I met my husband the summer before our junior year in high school. He had already achieved the rank of Eagle in The Boy Scouts of America (BSA). In those salad days of young love, we spent much of our free time hiking the back-country of the American west. For days on end, we would meander through unpredictable and sometimes dangerous wilderness. But I always felt safe. In the twenty-five years since (even in deep and unexpected snow, a full day’s hike from the car, in Zion National Park) I have never wanted for a fire.
Fire-building is just one skill he learned in the Boy Scouts. They also taught him to extinguish fires safely and thoroughly, to leave no trace, to do a good turn daily and to tie some useful knots.
Being in a relationship with a man who has internalized the concept be prepared on a near-cellular level can be trying. However—thanks to his penchant for over-packing and strapping multiple items to the roof of the car—I cannot recall the last time I lacked something I needed while away from home with him. (Except for eyebrow pencils—but that is not his purview.)
He was raised in the Boy Scouts and his brothers were also Eagles. His mother was a devoted volunteer and den mother his entire childhood. She would sometimes read to her sons from the Boy Scout Handbook and she often reiterated its most important lessons: do a good turn daily, be prepared, honesty is paramount. These are values that my husband still holds dear and from which I, my sons and the world at large have benefited—thanks in part to the Scouts.
So, it may come as a surprise that we have declined to enroll either of our sons (now nine and eleven) in the Scouts. This difficult decision was based on our refusal to force our sons to affirm faith in a god.
About five years ago, when many of our boys’ friends were joining the local Cub Scout den, we looked into enrolment. Then we reread the Boy Scout Handbook and the BSA leadership requirements.
The BSA is unequivocal that an affirmation of faith is mandatory. Mentions of faith permeate the Scout Oath, the Handbook, their public statements and marketing materials. Unless a child has faith in God, he is simply not welcome. In 2018, the BSA National Executive Board reaffirmed belief as a cornerstone of the organization:
The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgement of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members. No matter what the religious faith of the members may be, this fundamental of good citizenship should be kept before them.
Rather than indoctrinating kids into the religion of their parents, it is important to give children the opportunity to make up their own minds, by teaching them to use critical thinking to evaluate the available evidence. No child is born Muslim or Christian—he is only born to Muslim or Christian parents. My sons, through no choice or fault of their own, were born to atheists.
My husband and I have taught our boys to respect other people, but also to evaluate all claims, religious or otherwise, by asking for evidence. This is wholly incompatible with the idea of mandatory faith.
I approached our local den leader with my concerns. He told me that this was a local matter, and that no one was going to grill my kids on their faith (or lack thereof). We have other vocally non-religious friends, whose children joined up. And we have heard a joke or two about boys replacing God with Thor or some other deity when reciting the oath.
But faking faith runs counter to the other eleven values of the Scout Law, each of which we embrace and want our boys to internalize. Foremost among those values is to be “Trustworthy: Tell the truth and keep promises. People can depend on you.” By teaching our sons to recite the Scout Oath without taking it seriously, we would be teaching them to lie.
The BSA’s insistence on mandatory faith—belief without evidence—is unsurprising. It is a common fallacy that morality must be rooted in religious belief—that it is impossible to be good without God. Each of the other eleven values constituting the Scout Law stands alone. It is worthwhile to aspire to loyalty, kindness, bravery, thrift and cleanliness, whether or not one believes in a god or gods. Sectarian religions have a vested interest in denying that one may be good without God because belief in the sect’s god therefore takes precedence over all other values. Loyalty is good only because God requires loyalty. Kindness is good only because God demands it.
The BSA’s official position is that it is not influenced by sectarian motivations. That official non-sectarianism, however, is not always practiced at the local troop level. Troops are often sponsored by a church, their leaders are lay church members or clergy and their meetings are held in the church itself. It is also natural for parents to enroll their kids in troops sponsored by their church or synagogue. The end result is often a largely homogeneous sectarian troop.
The BSA’s position that some faith is necessary to be the best type of citizen is fundamentally flawed. The tenets of the various faiths are incompatible. While it might be internally consistent to claim that faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for example, is the only way to build an ethical character or be a good citizen, it makes no sense to say that it doesn’t matter whether you believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Jesus, so long as you believe in one of them.
Nevertheless, this is the logically untenable claim made by the BSA’s 2018 Reaffirmation of Duty to God. A scout is required only to express belief in some god, not in any specific god: “Boy Scouts of America is absolutely nonsectarian in its view of religious training.” So would belief in Heaven’s Gate check the faith box?
Since the BSA does not have a particular dog (or god) in this fight, it ought to recognize that children can be good scouts regardless of their faith, or lack thereof. We can revere the natural world, our laws and our communities, regardless of our individual beliefs about the supernatural. One need not neglect the spiritual side of life just because one refuses to believe without evidence.
The BSA has shown that it is open to change. In 2014, it began admitting openly gay scouts. In 2015, they extended this ruling to include openly gay leaders. In 2017, the BSA announced that they would begin to admitted transgendered boys and girls. Each of these changes seemed vanishingly unlikely only a decade ago.
Each of these reforms has increased the probability that the BSA might abandon the mandatory faith requirement. In the wake of the recent changes, the LDS Church, once the largest sponsor of the BSA, has severed their relationship. When the Mormon church opted to distance itself from the BSA, they lost a full 18.5% of the organization. If churches continue to withdraw their sponsorship, they might become more non-sectarian by necessity, as troops may have to meet in community centers or schools, rather than inside church buildings.
Revising the BSA’s policy on faith is therefore both possible and desirable. The BSA should choose—but should not be legally required—to do so. The Scouts have the same rights as all citizens—to free association, free speech and freedom of religion. Nevertheless, the BSA would be more able “to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law” if they did away with the religious requirement.
Firstly, because excluding non-believers deprives the BSA of an important source of human capital—keen and capable atheists, humanists and agnostics.
Secondly, an explicit recognition that the values encoded in the Scout Law do not require supernatural justification increases the likelihood that those values will be fully adopted by individual scouts. Teaching that values require a foundation in faith—belief without evidence—puts those values at risk of being abandoned if a scout’s faith is ever undermined, something that often happens as children and adolescents grow into adulthood.
Third, as the rate of religious belief continues to decline, the BSA will find itself with an ever-shrinking pool of children and leaders. BSA enrollment peaked at 6.5 million in 1972 and has been steadily decreasing over the last twenty years. With the increasing rates of non-belief in the United States, the BSA may ultimately have to abandon mandatory faith in order to survive.
A strong and healthy BSA is in America’s interest because the values it teaches (other than mandatory faith) are of prime importance to a healthy society. Building character and instilling a commitment to values like honesty, courage, cleanliness, courtesy and kindness are not things parents can do alone. It takes strong cultural institutions for the next generation to internalize these. Schools, clubs, sports teams and scout troops all play an important role in this. So can churches. But faith is not required to be honest, brave or kind.
My own community (which includes many non-believers) recognizes scouting for what it can be: accepting of every person, under the banner of a common goal of raising good, capable, community-minded adults, who are committed to doing a good turn daily. Unfortunately, the BSA’s official stance on mandatory faith undermines the ability of local troops to openly accept non-believers. I believe that the BSA can change, though it will take time.
In the meantime, I feel pangs of regret when I see pictures of my boys’ friends on Facebook, racing in the pinewood derby or roasting marshmallows at camp. My sons don’t know what they are missing. But they hear lessons about honesty, loyalty and courtesy at home by the fire that they helped build. They learn these values from teachers, baseball coaches and grandparents. Their father teaches them how to tie useful knots. But it is sad not to have a scout troop as part of their moral education.
My boys, and many like them, could benefit from scouting and I know that current scouts would benefit from my family’s presence. But the Boy Scouts’ inflexibility on this matter provides an opportunity for boys like mine to learn that some values are too important to compromise.