Fieldwork at an American Nonreligious Summer Camp

Spencer Bullivant reflects on his fieldwork experience at Camp Quest Montana; and his observation that the camp provided nonreligious Spencer Bullivant Thumbnailfamilies with a space to explore their own nonreligious beliefs and identities, and develop ways of expressing their nonreligion to others.

I’m not sure when it happened, but in the early months of my PhD program I became fascinated with nonreligious summer camps.  I had been reading the standard books that are almost required reading now for people looking at atheism and nonreligion, books like Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, or almost anything by Sam Harris.  Finding this reading to be interesting, but ultimately a tad intense when consumed in volume, I was looking for something that was a bit more…positive.  Not to say that those previously mentioned works are negative, but they have a tone to them that I could not sustain for a year, let alone the four or even five years of a PhD.  Summer camps, on the other hand, held the promise of being a fun experience that I could spend years thinking, writing, and talking about.

Using an anthropological approach I began participant observation at Camp Quest Montana in the summer of 2011.  The camp itself was relatively small, with only 19 attendees in total.  This consisted of a group of younger children between the ages of 5-12 and a group of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 15.  This camp was somewhat unusual in that the parents were able to attend for the entire week, making Camp Quest Montana more of a family camp. Over the course of the camp stay there were a number of traditional camp activities including swimming, camp fires, water sports, and arts and crafts. In addition to these activities, Camp Quest Montana included presentations on living a nonreligious life as well as a group discussion regarding the ways that science can enrich a person’s life. Focusing on gaining qualitative data I spent most of my time observing the participants, but did engage in informal interviews whenever possible, as well as organizing group discussions, one with the adults, including the parents of the campers and the camp organizers, and another with the teenagers.  I plan on carrying out follow-up interviews that will provide more detailed life histories and allow for one-on-one interaction.

My expectations for what the camp would actually be like were quite vague, I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I arrived. My concern was that I would find some nonreligious variant of the scenes found in the documentary Jesus Camp (Ewin et al, 2006) or perhaps there would not be any nonreligious families at the camp.  It was entirely possible that this camp was just a last ditch option for parents who couldn’t find another camp to send their children to.  Either option would have been interesting from an academic perspective, but would also require a shift in my research focus.

On my drive to the camp I was listening to the radio for about twenty minutes or so before I realized that I was listening to a Christian radio station.  The song that clued me in was one that repeated ‘Praise Him’ over and over again to the point where I realized it was a capital H.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this experience would actually reflect the perspective that I acquired after a full week at Camp Quest.  I say this because after just one day at the camp it became very clear that the people present felt they were living in a world that was predominantly religious where nonreligious people were tacitly discriminated against, or at the very least misunderstood.  During my time at the camp I found that a predominant theme expressed by the campers and their parents was the pressure they felt to express some kind of religious belief.  Most often this was an implicit pressure, but there were examples where pressure to believe in the Christian God and make that belief explicit was made overtly by neighbours, peers, and friends.  My experience with the Christian radio station was just one example of how religion, specifically Christianity, in the United States could appear to be an overarching presence that is both ubiquitous and normative.

Whether or not the United States is filled with vocal and aggressive Christians is not actually relevant.  The important part to focus on is that the people at Camp Quest Montana feel that it was.  It actually came as no surprise to me that they felt this way because as a Canadian I am genetically predisposed to be fascinated by American media, particularly their political wranglings and election events. From my more northern perspective, it would seem to be practically impossible to run for any kind of office in the United States without saying ‘God Bless America’ after every stump speech or political rally.  Implied but never made explicit is that the ‘God’ in this statement is the Christian, and usually Protestant, version of the divine.  Effectively, this means that when the adults at the camp have voted in every election of their lives, they have been voting for a notionally religious person when they themselves are not religious believers.

The camp environment provided a space where participants could be nonreligious without any pressure to talk about why they were not religious. To be fair, there was a significant amount of discussion about why the campers weren’t religious, but in no way did this constitute the majority of discussion found at the camp.  The two features of Camp Quest Montana that had the greatest impact on me were the sense of self and community built by simply interacting with others who felt similarly about religion and their own nonreligion, as well as the build-up of a vocabulary through which to discuss their own nonreligious ideas and identity.  I saw parents who were actively trying to provide their children with a lexicon to aid them in discussing their nonreligion with religious neighbours and peers in order to negotiate the pressures of living in an America that is permeated with religious individuals.  Through this experience the people at Camp Quest began talking about their own nonreligious beliefs.  These beliefs focused on a shared material basis of all things, which led to an agnostic attitude towards the afterlife, a focus on compassion for people in this life, and a respect for the environment.  It was an important feature of the camp and it would have been overlooked without ethnographic investigation.  Participating in the week-long camp and interacting with the people who attended allowed for their unique experience of being nonreligious in the United States. Figuring out what this means in terms of understanding American society and culture as well as its implications to the study of nonreligion will consume my time for the next few years.


Ewin, Heidi E., Rachel Grady, Becky Fischer, Enat Sidi, Jenna Rosher, and Mira Chang.  2006.  Jesus Camp.  Los Angeles, Calif: Magnolia Home Entertainment.

Spencer Bullivant is a PhD student at the University of Ottawa in Religious Studies.  His current area of research deals with nonreligion in the United States, particularly how nonreligious summer camps are creating and maintaining nonreligious identities.

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