The Ethical Dilemma: Scout or Out?

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Scout Or Out? I recently moved to a fairly religious town, mostly Catholic. My son, who is eight years old, is a member of the local Cub Scouts. While I understand that the Boy Scouts of America was founded on some religious principles to which I don’t subscribe, I do feel that it provides great moral lessons to boys that aren’t really emphasized elsewhere. The problem I have is in the prayer that the new cub master has to perform at the conclusion of every meeting. It includes words such as “we pray…to the big scoutmaster in the sky.” Whenever I mention my objection to this to parents or leaders around me, they say, “well, it IS a religious organization,” in defense of the practice.

In our former town, there was hardly any attention paid to religion at all. Nor is there any in my extended family’s local troops. It seems that the religious emphasis is mostly happening here in my new community.

I am unsure whether to continue with the scouts, although my son somewhat enjoys it, or leave the organization so that my son doesn’t have to feel uncomfortable regarding the religious rigmarole.

Your experience/thoughts?

— Knotty Problem

Dear Knotty,

I can tell you in my experience, when my (Jewish) mom was my older brother’s Cub Scout den mother and I was hanging around at the meetings in our living room, there were no prayers to any scoutmaster in the sky. No prayers of any kind at all. But you are absolutely right that the BSA was founded with the provision that members must believe in some god—any god, just not no god. It’s right there in the scout oath: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.”

But homosexual scouts and leaders were also barred until recent protests resulted in the inclusion of gay scouts in 2013 (but not gay leaders—yet). Although BSA headquarters seems to be firm about requiring religion, if enough people were to lodge complaints and protests—and enough refused to participate as long as atheists could not—it’s quite possible that the god rule might also be modified one day.

Whatever the future may bring, the fact is your son is a scout right now, and the rules about religion are unlikely to be modified in time for him. So your choices are to let him continue as long as he enjoys it or pull him out. I say leave the choice up to him. Even though he’s only eight, you can explain that there are good things about being a scout (just learning to make a square knot instead of a granny is a benefit that lasts a lifetime). But there are also some flaws in the organization stemming from the time when scouting was founded (1910), and those flaws are perpetuated by tradition and aversion to change. Make sure he understands that there’s nothing wrong with his atheism but that expressing it could get him kicked out because those are the rules and the leaders may feel a duty to enforce them.

Did your son have to sign or say anything about belief in a god when he joined, or does he have to recite the oath? If so, you might want to talk with him about how it’s ok to do that, even though it compels him to be a bit dishonest. You could explain that the religious requirement is an antiquated rule that most leaders (such as those of his previous troop) do not take seriously, and that while truthfulness is an important value, there are times when full disclosure conflicts with other values, and being a good person involves understanding when to ignore misguided rules.

It sounds as though your son is not all that enthusiastic about scouting. Time will tell if he becomes more engaged, or if he decides he wants out. Whenever he decides he’s done—or that he doesn’t want to continue sitting through prayers or pretending to pray—might be a good opportunity to take some action about the religious requirement. Announcing his atheism is likely to get him booted out of the scouts instantly, which would give him grounds to challenge the rules. Taking a stand could be an excellent exercise in assertiveness and character-building. Position it as a special unofficial merit badge he can earn. It would require researching where the controversy currently stands and what precedents exist, groups he might join forces with that would rally beside him, officials he could contact on the local and national levels, and even opportunities to speak at scout or community meetings.

Meanwhile, look around for other activities in your area (e.g., outdoor adventure clubs, sports, volunteering, youth programs with humanist or other secular organizations) that your son could enjoy without having to fake faith.