“The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, ‘On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.’ 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. No matter what the religious faith of the members may be, this fundamental need of good citizenship should be kept before them. The Boy Scouts of America, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member, but it is absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward that religious training. Its policy is that the home and the organization or group with which the member is connected shall give definite attention to religious life.” ~Declaration of Religious Principle, Bylaws of Boy Scouts of America, art. IX, § 1, cl. 1 [Link]Parts of this show me room for the atheist in Scouting, other parts seem to exclude nontheistic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The following are my thoughts on the controversy.
From my point of view, participating in Scouting as an atheist would hinge on defining what it is one means when one says God and defining one's duty to that god. It was my brief study of Unitarian Universalism that lead me to the realization that God can be defined in much broader ways than I have previously imagined. The above declaration of religious principles defines God as the "ruling and leading power in the universe" who grants "favors and blessings." I'm sure whoever wrote that intended it to be universal, but such a definition might actually exclude nontheistic religious such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, each of which actually offers a religious emblem recognized by the Boy Scouts of America.
So how might an atheist define God in a meaningful way? Why do some people believe that "recognizing an obligation to God" is so critical to "grow into the best kind of citizen"? I think it has a lot to do with the similar importance placed on a citizen's obligation to the community and family, so I ask myself: what am I willing to die for? Our culture is full of stories of heroic people who are willing to die for their countries or to protect their family or to defend their community. Is there something else? Every religion has stories of great men and women who gave their lives for their faith. They are the martyrs.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed for his work as a civil rights leader. He wasn't exactly defending his country, but he was working for his community. Ghandi was also killed working for his people. He had already achieved his primary goal of Indian independence, but he continued to work toward other goals of social justice. These were both religious men, but they were not religious martyrs. They might be described as martyrs for JUSTICE. Justice might just be the sort of ideal that a scout could feel passionately about in a religious way.
I once read about a scouter who considered himself an atheist and a Buddhist. He reconciled his unbelief with the above quoted Declaration of Religious Principles by maintaining a "reverence for the higher power of REASON." I appreciate this response very much. It makes me think of Thomas Jefferson, a man who believed in God but not in miracles.
So, if a scout felt a religious devotion to the principles of JUSTICE or REASON, what might be his duty to such principles? According to W. D. Ross in his book, The Right and the Good (2002):
The duty of justice requires that one act in such a way that one distributes benefits and burdens fairly and to prevent an unjust distribution of benefits or burdens so far as possible.
In my experience with children in the public schools, I find that many youth do indeed feel passionately about JUSTICE. They are acutely aware of every situation which is NOT FAIR, and some are quite eager to point out such injustices to whatever authority might be close at hand. I think that this is right and good and should be encouraged.
REASON is quite a bit more abstract than justice. The ancient Romans often viewed REASON at odds with passion: the conflict between the head and the heart. From century to century, philosophers have debated which is the nobler path. One's duty to reason might include meditation during which one searches ones thoughts and feelings to determine the best course of action.
Finally, I wish to note that Boy Scouts are very young. Typically they follow the religious path set down for them by their parents, so I have written this article in the hope of reaching parents. It is my hope that atheists and agnostics who want their sons to participate in the Boy Scout experience will do so in spite of the above quoted Declaration of Religious Principle. If you agree that your son has a duty to something bigger than himself, bigger than his family, bigger than his community, then I think you can call whatever-that-is god and sign the declaration and work through the advancements to the benefit of your scout.