Boy Scouts of Faith-Based America

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.


Anonymous said...

This is on the BSA website:

Young people need faith. There is abundant evidence that children benefit from the moral compass provided by religious tradition. We acknowledge that faith can become an important part of a child's identity. Each of the major faiths breeds hope, optimism, compassion, and a belief in a better tomorrow. Scouting encourages each young person to begin a spiritual journey through the practice of his or her faith tradition. One of the key tenets of Scouting is "duty to God." While Scouting does not define religious belief for its members, it has been adopted by and works with youth programs of all major faiths.

This is not just a requirement of faith, but a requirement of belief in a single god. So, scouting does constrain the concept of religious belief.

Religion = Hypocrisy??

MizzCatt said...

Religion equals hypocrisy when it insists others adhere to some obscure tenets in the bible (i.e. homosexuality, etc.), but eschew other parts of it because it doesn't jibe with their modern lives.

Either you are a TRUE believer and wear no blended clothing, allow no woman to speak in church and kill all non-believers, or you're a hypocrite with a signature on Prop 8.

Patty K Mooney said...

Your boy sounds like he has a good head on his shoulders and didn't waste too much time wasting his time with the Scouts. That's too bad they are so rigid in thought but I have a feeling that your son is going to find better ways to live his childhood.

Anonymous said...

I'm a scout leader, and I've always found the way National has enforced the "duty to god" requirement to be distasteful and heavy-handed. I know I have boys in my troop that are atheist, and I know the issue may rear its head if/when they go for Eagle. I'm not going to stop them on the way up, and fortunately the council-level review phrases the issue with a single question: "Do you respect the beliefs of others, and practice your beliefs accordingly?" - no reference to God, no reference to any specific religion. The question can be answered "yes" by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even atheists.

There have been several moments when I've wanted to leave Scouts because of this policy but I've stayed in order to work within the program to see about bringing about change. It's been a slow, and sometimes secretive process, because I always worry National will come down hard and boot people like me out for not toeing the official policy line.

Good luck to your son, and let him know not all Scoutmasters believe, or behave, the way the ones in his troop have toward him.

J. Cafesin said...

Anonymous Scout Leader, thank you! : )

Anonymous said...

I'm a Scout leader in from outside the USA and can tell you that while Duty to God is a central and founding tenet of all Scouting Associations, the all or nothing official BSA interpretation is not representative of World Scouting. As well, Scout organizations (including the BSA) recognize and value participation from members of faiths well beyond Judaism and Christianity.

I can say the same thing re: the practice of co-ed scouting (allowed in Canada, UK, Europe) and policies of leaders' sexual orientation.

I have empathy for the position that your son is in. Your town sounds like the one in Footloose, and its unfortunate that you didn't have the same opportunity to query the Scoutmaster on attitudes to religion as you had with the Cub Scout Leaders when your son joined.

I don't think your son's involvement in Scouts was wasted, though and I hope you don't. Your son would have learned many valuable lessons on citizenship and outdoor awareness from his time in Cub Scouts and as he gets older. I hope he will have many, if not more opportunities to apply what he learned with other groups. An Eagle Scout after his work is done is only a title unless he continues his service work thru his life.

J. Cafesin said...

This is a great follow-up for this blogspot on Boy Scouts!!

Anonymous said...

I've been a Scout leader for 3 years now, and our Pack has no religious affiliation. I, myself don't practice any religion, but respect others that do. When it comes to religious aspects in the scouts, I adjusted teaching my scouts about similar values among most religions and the non-religious, faith in one-self, family, peers, and respect. I feel it's the parents jobs to get specific on religion with their son. I live in an area dominated by LDS, so non-religious Packs are far in between. We have a few LDS families in our pack. They claim our diversity teaches their children tolerance and respect for others and that religion doesn't make the person, their actions do.

Anonymous said...

Start your own organization that has its own credo stating belief in God not required.
If you don't like the Boy Scout credo leave!!

Anonymous said...

Ah, previous ignorant poster. The point is that BSA says one thing but practices another. Why not just come out and say that BSA is religious? Because they know that their numbers will drop. Lure in young boys while the religion is light and hit 'em heavier as they become more entrenched in the social aspect of the group. Ask anyone who's been to a Christian camp as a child what it was like to move from the grade school camp (harmless) to the junior high camp (borderline brainwashing). The story's the same. I don't care if you're religious, just don't try to trick me into following your beliefs.

Anonymous said...

if u dont believe then join a club that has the same beliefs as u why should over 100year tradition change 4 u my father and i plus my children have been in the scouts we believe they teach r children the morals they need in life one nation under god i could recommend that u contact satin for advice good luck

Anonymous said...

i dont want any non believers brain washing my children or any other children that have a chance to know christ