What Does the Boy Scouts-Unitarian Universalists Agreement Mean for Humanists?

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I had mixed feelings when I learned that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in late March. Unitarian Universalists are leaders in the quest for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) justice. The UUA opposed the BSA’s ban on openly gay members, which led to the dissolution of the relationship between the two organizations in the late 1990s. When the BSA dropped its ban on gay adult leaders in July 2015, two years after doing the same for gay youth, it opened the door for the formation of more inclusive troops. However, the BSA still bans atheist, agnostic, and humanist scouts and leaders. In fact, its Declaration of Religious Principle clearly states, “The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.” There was no mention in the memorandum signed by the UUA of a more accepting attitude for atheist, agnostic, or humanist youth and leaders in the BSA.

I contacted UUA President Peter Morales and asked him why. “Let me say, as a humanist, I had my own trepidation about a new agreement with the Boy Scouts,” he responded. “However, through many conversations, I was assured that a UU congregation who hosts a scouting unit would be able to teach our values according to our UU theology—including nontheistic teachings.” He went on to write:

We do think this is an important first step in creating change from within. Zach Wahls, co-founder of Scouts for Equality, a UU Scout and Eagle Scout, counseled us that the BSA is much more likely to make policy changes when addressing their own constituencies and chartering organizations. As he said in UU World, “When you have the UUA, the UCC, and public schools at the table, it helps the Scouts see that if they decide to change their membership policies and include nontheists, it makes it much easier….” I believe that UU congregations that choose to host scouting units have an opportunity to model what an inclusive and welcoming unit can look like—including those who do not believe in God. And for those who decide that scouting isn’t right for their congregation, there are great alternatives like Navigators. We have heard from many UU Scouts and Scouting families who don’t believe in God that they were accepted despite BSA national policies. We have also heard from UUs who wanted to participate in scouting but weren’t allowed to within the UU congregation and therefore participated in scouting at a non-UU church.

Beeler-cartoonMorales acknowledged that the issue is complex and that while the agreement isn’t a perfect solution, he sees it as a strategic decision that “can put us on a path to change.”

Though this situation is far from satisfying for me and other nontheists, it’s surely a beginning. The struggle for more reality-based approaches in our institutions and society is a never-ending one. I and other UU humanists are determined to engage the BSA and the UUA at both the institutional and the congregational levels to ensure that atheist, agnostic, and humanist youth and leaders are accepted in every BSA troop associated with Unitarian Universalism and, eventually, in all BSA troops. If both religious and secular members of the American Humanist Association join us in making this happen, the Boy Scouts of America will have no choice but to recognize that building strong moral character and achievement doesn’t require a supernatural component.

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  • donsevers

    >the grateful acknowledgment of His favors

    Obtaining favor from any god is not line with UU’s 2nd principle. It is not just or equal for God to favor some over others. The extreme injustice present in the world shows that no powerful, creator god could be considered an ally in UU’s work for social justice.

    I am deeply disappointed in the UUA, but not surprised. After all, what do you expect from a church? It’s going to act in its own interest.

    I love my UU friends individually, but less in groups.

  • Michael Werner

    John, I am disappointed in your tepid response. Of course we can teach anything we want in our churches, but that is not the point. When you join the Boy Scouts or want to become a leader you still have to sign a pledge that you believe in God. Nothing has changed. Of course one can lie about it, but is lying and hypocrisy the message we want to send to our youth? One blog on this issue said humanists should just use the word God to mean what ever they want. Humanists are thrown under the bus again by the Scouts, the UUA and now by you if you don’t forcefully stand up for us. It’s not a beginning, its an end to any leverage we might have placed on them. It is totally naïve that “dialogue” will change these religious bigots on their religious tests for admission. There is only one solution. When one doesn’t need to believe in God to be a scout or leader or any religious test for that matter. Anything else is caving in. I urge you to stand up to the cowardly, prejudiced actions of president Morales and tell him his agreement with the Boy Scouts is unacceptable – period.

  • Charles Francis

    Totally unacceptable. What should I tell the young man I just mentored in the UU “Coming of Age” program? Should I say if you want to be in Scouts, just lie. As a non-theist, I find this revolting.

  • Fred Sanford

    BSA is an enormously valuable program for boys. Its membership policies are increasingly less objectionable, and one day, it must be fully welcoming if it is to survive. BSA’s survival is worth working for. The change in the LGBT policy took many years of pressure both from within and from outside the organization. Both types of pressure are crucial. So the folks who indignantly protest BSA on principle are doing important work, and those who engage with troops and push from within also serve as important change agents. We need both. Looks like UUA has chose to push from within. This seems appropriate to me, since UUA welcomes both theists and non-theists. That should be the goal for Boy Scouts, as well.

  • Dick Springer

    I have at every opportunity tried to persuade Scouts for Equality (sic) to address discrimination by the BSA against non-theists. Scout for Equality has consistently indicated that it had no intention of doing so, even though its campaign against anti-gay discrimination has now been successful. In 2013 I returned my Eagle Scout badge to the BSA to protest it policies, as did hundreds of other Eagle Scouts. I have trouble understanding how you can in good conscience assent to BSA religious requirements that seem directly to contradict humanist beliefs.

    • iconoclast73

      Dick, I looked up and tried to start a dialog with that group as I would like to see Scouts continue to improve from within. They didn’t respond to me – I’m sad it looks like they were in it for the gays but are choosing to ignore the largest growing group of young people. How do you think I might be able to take up the cause for the long term good of BSA and the millions of people it serves?

  • Bob

    When my son was 14 (he’s now 34) the Boy Scouts threw out the UU religious symbol which is a flaming chalice. They kept the cross, the Star of David and other symbols. At that point, my son walked away from the scouts. As an agnostic humanist and a UU I am deeply disappointed by Peter Morales explanation. If an agnostic or atheist has to say that they believe in god in order to be a scout leader, that is a lie and a hypocrisy and anyone who would do that should not be trusted to teach ethical behavior to children. I agree with Michael Werner there is no advantage for UUs here and from a scientific view, the arrow of time points to the future, not the past.

  • Paul Sellnow

    So the UUA’s position is that if GLBT folk are being discriminated against, that is a moral outage worthy of severing the relationship, but other groups such as humanists and other nontheists should suck it up and either lie or hope not to be noticed? And that’s not a double-standard, if not outright betrayal? Codswallup!

  • Timothy Travis

    Once again the “UU is a religious faith” ministers have thrown UU humanist members under the bus.

  • Ethan Jewett

    Zach Wahls seems to have a bigger attachment to the BSA than equality . . . a trait that runs deep in SfE. I’m sorry, but the new policy is really “elective discrimination”. It has more in common with the laws we’re seeing in places like North Carolina than the march towards equality. The BSA had similar laws governing African American participation for many decades. I would also point out that allowing non-theist teaching is basically your very own Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Then you have the full HALF of the youth population excluded from an outdoor scouting program; girls. Scouting programs around the world long ago became co-ed, even in far more conservative societies. UUA should have stayed far away and on the right side of history, and morality.

  • Timothy Travis

    The Reverend Peter Morales calls himself a “humanist” while promoting “UU theology” which includes “non-theist teachings”. Try unpacking that intellectually. Religion has an answer to every question but never a good answer.

  • Deanjay1961

    Maybe it’s time for humanists to find a different home. The UUA is tolerant of us and all, but maybe it’s time we aimed higher.

  • iconoclast73

    I work in scouting even though I greatly disapproved of the gay position and still resent the anti-atheist position. If it’s any reassurance we have always served more gay and atheist young men than any group out there. To the man, all the scout leaders I person know would not have been ethically able to throw out a boy just because of his orientation. There is a sad truth that the upper ruling council in scouting is controlled by old religious men – mostly Mormon. I understand not liking “don’t ask – don’t tell”. Most boys really don’t know their position on religion, the ones belonging to the declining percentages of churched families just kind of go along with what they are told to believe. The only kids I’ve heard of getting actually tossed have intentionally been very public. Hey, it’s not right, but I’m very loyal to the program because where else can I do so much good for young people. I wish humanist youth organizations would give us a run for the money – but it just ain’t happening. I’d like to get ideas from others on how to help change scouting from within. Time is on our side – young people in droves are abandoning religion – scouting has to redefine the part of our law that says “a scout is reverent”