Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone when he falls and does not have another to help.
– Ecclesiastes 4:9–10
Is there a more fatalistic bit of reading material on Earth than Ecclesiastes? “For every thing there is a season,” that’s very nice—but as for the rest: All is vanity, the end is the same no matter how you’ve lived, great works and upright living mean nothing, no one and nothing will be remembered, death is better than birth and mourning better than feasting … You can see why the OT writers were longing for a messiah.1 There’s one passage in particular to make freethinkers howl: For in much wisdom is much grief: and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
But when the authors of Ecclesiastes said two are better than one, I’ll have to admit they were onto something. After three chapters bemoaning God’s fixed plan for humanity—“it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with—all is vanity and a chasing after wind”—they offer this glimpse of nothing less than humanist community. Toil all you want under God’s blind eye, they say, but if you expect support when you fall, you have only each other to turn to.
We need each other. Prolonged isolation is, for most of us, one of the most difficult ordeals to endure. Not for nothing is solitary confinement sometimes considered cruel and unusual. Occasional solitude can be a precious gift—but if it goes on too long, it can begin to erode our sense of ourselves, since much of that ongoing definition takes place relative to our fellow human beings.
One of the great advantages of membership in a religious community is in that second word, community: the ability to surround one’s self with an extended family, others who care for, support, nurture, and encourage one’s own way through the world, who lift each other up when they fall. This chapter focuses on the many ways in which such community can be achieved without compromising what we hold to be true.
Among the more interesting developments in this area is nontheistic religion. You read that right—religious organizations without gods. Theology is only one part of the religious impulse, as you’ve known now for 200 pages or so. There’s the predefined set of values, the common lexicon and symbology, rites of passage, a means of engendering wonder, comforting answers to the big questions, and consoling explanations to ease experiences of hardship and loss—and an established community in which to experience these benefits. Most Christians attend church not to worship, but to enjoy these benefits. “God” is simply the frame in which these concepts are hung. Remove the frame, and the beautiful picture—which is the point of it all, of course—remains.
We’ve mentioned Unitarian Universalism in passing more than once, a denomination that grew out of two separate heresies: Unitarianism (the idea that God is one thing, not three) and Universalism (the notion that everyone is loved equally by God and that all receive salvation). They merged in the 1960s as one of the most liberal Christian denominations, opening their doors to all people regardless of belief, but by the 1990s had become majority nontheistic. The specific character varies tremendously from one UU fellowship to another, but having visited more than a dozen, I can make the following observations: UUs tend to be wonderfully warm, welcoming, and relaxed people; though creedless, they are powerful social activists, opposing violence and supporting civil rights for all; and most fellowships give no special place to Christian teaching or symbols—some even avoiding them entirely. Religious literacy is an important part of the UU fellowship (see Chapter 2, “On Being Religiously Literate”)—not indoctrination, but study and appreciation, the kind of approach that makes religion downright interesting rather than threatening. Again: By recognizing the validity of many expressions of humanness, you deny any one of them the high ground.
Another example of nontheistic religion is Secular Humanistic Judaism, a fully secular expression of Jewish culture founded forty years ago by Rabbi Sherwin Wine. Most readers will be familiar with the idea of “cultural Jewishness.” Humanistic Judaism provides a unifying community for this expression—again, the beautiful picture without the obsolete frame.
There has been a strong revival of interest in a third (essentially) nontheistic religion: Liberal Quakers. And the reason is wonderful. Millions of people have taken the Belief-O-Matic quiz (at), only to discover that their beliefs identify them not with the Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic, or Lutheran churches to which their families and offerings go, but with the Liberal Quakers. Quaker organizations have reported as much as an eight-fold increase in inquiries since the Belief-O-Matic went online. And that’s good news, since Liberal Quakers believe that one’s beliefs cannot be dictated by another person—that one’s relationship with whatever reality there is, is one’s own, and cannot be mediated. In other words, no indoctrination, no evangelism, no dogmatic nonsense—just another community devoted to nonviolence, positive social action, building community, and alleviating suffering. While Southern Baptists were forming their denomination around the biblical support of slavery, Quakers were among the most prominent abolitionists. While Catholics in the United States represented the single largest organized opposition to women’s voting rights, Quakers were in the streets getting arrested in defense of those rights. Quakers have been in the forefront of every anti-war movement. Funny what the absence of dogma will do.
Many Quaker schools have been established around the United States, and freethinkers should feel entirely comfortable if they choose to enroll their children there. They will be exposed to models of positive moral action, not indoctrination.
Siddhartha Gautama—the historical Buddha—has been called the earliest significant nontheist. As happens in every major spiritual movement, Buddha’s followers quickly heaped layers of superstition on top of what had been perfectly naturalistic teachings. But many modern expressions of Buddhism are utterly nontheistic. If, upon learning a bit about Buddhist philosophy you find it attractive, look into your local Buddhist communities. You’ll find many ways to be Buddhist without gods.
Finally there is the Ethical Culture movement, “a humanistic religious and educational movement inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society.”2 Like UUs, Ethical Culture societies focus on service to the community, encouraging the knowledge, practice, and love of ethical behavior, and deepening the collective sense of the spiritual—again, without supernatural overtones.
If every church in the United States began its service this week with the announcement that the congregation would continue meeting every Sunday, continue singing songs and sharing hopes and offering solace and acceptance and the occasional chance to do good works and to be a part of something larger than one’s self, but that these tokens of love and joy and togetherness would henceforth be directed to each other rather than to the idea of a god—after the initial shock and rending of garments, I honestly doubt it would take long to adjust. Most people attend church first and foremost for those humanistic reasons, after all, not to worship an abstraction. And if that’s the part of religion we really need, a nontheistic religion might not be such an oxymoron after all. “A passionate and committed atheism can be more religious than a weary or inadequate theism,” says religious historian Karen Armstrong, who further quotes Albert Camus’ deeply humanistic assertion that “people should reject God defiantly in order to pour out all their loving solicitude upon mankind.”3 It is to that passionate, committed vision of loving human community that this chapter is devoted.
There are uncountable ways to define and achieve community. Pete Wernick returns to tell of his long and impressive attempts to build secular community infrastructures so that nontheistic individuals and families can call upon the same resources as theists. It’s slow going, and there’s much work to do, as Pete’s honest and thoughtful piece attests. Amanda Metskas and August Brunsman team up to describe one of the great secular community success stories, Camp Quest, a summer camp where children can explore the natural world and ask questions without the religious context of “Vacation Bible School” camps. Unlike the “Kids on Fire” evangelical camp profiled in the chilling documentary Jesus Camp,4 Camp Quest neither promotes nor encourages disrespect or hatred for people of differing views.
In our final piece, longtime atheist activist Bobbie Kirkhart outlines the many available freethought organizations, complete with strengths, weaknesses, and their reasons for being.
Religious community builds on millennia of tradition, rooted in the age when humanity believed a supernatural intelligence was running the show. By comparison, the effort to create secular community—to come together as a loving, compassionate human family in the light of our new understanding of reality—is in its infancy. More than anything, this chapter can serve as an invitation for you to join courageous people like Pete Wernick, Bobbie Kirkhart, Unitarian Universalists, Humanistic Judaism, Nontheistic Friends, and all the rest who are working not to displace religion, but to provide secular alternatives for the growing numbers who have set religion aside. How might we achieve Russell’s vision of the good life, inspired by love and guided by genuine knowledge, while addressing our genuine human needs?
SECULAR FAMILIES HAVE SCARCELY any of the resources that Christian, Moslem, Jewish, and other theistic families in this country have in abundance. Religious communities have attractive places for families to gather every week to be spiritually uplifted and share community, youth groups built around their family’s beliefs and values, and trained personnel to guide them in their spiritual lives and help them work through problems in ways consistent with their beliefs. They have libraries of inspiring reading and songs handed down by a variety of music traditions, with spiritual messages seasoned over many years.
As one half of a “mixed” religious/secular couple,5 I would have benefited greatly from access to such an infrastructure when raising our son. My wife had access to the fully developed Catholic infrastructure, while I had very little that could compare. She had beautiful churches, both at home and anywhere we traveled, whereas humanist and atheist organizations own scarcely any buildings anywhere in the world. She had a network of trained professionals to minister to their flock and educate the children, right up to the Vatican in Rome!
Compared to the volume of Christian literature and music that fills libraries and concert halls worldwide, we secular types have very little that is specifically identified with our worldview. They have the world’s bestselling book, the Bible, with translations in all languages, and spinoffs like attractively illustrated Bible stories for kids.
Then there’s the music. What do we have to compare with “Ave Maria,” “Silent Night,” Mozart’s “Requiem,” Mahalia Jackson, or bluegrass gospel harmony by the Stanley Brothers? As a musician, I’m especially disappointed by the virtual lack of secular inspirational music (not an oxymoron, as I’ll show later).
And how many couples do we all know who, after espousing secular viewpoints for years, have sent their kids to religious education they didn’t believe in “… because we wanted the kids to have something….”
It’s very regrettable, this enormous gap. What to do? Well … get busy, I decided.
Though quite daunted by the enormity of the task, I produced a number of essays on the theme of “creating a nontheistic religion.” I imagined places where secular folks could gather in community on a weekend morning to celebrate the glory and wonders of our world, inspire greater fulfilling of human potential, as well as steadfastly and sensitively address our ever-present human frailties and the challenges of trying to live harmoniously.
There would be books of clear and poetic affirmations of beliefs, collections of wisdom to help people live better lives, and as a centerpiece, a single book—comparable to the Bible, but a lot better. It would include beautifully written, fact-based accounts of how the earth and living things came to be and how humans learned to live together, develop civilizations and cultures, and create meaning and harmony in their lives. It would distill the best of human wisdom (no doubt including excerpts from various “holy books”) into sayings, essays, and stories that would show humans at their best. It would teach and inspire and along the way give good reason to suspect and reject supernatural thinking. In short, it would be a secular alternative to the Bible, with the powerful advantages of being factual and sensible and reader-friendly. Something we’d be proud to leave a copy of in a motel room drawer, head-to-head with the Gideon Bible.
It comforted me to think that even in a relatively religious country like the United States, estimates of “secular” people (atheists and agnostics) range from 8 to 14 percent, or 22 to 40 million people. But with all the secularists in the United States, where are the communities?
When I first began my search for secular infrastructure, I’d heard of “Ethical Culture” nonbeliever communities, but they existed mostly in the Northeast, as does Jewish Reconstructionism. There were two Unitarian congregations here in Boulder, Colorado. I found that Unitarian Universalists had evolved quite a bit from their “liberal Christianity” roots, including quite a variety of believers and lifestyles within their large umbrella. One of the congregations had a fair number of pagans, GLBT folks, new age types, and general “seekers.” In examining the seven UU principles ( ), adopted by the UUA in the 1970s, I found a lot to agree with, especially the principles of “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”
Religion is more than a set of beliefs; it’s also a set of practices, styles, and attitudes. The UU style I was exposed to was sort of “feel-good” and noncritical. When at a meeting I heard someone talk of her joy at having successfully channeled a past life, I was more startled than joyful for her. Trying to connect to our society’s druid and animist roots or adapt Native American sacred practices for a Sunday service left me feeling more adrift than rooted. I realized I would feel most at home in a congregation where my own beliefs were clearly and proudly stated as a consensus of the group. On some occasions this would happen at the Unitarian Church, but as usual, it’s hard to mix “I don’t believe in the supernatural” into a group that includes believers in any number of supernatural beliefs and where acceptance is the norm.
It sounds selfish, doesn’t it? I want the congregation to be open-minded in accepting my beliefs, but highly skeptical of things I don’t believe.
The UUs at least had tolerance to offer, wherein my beliefs were given honor and acceptance. But I would have felt more welcome and included in a context where I could hear my own actual beliefs concerning religion spoken from a pulpit, sung about, and celebrated in art and music.
I subscribed to a number of atheist publications, and investigated whether anyone was already working on developing a “nontheistic religion.” I couldn’t find anyone, save a kook or two who mostly gave me the willies. Secular folks’ efforts seemed mainly concerned with pointing out the absurdities and injustices of religion and occasionally battling with public officials over transgressions of religion into state matters.
Somewhere along the way, someone I told of my search suggested I look into “humanism.” The word sounded familiar but I’d never known it was akin to atheism. I read up on humanism, and indeed, there was the emphasis on the positive, right there with open nontheism. I became involved with humanist groups both nationally and locally. While some of what I saw was promising, I was and remain quite disappointed at the generally malnourished and malnourishing humanist infrastructure. The national organizations’ memberships combined were and still are well under 100,000, in a country where surveyed percentages of nonbelievers indicate two to four hundred times that many. The publications were usually dull, dry, and academic, without illustrations or photos. Where was the joie de vivre, the spark, the excitement of positive beliefs flourishing?
I was amazed at first that though I was a secularist since age 15, in an academic environment with many thinking people, many of them secularists, it had taken me thirty years to discover humanism. The more I investigated, the more I understood why it had been so invisible to me: I saw an inward-turned community that scarcely ever reached out and tried to grow itself. Virtually nothing for kids and families, no pictures, no humor, no fun. Yuck!
These people needed a dose of PR thinking. Having some skills in that area, I thought hard about how to attract like-minded people, especially younger folks. I checked out billboard pricing, designed a nice-looking leaflet, and talked at local meetings about doing outreach. But staring me in the face was a tough puzzle: How do you organize around the denial of an attractive abstraction?
Right from the start, there is a major challenge to organizing secular folks. It is relatively easy to organize for a particular goal (e.g., “Pass Referendum X”) or a person (“Vote for Bill,” or “Believe Cynthia’s message”), but less magnetizing to organize around an abstraction (nontheism), which is in fact the denial of an abstraction—and a rather attractive, beloved one at that. Talk about having the deck stacked against you!
Humanism harnesses a strong desire among nontheists for a positive set of beliefs, not just “what we’re against.” In the 1930s a concrete statement of affirmations, the first Humanist Manifesto, was published with the signatures of many respected thinkers of the time. Rather than focusing on denying gods and theism, it emphasized what humanism stands for, such as fairness and freedom and dependence on science and reason rather than on supernatural authority.
We are not just non-supernaturalists, it says in essence. We have positive beliefs and our nontheism is a consistent part of this, our larger philosophy. Nontheism is the natural outgrowth of a devotion to truth and reason, so the core value is “devotion to truth and reason.”
Yes, it’s a major challenge to organize people around “devotion to truth and reason.” One might as well start a university! And it turned out: Devotion to truth and reason, good as it sounds, is not what people are really after when they become active secularists. What actually motivates nontheists to stand up and be counted is a feeling more like, “Religion, off my back!” So we want to come across positively, but we are driven by feelings of defensiveness and negativity.
Virtually every person I met who was doing hard work on behalf of humanism and atheism had, like me, experienced the challenge and even threat of organized religion too close for comfort—that is, in their own homes or extended families, or perhaps in their kids’ schools. Most of these compadres have siblings, parents, an ex-spouse, and/or kids who are strongly religious. They become activists first and foremost to bolster their own stance in regard to their relatives—just like me.
So many secularists, so little activism around that banner. The jokes come easy: “A flag with nothing on it …” “All praise to … nobody.” “Let’s all get together behind … nothing!”
When a humanist friend and I, both with 9-year-old sons, staged a protest against war toys at a mall toy store around Christmas time, we made it known that we were from Humanists of Colorado offering nice leaflets with a contact address and even managed to get in the newspaper—but without much result. This is the kind of thing that needs to be sustained for a time before bearing real fruit.
Some secularists see no need for secularist promotion and solidarity. Some will say, “I don’t need to go to a church Sunday morning. I can feel spiritual hiking in the woods or listening to a great symphony,” or “My gods are science and reason, and whenever science is conducted, my beliefs are being upheld.” Or “Think of all the great music and art and thought that doesn’t mention God. Isn’t that enough for you?”
That last comment points to a key to the puzzle. Inspirational writing, art, and music free of supernaturalism are all around us. Yet it’s not been gathered together in a specifically secularist framework. I decided to work on that.
I took a shot at running a monthly “service equivalent” called Living Humanist Values. I did it for five years, with a typical attendance of about a dozen out of a total “congregation” of maybe two dozen. I researched and assembled the best and wisest inspirational writings I could. I decorated a rented room at the Crossroads Mall with scenes of beautiful landscapes, and pithy sayings such as Thomas Paine’s “The world is my country, and to do good is my religion.” Sermon on the Mall, my wife and I jokingly called it.
I’d go down early to set up the coffee pots and cookies and put up posters, and when the folks arrived I would offer readings and songs and facilitate discussions on a variety of topics concerning living the good and secular life. We talked about role models, holidays, how to deal with transgressions (“sins” is a simpler but loaded word), resolving conflicts peacefully, and dealing with our secular identities in a theistic culture.
I found it quite enriching to hunt and gather this kind of nontheistic written material. I incorporated the prose of Robert Ingersoll and Kenneth Patton especially, both great wordsmiths able to state things clearly and inspiringly at the same time. Humanist publishers also offer various tracts such as suggestions for humanist weddings and funerals.6
After five years, I reflected on all my amateur efforts and found them feeble compared to what trained professional spiritual leaders could do. Abetted by the trappings of dress and context, and backed by a lot of volunteers and a national organization professional, clergy earn the trust that attracts people, to be taken inward and upward. I decided to settle for a half-hearted association with the Unitarian Universalists. I swallowed my differences with the UUs and became an occasional UU churchgoer, though not a member.
There are national networks of “humanist counselors” who earn certification from either of the two major American humanist organizations, The American Humanist Association and Council for Secular Humanism. These folks, numbering a few hundred nationwide, perform weddings and funerals and are available for individual counseling, but apparently do not conduct regular “services.”
My next project was a redesign and reissue of a booklet by Family of Humanists called Humanism for Kids. I felt good that one little part of a secular infrastructure for kids was now available. Our little group ran a few ads in UU and secularist publications, and the modest 40-page book sold well over 1,000 copies, with multiple orders flowing in steadily for years. But the organization, in all-too-typical low-energy fashion, does not have the inclination to weigh in and “go national” with it. Sigh. Maybe someday!
A few other glimmers of growth on the national scene have occurred in the last ten years or so. The Council for Secular Humanism now has a publication called Family Matters, and Camp Quest, founded in 1996, provides a basic summer camp experience for secular kids.7
But what about secular communities? Probably hundreds of small groups across the United States meet monthly, but as of 2006 only one I know of meets as often as weekly, The Humanist Community in Palo Alto (), while the North Texas Church of Freethought ( ), which meets monthly at a Holiday Inn near Dallas, reports regular attendance of over 100 and is saving up for a building of its own. These two most-robust groups have one employee between the two of them, still a wee bit short of the scale of our Christian friends.
Art and music are not typically sorted into a “secular” category. After all, most music and art is not specifically theistic, thus is secular by default. Yet it is not immediately obvious what pieces of art and music are the best for secular audiences seeking a spiritual lift. I am aware of no published collections for this purpose.
As a musician, I felt compelled to look for some good choices. The music of the 1960s and 1970s had a lot to offer: “Imagine,” “Get Together,” “Teach Your Children Well,” and many others. A humanist group in New Jersey even sponsored a contest for original music of this stripe. But no published collections are in general circulation. A number of individual “freethought” performers have released albums of songs with songbooks, but the songs tend to be more in the mode of religious critique than uplifting.
As a songwriter myself, I’ve had some success in the world of bluegrass music with a song called “Just Like You.” It reached number one on the Bluegrass Radio Play Chart when first released and has had enduring popularity, having been recorded by perhaps a dozen groups.
The song has an interesting history: Driving home from a bluegrass festival in North Carolina back in 1975, having just attended the typical Sunday Gospel Show, I found myself wishing I could write a gospel song while staying true to my beliefs. I thought of a bass singer chiming in, “Let me tell you my friend,” going into the chorus and wondered what I would want to “tell my friend.” I spun out some stories about old people who were lonely, and after each verse, the refrain goes, “Let me tell you my friend, he’s just like you.” “Just Like You” has a clear gospel feel, but its message is empathy for people who need it, without supernatural overtones. Many people say they consider it a special song, and in interviews I’ve sometimes been asked how the song came to be written.
Hector Brown lives on a farm
He’s been a farmer all his life
But he had to slow down when his heart broke down
And went under a surgeon’s knife
And the four kids that he raised
All live so far from home
And since his wife died last December
Hector’s all alone
And if you don’t think an old man
Could be alone and blue
Let me tell you, my friend
He’s just like you.
I know it’s not too long ago
You were only twenty-one
But time moves only one way
You won’t always be young
And if you don’t think when you get old
You could be alone and blue
Let me tell you my friend
You’ve got some thinking to do.
And if you don’t think an old man
Could be alone and blue
Let me tell you, my friend
He’s just like you.8
With all the great secular inspirational music, writing, and art out there, there is ample material to distill into user-friendly collections that can serve humanist families trying to raise good and god-free children. In time, humanist communities may become widespread and provide the living infrastructure so many of us need. The job of distilling and building remains before us, and I intend to be in there working on it as long as I can.
SUMMER CAMP. AHH, IT BRINGS back memories—swimming in the lake, toasting marshmallows, riding horses, meeting new friends, singing songs around the campfire. Many of us recall fondly our summer camp experiences as kids. For most of us those camps probably had some religious component, as minor as prayers before meals and kum-ba-yah around the campfire, or as involved as daily chapel and Bible study. If only parents could give their kids all of the positive benefits of summer camp—and there are many—without the accompanying religious messages. While in some parts of the country, particularly the Northeast and West Coast, parents may find comprehensive summer camps that fit this bill, in many other parts of the country options like this may be practically nonexistent. It was with this in mind that Camp Quest, the first residential summer camp in the United States for children from nonreligious families, was founded in 1996 by Edwin and Helen Kagin.9
Sending kids off to summer camp is an American tradition stretching back over 140 years.10 According to a study commissioned by the American Camping Association and conducted by Philliber Research Associates, the camp experience makes kids more comfortable trying new things, increases their ability to make new friends, allows them to develop independence and maturity, and increases their self-esteem.11 “For many children, sleep-away camp is the first time they have been away from home for any appreciable amount of time. The weeks at camp become a chance to grow up—at least a little,” reports Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker.12
Despite these benefits, the nature of summer camp in America is changing, with an increasing number of specialty camps devoted to helping kids develop skills in an activity they are already interested in, such as soccer or horsebackriding. As one Washington Post columnist complained, “Whatever happened to camp camp?”13 Summer camps are also dealing with increased pressure from parents to be in touch with their kids while they are at camp, including parents who hide cell phones in their camper’s suitcases, hoping counselors won’t find the banned electronic devices.14 Both of these developments potentially threaten the benefits that a traditional comprehensive summer camp provides kids—independence, self-esteem, and a chance to try new things.
At Camp Quest, children experience all sorts of activities common to traditional summer camps—horseback riding, swimming, arts and crafts, canoeing, ropes courses, singing songs by the campfire, et cetera, all in an environment free from the pervasive religious messages in the rest of U.S. society. But Camp Quest isn’t just a traditional summer minus God. In addition to typical camp activities, Camp Quest campers learn about “famous freethinkers” from around the world. These include people they may have heard of, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the deist authors of the U.S. Constitution, and people they may be less familiar with, like A. Philip Randolph, an African American civil rights leader who organized the March on Washington at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Kids learn that there are many people like their families, people who are skeptical of religious belief and have done great things. It gives them people to look up to and lets them know that they and their families are not alone.
Camp Quest also focuses on critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and ethics. Campers are given “challenges” where they work together as a cabin to design and perform a skit that answers a question given to them on the opening night. Some past questions include “Did some being design our planet and us? Wouldn’t it take an intelligence of some sort or other to put together something as complicated as living things? Many say there are no other possible good explanations for how we got here. Is that true? What do you think, and why?” and “Let’s say that you could start everything all over again. Imagine that you suddenly have no rules or laws of any kind. Imagine that you have no countries and no religions—but that you do have many different races and many different languages. Please make up ten (10) rules that everyone on the planet Earth would have to obey at all times. These must be rules everyone will agree with, and they must be rules that will make life better for everyone all the time.” While the questions may be serious and lead to serious discussion in the cabins, the skits that result are often hilarious, and entertain the entire camp at the closing campfire.
Other Camp Quest programs involve discussions with campers about what they tell their friends about their beliefs and how they handle situations like saying the Pledge of Allegiance at school. Counselors leading these discussions serve only as moderators, giving the kids a chance to talk about things they have experienced and strategies they have used. Following on the motto used at Camp Quest Classic in Ohio this year, “Reason and Compassion in Action,” campers worked on ways that they could get involved in improving their communities.
Camp Quest is very careful not to indoctrinate campers, letting them come to their own conclusions in a supportive environment. In answer to a question about what she learned at Camp Quest on her camp evaluation form, one camper wrote, “I learned that it is okay not to believe in god.” Note that she didn’t say that she learned that there is no god, she learned that it is okay not to believe. That is probably the most important thing that Camp Quest offers—an environment where kids can be kids and have fun without compromising their beliefs and without controversy. They build lasting friendships with fellow campers from all over the country. When they go back home, they are a little more comfortable with who they are, a little more confident in their abilities, and a little more willing to branch out.
Since 1996, Camp Quest has expanded substantially in the number of campers it serves and in the variety of sessions offered. Camp Quest has grown from one location serving 20 campers in 1996 to approximately 120 kids who attended six different Camp Quest sessions in California, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Ontario, and Tennessee in the summer of 2006. Each of the camps is independently operated, but all follow the same mission. All offer some of the same activities, but each also has its own feel and flavor.
Camp Quest is run entirely by volunteers who devote a week of their time to be on camp staff and devote time throughout the year developing programs and performing administrative and support roles. The organization also strives to be affordable for every child by raising money to provide full or partial camperships so that no camper is turned down for financial reasons. Camp Quest is open to any child from the age of 8 to 17. For more information, please go to. Links to all of the Camp Quests are available there.
MY DAUGHTER WAS 10 WHEN she found out that I was attending meetings at our local atheist group. “You mean we’re atheists?” She ran to the phone to call her friends, exclaiming, “I’m so tired of being nothing!”
Humans are social animals, and our children seek a tribe to identify with. It requires as much faith as any religion to believe we can meet this need by chanting, “The world is my country” or saying we must let them decide for themselves. They will decide for themselves, of course, and they will grow beyond the boundaries of the little groups they depend on in childhood, but our eagerness for this to happen does not alleviate our responsibility to provide them with a community.
For activist and political reasons, I encourage all nonbelievers to join at least one freethought organization, but for parents, I think it is a must for two reasons. First, whether your child is quiet or confrontational, you can’t guarantee that she won’t be subject to harassment or worse. In that case, you and he will need a group to fall back on, and you both will be much more comforted if it is a group she knows. And then there’s the tribe thing. Your child will identify with a tribe, and both he and you will be happier if it is your tribe.
All national organizations will put you in touch with your local affiliate organization. Not as accurate, but worth a try, is the Freethought Directory, online at, also available on CD from the Atheist Alliance. If you don’t find a local group, start one. The national associations will offer help in this area, and both you and your child need to know that you are not alone.
Once you locate a freethought community, you may discover that it is virtually childless, with mostly older people and no programs or institution for children. Your instinct may be to cut and run, but unless there is another freethought group in your area, your job is to make a place for your child in such a population. It won’t be as hard as it looks. Even those groups that appear unfriendly to families almost certainly lament the lack of youth in their organization.
I suggest that parents first go to the group alone and size up the situation. If there is a children’s program, check it out, but don’t demand perfection. It will almost certainly be acceptable and will often be excellent.
If there is none, which is more likely, look for resources: other kids, a side room, a safe outdoor play area, even extra space in the back of the room. Talk to the leaders, share with them your desire to make a place for your child in their community, and elicit their help. Identify resources you have noted and ask to be put in touch with other parents. Talk about encouraging teens and young adults to become leaders for children’s groups. “Youth leader” looks great on a résumé.
Although groups may be open to the general idea of becoming more family-friendly, you may encounter resistance to concrete suggestions for change. The fact is that we atheists-humanists-rationalists-skeptics-brights really like to listen to lectures and debate philosophy. Surprisingly, some of us have not noticed that our children believe the word “lecture” has the same root as “torture” and that a debate is nothing more than an argument. They don’t enjoy it, and our idea that they should doesn’t change their feelings.
Sometimes the best you can do is plan an occasional activity outside the group with a few friends and their grandchildren, but be sure your child is aware of your community in other ways. If you can’t afford to send your child to Camp Quest, ask your association for a scholarship. If you can afford Camp Quest, brazenly suggest to the group that they send your child off with a small gift, like a book to read on the plane. Be shameless in informing your organization of your child’s accomplishments—grade school graduation, any honors she wins. Cards from a few of the members will let your child know that he has a community of support.
Older children and teens still are unlikely to want to listen to lectures, but they may be willing, even eager, to participate in other group activities. I was proud, she was proud, and I think most of the membership was proud when my 16-year-old daughter won Atheist United’s annual speech contest. At any age, your child will enjoy outdoor events, especially if she takes a friend and isn’t asked to sit quietly for the program.
If all this sounds like too much trouble—it is. Freethought groups should conscientiously and effectively welcome families, and many do. Find your group, and if it is welcoming of your child, consider yourself lucky.
Below are descriptions of the major national membership organizations and their child- and family-centered activities. Some exist for reasons of advocacy, some for socializing, some to provide professional services, and some as a combination of all three. Though all are god-free, some even speak of themselves as “nontheistic religious communities”—so there should be something here for every secular stripe.
American Atheists (AA)
P.O. Box 5733
Parsippany, NJ 07054-6733
American Atheists works for the civil rights of Atheists and for state/church separation and is probably the most militant of all the freethought groups. The organization runs a Youth and Family website where anyone can get advice on raising atheist children—nonprofessional but often good—and gain support from the Atheist community. This site includes advice on starting local, grade school, or high school Atheist groups. They assist with legal advice and start-up kits when necessary.
American Atheists awards $3,000 per year in scholarships for Atheist activism.
American Ethical Union (AEU) aka Ethical Culture
2 West 64th Street
New York, NY 10023
Phone: (212) 873 6500
Ethical Culture is a humanistic religious and educational movement inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society. It is arguable whether Ethical Culture is a freethought organization, but it is godless and has the most extensive resources for children.
The AEU provides curriculum, activities, and support for those societies that have a religious education program. Most larger societies have a Director of Religious Education (DRE) who works with the children’s programming. Samples of their extensive curricula can be found on their website.
American Humanist Association (AHA)
1777 T Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009-7125
The American Humanist Association works to raise the profile and public acceptance of Humanism. AHA is an excellent organization, though its membership tends to be older and so focuses less on family issues than some other groups.
The Humanist Society provides resources on humanist education and certifies celebrants, who officiate at everything from baby-naming ceremonies to memorial services.
Atheist Alliance International (AAI)
P.O. Box 26867
Los Angeles, CA 90026
The Atheist Alliance is the only fully democratic national freethought organization in the United States. This is a loose alliance of independent atheist groups, so local groups vary greatly. AAI provides children’s programs at its national convention on Easter weekend. Sponsors “Young Atheists and Freethinkers’ Discussion List,” an e-group that provides young doubters a forum to air their doubts about religion and their questions about atheism. It is strictly moderated to keep out proselytizers, so that kids may feel comfortable expressing their doubts. Gives cash “Future of Freethought” awards for outstanding freethought work for students elementary through college age.
Council for Secular Humanism (CSH)
P.O. Box 664
Amherst, NY 14226-0664
The Council for Secular Humanism is an educational organization dedicated to fostering the growth of democracy and secular humanism and the principles of free inquiry in contemporary society. A professional organization, CSH offers the Inquiring Minds program of educational resources for school and family activities through the Secular Family Network, runs Camp Inquiry, a one-week camp for children 7 through 16 with emphasis on science education, and publishes Family Matters, an online newsletter for families.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been working to keep state and church separate and to educate the public about the views of nontheists. FFRF publishes Just Pretend, Maybe Yes Maybe No, and Maybe Right Maybe Wrong, all freethought books for children by Dan Barker.
The Foundation sponsors an essay contest for high school and college students. One chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association, sponsors a Fourth of July celebration that is the only national family freethought event in the country at Lake Hypatia, near Munford, Alabama. There are speeches and such, but also many outdoor activities at this child and family-friendly event. Campsites are available on the adjoining grounds.
Secular Student Alliance (SSA)
P.O. Box 3246
Columbus, OH 43210
The Secular Student Alliance is an independent international umbrella organization for high school and college freethought groups. This is a great organization. When your child reaches high school age, buy him or her a membership!
The Skeptics Society
P.O. Box 338
Altadena, CA 91001
The Skeptics Society is a scientific and educational organization of scholars, scientists, historians, magicians, professors and teachers, and anyone curious about controversial ideas, extraordinary claims, revolutionary ideas, and the promotion of science. This is a professionally run organization, providing more service than socialization to members.
Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ)
28611 W. 12 Mile Rd.
Farmington Hills, MI 48334
Humanistic Judaism embraces a human-centered philosophy that combines the celebration of Jewish culture and identity with an adherence to humanistic values and ideas, giving the family secular alternatives to Jewish religious rites. SHJ sponsors Camp Keshet, a two-week camp for children 8 to 17 years old, and an annual conclave for teens and young adults.
1. Never take my word, of course—read Ecclesiastes yourself. It’s a quickie, about six pages in most versions.
4. See www.jesuscampthemovie.com. Fortunately, this troubling camp is representative neither of most Christians nor most Christian summer camps.
6. See in particular the Additional Resources sections of Chapters 3 and 9.
7. See Metskas and Brunsman, “Summer Camps Beyond Belief,” in this chapter.
8. © 1975 by Peter Wernick. For complete lyrics, go to .
9. Camp Quest website: www.camp-quest.org
10. Douglas Belkin, “Cutting Ties that Digitally Bind,” The Boston Globe (August 18, 2006).
11. “Directions: Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience,” 2005. www.acacamps.org/research/directions.pdf.
12. Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D., “What’s So Great About Summer Camp?” http://psychcentral.com/library/id211.html. 7/13/00.
13. Ruth Marcus, “Camping Alone; Ready for S’More Networking Billy?” The Washington Post (July 19, 2006).
14. Douglas Belkin, “Cutting Ties that Digitally Bind,” The Boston Globe (August 18, 2006).
• Morain, Lloyd and Mary. Humanism as the Next Step, Humanist Press, 1998. Considered by many to be the ideal first introduction to humanism. Presents humanism as a “joyous view” and connects it admirably to other worldviews, beginning with the “Golden Rule” thread: “Throughout the ages, religions of many kinds have contained a common spirit.” Introductions to nontheistic religious organizations:
• Kogel, Renee, ed. Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought. Ktav, 1995.
• Seid, Judith. God-Optional Judaism: Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage, and Community. Citadel, 2001. An excellent introduction to secular Judaism for those who wish to remain connected to traditions and history of Judaism but do not believe in God.
• Dant, Jennifer. Unitarian Universalism Is a Really Long Name. Skinner House, 2006. Introduction to the UU denomination for ages 5 through 9, including answers to questions like “Do We Pray?” and “What Do We Believe?”
• Boulton, David, ed. Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism. Dale’s Historical Monographs, 2006. An anthology of writings by twentyseven nontheistic Quakers in four countries.
• Radest, Howard. Toward Common Ground: The Story of the Ethical Societies in the United States. Ungar, 1969. Hard to find, but a good historical introduction to the Ethical Culture movement.
• Freethought Directory. Best comprehensive list of freethought organizations around the world. Go to, click on Freethought Directory.