Boy Scouts taint Unitarian Universalism


My sons were involved in the Boy Scouts of America a bit as they were growing up, especially my middle kid. We had fun: camping, making campfires, running around in the woods, setting things on fire, archery, making even bigger campfires, etc., all that important stuff. But it also made me uneasy, because the Boy Scouts of America was an awful organization. We had to keep our lack of religious belief quiet, and as more and more horrible information about their policies towards gay kids emerged, it became increasingly uncomfortable. But hey, we were straight white people who could pass for Lutherans, we didn’t have to worry about those other people, and I wasn’t aware of all the bias built into the system. What’s really a shame is that at the time my kids were into it, we lived in Philadelphia…and I didn’t know Margaret Downey, nemesis of the BSA then, and I’m proud now to know her now and her fight against their discriminatory practices.

I was kind of relieved when the kids lost interest. It’s really hard to stand up for principle and what is right when it might make your own children unhappy. If I were to do it all over again, with the knowledge I have now, I’d try to discourage them from even starting up. And I’d refuse to participate myself at all, but at the same time I wouldn’t go all Christian on them and say I’d disown them if they didn’t follow my moral principles. It’s a tough gig, having to deal with other people.

But still, the BSA is a poisonously evil organization.

And now James Croft joins in the battle, in a very good post in which he scorns the BSA and their “Declaration of Religious Principle” (you have to sign a loyalty oath to a god to join), but also the fact that the Unitarian Universalist Association has re-affiliated themselves with the scouts.

Last week the Unitarian Universalist Association – the national organization which represents all Unitarian Universalist churches in the USA, some of which are Humanist congregations, and many of which include significant numbers of Humanists – renewed ties with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), praising the recent changes they have made to policies regarding gay boy scouts and scout leaders. As I’ve written before, those changes don’t go nearly far enough: the BSA still allows local troops to discriminate against gay people, and until that policy is totally overthrown, I would be against re-affiliation. Allowing your member organizations to engage in homophobic discrimination is to be party to homophobic discrimination, and the UUA should not re-affiliate for that reason alone. Furthermore, trans boys are still not fully included in scouting, and this movement to re-affiliate by the UUA is part of a long history of trans people’s dignity being shoved aside once gay people have got what they wanted. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

I agree.

But Unitarian Universalism now? The UUs have always bugged me a bit, too — you’re a religion, and you can’t even bring yourself to a specific conclusion about deities? — but I’ve been accepting because the spirit of freethought isn’t specifically about being an atheist, but about rejecting organized religion and being tolerant of other people’s ideas, but if they’re happily joining up with an intolerant organization, I can’t give them the benefit of the doubt anymore.

The Unitarian Universalist Association is the national representative of a religious movement which prides itself on radical religious inclusivity, and the BSA is manifestly not a “radically inclusive” organization. It goes out of its way to actively insult people who don’t believe in god – which includes many members of UU congregations and a number of respected UU clergy. Imagine the outcry if the UUA had re-affiliated with an organization which said similar things about Jewish people, Muslims, or Pagans: no re-affiliation would have been possible or acceptable to the UUA under such circumstances, and they certainly would not have considered such a move without consulting UU representatives of those faith traditions.

This is betrayal. There’s no other word for it. The UUA has decided which of its members are important and which are not, and atheists, agnostics, and Humanists have been unceremoniously dumped as the UUA gets back into bed with an organization which practices religious discrimination and spiritual coercion of children. There are many wonderfully affirming and inclusive Unitarian Universalist churches and clergy who are fully accepting of and welcoming to Humanists. But to those Humanist members of UU churches who reach out to me frequently to express their despair that the Unitarian Universalist Association doesn’t seem to care about them or want them, I now have only one message: you’re right.

We keep hacking these deep rifts, but it’s necessary — the guiding principle should be based on humanist ideals, not simply atheism or anti-theism, and organizations that can’t support those ideals are not allies.


  1. Erp says

    I’m disappointed too that the UUA has signed a memorandum of understanding with the BSA. However, I’m also aware of the initial split; the BSA effectively kicked the UUA out when the UUA insisted that youth earning the UUA scouting religious award consider the BSA’s warts of discrimination against gays and godless. I hope it won’t be too long before some UUA scout speaks truth to power and the BSA attempts to kick him out for being an atheist. The other option is a Jewish or Buddhist scout doing the same; the Jewish Committee on Scouting is already somewhat worried about the ramping up of ‘Duty to God’ in the latest change in regulations. Kicking out a ‘religious’ scout whose denomination is fine with him being an atheist and whose denomination is also recognized by the BSA may be the straw that causes the BSA to reform or be destroyed.

  2. rietpluim says

    As a former boy scout, boy scout leader and father of a boy and a girl scout I say: BSA is a disgrace to the international scouting community and in violation of the very principles of scouting. They should be kicked out of Scouting International and their right to bear the name “Scouting” should be revoked.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    On the other hand, it is now mandatory that BSA troop leaders include “Kumbaya” in every campfire singalong.

  4. Michael says

    I don’t know if my experiences reflect the situation in all of Canada, but I was in the cub scouts in Ottawa, and my sons are in the cub scouts in Vancouver. I have no recollection of any religious declarations or rituals from my time with them, and it seemed very inclusive. With the Vancouver group, the only religious declaration I saw was a single verbal statement when my kids were sworn in, but it was brief, and easy to miss – I doubt if my kids noticed or remember. As stated, this was the cub scouts (the level above Beavers and below Boy Scouts), but we interact with the Scouts, and from what I’ve observed it seems pretty much the same. So I have no real problem with them, and hopefully the BSA can follow our model.

  5. rs2718282 says

    Yeah, the current UUA power structure doesn’t really speak for us. (Our congregation is mostly Humanist or explicitly atheist.) The UUA currently is too concerned with growing the denomination by attracting the “Nones” who are looking for a place to land.

    I have been proud of the UUA’s clear pushback against BSA in the past. And I have some sympathy with the idea of working for change within — in the long run that’s probably the most effective method. One of our members has been the local scoutmaster for years, and several of his Eagle Scouts have been pretty explicit about their Humanist beliefs.

  6. Sastra says

    UU’s may be self-justifying their stance by playing around some more with the word “God.” If “God” can stand for anything you believe in and care about, then let’s all just say that everyone in the entire world believes in “God” in their own way and make peace with the BSA. This option may seem reasonable to those UU’s who are dealing with equally laid back branches of the BSA. They’re very big on harmony.

    Like most large organizations, groups tend to differ. I was a den mother for a few years and my son’s “religious” unit consisted of learning about different religions. IIrc Margaret Downey had been active in a scouting group which cheerfully allowed her son to add in an “o” and pledge his duty to “good.” Why not? But she moved and suddenly that was a big fat deal. The central authorities seem intent on making their stand on the idea that God exists and failure to believe or — rather — acknowledge this (because everyone knows it deep down) means you are inherently incapable of being the best kind of citizen.

  7. Scientismist says

    I can thoroughly sympathize with the kids of UU families, and humanists, and other non- (or not very) religious upbringing, who would prefer not to be forcibly cast out as infidels by an institution that separates them from some of their earliest friends; but that’s what the BSA has done for at least 60 years, by my experience.

    I still have my BSA uniform — a small blue shirt with two badges: Wolf and Bear. I never made it further, ’cause I knew from the age of about 8 or 10 that I didn’t believe in God, and couldn’t bring myself to go through the hypocrisy a third time to get my “religious” qualification for the Lion badge checked off. I was leery of that “duty to God” line in the oath (I was already choking and mumbling on the “under God” line that only recently, in ’51 or ’52, had been added to the Pledge), but when I heard somewhere that the Scouts supposedly just meant “duty to God” as I see it, I just mentally noted that I didn’t have any more duty to a fictional God than I did to a fictional Easter Bunny, so I could still go to the Cub Scout meetings after school, hold two fingers in the air, recite the oath. do some arts and crafts, and then run around in the woods and play with toy guns with my friends.

    But, as I recall, by the time you got to the Lion level, you couldn’t just have your parents sign off on the “religious duty” requirement (my disaffected Methodist parents sent me to a Baptist Sunday School, but it didn’t take), and there was no way I was going to have that smarmy Baptist preacher give me some kind of religious requirements. So I quit, and saw my old friends less frequently, and eventually made some new ones.

    I Stopped attending the Baptist Church soon after that, and that’s another long story. But I did win quite a few pencils for reciting John 3:16. And they did give me a King James Bible that I still keep on the shelf next to the Book of Mormon and the Bhagavad Gita.

  8. tbp1 says

    I have SUCH mixed feelings about Boy Scouts. I got a great deal of good from my time. I learned a lot about both self-reliance and cooperation. I really enjoyed the camping and other outdoorsy stuff, as well as the camaraderie. I made some lasting friends. I’m not athletic but I even enjoyed the touch football games that were customary before every meeting when weather permitted. We did some worthwhile service projects. My troop didn’t overemphasize the religious aspects, although as I became increasingly non-religious I became less comfortable with the whole thing. It seems like they have become much more religiously oriented and inflexibly conservative since I was a scout (late 60s-early 70s) and I think that’s sad. I wish there were a secular equivalent, but I don’t know of one.

  9. says

    Are there any organizations (in the U.S.) that do Scouting type stuff that doesn’t care about the participant’s religion, gender, orientation, etc?

    We do a LOT of camping and I’ve toyed with the notion of starting a “troop” or whatever focused on camping and comradery but haven’t the foggiest notion how to make it happen.

  10. jimb says

    tbp1 @ 8:
    Your experience seems to mirror Son’s current experience with the local troop. Being in a fairly-liberal N. Calif suburb probably explains some of that.

  11. raven says

    I wish there were a secular equivalent, but I don’t know of one.

    Camp Quest!!!

    For summer camps, there are a large number of options. ( I loved summer camps, even the nominally religious ones.) They’ve gotten very focused so there are computer camps, fishing camps, environmental camps, kayaking camps, and so on.

    The number of options has grown enough that they are seriously eating the Boy Scouts lunch. They’ve had declining membership for decades now and it is starting to show. One camp in Oregon can’t maintain their facility and are talking about selling part of it on the beach for a…golf course.

  12. says

    I was disappointed at how slow the UU organization were to stand up for gay marriage, even when some of our ministers were doing so.

  13. msm16 says

    As a lapsed UU I feel I need to stand up for the UU’s a bit. Unless other UU Churches are different than the three I attended growing up, if you asked 100 UU’s an opinion on something you will get 101 answers back. I highly suspect that this move is not representative of the vast majority of UU Churches, and members. Hell getting UU’s to agree on anything is more difficult than your run of the mill Liberal.

  14. roachiesmom says

    Another alternative —

    It’s wiccan based, but supposed to be all-inclusive regarding faiths (and lack of) and gender. The history page says the headquarters moved to NC in 2007, and they seem to be still going in spite of that.

    The boy-child was actively involved in scouting from kindergarten on, with a one roughly two year break around middle school. I generally left the scouting thing to him and his sperm donor to deal with; my input was not welcome because I was not allowed to talk about my atheism until my kids were much older. However, he told me once how he reconciled the faith issue as first agnostic, then full on atheist, but I’ve forgotten how he put it. We never have talked about his being gay in regard to his scouting experience, but he continued to work summers at scout camp after he came out to most people in his life.

  15. consciousness razor says

    For summer camps, there are a large number of options. ( I loved summer camps, even the nominally religious ones.) They’ve gotten very focused so there are computer camps, fishing camps, environmental camps, kayaking camps, and so on.

    Those are good, but not really the equivalent. It wasn’t just an odd week here or there during the summer. I was in a group connected with my school (also my Catholic church*), where I’d be meeting friends every week, going on frequent trips over the weekends, doing the odd bit of charitable work, educational activities, and so forth. Every summer, there would be longer events, a week or two at actual “camps” organized for lots of other scout troops in the region — it was definitely something to look forward to, but that was just one small part of the experience.

    *Not as bad as it might sound. The parents (and a few other leaders) for mine were generally nice reasonable people, and religion was never much of an issue. Out of all the priests, brothers, nuns, teachers, parents, etc., connected with the Catholic school and church, they were some of the most tolerant and supportive people that I knew when I was growing up. And I suppose it was by far the most influential factor that got me interested in science and the natural world. But maybe it’s not like that anymore there, with a different group of people, and I’m sure that’s not how it is in a lot of other places.

  16. raven says

    The BSA has had declining membership for decades. At some point, this is going to start effecting them. Right about now.

    Golf course developer looking at coastal Boy Scouts property
    www .bendbulletin. com/…/golf-course-developer-looking-at-coastal-boy-…
    Dec 12, 2015 – Keiser owns the Bandon Dunes golf resort in Coos County along with courses … developer is considering buying a popular Boy Scouts property on Oregon’s … who launched the petition and says he “grew up” at Camp Meriwether. … Council leaders say leasing the land to Keiser would provide money to …

    The BSA has an installed base of summer camps and real estate, some of it in very scenic places. They acquired them long ago when rural land was a lot cheaper.

    They are now having trouble maintaining those facilities. Even though they are paid off and they get huge tax breaks, they still have a big maintenance and improvements bill. With fewer and fewer members, they can’t afford it any more.

    Camp Meriwether on the north Oregon coast is one of them.

  17. Erp says

    I do know that several UUA congregations (and other groups) have been sponsoring Navigators USA chapters as a co-ed scouting alternative. I suspect those that are will continue to do so.

  18. jeffj says

    Michael, @4:

    I was in Beavers and Cubs in Canada in the 80s, and I don’t recall any overt religious references either. One of the regular chants had “God” in it, I think. Mind you, this was at a time when we recited the Lord’s Prayer every morning at school. Standards were different then and I’m a lot more sensitive to this stuff now.

    My son is in Beavers and I’m noticing it a lot more. At camp they say grace before meals, although nothing specifically Christian. They also have a ceremony called “Scouts’ Own” that is vaguely religious. I’m sure troops vary, maybe ours is just an unusually spiritual one.

    When my son first signed up I was fairly enthusiastic about volunteering and made some inquiries. Then I read this in the FAQ:
    “Do You Have to Believe in God to Join Scouts Canada? Is Scouting a Christian Organization?

    No, but you must have a basic spiritual belief. Spirituality has been one of the three main principles of Scouting around the world since its inception more than 100 years ago. Scouts Canada is proud of its commitment to diversity and welcomes members of many different faiths and denominations.

    You need not belong to an organized religion, but all members must take the Scout Promise in good faith and leaders may include some form of spirituality in their program for the youth. “God” represents spirituality and for some may represent an actual deity, but it may also mean an expression of your personal spirituality.”

    It’s disappointing. They are inclusive, as long as you “have a basic spiritual belief.” Making it more awkward, a co-worker is one of our troop leaders and he regularly follows up on my initial inquiries about volunteering.