Not Practicing What You Preach
The Boy Scouts of America's Refusal to Recognize Atheism (1993)
Todd M. Pence
The Boy Scouts of America is an organization that was established to better the quality of life in America through having its members perform service for their respective communities and the nation as a whole, as well as attempting to train those youth in the fundamentals of sound moral character. The BSA has contributed many positive things to society both American and abroad, and prides itself on being an organization that is founded on the democratic principles of America. It also takes pride in the claim that it is a diverse organization, whose members are not discriminated against because of their political or religious beliefs. Nonetheless, there are a few requirements for membership in the BSA which contend this claim. Among the most readily apparent of these is the requirement that a member of the BSA must believe in a supreme being who rules the universe.
This has been a policy of the BSA ever since its American inception in 1917. Although the vast majority of young people in this country believe in God in some form or another, some of them when they become older may lose that belief and have to terminate their affiliation with scouting. Although it is not explicitly stated anywhere in the Official Boy Scout Handbook that a person who is an atheist cannot be a member of the BSA, this policy is enforced. In fact, no mention of atheism is made at all in the handbook, and one gets the impression that a disbelief in God is even given consideration as a possibility.
The information on this requirement that is given in the handbook is problematic for three reasons. First, because (as stated above) it treats atheism, a real and viable condition, as a nonentity. Second, it conveys misconceptions concerning the founding of American principles. Third, it is inconsistent with other scouting requirements as stated in the handbook.
Listed in the Scout Motto under one of the qualities required for a good Scout is that of reverence. Part of the definition for this quality reads as follows: "You show that you are reverent to God by serving Him in what you do, and by worshipping Him in the way your parents and spiritual leaders taught you." Elaboration is given in a special section of the handbook entitled "Duty to God": "You learn what these spiritual duties are in your home and in your church or synagogue. Your spiritual leader--minister, priest, or rabbi--teaches you how to know God, how to love Him, and how to serve Him. By following these teachings in your daily life, by taking part in the practices of your faith, by using your leadership ability in your religious activities, you perform your duty to God."
These statements take several things into assumption. First, that the person in question believes in a God; also, that his parents believed in a God and successfully "taught" those beliefs to their offspring; also, that his family belongs to a church and that this church has people who qualify as "spiritual leaders" and has activities in which one can develop leadership activity. These assumptions are carried even further in the explanation of the meaning of the Scout Oath, under which is stated "Your parents and religious leaders teach you to know and love God, and the ways in which you can serve Him" as if it were a given for every young American male.
These passages have difficulties not restricted to the casual acceptance of a being whose existence has never been scientifically proven. There lie other problems in the fact that some of the statements given as to what it means to be reverent to God are either vague or unclear or don't make sense. In the "Duty to God" section it is stated "As a Scout, living in close contact with nature, you learn to know God's handiwork more deeply. As you see the wonders around you, your reverence toward God is strengthened." This seems to indicate that a reverence for nature and a belief in a supreme being are inseparable qualities, and this is not necessarily true (just ask any deist or pantheist.)
It is interesting to note that the handbook gives reference to the Boy Scout Oath as having been based on the Oath of the Young Man of Athens and the Boy Scout Motto as having been based on the Chivalric Code. Neither of these two oaths as reprinted in the handbook contains any reference to God.
The Official Boy Scout Handbook also contains several sections concerning the role of the Boy Scout as an American citizen. Some of the information given in these sections is flawed and difficult to accept. Under the area of reverency described in the Scout Motto is stated: "As a nation we trust in God. We try to live and work within His plan." The section detailing the Pledge of Allegiance in the handbook refers to America as "a single country whose people believe in a supreme being." Do all the millions of people in America really believe in a supreme being? If one of them admits to not believing in a supreme being, does he forfeit his status as an American citizen?
Further misinformation is given in a section of the handbook concerning the rights and duties of an American citizen: "The Founding Fathers relied on divine providence in setting up what they hoped would be a 'perfect union.' Today, in the motto of our country, we express that same conviction that our union can be perfect only by God's help: 'In God We Trust.'" The facts are that not just a few of our country's founding fathers were atheists, and that most of those that were not recognized and respected the belief of atheism. Not all of them, regardless of their beliefs, felt that they were relying on a "divine providence." "Our country was built upon a trust in God" states the handbook. It is questionable whether the authors of that section have ever heard of Thomas Paine or other freethought writers who were instrumental in the formation of American policies.
This refusal to accept atheism is inconsistent with many of the passages in the Official Boy Scout Handbook concerning diversity and the virtue of respecting the beliefs of others. Among these:
All your life you will be with people of different faiths and customs. The men who founded the United States of America gave us a heritage of religious freedom. It is our duty to respect others whose religion may differ from ours, even though we do not agree with them ... You know that each person is an individual with ideas and ways of his own. To be a real friend, you must accept the other person as he is, show interest in him, and respect his differences ...
You have the right to worship God in your own way. See to it that others retain their right to worship God in their way ...
Not just the rich or the poor, not just people of one color or one creed, but all the people ...
These statements touting diversity and religious freedom are incompatible with the idea of refusing to accept one who has no belief in God.
Still another section of the handbook displays the various merit badges a scout can receive for excellence in devotion to his religion. Thirty-some badges representing most of the world's major religions are depicted. It is difficult to understand why if the BSA would accept members of so many faiths, many of which are radically different from and incompatible with each other, why they could not accept members who believed in no God. It is doubtful that the Gods of many of these religions are the ones the BSA gives credit to for founding America. It seems as if "religious freedom" as defined by the BSA does not include the freedom not to have a religion. The situation in the modern BSA is somewhat reminiscent of that in Sir Thomas Moore's Utopia, in which the citizens of the fictitious country were given the right to choose any religion to practice, with the exception of Atheism, which was punishable by death.
I submit that the policy of the Boy Scouts of America concerning persons who do not believe in God is inconsistent with its own principles. I furthermore offer a challenge to anyone affiliated with the BSA who reads this article and agrees with the ideas expressed in it. Your handbook tells you that one of your duties as an American citizen is to "help change things that are not good." I submit that it is your duty to help change the policy of the BSA concerning people who do not believe in a supreme being. As this country heads into the twenty-first century, more and more people are rejecting this concept as a mythological ideal which has no place in a progressive, humanistic society. There seems to be an ideal that such people cannot fulfill the other requirements of scouting. But there is no reason why they could not. If a scout must be reverent towards something, why not revere his world and his fellow human being instead of a being which cannot be seen, heard, nor felt?
Copyright © 1993, by Todd Monroe Pence. The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Todd Monroe Pence.