Godlessness and the Boy Scouts

One of the talks at the convention was Katherine Stewart’s about the Good News club and what it means; another was Margaret Downey’s about the Boy Scouts of America’s rejection of atheism and atheists. Katherine Stewart had a piece on the latter subject in the Guardian about ten days ago.

The BSA sent out a questionnaire recently to assess attitudes to its anti-gay policies.

There is a certain irony, of course, in using a questionnaire to establish individual rights. After all, the point of rights is to protect individuals and minorities against the tyranny of a majority. The irony is compounded by the fact that the Boy Scouts claims to be an organization dedicated to moral principles.

A similar irony is at work in the atheist (or skeptical) movement right now, in which one faction insists that treating women as equals is an “imposition” of a political ideology on unwilling victims. Yeah no. It’s not as if equal rights or equality or egalitarianism is an ideology while its opposite isn’t. I don’t want the ideology of not treating women as equals, either, so stalemate, so let’s choose the better option.

the questionnaire, like much of the coverage surrounding it, is silent about the role of religion in shaping the Boy Scout’s discriminatory policies in another area, one that is distinct from and yet intimately connected with its bigotry toward gay people.

Adult leaders in the Boy Scouts must sign a Declaration of Religious Principles, and Scouts must take an oath “to do my duty to God”. Both adults and children can and have been excluded from the organization for lack of belief in a supreme being (or beings). Neil Polzin, who had been in the Scouts for nearly two decades, says he was fired in 2009 from his job as an aquatics director at a Boy Scout camp and told to “sever any ties” with the organization after his superiors found out about his non-belief.

Even the irreligion of parents can be a basis for excluding children from the group. In 1991, 12-year-old scout Matthew Schottmiller was not allowed to renew his membership after it was learned that he was raised in a non-theist household. His mother, Margaret Downey – who was rearing her son to be a freethinker – filed suit. But the supreme court ruled in 2000 that, as a private organization, the Boy Scouts is free to decide their own membership criteria.

The supreme court is right – at least, in some sense. In the US, private groups can and should be allowed to control their membership without legal interference. On the other hand, private groups aren’t necessarily entitled to a congressional charter, regular support from government agencies, and endorsement from government officials – all of which the Boy Scouts do enjoy.

Also lots of respect and status and deference, all of which are open to debate given their warm embrace of religious and anti-gay bigotry.


  1. ImaginesABeach says

    My son is a Boy Scout. We interpret his “duty to (a) god” as the same as his duty to Santa Claus. And I doubt the exclusion of gay boys and leaders will last much longer.

  2. machintelligence says

    The Boy Scouts of America, as an organization, do not believe in God. They believe in belief in God (a la Dan Dennett) and almost any God will do. They even accept the Norse pantheon. My plan for my son, which we never had to use, was for him to profess belief in Thor. He could even use a golden (brass) hammer to squash a bug every Thursday (Thor’s day) thus giving Him a blood sacrifice. They would probably realize they were being mocked, but how could they prove it? My son lost interest in the program before the issue ever arose.

  3. grignon says

    Maybe cub scouting has less stringent requirements. I was den leader for both of my sons, 3 years each and never attended the religious services that accompanied camporees. No remark was ever made. Perhaps because getting adult volunteers was so difficult. And our sponsor was a VFW post. During my second stint our pack leader was an atheist- His car plastered with bumper stickers that left no doubt about his skepticism. The only time it was even noticeable was when he masterfully danced around the invocation at a Blue/Gold banquet, achieving a suitable religious solemnity without actually saying anything about god
    Given that 70% of scouting groups are sponsored by faith based organizations (mostly conservative ones like Baptists, RCC/Lutherans and Mormons), I do not expect the BSA to change their stance regarding gays. Any one of those sects dropping scouting would have a huge impact on the BSA bottom line.

  4. tprc62 says

    The whole organization at the troop level is run by adult volunteers(parents of the scouts). Like the country as a whole, the younger adults(those with young kids) are more likely to not have any issue with LGBT folks, especially in the metro areas. It has been DADT for a great while now. And it has been DADT for atheism also. If you don’t bring it up, nobody else will(at least in the metro areas, I’m sure it’s different in other areas).

    The majority of the troops are sponsored by local churches, which provides meeting spaces and storage space for gear, but no money. I think the reason this has popped up again is that the national organization depends on donations from corporations, which are now less likely to donate to organizations that discriminate. A lot of local scout organizations(area councils) used to get funding from United Way, but that ended a while back for exactly that reason.

    I love the Thor dodge.

  5. Alverant says

    machintelligence, would that policy fly with the national league? I have known people who were kicked out of the BSA for being Wiccan and Buddhist.

  6. UnknownEric is GrumpyCat in human form says

    would that policy fly with the national league?

    As long as it doesn’t include the Designated Hitter, I’d think…

    …ohhhhhhhhh, never mind.

    (minor levity over)

  7. Ulysses says

    The Mormon Church uses the Boy Scouts as its young mens’ organization. They would not be happy to let atheists (or homosexuals) into their club and they do think of the BSA as their club.

  8. machintelligence says

    Alverant @ 5
    I think this covers it.

    BSA Religious Principles
    (Reprinted from the 1992 edition of BSA’s Advancement Guidelines: Council and District Functions.)

    The Boy Scouts of America has a definite position on religious principles. The following interpretative statement may help clarify this position. The Boy Scouts of America:

    Does not define what constitutes belief in God or the practice of religion.

    Does not require membership in a religious organization or association for enrollment in the movement but does prefer, and strongly encourages, membership and participation in the religious programs and activities of a church, synagogue, or other religious association.

    Respects the convictions of those who exercise their constitutional freedom to practice religion as individuals without formal membership in organized religious organizations. In a few cases, there are those who, by conviction, do not feel it necessary to formally belong to an organized form of religion and seek to practice religion in accordance with their own personal convictions.

    Buddhists are definitely recognized. They even have their own medal.

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