More Than Nones: Humanist Community for Kids and Families at Camp Quest and Beyond

By Amanda Metskas

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “Rise of the Nones”–how the number of people who identify with no religion is increasing from generation to generation. Approximately 22% of 18-29 year olds in America are nonreligious, which is highest of any demographic group. That should mean that the number of nonreligious parents will be skyrocketing in the next five to ten years as more Millennials become parents; however, at the same time, getting married and having children are two of the biggest reasons that people go back to church

At Camp Quest I have talked with parents who were teaching Sunday School at liberal churches as closeted atheists until they found us, and realized that being an atheist didn’t have to mean their family going it alone. While a lot of secular Americans may not be “joiners,” for many people having kids changes that. Even if they don’t feel the need for community themselves, they want to provide community for their children.

This is great news for us because we’re not just “nones.” We’re humanists–we’re focused on using reason and compassion to make this world a better place. We have a set of positive values that parents can be proud to share with their children. 

Until recently the freethought community hasn’t made much of this opportunity. When I first got involved, nearly a decade ago, Camp Quest was one of the very few activities geared towards children and families. Most local humanist and atheist groups had a monthly lecture meeting with no childcare, and very few families with kids showed up. If a family did come one month, they looked around, and saw no one in their age bracket and didn’t return. 

This isn’t the case any more!  Many local humanist groups, like my own group the Humanist Community of Central Ohio , and South Carolina’s Secular Humanists of the Low Country are reaching out to families in innovative ways, and building a truly intergenerational humanist community. For my local humanist group, a monthly Family Game Night, where people could bring some games and snacks and get together with other families, was the jumping off point to a whole slate of activities under the banner Central Ohio Secular Parents. The parents got to know each other, and we gave them a Meetup page, and the opportunity to plan the kinds of family activities that they wanted to attend. Now our Family Game Night is one of our most well-attended events, often bringing in more than forty people ranging in age from zero to sixty-plus.

Camp Quest has also been growing by leaps and bounds. In 2003, when I started volunteering at Camp Quest, we had two camp locations serving approximately 40 campers. This summer there will be 14 Camp Quest sessions in the U.S. alone, and we expect more than 600 campers. New camp sessions are coming to Arizona, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Washington State, and Southern California.

We’ve also been branching out by offering different types of camps. Most Camp Quest camps are week-long sleepaway camp for kids ages 8-17, but last year Camp Quest Montana  held a week-long family camp that parents attended with their kids and Camp Quest South Carolina held a fall family weekend for parents and their children as well. Both of these events were so successful, they are scheduled again for 2012.

One of the really important things we’ve learned at Camp Quest is that you can educate kids about humanist values and build a community for kids from nontheistic families without indoctrinating or labeling the children. Humanists and other freethinkers are often hesitant about sharing their worldview with their children because we deeply value coming to our own conclusions, and we want to make sure that our kids have that opportunity. That’s admirable, but it doesn’t mean that your kids shouldn’t be able to be a part of a community with children from other freethinking families. At Camp Quest our goal is to build a community where kids and teens can explore their developing worldviews in an environment that supports questioning and critical thinking. Volunteers at camp are positive examples of atheists and humanists, but we don’t label the campers or tell them what they should or shouldn’t believe. We ask questions, foster discussion, and encourage kids to do the same.

On the flip side, people ask us, “How much can you really do in one week of camp to build a community?” The answer is, “A whole lot, actually.” Kids come back to camp year after year, and in the meantime they keep in touch on Facebook and other social media. Campers tell us that the friends they make at camp, and knowing there are other people out there like their families, make it so much easier for them to answer questions from their peers at school like, “Where do you go to church?” Still, a week of camp is just the beginning. Camp Quest Minnesota is offering a program of school year activities called Club Camp Quest. Local humanist groups can work with nearby Camp Quests to get kids to camp and provide family activities through the local group during the year, like we’re doing with the Humanist Community of Central Ohio. 

If you want to get involved, you can volunteer to be a camp counselor, register your kids for camp , learn more about our camp locations, or donate campership funds to help other families get to camp.

It’s so exciting to see outreach to families becoming a real priority for humanists and atheists. By meeting the real human needs of families, we are giving them a reason to stand up and be counted as secular people, which is fundamental to raising the visibility of and respect for nontheists in America and demonstrating humanism as the healthy, mainstream value system that it is.

Amanda K. Metskas is the executive director of Camp Quest, Inc. In addition to her work with Camp Quest, Amanda is the vice president of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio. She is a co-author of Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief. Amanda holds an M.A. in political science from The Ohio State University, and a B.A. in international relations and psychology from Brown University. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband August E. Brunsman IV and their two cats.