you consider opportunities for next summer.

First, Summit Ministries offers intensive two-week retreats designed to teach older teens how to champion a biblical worldview and to strengthen their faith in a post-Christian culture. These retreats are in Colorado, Tennessee, and California. They have incredible speakers. If you want to see what Christian camp can look like, check out their sample schedule. Wow.

Second, Faith Ascent’s Base Camp in St. Louis offers “5 days and 4 nights of fun, fellowship, and intense preparation for the challenges and opportunities college bound Christians will be presented with. In a real college environment we ask and answer the tough questions Christian teens are asking (and being asked).” They, too, have fantastic speakers and an incredible schedule.

I hope you’ll check out these excellent programs and consider them for next summer if you have kids of the appropriate age.


 

Resources for Greater Impact: 

Free CrossExamined.org Resource

Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.

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11 replies
  1. Michael says:

    I would invite anyone reading this post to go directly to the Camp Quest website and look at the FAQ page, where it says this:
    Are campers at Camp Quest required to be atheists?
    “No. Campers at Camp Quest are encouraged to think for themselves and are not required to hold any particular view. We firmly believe that children should not be labeled with worldview labels by adults, and instead should be encouraged to ask questions and explore different worldviews as they grow.

    We do present atheism and humanism as valid and reasonable options for an ethical and fulfilling life, and most counselors at camp consider themselves to be atheists.”

    I’m curious where the author finds a reference to her primary source of criticism. She does not provide a link and I can find nothing on the Camp Quest website that that provides such a statement or definition. If you look, however, what you will find is a secular camp that provides lots of activities for kids (at least as many as the Christian camps provide) and a seemingly balanced viewpoint where all are welcome. This article comes across as fundamentally dishonest in its comparison of a so-called ‘atheist camp’ (Camp Quest makes no such statement) versus Christian camps.
    Here’s what Prescot Pines says on their page about the camp: “For purposes of Prescott Pines Christian Camp’s faith, doctrine, practice, policy, and discipline, our Board of Managers is the organizations final interpretive authority on the Bible’s meaning and application.”

    So, which one enforces doctrine and which one allows for children to indulge their curiosity and openly ask questions? – exactly the reverse of what the author is arguing.

    Reply
    • Josef Kauzlarich says:

      I don’t care much to validate the author’s claims and I doubt she’ll do it herself as she doesn’t really reply here. You’d probably have better luck finding her direct blog. Anyways, I’m curious what atheists mean by “encouraged to ask questions and explore different worldviews as they grow?” I realize this is a bit out of context but I think I’ve seen this reflected by atheists in general as a value they hold (but perhaps I’m wrong). If it is a held value, what does it mean? I mean do atheist parents take the time to simply present all worldviews to their children and then let the child choose whichever is to their liking with zero intervention or bias as to which worldview they should hold? When the kid asks, “daddy/mommy, what do you believe?” does the atheist say, “I’m sorry son I can’t tell you because as I’m your parent that you naturally look up to for guidance, I might persuade you in my direction which isn’t fair to you.” If an atheist kid gets invited to a Christian church, comes home, and says, “guess what! I accepted Christ today!” does the parent then say, “that’s great! just be sure to examine the evidence for Christianity and see if you find it convincing and I will withhold from you any opinion of my own on them matter because I don’t want to persuade you.” Looking for some clarification here because these scenarios seem highly improbable.

      Reply
      • Josef Kauzlarich says:

        I’ll also add that the following is a worldview in itself.

        “No. Campers at Camp Quest are encouraged to think for themselves and are not required to hold any particular view. We firmly believe that children should not be labeled with worldview labels by adults, and instead should be encouraged to ask questions and explore different worldviews as they grow.”

        If the camp doesn’t want to impress worldviews on children, the WHY are they impressing this worldview expressed above on their campers? The notion to me is self-defeating. I mean the statement includes, “we firmly believe…” If the goal is not to impress beliefs on children, then why are they impressing this one on them? They make no sense.

        Reply
    • Natasha says:

      Hi Michael,

      Here is the link you wanted to see, where Camp Quest defines freethought: https://www.campquestwest.org/camp-activities/ (this is from one of their branches, Camp Quest West).

      While their mission statement SOUNDS broad, if you spend any time on their site, you’ll see they clearly exist to promote a secular worldview. Do you really think that the invisible unicorn challenge, for example, is neutral on this subject? Or their tagline, “Beyond belief!”? I spent plenty of time exploring their various sites. While that one statement you referenced may sound more neutral, it only takes a little digging to see it’s not at all a worldview-neutral camp.

      Reply
  2. Michael says:

    I challenge the author to back up her claim about the definition of ‘freethought’ from the Camp Quest website. I see it nowhere in the general missions statements nor the FAQ. In fact, if you look at the FAQ page, exactly the opposite notion is offered. Whereas, looking at the Christian camp websites, the explicitly offer statements of faith and that the authority to interpret the Bible is in the hands of the camp administrators.
    This post is dishonest.

    Reply
  3. Andy Ryan says:

    Camp Quest: “Broadly, it means cultivating curiosity, questioning and a certain disdain for just taking the word of authority; demanding evidence and knowing you can make your own observations even if they lead you to disagree.”
    Natasha: “In other words, they do activities that aggressively teach kids their worldview in the context of others.”

    Your interpretation seems completely unjustified by what the mission statement actually says. Do you see no difference between teaching children how to think and teaching them WHAT to think? Furthermore, if you believe that curiosity, wanting evidence and making your own observations are at adds with Christianity then it doesn’t say much for your faith in the evidence for Christianity.

    “Atheists are still a small percentage of Americans overall (5-10%), but their numbers are quickly gaining because they aggressively promote what they believe to be the truth of their worldview versus the falsities of other worldviews”

    I’m not sure that is the reason for the growth in atheism – certainly Camp Quest isn’t popular enough to be playing a part. Research I’ve seen shows that a major reason young people are leaving the church is because of its aggressive (to use you word) homophobia. The Church tries to portray gays as perverts and evil, and that doesn’t match up to the reality young people encounter when they make friends with gay people.

    Reply
  4. Josef Kauzlarich says:

    “Your interpretation seems completely unjustified by what the mission statement actually says. Do you see no difference between teaching children how to think and teaching them WHAT to think? Furthermore, if you believe that curiosity, wanting evidence and making your own observations are at adds with Christianity then it doesn’t say much for your faith in the evidence for Christianity.”

    I agree she put that poorly. I do think that the statement from Camp Quest is in fact a belief in itself which it stated in the post by MIchael above, the camp doesn’t believe should happen. The camp is trying to impress a belief on kids. It’s not even a belief that Christians would disagree with! Your comment about her confidence in Christian evidence is a very poorly thought out notion. The author puts tremendous stock in evidence that supports a Christian worldview. Anyone who has read her work knows that. What I think she takes issue with is the notion that a Christian parent has no right to encourage Christian belief in their kids. As a Christian parent, I will strongly encourage my kids to think for themselves, but I’ll also give them my reasons for taking a Christian worldview. Critique me on that if you want, but I bet you would be hard pressed to find atheist parents who aren’t doing the exact same thing. Show me a perfectly neutral atheist parent (which Camp Quest here isn’t) and then I’d believe it. Neutral would have to mean impressing no beliefs on their kid. Nothing. Just letting them raise themselves. I’ll bet you can’t even find one parent like this in the entire world. Even encouraging kids to “think for themselves” or “examine evidence” is impressing a belief on them. There are systems of eastern thought that think life is completely illusory. That there is no such thing as truth whatsoever. So atheists telling their kids that there are some things they can know by examining evidence is to contradict eastern worldviews. The only neutral position is silence! Find me a silent atheist parent that never impresses their opinion on their kid.

    But here is my real rub…you see my worldview tells me that Jesus made a way for me to live a purposeful and useful life that God originally intended for me. It would be unloving of me to not try and give my child the same gift. I think atheists should agree with us on this point, even if they disagree with a Christian worldview. If someone genuinely believes the Christian worldview to be correct and doesn’t share it with others, then I think atheist and Christian alike should agree that person isn’t a good person. They are essentially saying, “I have this wonderful gift that could change your life forever…but I’m just going to horde it to myself.” That seems like a horribly selfish person to me.

    Reply
    • Andy Ryan says:

      “The camp is trying to impress a belief on kids. It’s not even a belief that Christians would disagree with!”

      Excellent, then we are in agreement. If the author agrees with that belief too then yes, she expressed herself poorly.

      You say that being neutral would mean expressing no beliefs at all on a kid. But someone else could say that wouldn’t be neutral either, that putting no belief is also a belief. So we have to mean SOMETHING when we talk about neutral. The word has to have a coherent meaning. And yes, I’d say that teaching kids to have the critical thinking skills to make up their own mind meets a coherent definition of ‘neutral’. Again, it’s teaching kids how to think, not what to think.

      If my kids ask me what I believe I give an honest answer. But I couch it in those terms – MY belief. I don’t claim it’s the Gospel truth (pun intended). I explain that it’s something they have to work out for themselves, that others have different beliefs. If your reply to that is that I’m still ‘impressing my beliefs on my children’ then go ahead and see that as a form of indoctrination. I won’t lose sleep over your opinion.

      Reply
      • Josef Kauzlarich says:

        “Excellent, then we are in agreement. If the author agrees with that belief too then yes, she expressed herself poorly.”

        I agree to the extent that you understand what belief I was referencing. I was referencing:

        Camp Quest: “Broadly, it means cultivating curiosity, questioning and a certain disdain for just taking the word of authority; demanding evidence and knowing you can make your own observations even if they lead you to disagree.”

        This looks like critical thinking to me and I don’t think any Christian apologist would disagree.

        “You say that being neutral would mean expressing no beliefs at all on a kid. But someone else could say that wouldn’t be neutral either, that putting no belief is also a belief. So we have to mean SOMETHING when we talk about neutral. The word has to have a coherent meaning. And yes, I’d say that teaching kids to have the critical thinking skills to make up their own mind meets a coherent definition of ‘neutral’. Again, it’s teaching kids how to think, not what to think.”

        Understood. I could see how imparting no view could also be a view. It appears we agree that no matter what we do, we impart our beliefs onto our kids no matter what we do. But I don’t think we can call it neutral. It is always biased. Even in teaching kids how to think, you are imparting a worldview on them. Indeed, there is great philosophical disagreement between theist and naturalist on how we come to attain knowledge at all. For example, if epistemological naturalism is taught as the way to think, then this imparts a worldview. If intuition is taught as a way of knowing, this imparts a worldview. Teaching others a way of thinking is to impart a worldview. The word “neutral” has its uses, but I dont think we can apply it here.

        “If my kids ask me what I believe I give an honest answer. But I couch it in those terms – MY belief. I don’t claim it’s the Gospel truth (pun intended). I explain that it’s something they have to work out for themselves, that others have different beliefs. If your reply to that is that I’m still ‘impressing my beliefs on my children’ then go ahead and see that as a form of indoctrination. I won’t lose sleep over your opinion.”

        So couching your beliefs as personal is one thing I have had an atheist on this very site complain to me about because of the psychological relationship between parent and child. I don’t think that is the real atheist position on this issue. For example, I can explain to my child the many solid reasons I believe in the Bible and why I disbelieve in other religions. I do this and more than likely, my kid will adopt my worldview. This is exactly what you said you will do but what atheists seem to take issue with. At least some I’ve had discussions with on this issue.

        And I won’t pretend to myself that it is neutral. I rejoice that I have been given a unique position of influence over my child. I will present the case for Christianity to them because I believe in them. I will present the best cases I can find for other major belief systems. Ultimately it isn’t my choice to make what they ultimately believe. But if I can use my influence to shape it, I’m happy about that.

        I’m so happy to see that you won’t be afflicted with insomnia on my account. I would never expect such a thing. I wish good sleep on everyone.

        I appreciate the discussion.

        Reply
        • Andy Ryan says:

          “This is exactly what you said you will do but what atheists seem to take issue with.”

          I’m doing no equivalent to taking my kids to church every Sunday, where religious beliefs are presented as fact and where they’re forced to sing songs backing up my beliefs etc. So no, I don’t see an equivalent.

          Even Camp Quest doesn’t strike me as equivalent to religious camps, though it’s not something I’d send my kids to.

          Thanks for the discussion too.

          Reply

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