When I joined the Boy Scouts decades ago there was little concern for social issues. It’s true when I went to summer camp in Minnesota they asked what religion I was and stumped I asked my leader who asked what church I went to and when I said none he asked how I’d been baptized. Still stumped I vaguely remembered grandfather and mom (we were living with them during a transition) talking about presbyterianism and I put that down. My leader though Lutheran, as many are in Minnesota, was pretty unconcerned and was more worried about issues of kindness, fairness, and good behavior. Though when it came to the oath he said it was Ok to just say it even if I didn’t mean it. But he said it with an inclusive kindness. He wanted me to participate in the group and didn’t care whether I believed or not. The oath though repeated often was more officious than intentional. It’s true those were the kind of lies and microconversions we lived through back in the sixties Boy Scouts.
Frankly I preferred the Girl Scouts as they seemed to do more interesting, crafty things and I always liked to make things over sports. A few years later when I moved to Salt Lake City, the temptation was to check the scouts out and there, like me, was a new game. They didn’t accept blacks, back then that was the target issue, and they were very Mormon. I soon learned how a culture could center on religion where theology imbues meaning into every action in one’s life. A world in which I could never participate, nor wished to. I had no questions. No desire to change. Missionaries always prey on universal human suffering to create conversion but in spite of my many mistakes I never saw it as spiritually existential.
Much later when I had children we thought to investigate scouts again as a social antidote to the isolation of raising children on a boat and then a remote farm. I absolutely refused to great marital consternation. If arguing over circumcision seems trite consider the depth of whether or not you want your child to repeat an oath you yourself made.
All these years I had never felt comfortable making the oath. With the Fourth Awakening, the rumbles of New Atheism, and the politicization of religion I had no desire for any child to catch a social virus or participate. We did find an alternative group that worked for us here, Adventure Scouts, with reservations. Nevertheless, I am the only one in my family that chafes at swearing one thing when believing another. There must be an integrity gene. I found myself oddly sympathetic to Sam Harris’s nearKantian insistence to never lie though I fool myself and deceive when feel threatened as much as many. I just don’t like it and it affects my self-esteem.
Local exceptionalism for community sake has morphed into institutional stridency. The BSA allows gays but not gay leaders and local groups are shedding like winter hair in the spring. Worse is the growing antipathy towards atheists. The BSA has the least allowance for atheists.
The problem for atheists lies in an oath in which scouts promise to “do my duty to God and my country.” Some nonbelievers have suggested their sons change the word “God” to “good,” but the BSA has remained firm. Some atheist children have been asked to leave after years in Scouting when it was revealed that they did not believe in God.
That’s what happened to Margaret Downey’s son, Matthew, in the early 1990s. After seven years in the Scouts, he was forced to drop out — or lie about his disbelief in God. Downey filed a lawsuit on her son’s behalf, but it was soon made moot by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale which found that, as a private organization, the Boy Scouts can make their own membership rules.
Downey, now president of The Freethought Society, a group that advocates for nonbelievers, said she was not encouraged by last week’s vote.
“We have seen great success with the gay community, but they have fallen short of the goal” of total inclusion, she said. “We have an even more difficult road ahead of us because the nontheist community has been hated for so long that when we try to get respect and equality we are met with pure prejudice, and that is what we see the BSA doing.”
BSA does contradict itself in its charter. This contradiction is shallow in the face of the constant repetition of the oath–the kind of thing a conflicted religious person gets but confuses idealistic young people.
BSA bylaws declare the organization to be “nonsectarian,” and its bylaws and charter do not permit the exclusion of any boy — gay, atheist or otherwise. But sections in the Scout Oathhave been interpreted to ban nonbelievers (“my duty to God”) and until recently, gays (“to keep myself … morally straight”).
The greater issue with this growing trend of what is politely called “seeking like mindedness” is we are abandoning all means on intercommunal conversation. Tightening social cells prevents social tissues and organisms. This growing polarization in near all aspects of our life in a media that tears asunder the difference between private and public leads to intense rivalry and competition rather than integration. Integration works. You don’t have to agree to live together as family, brothers, and cousins but when we can no longer share personal space because every issue has to be politicized to an intensity of worthiness to friendship or sociability we only further balkanize ourselves.
The issues are important but I miss a time when people gathered not because of ideology but rather because we are people who share the same space and we need to accept diversity without thought of conversion. Sounds heretical to social issues? No, it means keeping the conversation going at near all costs. Without discussion, physical inclusion, the next resort is war or forced conversion.
As an atheist in the scouts I was able to show religious people that I wasn’t really satan. Perhaps I should have let my children join in spite of fearing a virus but by then the political costs had gone too far. How could I possibly allow an ant-gay, anti-atheist, often misogynist organization that was making a point of it enjoy the energies of my children?
Now, if I still had male children of that age I would picket (I hope) and vociferously boycott the organization.
Jim Newman, bright and well