I picked up our 11 year old son from his Friday night Boy Scout meeting. On the way home he announced he was never going to advance to Eagle Scout, as we’d all hoped when he decided to stay in scouting and ‘bridge’ from 'Webelo' Cub Scouts to become a full-fledge Boy Scout.
“Attaining the Eagle rank is often the end goal of a scout and his parents. It looks good on a resume and shows commitment to a program over an extended span of time.”
These are the opening lines on an Eagle Scout information page for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), and one of the reasons we encouraged our son to stay in their program.
But the rank of Eagle Scout was not achievable for my son, his troop leader had told him last Friday night. Even if he got all his merit badges and fulfilled all his other requirements through middle and high school, he was not qualified to become an Eagle Scout.
Scouts that become Eagles, as well as every other rank in Boy Scouts, must live the Scout Oath which requires belief in God.
Weeks earlier, my son had branded himself a non-believer when the scout master asked him to lead the prayer at the end of a meeting and my son refused, stating he wasn’t sure if there was a God, and he didn’t believe in praying.
My husband and I turned our son onto scouting in first grade for socialization. We are atheists in an overtly religious community. Fourteen Christians and one Jew, and my son was the only member of his Webelo troop being raised without religion. Most neighbors and our kid’s classmates go to one of two churches in the area. We are not part of this network, and can not offer our kids the benefits of participating in what everyone else is doing. Scouting seemed like a good way to meet other boys our son’s age. It was active, taught core values such as respect and responsibility, and was generally touted as a socially responsible organization.
We didn’t consider the Boy Scouts an exclusively religious organization. We'd heard stories, and knew of the pending lawsuit in the supreme court filed by a father for discrimination against his son who claimed to be an atheist. It motivated me to ask the women at the Cub Scout table during school registration if their troop was religious, and if so, how. Both women assured me their troop was not. Their den had several different faiths among its members, and their policy was to keep religion at home, not practice it in the scouts.
They were true to their word during the five years my son advanced in scouting, participating in most events from hikes to community drives to popcorn sales, and earning quite a few merit badges along the way. Religion, even prayer was never promoted or practiced, nor did questioning his beliefs prevent him from moving up the scout ranking ladder. He bridged from Cub Scout at the end of fifth grade to continue up that ladder,and became a full Boy Scout with the aim of eventually becoming an Eagle Scout, the highest achievable rank in the Boy Scouts, and the only one that really matters on college applications from this organization.
Both my husband and I were unaware the Boy Scout troop he bridged to said prayers at the end of their meetings. Our son informed me of this religious practice in the car on the way home after his new troops first official gathering a few weeks back. I asked him how he felt about it and he said it was workable. Every boy in his Webelo troop had bridged to this troop and he wasn’t about to start anew with a bunch of kids he didn’t know. He just wouldn’t recite what he didn’t believe, he told me.
That wasn’t good enough, according to his new scout master last Friday night. No matter how lax about religion our son’s lower level advancements, rank of Boy Scouts and higher stuck to the rules of the BSA. His troop, and every other the leader was aware of locally required a religious commitment to advance to the upper levels of scouting.
I could lie that I believe, my son suggested, if I have to...
Think that’s a good idea? I asked, glad to be driving which made it easier to keep emotional distance and sound casual.
Maybe. I just don’t get why I have to pretend I believe in God. The Boy Scout handbook says we’re supposed to “respect and defend the rights of others to practice their own beliefs.” But they’re not.
Ah, from the mouths of babes...
He’s right, of course. Click on the ‘Litigation’ link on the official BSA website and bring up the “Duty to God” page:
Part of the Scout Oath proclaims the scout will ‘do his duty to God [and country].’ Every level of advancement requires a promise or show of faith in God. Scouts may be instructed to respect the beliefs of others, but only those that believe in God and follow His teachings as interpreted by BSA can progress past elementary levels in their organization.
Nowhere in the BSA literature we received and perused, either when considering or after our son joined the Boy Scouts did they claim to be a faith-based organization that required their members to be believers as well. Had they disclosed this with all transparency, as do churches and other religious organizations pushing their agenda, I doubt my husband and I would have channeled our son to participate.
We impose no religion on our kids, though we discuss it often—the concept of one god to many; various cultures and their belief systems from beginning to modern man, using everything from the Tao to biblical references. Our kids get additional religious education through their friends and faith-based celebrations with those families. It is our intention as parents to expose our kids to possibilities and let them discover their own spirituality. This is not the intention of parents who inculcate their kids with a specific religion early on, or it would appear, register them in Boy Scout.
Boy Scouts of America covertly excludes anyone who doesn’t believe as they do. Wikipedia says: "The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) takes a strong position, excluding atheists and agnostics."
Perhaps BSA leaders hope to convert the non-believing, or questioning kids they readily accept younger as they advance in the organization. Whatever their agenda, and my son now sees they clearly have one, meeting with his troop leader last Friday night soured him to continuing in scouting. It’s a shame, really, because they have so many positives to offer. Weirdly enough, they tout the same morality I preach to my children--the rules of functioning in a thriving society, like being courteous, and honest, loving and compassionate. The only difference between us is I don’t believe a god gave us this wisdom, I think humanity did, over eons of seeing what works and casting aside what doesn’t for our continued evolution.