Not skeptical about skeptics' camp

questcamp I criticized an Associated Press story yesterday for failing Journalism 101. Another AP story, about nonreligious camp, does not suffer from this problem. Reporter Valerie Bauman executed journalism's fundamentals. In her first five paragraphs, Bauman gave her readers the five W's:

When Joe Fox sends his daughters away to summer camp, he's confident they'll be surrounded by kids who share his family's beliefs and values.

Caitlin, 16, and Elizabeth, 10, go to Camp Quest, which in 1996 created a niche getaway for children who are agnostic, atheist or just not sure yet what to believe.

Parents have plenty of summer camp options, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the YMCA, soccer, dance, music and drama camps. Many claim no religious affiliation, though others are Jewish, Catholic or evangelical Christian. The Camp Quest concept started in 1996 with 20 kids at a site in Ohio with the slogan "Beyond Belief."

Since then, demand has grown, and weeklong camps have been added in Minnesota, Michigan, California, Tennessee and Ontario, Canada. In 2007, the camps accommodated 150 kids, generally ages 8 to 17. The projection for 2008 is more than 200 campers, and new camps are being considered in Vermont and the United Kingdom.

"They're good, moral kids without organized religion," Fox said of his daughters. "They can feel comfortable being who they are."

Also, Bauman talked with an opponent of the non-religious camps -- a skeptic of the skeptics, you might say; and amplified her earlier theme that non-religious Americans put their children in these camps partly to develop a sense of belonging.

I have no beef with Bauman's reporting of the story. But I do have a beef with her confusing and misleading storyline.

Bauman writes that the camps are designed not just for agnostics or atheists but also those who are "just not sure what to believe." She then quotes the camps' founder who says that young children are unable to form their own worldview:

"We really try not to label the kids," she said. "When a kid is 8 or 10, asking them to say, 'I'm an atheist,' or, 'I'm a Catholic' -- at 8 or 10 we don't think that kids are able to make a decision about their worldview."

The passage above, as well as the lede, suggest that the camp teaches open mindedness about religion; religion might be true, it might not be. Well, the organization that runs the camps promotes nothing of the sort. On its website, the organization states that it opposes organized religion:

The Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS) promotes humanism, a nonreligious philosophy based on reason and compassion. IHS advances human rights, secular ethics and the separation of religion and government through advocacy, innovation and collaboration.

The examples in Bauman's story also suggest strongly that the camp opposes organized religion:

The counselors will sometimes discuss world religions and philosophies. They say the focus is not on what is "wrong" about other beliefs, but they do sometimes use examples from religions when talking about errors in critical thinking.

In one exercise, counselors tell the kids about invisible creatures -- such as unicorns or dragons -- that live in the camp and then challenge them to prove that they don't exist. The campers are told they can't see, touch or taste the creatures.

The point is that a belief isn't valid just because it can't be proved wrong. The exercise is supposed to help kids prepare for questions from those who ask them to prove a higher power doesn't exist.

So doesn't the camp promote opposition to organized religion? Bauman should have resolved this ambiguity. Instead, she stated that the camp is not religious. The implication is that the camp has no attitude, and possibly even an open-minded one, toward organized religion. Call me skeptical.

Baumann either pulled her punches or wasn't sufficiently critical about the non-religious camp. Either way, readers are not sure what to believe.

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