“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 declaration allow for a great deal of latitude in religious belief. Other parts are very narrow in their definition, to the exclusion of nontheistic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. These religious all sponsor special awards for their members to wear on the scouting uniforms, but none of them believe in a god that "rules the universe".
The Boy Scouts of America needs a declaration of religious principles which includes such religious diversity. I think this could be done quite neatly by simply removing the following sentence:"The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe an the grateful acknowledgement of His favors and blessing are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members." In deed, this sentence seems to contradict one of the following sentences:"[The Boy Scouts of America] is absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward that religious training."
Simply eliminating this sentence would create a more inclusive, less contradictory declaration of principle; however, we could go one step further, and replace it with a sentence that might also include at least some of our agnostic and atheist neighbors. I believe that this can be done without trampling all over tradition. I believe this can be done without changing the Scout Oath or the Scout Law. The Girl Scouts of the USA found a way to include atheists and agnostics quite easily in 1993. They simply allowed girls to substitute any word they wish for the word God. I appreciate the elegance of this solution.
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. 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. Every religion has stories of great men and women who sacrifice everything for their faith. Every culture has stories of heroic people who are willing to sacrifice everything for their country or their family or their community. What else is worth such sacrifice?
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 an atheist could feel passionately about in a religious way. If so, what might be his duty to justice?
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. ~W. D. Ross in his book, The Right and the Good (2002)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.
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 our Founding Fathers who were so very much influenced by the Enlightenment and valued reason above all else. What might be a scout's duty to reason?
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.
Here is my proposed, updated declaration of religious principles for the Boy Scouts of America:
The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to things greater than himself, such as his family, his country, and his God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise all members declare: ‘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 some power or principle worthy of self-sacrifice is necessary to the best type of citizenship and is a wholesome precept in the education of youth. No matter what the religious faith of the member may be, this fundamental need of good citizenship should be kept before them. The Boy Scouts of America, therefore, recognizes a religious element in the training of youth, 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.
I wish to acknowledge 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 current, exclusive 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 country, then I think you can call whatever-that-is god and sign the declaration in good faith and work through the advancements to the benefit of your scout.
Perhaps my solution to the controversy is completely impossible for reasons I haven't thought of. I look forward to your comments.