Does God scare kids from Scouting?

God commandsRecently, I spoke to a young adult who avoided attending a funeral. To quote, “The religious stuff creeped me out.”

This is a common reaction from people who haven’t confronted choices of faith, or haven’t resolved them.

Most religious institutions aren’t trying to creep people out. Shouldn’t we minimize or prevent such feelings?

Boy Scouts practically excludes youth brought up outside of religious groups. I don’t think the founders of Scouting wanted to exclude any boys from Boy Scouts. I think we can fix it.

According to the Pew Religious Landscape Study, Americans align themselves with religious faiths as follows:

  • 76% with an existing, more-or-less organized religion
  • 4% as atheists
  • 20% “other”

As a kid I remember my struggles with church and religion. I was brought up with Sunday School and occasionally visited other churches. It was scary to assess one’s reverence in unfamiliar places. Think how much harder it is for the 20% that never attend religious services. If church seems like a Scouting requirement, (it isn’t, not really) do we wonder why a lot of active, caring young people avoid Scouting?

There are a lot of religious leaders in Scouting who quote the founder, Lord Baden-Powell, about the significance of religion in Scouting. Some use this to justify excluding atheist or even doubting youth from Scouting. The BSA published a beautifully ambiguous Statement of Religious Principles. It easily leaves room for the inevitable confusion and doubt of youth, including assertions of atheism. It’s part of the Bylaws, reviewed and approved at the highest levels of the BSA.

BSA also publishes a Guide to Advancement (the GtA). It’s constructed by a team of hard-working volunteers overseen by professional staff. The GaA gives day-to-day rules for earning badges and other recognitions. It is more explicit about God:

All that is required is the acknowledgment of belief in God as stated in the Declaration of Religious Principle and the Scout Oath, and the ability to be reverent as stated in the Scout Law.

Advancement requires a Scout to use the word “God” in the context of his view of his duty to God. It doesn’t dictate exactly what “God” is supposed to mean to a Scout.

Some people see this as sufficient wiggle room: the Scout just has to define something as being God, something worthy of reverence, service, duty, and respect. It still works against kids who aren’t brought up with any personal notion of God.

Nonconformist Scouting

Young people need sensible guidance about religious matters outside the traditional structures of churches and religion. This is especially true for Scouts brought up in non-religious households.

I suggest nonconformist Scouting as a framework for such guidance. The BSA has a long tradition of being nonsectarian and of providing “nonsectarian” religious services during its activities. That term now has its own meaning within Scouting.

The lowercase term “nonconformist” has almost no casual meaning since today’s culture often celebrates individuality. The capitalized term “Nonconformist” has a traditional religious meaning: it was used to describe English Protestants who didn’t belong to the Church of England. That’s not what “nonconformist Scouting” means.

Nonconformist Scouting is an approach to Scouting that does not adhere to a specific set of religious doctrines, but helps Scouts understand religion and reverence in the context of beliefs they’ve developed.

Elements of nonconformist Scouting will stem from Lord Baden-Powell’s writings on religion, interpreted to be as inclusive as possible. It will also use ideas developed by Ernest Thompson Seton, the lesser-known founder of Scouting. One of Seton’s countless books was titled The Gospel of the Redman. While the books takes a Euro-centric and even Protestant view of religion, it clearly strives for a nonsectarian voice.

One thought on “Does God scare kids from Scouting?”

  1. The BSA’s required “declaration of religious principle” was a terrible thing for me, but not as a child—as a parent. I grew up going to church. My parents were both church officers; Mom’s BA is in theology; her parents (and aunts and uncles, and grandparents, and great-grandparents) were missionaries and leaders in the YMCA. It has been a huge part of our family identity for generations, and one I embrace and value. But as a teen, after struggling to clarify my own beliefs, I reluctantly acknowledged that I am an atheist.

    I also grew up in scouting, and my immediate and extended family was again deeply involved. I wanted very much to share Scouting with my son. But I could not in good conscience train him to declare belief in a god that I do not believe exists, when he was too young to understand. (I actually am outraged by the practice of asking children to take such oaths, including the Pledge of Allegiance, before they are old enough for it to be meaningful. It’s brainwashing, and I abhor it.) If I weren’t such a rigid SOB, I would simply have had him uncomprehendingly parrot the words, just as I had at that age, and we would both have had a great time in Scouting. But I couldn’t do that, and I am sorry for our loss, and for the loss of what we might have contributed.

    If I could, I would change the BSA’s requirements, replacing the required belief in god with a belief in moral principles. But I don’t believe I can make that happen, and am not going to try. I applaud those who are trying. I hope they eventually succeed, and that atheists in good conscience can some day join the Scouting community.

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