Scouting and Atheism – Part 2 of 2

Yesterday, I wrote about how Boy Scouts of America is a quasi-church and how, regardless of BSA’s position on homosexual members, its biggest customers view “duty to God” as the central premise of Scouting.

I also mentioned that I’m a secular humanist – and yes, that means atheist – but that I support the values of Scouting and gladly was a registered Scout leader for five years.

How did that work?

First off, during my time as a Scout leader, my Pack was chartered by a public school PTO. (That’s changing.) It had to abide by the same restrictions on discrimination as any other public entity, so religion didn’t come up in the leader application process. Yes, it’s a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell“. Given the state of the world today, sometimes secular humanists just have to live by their own version of “passing“.

Second, I knew very well that there was religious content in Scouting when I took on the job of leading my son’s den. After all, every year’s badge has a “duty to God” component in its requirements. However, being a publicly sponsored Pack, it wasn’t appropriate to discuss religion anyway. So I simply assigned that part to be done at home.

As an aside, I don’t see how having churches sponsor Scouting units gets around this problem. The Scouting units with which I’ve been familiar accept all comers, regardless of whether their religious denomination matches that of the chartering church. (I suppose some Scouting units are exclusive, but that hasn’t been my experience.) Now, I was raised Roman Catholic, and my boys are being raised Roman Catholic. Suppose I still adhered to that religion and had begun teaching the “duty to God” sections according to strictly Catholic dogma. I doubt that would have gone over well. It seems to me that fulfilling the “duty to God” requirements would have to be done by families at home, anyway.

Third, I had no intention of proselytizing during Scouting events. Anyone who knows a secular humanist knows that’s not really in our nature. We don’t want people hassling us regarding religious affiliation, so we tend not to hassle others. (Of course, we still advocate for public policies that preserve the secular nature of our government, but that’s one step removed and not a direct attempt to convert another individual to your religious worldview.) Furthermore, I made a point of following the rules and customs of Scouts, despite my disagreements with them. For example, I taught the Pledge of Allegiance as required, complete with its reference to “under God”, and I always recruited a person to say grace at meals.

Fourth, and most important, I do really support the values and virtues promoted by Scouting. If we all tried to live by the Scout Oath and Scout Law, the world would be a much better place. In fact, the Oath and Law are very much in line with secular humanist values, with the exception of duty to God. During my time as a Scout leader, I did my best to teach and model these values and virtues for my Scouts. Scouting is an excellent program if you just follow what’s in the handbooks. The various controversies surrounding Scouting are separate from that. For example, no where in any handbook that I used did it say discriminate against homosexuals. That’s a separate BSA policy that interprets what’s in the handbooks.

So, that’s how I got through my time as a Scout leader being a secular humanist. To finish up, here are a few more thoughts on Scouting and atheism:

This might be surprising, but I don’t oppose the right of Boy Scouts of America to bar atheists from being leaders. I wish it was different, of course. As I’ve tried to make clear, Scouting has much to offer young people and much of its content is in line with secular humanist values. But secular humanism is a worldview. I don’t see it as an in-born trait. And I am leery of forcing private groups to accept people of all worldviews. I hope BSA will eventually come around – and I will advocate for that – but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Regarding my reference to “passing” above, is passing a form of dishonesty? A key value of Scouting – and of mine, as well – is honesty. Should I have publicly declared my secular humanism and risked getting thrown out as a registered Scouting leader? Perhaps.

Finally, with BSA formally taking steps to dissociate itself from public institutions so that it can discriminate in the ways it sees fit, should it still be allowed to recruit in public schools and use their facilities? My Pack owes much of its recruitment success to being able to talk directly to boys at school, usually during lunchtime. And it regularly uses school facilities for its major events. I’m now very uncomfortable with it doing these things. But don’t worry. I’m not going to press the issue.

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