Can a scout be an atheist?
I was in a small basement meeting room teaching Den Leader specific training when the subject of religion came up. I think in reference to how we present the religious portions of the program to scouts of different faiths or ones whose families don't practice any particular faith. And then someone said that you “can't be in scouting if your not religious”.
I quickly shut down the conversation because it was getting contentious, I needed to start talking about what makes a good campfire story and I was pretty sure if I didn't agree with that point.
Fast forward a few years to the Fall of 2017, a week prior the Boy Scouts of America had just announced the family plan, and the Wood badge course I was staffing was just starting weekend 2. One of the participants had quit scouting because of the decision and there was lots of chatter from staffers and participants alike about the situation.
Then someone said something that was kind of stunning and really stuck in my head “the next barrier to fall will be atheists”. It wasn't said like it's a bad thing it was said because it's the inevitable next step for the BSA, if it wants to be a competitive youth activity.
I will say this as a fact. There are atheists and agnostics in the BSA, youth and adults, and they've always been there. You won't be able to tell because they are good people, and they live up to the oath and scout law.
But they lie when they say the oath and law! Some might say. Here are some arguments that people always lob against the inclusion of atheists. A scout is reverent.
A Scout is Reverent. Despite what many people will tell you, it doesn't mean a scout goes to church, or synagogue, or mosque, or temple, or whatever every week. It means a scout has their own set of beliefs and respects the beliefs of others. That's it.
Side note: I once taught a ILST course and a young man (who would become and Eagle) had no idea what Reverent even meant.
Then there is the Scout Oath. “... do my duty to God and country”. It seems pretty cut and dry but that really only works for scouts who believe in monotheistic faiths, are scouts who believe in several gods out of luck just like those who don't believe in any? No because God is being used as a catch all phrase for higher power or for a set of ideals that make you a good person. In fact Scouting founder Lord Baden-Powell approved the use of oaths with reference to a higher ideal, higher truth, and optional reference to God for some countries in the WSOM because those countries at the time felt that was more appropriate. The scout oath is a living document, words have different meanings than when they were written in the early parts of the last century. We do allow the weak and uninformed to be scouts right?
So at least to me it's evident that an atheist and agnostics can be a scout. A good scout. And a good leader, I don't want my child’s leader preaching about his or her faith to my kid. All I want them to say is that beliefs are between you and whatever and that you have to respect others and their beliefs like you want to be respected.
Someone once told me that the only way you can fail an eagle board of review is to say you don't believe in God. Which isn't true, if you curse, blatantly lie or are completely unprepared you’ll also fail. I used to tell my scouts before they went before a board that it didn't matter to me if they believed or didn't believe in a god, but if they didn't they should t say so at a board of review. I didn't want them to lie, I wanted them make the right choices when it came to explaining their relationship with whatever higher power, ideal, or truth that they subscribed to.
Luckily, this never became an issue for any of them.
One of the participants of that wood badge course posted on Facebook that they are an atheist. I sent this person a private note telling them that as a scout leader right now you can't let people know things like that. There are too many “religious” people who might want to use that information against you, and if you care about the scouts in your charge it would be wise for the time being to keep that information under your hat. For now at least.
This change is not happening this year or next year. It's going to take another five or ten years. It's going to take a movement from inside of scouting.
When the BSA allowed women to become Scoutmasters (80s) there was no mass exodus. When gay youths (who were always there) were allowed in. There was no mass exodus. The same with gay adults and transgendered kids and adults. It's still to early to predict what will happen with girls, but I'm guessing a similar outcome as before. Will allowing atheists in be as smooth as the other changes the BSA has gone through, probably not but it won't bring the organization down to its proverbial knees
With the secularism on a rise, parents want their kids to be welcomed in a place with good people who do good things regardless of what you do or do not believe in. The BSA can be one of those places.
Note: Many of the scout organizations in the US don't discriminate against non-believers, such as the Baden-Powell Service Association, the Spiral Scouts and the Girl Scouts.