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. 


  1. Very good article. When I was a den leader, I would touch briefly.on the religious requirements but told the parents to look over the requirement and report back to me when it was completed. I did this because there were scouts of different religions and this put the onus of completion on the parents and scout.

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    2. "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."
      I don't think that's accurate. While each of those initially did not cause any kind of exodus, the sum total has been obviously been a big driver behind the exodus of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. So far when BSA and the Church differed, there has been a lot of shifting to make it fit because the values are so critical to religious organizations that charter with the BSA. After the collection of changes, there's too much drift to keep in line with the Church's goal for a world wide youth program.
      Go back to the decision to add homosexual leaders. That was the bridge too far that weakened the relationship. Not only did the national organization renege on the commitments they made, they specifically planned the vote when the LDS leaders weren't available and refused to change the timing. It was then the first "we need to evaluate our relationship due to the worldwide nature of our program" began. Then when the Church decided to recommit, the national pushed again. And then again. And stopped getting input from the member and charter organizations.
      There is a mass exodus, it's just that the Church is taking it's time to allow the BSA to prepare and plan for it. The question will be who (what national charter organizations) follows.
      This article on atheists is on target. I personally don't agree with your timing. I will be surprised if it doesn't happen by 1st quarter 2020 after the Church leaves (if not before). The BSA has been very specific about atheists and agnostics not being able to fulfill the Scout Law. Your comment about the fact that there are some that no one notices is a critical point. To be a member currently, they have to be dishonest. The BSA acknowledged this, and even provided the method of skirting the truth in the Scout Oath in their MOU with the United Universalist Association. They suggested the members expand the Duty to God beyond actual religious feeling. Further, the UUA has an open policy to "try to change BSA's discriminatory policies."

    3. Rick is correct. I've raised my son to not lie, to not obfuscate the truth, and mostly to be himself at all times. Thus he cannot be a scout. The main article presented is a kind view of the situation at hand, but, not an honest or complete one. I don't think I'll ever respect the scouting organization as a whole, while respecting the individual scouts themselves, because they had to be drug into the 21st century kicking and screaming and they are still fighting doing the right thing by all children. It is forever tainted to me.

    4. Actually I thing the opposite - The LDS church was leaving anyway - Their exit allowed the BSA to do what a majority of our members wanted all along

      Become more inclusive -

      Exclusion of atheists is morally wrong

  2. "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. "
    Yep, that's us (Belgium). Our full Promise includes the oath towards "a higher ideal and democracy". Not towards God&King or God&Country.

  3. Well said! (By the way, it should be "transgender" and never "transgendered")

  4. My opinion is one's own "conception" of God is an individual and personal set of the mind and heart. In line with a Scout's duty to God, and the 12th point of the Scout Law, I've always found it comfortable to expand the notion of one's belief in God to include an individual's recognition and appreciation of "Nature," for example the feeling of awe that overcomes one when pausing for a moment in the presence of the unspeakable beauty that exists when hiking at Philmont. Also, if a Scout believes in self-giving love, or in the spirit of being a servant leader, I see no reason why that sentiment can't be referred to by them as their belief in God. God as the spirit of giving and doing for others.


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