Is it possible to be a Scout and an atheist?
According to the World Constitution of the Scouting Movement, being a Scout or Scout leader requires a belief in God, there is no doubt about that. But what is believing in God, and what is atheism? A Hindu mystic, Swami Vivekananda, said:
"In the same way that certain religions in the world call a man who does not believe in a God existing outside his person an atheist, we, for our part, say that an atheist is a man who does not believe in himself. Not believing in the splendour of ones own soul, that's what we call atheism."
Since the beginning of the Scouting Movement, the concept of
Duty to God has always been an important Scouting principle. Spirituality plays an important role in all the other Scouting organizations across the world. But what about Scouting in the United States? Does the United States' Scouting organization -- BSA -- believe in the importance of the spiritual dimension in Scouting?
We've seen how the founders of the Boy Scouts of America wanted to Americanize the English Scouting program (see the Review of BSA's Gay Policy). Not only were Baden-Powell's Oath and Laws reviewed and revised, but the entire Scouting for Boys handbook as well.
The Duty to God phrase can be found in Baden-Powell's original and subsequent revisions of the English Scout Oath. BSA leaders did
not need to add this phrase in a further attempt at Christianizing the BSA's Scout Oath. Although they felt compelled to add the Trinitarian clause - physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight - to the Scout Oath. However, this was not enough. They decided to revise and restructure Baden-Powell's Scout Law as well.
The Scout Law Baden-Powell devised consisted of nine laws.
However, these nine laws did not sit well with the American James E. West - second BSA Chief Scout Executive.
West, prior to taking the helm of the fledgling BSA, had served as the superintendent for six years of the large progressive Sunday School of Mount Pleasant Congregationalist Church and was an active member of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). At that time, the YMCA was a very evangelical Protestant organization.
(Roman Catholics were prohibited from serving in any capacity within the organization, as the YMCA did not consider them to be Christian.)
When reviewing the Scout Law, West felt that faith should once again be included. So, West made changes to Baden-Powell's Scout Law by increasing the number to twelve. The most significant addition was the twelfth point of the Scout Law - A Scout is Reverent.
West later remarked that,
". . . the Twelfth Scout Law is . . . one of the finest things in the whole scheme of Scouting and one of the reasons we have had such an outstanding success . . . From my point of view, the real people in America, the people that have made America from the early days, are those who have had deep religious
convictions based upon personal religious experiences and those who serve others because of the joy of service. I felt at that time, as I feel now, that there is nothing more essential in the education of the youth in America than to give them religious instruction and I advocated that this be included in the Twelfth Scout Law. "(Murray, William D. The History of the Boy Scouts of America. New York: Boy Scouts of America, 1937. p. 54-55.)
The new Boy Scout organization also drafted their Declaration of Religious Principles, which is a part of the organization's charter. From the outset, BSA presented itself as a nonsectarian organization. Thus, in 1913, the Mormon Church became the first national religious
organization to adopt Scouting as it's official youth program.
As mentioned earlier, the Duty to God portion of the Boy Scout
Oath has always been a principle within the BSA organization, but a principle that once stated, was never really promoted.
There are many examples which can be provided to illustrate BSA's lack of commitment to promoting spirituality in the Scouting program. However, one example makes a compelling argument.
For the past 30+ years, BSA professionals have publicly stated their commitment to God and condemned those who would seek a
broader understanding of religious faith. Given this stance, one must wonder why the BSA's Cub Scout Oath did not originally require a Duty to God? Especially as Baden-Powell's Wolf Cubs, on which BSA's Cub Scouts were based, had an oath which included Duty to God.
When Cub Scouting was established in 1929 as a pilot program, the original Cub Scout Oath did not include the phrase Duty to God. The first time Duty to God was included in the Cub Scout Oath was
in the 1951 edition of the Cubmaster's Packbook. When it eventually made it into the Cub Scout's handbooks is unknown at this time. So, at least twenty-two (22) years, if not more, elapsed after Cub Scouting was implemented and no Duty to God clause was added to the Cub Scout Oath!
It's interesting to consider that this addition was made in the decade of the 1950's. Remember that the United States had recently
entered the Cold War with the Communistic (and atheistic) Soviet Union. In addition to BSA adding Duty to God to the Cub Scout Oath, the country also strove to combat communism in the 1950's by:
- Adding the phrase "under God" to the otherwise secular Pledge of Allegiance;
- Adding the suffix "So help me God" to the oaths of office for federal justices and judges; and,
Including the motto "In God We Trust" on all currency.
There is no mention of the change to the Cub Scout Oath in any of the Annual Reports BSA presented to Congress during the 1950's. One would have thought that such a change would have been a cause for celebration. Unless, of course, BSA did not want the public to know that their commitment to Duty to God was so abysmal that
they allowed hundreds of thousands of Cub Scouts to participate without promising to do their Duty to God for some 22+ years!
This single example helps to convey the lack of of importance BSA places on the spiritual aspect of the Scouting program. For those who have had to deal with BSA National on spiritual matters, their lack of interest in the spiritual dimension in Scouting is blatantly obvious.
When the cameras are rolling and the social/religious conservative donors are in the audience, then BSA will do their dog and pony show on the importance of God within BSA. If you want to include a short section on how a unit leader assists a boy in meeting his Duty to God responsibilities in an adult leader training video -- forget it! The program divisions in BSA (Cub Scouting, Boy Scouting,
etc.), have no interest in teaching a leader how a youth member can fulfill his/her Duty to God.
The Boy Scout Program Division is interested in advancement, citizenship, leadership, and outdoors. Given the lack of resources they provide in helping the Scout to do his Duty to God, it is obviously not a priority for them. But it's not just the Boy Scout Division who is not interested in fulfilling the 12th point of the Scout
Law - all the divisions at the National Council, as well as the local council offices, consistently refuse to commit any resources to this - purported - important part of Scouting.
For all the indifference (and sometimes hostility) to spirituality within the BSA, they have gone on record as defining themselves as a religious organization. In case no. 92C-140, Riley County District Court, Bradford W. Seabourn vs. Coronado Area Council, December 16, 1992, the BSA filed a "Separate Answer" with the following as its "Sixth Affirmative Defense:"
"Boy Scouts of America is a religious organization, association or society, or nonprofit institution or organization operated, supervised or controlled by or in conjunction with religious organizations, associations or societies within the meaning of the Kansas Act Against Discrimination, expressly permitted by the Act to limit the occupancy of its real property, which it owns
or operates for other than a commercial purpose, to persons who believe in God or to give preference to persons who believe in God."
BSA's assertion that it is a religious organization was echoed in the Pool & Geller case and in several other cases. We have personal knowledge of several religious leaders, who are themselves Scout
leaders, who take great offense at BSA holding forth as a religious organization. Especially given BSA's lack of commitment to incorporating spirituality in the various programs they provide.
Given BSA's official statements that they are a religious organization, one has to wonder why they're allowed to recruit
members in public schools. We cannot recall the last time the local United Methodist Church was permitted to distribute flyers in public elementary schools. Or when the federal government spent millions of dollars to assist the Catholic Youth Organization in holding a national event. Or when the United Way chapters allowed their grant recipients to deny services to clients on the basis of the client's religious belief.
If BSA wants to present itself to the public as a religious organization, then it should expect to abide by the same rules as all other religious organizations. Given the lack of importance BSA places on spirituality within the Scouting program, allowing a questioning, agnostic, or even an atheistic youth in the program would have no effect on the program. If the unit is sponsored by a religious organization, then of course the organization should expect
that youth and adult members be either of the same faith (if the unit is a closed unit), or at least be able to promise to do their duty to God.
We'd think that most religious organizations would be thrilled that a non-theist believing family would want their son to join their unit. Imagine the opportunities for the boy to see persons in action who have a belief in a God! As all Christian religions are called to
spread the Good News, such an opportunity should not be missed.
On the other hand, if a public school sponsors a unit, then it should be expected that any and all youth (and adults) should be welcomed to participate -- regardless of their faith tradition.
BSA should take a moment and look at how the other Scouting Associations around the world address this issue. Not only by allowing
optional wording in their Oaths and realizing that adolescence is a time for young people to ask questions, but also by making the commitment of including the spiritual dimension into all the programs.