[QUESTION: Can you respond to the issues raised by these kids??? E. Fox]
Summer camp usually includes swimming, horseback riding, canoeing and other physical activities. But Camp Quest, a "secular humanist" camp for atheist youths in Overpeck, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati, offers something more.
Every year, Camp Quest's director issues a challenge to campers: Find the unicorns. He tells campers "unicorns" are invisible. They are silent, leave no tracks or traces, and you can walk right through them. If you can prove they exist, you win $100.
This longstanding Camp Quest challenge is also used as a metaphor for God: If you can't see, touch, taste, feel or hear something, its existence or nonexistence can't be proved.
Recently Y-Press interviewed camper Sofia Riehemann, 13, Bellevue, Ky., and two other atheists: Danielle Darby, 14, Montgomery, Ala., and Emily Clayton, 23, Lake Station. Sofia and Danielle were raised as nonbelievers; Emily joined their ranks as a teenager.
"I started getting in a lot of trouble with my parents and everything, and I ended up moving out of the house when I was 15. I quit going to church. A lot of things, you know, happened to me, bad things that happen to teenagers," Emily said.
"I just kind of started looking at life differently."
Danielle and Sofia are second-generation atheists. Danielle's dad is Larry Darby, former Alabama state director of American Atheists, who led the protest to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building in Montgomery. Sofia's parents have been nonbelievers as long as she can remember.
"We are all free thinkers," Sofia said.
Webster's New World Dictionary defines an atheist as "a person who believes that there is no God."
"I hear a lot of people giving out many different definitions," said Emily. "I just don't believe in God. I'm not going to completely disregard the fact that there might be some sort of higher being or creator, but as far as the main religions of the world, especially Christianity, I can say 100 percent that God does not exist."
According to The New York Times 2003 Almanac, 15 percent of the world's population professes no religion or falls under the category of atheism.
In most organized religions, people use sacred texts to help determine right from wrong. Atheists prefer critical judgment and common sense. All three said people don't need religion to determine right from wrong.
"I think you should always do the right thing," said Sofia. "I am honest, and I'm good, and I care about stuff. So I think it's not fair to just assume that we don't care or aren't honest just because we don't believe in God."
Emily agrees. "I think for people to just assume that atheists are going to be more prone to go out and steal and lie and cheat and kill and everything (is) absurd."
The lack of religious belief doesn't affect their sense of truth and morals.
"You should know what's right from wrong from your parents," Danielle said.
All three concur that believing in God doesn't automatically make you a good person.
"In all religions, you have your good people who live great lives, and then you have your not-so-good people who murder and do all this other stuff. That goes for everybody. It's not just the Christians. It's not just the Muslims. It's not just the atheists," Emily said. "Having religion teaches prejudice against those who do not believe exactly the way you believe."
While none of the youths has been ostracized by friends, many of whom are religious, they agree some misconceptions about atheists need to be cleared up.
"We're not baby killers. A lot of people think that atheists have no morals, and they have no respect for other people, that we are in fact barbaric and we go around murdering and killing and raping and all this stuff. That is so untrue," said Emily.
"We won't go to hell," Sofia said. "Some people say that atheists are evil, and we're not."
Atheists even observe some holidays. Emily and Sofia enjoy Easter egg hunts, while Danielle and her family usually attend the atheists' convention on Easter.
"They have a lot of lectures, and sometimes it's really boring, but some of them are really funny," she said, adding that last year, there was "this guy who dressed up as the devil."
Emily also enjoys the secular side of Christmas with her children. "We do Santa Claus. A lot of people get mad at me because, you know, a lot of atheists believe that one lie is just as bad any other lie. But I think it's ridiculous to take away Santa Claus from children. They need that. . . . It helps them grow."
Danielle's family has a small celebration marking winter solstice on Christmas Day, and Sofia's family celebrates Isaac Newton's birthday.
"Mama has a giant tree that we decorate with animals, and we call it our peace tree, and we drop little decorated apples on an Isaac Newton doll's head every year. It's lots of fun, and we get lots of gifts," she said.
All agree people must decide their religious beliefs for themselves.
As the mother of two, Emily thinks her children should be exposed to different religions so they can make their own decisions when they are older.
"I've got a 5-year-old daughter, and she knows all about Christianity. She actually goes to church with my parents during the summer when she goes to visit them. The older she gets, the more we'll teach her about Muslims and Buddhists and all that," said Emily, who also has a newborn.
Danielle and Sofia agreed.
"I'll teach them about other religions," said Sofia. "But they can just choose what they want to do."
ASSISTANT EDITOR: Andrea Phillips, 15.
REPORTERS: Christine Beyer, 14; Stephanie Bolen, 13.
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