In the UK, the Scout Association May Finally Let Atheists Become Members and Leaders

The Boy Scouts of America are notorious for kicking out members and leaders who are gay and atheist. They’re a private organization so they’re allowed to do it… but it stands in harsh opposition to the image they project, where all boys are welcome no matter what.

In the United Kingdom, the story has been only a little better. The Scout Association welcomes members regardless of sexual orientation.

However, despite saying they don’t discriminate on the basis of religion, the Scout Promise (PDF) has included wording promoting belief in God:

“On my honour, I promise that I will do my best, To do my duty to God and to the Queen, To help other people, And to keep the Scout Law.”

While alternative versions of the Promise have been available for non-Christians who are religious, there is no alternative for atheists. They must pledge to do their “duty to God.” Atheists can become “associate” members or assistant troop leaders, but they cannot become full-fledged members or leaders.

That became a big story back in October when 11-year-old atheist George Pratt was denied admittance into the Scouts for not saying the Promise.

George Pratt

The 11-year-old says the snub is ‘very unfair’ and he is missing out on adventures because of his views.

But he defiantly added: ‘I’m not going to change my decision.’

George, of Radstock, Somerset, joined the 1st Midsomer Norton Scouts in January and was looking forward to going on a caving expedition before his ban was imposed by scoutmasters.

Simon Carter, a spokesman for the Christian movement, said: ‘All young people are required to make the Scout Promise to become a Scout.’

Now, the chief executive of the Scout Association, Derek Twine, believes it’s time for a change.

In an article for The Telegraph, Twine says he doesn’t want to change the current Promise, but he wants there to be an alternative version for atheists:

No other group aside from non-believers is excluded from the Scouts on the grounds of religion or belief. We already welcome those with no faith as associate members and into a variety of support roles. But what we are looking at now is whether there might be a way of extending full membership to more people. We believe that there are many people in this situation in the UK who could otherwise support Scouting’s fundamental values, which explicitly include helping young people in their exploration of faiths, beliefs and attitudes, and our method, which includes sharing in spiritual reflection.

What’s the point of making some people feel hypocritical or dishonest if they take a Promise with which they fundamentally disagree?

… It would take the best part of a year to implement, if that’s what members want. We are a charity and the final decision must be taken by our trustees — and we would have to see how this might position us as but one country in a worldwide movement. But all bodies have to stay fresh and current, while remaining true to their founding principles. That’s why we believe the time is right to discuss offering the opportunity for another historic change.

Reporter John Bingham believes this would be a welcome change and a surprising one considering the views of the group’s founder, Lord Baden-Powell:

In his book of advice for boys, “Rovering for Success”, Baden-Powell ranked atheism alongside gambling, excessive drinking, smoking and even syphilis as a danger to be avoided.

Likening organisations for atheists as “sects”, he spoke of adherents as “enemies of the worst sort” and warned against “very offensive” attacks on religious belief.

Besides the unwelcome media scrutiny following the Pratt story, another reason for this change is pressure put on the Scouts by the National Secular Society. Not only did they send an open letter (PDF) to Chief Scout (and British TV personality) Bear Grylls encouraging him to endorse a secular alternative to the current Promise, they also put up a petition at Change.org asking the Scouts to be inclusive to everyone.

NSS President Terry Sanderson said this in response to the proposed change:

“This is a move in the right direction.

“By adjusting their promise to include people without a religious belief, the Scouts will bring themselves in line with the reality of 21st century Britain.”

Now, if only the American version of the Scouts would follow suit.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    About time, now if they would just remove the other part of the pledge and allow republicans to join.

    • Sindigo

      All the likes. You sick of hearing about the royal baby yet?

      I don’t think she’s in for morning sickness at all. Considering the gene pool they’re drawing from I think they’re checking the foetus for extra heads.

      • Tim

        My fear is that when Charlie Boy becomes King, we’ll have to put handles on our coins to accomodate the royal ears. 

        • Sindigo

          Oh god, can you imagine. That homeopathy-supporting, government-meddling, overpriced-organic-biscuit-hawking pillock on the throne. On the plus side, I think a lot more people will turn republican if he doesn’t abdicate.

  • Drakk

    What if your “duty to god” is to convince everybody that there’s no such thing?

  • notTHATguest

    There are already a good number of atheists serving as leaders in the Scout Association. This would let us all be honest about it 

    • http://www.facebook.com/ljdellar LJ Dellar

      Yep, I was one of them.

  • notTHATguest

    Oh, and there is already an oath for non-Brits living in the UK or joining a British Scout group, and it doesn’t include an oath to the Queen but to do your duty to “the country in which I am now living.”

  • Erp

    Now, if only the American version of the Scouts would follow suit.

    One American version does, the Girl Scouts (more or less).  (Note that Scouting UK accepts both girls and boys though oddly enough the Guiding Association which is girls only is larger than Scouting UK.)

  • Zugswang

    Boy Scouts of America will eventually change its stance, but it will only be after a cultural shift in the US makes the stance even more unpopular, and many more leave, or choose to participate in other nascent youth organizations.  At that point, they will pretend to change their position based on principles, but they will only have changed out of an instinct for survival.

    Good on the Scouts in England.

  • Anon

    So glad that the Guides made even less of a fuss.

    I made my Ranger and Adult Leader promises without a mention of the word ‘god’ and nobody batted an eyelid. Even the kids I talked to about taking their promise were generally very ‘meh’ about god.

  • Verimius

    Many Boy Scout troops in the United States are affiliated with churches. In accepting gay scouts, or adopting an optional promise, the problem would be that a lot of troops will drop out. This would cost the scouts a lot of members (and money).

    Of course, this isn’t a big problem for the US girl scouts. I think the BSA will change eventually.

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      I wish the BSA would just go whole hog. If they want to be a religious organization, then they should limit their chartered troops to churches, temples, mosques, etc. 

      If they gave up trying to recruit kids in secular environments and got rid of all their public school troops, then I wouldn’t have nearly as much of a problem with them. But it’s awful the way they pretend they’re open to all children, and then pull a bait-and-switch.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ljdellar LJ Dellar

    I was a scout leader in the UK, I simply lied when I was interviewed.  I said I believed in a higher power, but was not asked if I believed in a personal god.  The interview board obviously knew I was an atheist and framed their questions as best they could to allow me the most leeway possible.

    As far as I am concerned, religious belief should not be a test for entry into ANY organisation EXCEPT that religion.

  • magsmagenta

    This was a main reason why I left the Girl Guides (UK) many years ago when I was 15 and just trying to figure these things out, that is what my beliefs actually were and how I should express them.
    Now I’m still as Atheist as ever but while I’m quite happy to stick up for myself I don’t want my daughter (aged 11) to miss out on so much that the Scout movement can give her because of what are essentially mine and her Fathers beliefs, she is much too young to make that decision for herself. I discussed this with her Scout leader who admitted he is an atheist too (and maybe gay) and he said that she can say ‘My God’ which could mean anything really, a favourite celebrity even or fictional character. So she goes to Scouts and enjoys it very much.
    I would be much happier if they took God out of the equation altogether though.


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