Having to promise

A new thing for Christianists to worry about.

Girls wanting to become Guides, Brownies or Rainbows currently promise to “love” God when signing up to the 101-year-old organisation.

However, the association is considering reviewing the wording of its affirmation for new members, to remove religious references.

The NSS says the story is bogus, but taking it as true for the moment…What of it? Why should children have to promise to love “God” in order to join a group that does fun things? Why should even children who do in fact love “God” have to do that? Why should even children of “devout” parents have to do that? Why have a requirement of that kind at all? It seems surplus to requirements. It seems intrusive and bossy.

Atheists don’t make children promise to hate “God,” after all. Atheists don’t make anyone promise to hate “God.” Atheists don’t try to extort emotional commitments of that kind. Why do scouting organizations do so? What’s the attraction?

I suppose the question is otiose, because the promise dates from 1910, so it’s a “why did they” question rather than a “why do they” one, and it’s not really pressing to know why they did. But it ought to be possible to re-think a social practice of that kind, and then why-questions do become relevant. “Why should we keep doing this? Hmmm, can’t really think of a good reason. Let’s bag it.”

The promise is optional but only girls who have taken it can be awarded the movement’s highest badges.

Christian campaigners yesterday warned that the 600,000-member association risks losing its values if it abandons the religious element of the oath.

“It would be terribly sad,” said Mike Judge, spokesman for The Christian Institute.

“The Girl Guides has always embraced all people but has its roots in Christian values, which is what has made it so popular and successful.

“It will be very difficult for it to maintain its values if it removes the ethics from where those ideas spring from. It would change the character of the Guides for the worse.

“Sadly, I think this is symptomatic of a much wider problem in Britain, which stems from a culture of embarrassment about being Christian.”

How would it change the character of the Guides for the worse? It wouldn’t stop anyone from being Christian, or loving “God.” It would just stop requiring a promise to do so, which shouldn’t be its business in any case.




  1. Lxndr says

    This is part of why, as a kid, I refused to join the Boy Scouts. I couldn’t bring myself to be dishonest.

  2. Sastra says

    IIRC, the Girl Scouts in the U.S. either had no such oath, or the oath was optional. Any girl who wants to become a scout can become one regardless of her religious beliefs.

    This is in contrast to the Boy Scouts of America. There’s a line about believing in God when you sign up either as member or leader. They’d gotten lax about enforcing it but the Mormons eventually took over the leadership and set about throwing atheists out sometime in the 80’s I think. Atheist activist Margaret Downey began a group called “Scouting for All” which tried to influence members to change the rules of the organization and/or get lawmakers to take away its special congressional status and civic privileges.

    Why have a requirement of that kind at all?

    You know what they’re after. They’re trying to create a social atmosphere where the existence of God is a given, the “duty” to obey God is a virtue, and anyone who doesn’t agree is similar to a criminal who refuses to obey the law.

  3. says

    If the organization’s highest honors are denied those who refuse to take the oath, then it’s not “voluntary.”

    Oh, and are boys asked to “love God” too? Or is it only girls who are expected to show that extra measure of subservience?

    “It will be very difficult for it to maintain its values if it removes the ethics from where those ideas spring from. It would change the character of the Guides for the worse…”

    This is a threat. If they’re down to bullying children, it’s time to kick them to the curb.

  4. says

    Raging Bee,

    Boys are asked to be “reverent”, and “To do [their] duty to [their] God and [their] Country. I was luckily, the troop I was a part of wasn’t sponsored by a church, and had very little religion. Nearly all the boyscouts I knew were irreligious. Unfortunately, it’s the adult leadership on the national level that makes religion a big deal.

    Saint Mandi

  5. says

    “Sadly, I think this is symptomatic of a much wider problem in Britain, which stems from a culture of embarrassment about being Christian.”

    Notice this guy never asks himself why being Christian is so embarrassing these days?

  6. cathyw says

    @Sastra – when I was a Girl Scout leader they emphasized in training that Girl Scouting is to be open to every girl, no exceptions, no nothin’. The official Girl Scout Promise does include the phrase “to serve God, my country, and mankind”, but we were told that girls could rephrase that to reflect their own beliefs.

    Where your mileage may vary is that to a certain extent things are up to the individual troop, troop leader and local council – e.g. if you’re a Wiccan in the Bible Belt and you want to serve the Goddess instead of God, your troop leader may pitch a fit. She’d be wrong to do so, but the fit would still be pitched…

    There have also been statements from higherups in Girl Scouts of the USA that imply that “rephrasing” the God-reference in the promise might not extend to omitting it entirely, and other people stating that while GSUSA might want to allow that it would cost them their accreditation with the World Association of Girl Guides & Girl Scouts. I looked into this a couple years ago, and asked GSUSA for clarification, and they never got back to me. It would be typical, somehow, for atheists to be the one exception to “no exceptions”, wouldn’t it?

    (The official songbook is still all full of God-stuff, because it’s old… my troop didn’t do a whole lot of singing.)

  7. says

    I can speak firsthand on this subject, having two children in the Scouting movement and being a volunteer leader as well.
    In Canada at least, the Scout and Cub promises are as follows:

    I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God and the Queen, to help other people at all times, and to carry out the spirit of the Scout Law.


    I promise to do my best, to love and serve God, to do my duty to the Queen, to keep the Law of the Wolf Cub Pack, and to do a good turn for someone every day.

    As you can see, both these organizations take God (and imperialism) very seriously. There doesn’t seem to be much of a push to change this- at least not at the troupe level (I’m not privy to any talk at the regional, provincial, or national level). This is my first year in Scouting as a leader, having been a Beaver, Cub, and Scout growing up. I grew up in a moderately religious family, so I never put much thought into it until my children got involved.
    I tried as gingerly as possible to broach the subject with my Akela (Pack Leader) during our first leader’s meeting. He said he would have no problem refusing membership to a Cub who refused to say the promise as written- citing the fact that Scouts is an organization founded on faith. It seems perfectly appropriate, however, that almost every faith can be and is accepted in scouting. Only a lack of faith is discouraged.
    There are Religion In Life badges that have criterion appropriate to every Christian faith from Catholic to Missionary to Quaker, Islam, Sikh, and Hindu. I can provide a link to anyone interested.

    I’m not entirely sure how to approach the issue. This is a private organization no one is forced to join. I am wont to make it into a big issue since my children enjoy scouts so much, and any activism on my part might jeopardize their ability to enjoy an activity that resonates with them. My 12 year old is an atheist, though being in the Catholic school system has equipped him to “smile and nod” effectively- he hasn’t brought up the promise as an issue.
    I would feel more comfortable fighting the system if it wouldn’t impact my children’s membership, or if I felt that I had a number of parents, kids, and volunteers willing to back me up. In the meantime, I’m open to suggestions on how to tackle the issue- since it does bother me.

  8. papango says

    George W – that is a tricky situatuion. I’m happy to make sacrifices for what I (don’t) beleive in, but, like you, I’d be loath to ask family (especially children) to do the same.

    Maybe you could take up the issue of the promise with the national body, rather than at a local level where it might impact your sons. I know that the promise was changed here in NZ (from ‘duty to God’ to ‘duty to my God/s’) so it’s not set in stone. It might be worth just opening the discussion with the head office to let them know it is an issue for athiest parents.

  9. keithharwood says

    When I joined the scouting movement in England many years ago the scout oath was “I promise to do my best to do my duty to God and the King [I said it was a long time ago] and to keep the scout law.” But I’m pretty certain there was an atheist version. I’m also pretty certain that among the religious proficiency badges there was one for atheism, but what you had to do to gain it I haven’t the foggiest idea.

  10. says

    What George says seems like a good illustration of why it seems so superfluous. The Scouts isn’t an actual church, so how silly of it to impose a religious promise when it doesn’t have to.

    I can certainly see not wanting to do anything about it when one has kids in it who enjoy it though.

  11. sailor1031 says

    Where I grew up the scout troops were all associated with one church or another Most of us kids couldn’t understand why anyone would want to join such an uncool organisation. Those uniforms;all those badges-and just for doing normal easy stuff that any kid was able to do anyway. Plus you got to spend that much more time with pious churchy nerds! Who’d want that?
    And judging from the people I knew, and met later, that were in scouting, it didn’t do much to build character either. Some of the most weaselly kids were in scouts. Sixty years later I still don’t get it.

  12. ImaginesABeach says

    I tell my Girl Scout daughter that there is no problem promising “to do my duty to god and my country”. It’s the same as doing her duty to Santa. No supernatural being, no duty.

  13. evilDoug says

    The Canadian Cubs promise I recall from the early 60s was of the “duty to God and the Queen” sort, not the “love and serve” sort. I wonder when that phrase got shoved in.

    I hate to see kids being subjected to the sort of us-and-them mentality that goes with swearing religious fealty.
    Where I live, Boys and Girls Clubs are secular and very inclusive. I have met people who volunteered with B&G Clubs because of the secular policy, and others who supported them (and would not support Scouts) because of their inclusiveness.

    Personally, I would have no big problem with promising to do my duty to god and the queen – my duties being, respectively, zero (as it is to the Great Pumpkin or Hog Father), and refraining from sending any heads dripping red to Liza and her ladies (ref here actually Liz the First).

  14. Erp says

    I dove into the UK guider forum (which anyone can read) to see if they knew anything. Apparently not anything formal (though they were scathing on the Telegraph article for what it got wrong). Some speculated the promises may be up for review as they are suppose to be reviewed every few years anyway (the different levels have slightly different promises).

    A lot of guiders (these are the the adults involved in Guiding) would very much like the promise to be modified (or have an alternative promise) to allow non-theists full participation (the Telegraph did get right that you are not required to make the promise to continue as a member [in contrast to the US Boy Scouts]) and to make sure people don’t keep mistaking Guides as a Christian only organization. Some cited the promises that other groups use most notably the Canada Guides which now has

    I Promise to do my best,
    To be true to myself, my beliefs and Canada
    I will take action for a better world
    And respect the Guiding Law

  15. Sneffy says

    I’ve been a Girl Guide in Australia since I was 5, and I’m fairly familiar with how the organisation works behind the scenes.

    There’s a big difference between the organisation as it was created in 1910 and how it works today. It started out as a strongly CoE affiliated group that aimed to train kids to be “empire builders” *shudder* and unfortunately we still have a few traditions hanging around from that time. But now days, Guides Australia encourages girls to be global citizens, with a strong focus on service and fighting gender inequality around the world.

    The Australian Girl Guides are also reviewing their promise, and will probably produce a non-theistic version (see link). None of the Guides I’ve talked to about it have a problem with it, and I’ve never been made to feel unwelcome for being an atheist. I don’t think we’ve ever even talked about God or spirituality at a guide event.


    tl;dr In Aussie Guides, mentions of God have hung around because of tradition, but they’re not really relevant to modern Guiding and they’re probably going to be gone soon anyway.

  16. says

    My son was in the Cub Scouts for about two years when the God issue came up. When he said he didn’t believe in God, the Eagle Scout who was talking to the group said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be any particular God, just…some kind of god.”

    “But I don’t believer in any gods,” my son said.

    “Well,” the Eagle Scout said, “that’s a problem.”

    So my son quit.

  17. Sneffy says

    It’s also worth pointing out that in the US the Girl Scouts are much more liberal than the Boy Scouts, although they fall short of mandating non-discrimination against queer women, transgender women and kids, and atheists. They leave a lot of it up to the local groups.


    I found an interesting article on how the US Girl Scouts movement embraced social changes to become more inclusive, and hence grew as an organisation, whereas the Boy Scouts dug in for “traditional values” and alienated many potential members.


  18. anfractuous says

    I vote that we quit considering coerced public pledges as anything other than rubbish. There is no reason we have to consider a coerced pledge inviolable. The idea that pledges are forevvvvvvvvvvvver is also unrealistic and should be treated as such. We should absolutely change our minds about a pledge if circumstance or understanding changes.

    Of course, giving our word should be something others can rely upon, but the ritual public recitation of pre-written pledges does not count. Sometimes making an issue of it may not be the best option at the time, and other times it is well worth the effort. Each of us should be allowed to decide which is which.

  19. Erp says

    The Australian version sounds admirable. The US one not so much.

    The US Girl Scout one does allow alternative wording and has for some time. The Boy Scouts of America refuse to allow alterations.

    Note we are talking about four different organizations with four different promises (or rather three promises and one oath as the Boy Scouts of America prefer the word ‘oath’). Australian Guides and US Girl Scouts who both affiliate with WAGGGS (along with the UK Guides). Australian Scouts and Boy Scouts of America who both affiliate with WOSM (along with Scouting UK). All of these started with Baden-Powell but are independent organizations (he was somewhat forced in the case of the girls since they started showing up at scouting events and calling themselves Girl Scouts, he set up another organization, Girl Guides, for them [Juliette Low who was in England at the time and a friend of Baden-Powell seems to have preferred Girl Scouts so that is what she called the organization when she started it in the US much to the dismay of the Boy Scouts of America who fought to have the Girl Scouts change their name and failed]). I find it telling that the headquarters in the US of the Girl Scouts is in New York City and the Boy Scouts in Texas.

  20. Simon says

    The UK scouting org has the details here. http://scouts.org.uk/supportresources/2943/scout-promise-law-and-motto?cat=7,132

    and in the UK, girls and boys can join the scouts, which are independent of the guides.

    I remember broaching the subject a couple of years ago with someone who was setting up a local troop, and the answer did seem that a promise to any god was fine (god of stuck draws anyone ? (Terry Pratchet, Small Gods) ) but personally however easy it is to just “grin & nod” I don’t think it’s the right thing to teach kids that.

    One of the plus points of these organizations is it teaches responsibility, and care for one’s community. Teaching your kids to “just pretend” when reciting their oaths just seems to be wrong, and go against everything the organization stands for.

    Just my 2p …

  21. Rukymoss says

    Now the god-fearing folk have another option for their girls–American Heritage Girls. They were apparently formed after the Girl Scouts looked as if they were going too easy on godless commies and lesbians, etc. They have recently formed some sort of alliance with the Boy Scouts. Part of their list of virtues includes being “pure”. Ick.

  22. says

    @15 Evildoug,
    You know, I remember it the same as you. Though I wrote it off as remembering the Scout Promise better since that was my final level of scouting.
    From my understanding, they changed the Beaver and Cub promises to be more age appropriate- in that an eight year old child is not really capable of grasping the meaning of “duty”.
    I know that opens a whole new can of worms, but there it is.

    Ophelia, I’m writing a post about this now. Thanks for the spark of inspiration. No pun intended. It should be finished this afternoon. I hope you will read it.

    As an aside, the CEO of Scouts Canada resigned on Friday- absolutely not because of a W5 program that investigated child abuse allegations, but rather because of “philosophical differences over the direction of Scouting”. FYI.

  23. SomersetJohn says

    Usually I come out with some sarcastic suggestion like swearing unto Satan, or the FSM etc.

    This time, I’m going to be a bit more serious. Since it seems natural for us poor humans to need to believe in something bigger than us, though not necessarily some deity, how about swearing by the biggest thing possible.

    I swear by the Universe…….

    This can be used by Atheists, Deists, Naturalists and pretty much anyone except possibly dyed in the wool Theists and maybe cultural relativists. It can be used with the same sincerity as a religious oath and, society allowing, be given the same recognition as a religious oath in courts, at least in civilised countries. (Yes, I am suggesting that theocracies and proto-theocracies are not civilised.)

    If enough people use it maybe it will catch on.

  24. says

    @27 SomersetJohn,
    In my post (I hope you don’t mind me plugging my post here, Ophelia), I ended by offering a revised version of The Promise that I think stays true to the spirit of the Scouting movement.
    I hope it catches on as well.

  25. says

    I’ve always felt a bit conflicted as a Canadian anti-monarchist atheist that I made a promise to love and serve God and the Queen when I was younger. I guess I can take the approach that if there is no god the first part is meaningless; now I just have to wait for the Queen to die and be replaced by a King to get out of the second part (or even better for the British to come to their senses and turf the royals out on the street).

  26. says

    Why didnt I think about this? I listen to what exactly youre saying and Im so pleased that I found your blogging site. You actually understand what youre discussing, and you also made me come to feel like I ought to find out extra about this. Thanks for this; Im formally an enormous enthusiast within your blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *