President Obama: ‘Nobody Should be Barred’ from the Boy Scouts… but Atheists Still Will Be

In an interview airing before the Super Bowl, President Obama told Scott Pelley that he thinks gays should be allowed in the Boy Scouts of America:

In general, he says the Scouts are a great group and there’s no reason to deny gay scouts (or troop leaders) access to the opportunities the BSA provides:

It’s the last line that gets me:

The Scouts are a great institution that are promoting young people and… exposing them to opportunities and leadership that will serve people for the rest of their lives, and I think that nobody should be barred from that.

Of course, even if the BSA stops kicking out gay members, they’d still be allowed to prevent atheists from joining the organization.

Herb Silverman made this point very well in his column for On Faith:

… This modified policy would still require local groups to discriminate against atheists, apparently because the Boy Scout Oath implies that an atheist can’t be “morally straight” unless he can do his “duty to God.”

Using this twisted logic, a number of courageous and honest atheists have been kicked out of the Scouts for rejecting all supernatural beliefs. Among them was my friend Darrell Lambert, an Eagle Scout, who had been supported by his entire troop.

I look forward to a day when the Boy Scouts become as tolerant as the Girl Scouts, who have refused to discriminate against any girl for any reason because they regard lesbian and atheist girls as equals. When that day comes, the BSA can claim to be as morally straight as their exemplars — the Girl Scouts of America.

There’s no reason to force every Scout to commit to an irrelevant part of an old Oath. There’s no reason the oath can’t be reworded to be more accommodating. The BSA is a private organization and we can’t force them to accept atheists, but they have never given a good reason to discriminate against us other than suggesting it’s the way things have always been done. Their principles have been in question for a long time, and their upcoming decision will move them a step closer to full inclusion, but until they accept atheists, they will still be a discriminatory organization to me.

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.

  • Guillaume

    If the boy scouts focus on religious development, why would Atheists want to join? Isn’t that a feeling of entitlement? I wouldn’t complain about not being allowed to join a church because I don’t believe in that church’s religion and God.

    • velveteenRabbit

      it’s all up to the troop. Our troop barely even talks about religion. It’s more about community service, leadership, and enjoying the outdoors.

      • anniewhoo

        It doesn’t matter how much you talk about god or gods in your troop. Having philosophical discussions about religion is not the issue. The issue is that the scout oath (and the scout law) require each scout to declare their duty to God (or reverence, in the case of the law). This is discriminatory against anyone who does not believe in a god.

    • Golfie98

      If… I was in the boy scouts (in the UK not the US) and I don’t remember having a “believing in nonsense” badge. Lots of others though. When I was there belief never came up – it does now and in the UK you can be gay without a problem in the scouts – you can even be a religion that is not christian (as they have modified the oath even though to them it is a false religion) but even here they can’t get past the no religion bar. Strang folk.

    • Baby_Raptor

      Go troll elsewhere. You’re not going to insult anyone here, and it’s obvious you have no idea what you’re actually talking about.

      • Guillaume

        Trolling? Insulting? Ignorant?

        What have I said that would qualify me for any of these? If you have something intelligent to say, please post it. Otherwise, you’re not helping. Thanks.

        • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

          let me explain it slowly. for you.

          what is “scouting?” it’s not “bible school,” i think we can all agree. it’s an opportunity to join an organization of young people in your neighborhood where you can learn about helpful skills and how to be a good citizen.

          muslims, hindus, Jains, homosexual and even atheist children should be allowed to join. if the organization has any worth. if not, well, it’s perfectly fair to call them out, as a quasi-christian organization who care more about xtian “faith” and belief than they do making young boys and men into responsible leaders who serve their communities.

          • Guesty Guest

            Now that’s some grade-A condescension, ensured to bring your conversing companion around to your way of thinking. Right? Don’t you find that when you’re condescended to, you turn yourself right around? “What was I thinking?!”, you scream into the void. “Obviously, this person is much smarter than me. They have to slow down their explanation for my benefit!”

        • RobertoTheChi

          Have you said anything intelligent? No, you haven’t so move on.

          • Guesty Guest

            Nah, actually all he did was ask questions. You guys were the ones to bring the stupid.

      • Thegoodman

        BSA has many events that have little to absolutely nothing to do with god. It is not a religious organization, it only requires its members to be a religious person. I was a boy scout for 4 years as a child and I do not recall a single religious event.

        I do remember having a baking contest (not very fun), a few pinewood derby car competitions (not very fun), a wood carving contest (not very fun). I remember joining with the goal of learning to throw a hatchet (sounded very fun to a 6yr old), but alas, we didn’t get to do that.

        I didn’t like BSA but today I still remember things I learned about conservation and being an outdoors man. I enjoy backpacking and camping and I think BSA helps me enjoy those things just a little more.

        Gay little boys can have just as much fun shooting a bow and arrow as straight kids. Kids don’t even know what discrimination is. We need bigots to teach them the “ways of the world”.

    • http://www.facebook.com/karen.uncoolmom Cary Whitman

      I think you have a valid point. Here in Utah the Boy Scouts are pretty much controlled and run by the Mormon church (with a few exceptions, of course). Most of the troop leaders are chosen by the bishop and told it is their “calling” to lead a troop, and they all meet in the churches. I’ve always seen the Boy Scouts as a religious organization and therefore I’m not interested in having my son join, there are plenty of other non-religious things he can do. Rather than forcing the Boy Scouts to accept people they don’t want, I think we should be refusing to support them and their programs and encourage boys not to join such a hateful and excluding organization.

      • Thegoodman

        I was in a BSA troop in Indiana and I don’t recall it having anything to do with anything religious for even a brief second. We had meetings at park shelters, public park buildings, or after school in the lunch room. Never a church.

    • primenumbers

      Because, at least way back when I was a member, religion was not the primary focus of activities.

  • Will

    The BSA receives public funding and special access to government facilities. This is not just discrimination by a private organization. There are (or should be) Establishment Clause issues regarding discrimination at this level.

  • velveteenRabbit

    well, my boys are boy scouts and they are atheists. They say that it’s all in how you define god. Change from within! 15 years ago, couldn’t imagine them letting gays in. Soon enough they atheists will be able to be open, too.

    • ruth

      How would an atheist define “god” in a way that makes the oath work?

      • Mattir

        I define “god” in a way common in Reconstructionist Judaism – as a character created to express of the wisdom and cultural heritage of a particular people. It is impossible to come up with a definition of “god” that lets in nontheistic religions (like a lot of non-Orthodox Judaism, the Unitarian/Universalists (who DO have a scout medal, the argument was far more over the gay issue than over non-theism), and pretty much all of Buddhism) and excludes anyone at all.

        • Mattir

          I also say “good” instead of “god” most of the time when I say the oath. No one has every gotten their knickers twisted about it. I leave out the “under god” bit of the pledge of allegiance as a stupid addition from McCarthyism, and interpret reverence as the value of having respectful awe for the wonders of science and the natural world, which is pretty much how E.O. Wilson described his experience of the Boy Scout law.

  • Erp

    The Boy Scouts don’t focus on religious development within the troops except for those subset of troops that act as youth groups for certain religiously charterers (notably LDS troops). They instead leave it to the boy’s family. For instance religious emblems that boy scouts can earn though recognized by the BSA are run by the church/synagogue/etc. not by the troop. A troop often has members of many different religions. If having Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the same troop is no problem, neither is adding an atheist or two.

    BTW it is the Girl Scouts of the United States of America not Girl Scouts of America.

  • Katwise

    If they want to limit their organization to believers, then they should have no access to government facilities (schools) not receive any government subsidies.

    • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

      I disagree on the first point; as long as the entity in question offers the facilities to other groups, it would be viewpoint discrimination (and illegal) to deny the BSA access to government facilities. No disagreement on government subsidies, tax breaks, etc.

  • http://profiles.google.com/brotheratombombofmoderation Steve Caldwell

    Several years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association President Rev. John Buehrens said that the appropriate “duty to God” for an atheist Boy Scout would be rejecting the concept of God as not appropriate for that scout’s life.

  • http://profiles.google.com/brotheratombombofmoderation Steve Caldwell

    And the Boy Scouts withdrew their approval from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Religion in Life” religious award for UU Boy Scouts. The BSA didn’t like the UUA defending atheism and equal rights for gay folks in their religious materials.

  • bernardaB

    Be sure to see the third video at the top: Lady Lifeguards at Manhattan Beach which was made in the 40′s. A good unbiased report about women.

    I have always been an atheist and was a scout around 15. I probably said the things required, but never really thought about it. I was never evangelized while in the group, though two of my best friends were Xian twin brothers. They probably thought I was one too and we never discussed religion. Everything I did was focused on practical scouting activities and going on camping trips. There may have been prayers and such, but I don’t remember any of that.

    • LutherW

      This is the reason why the BS should not discriminate and should have a policy against it. There is no reason for them to be a religious group.

      • Guesty Guest

        And you get to decide that for them because…?

        • LutherW

          I do not get to decide that for them. My point is that since they really do not do much with religion then they would not have much reason to discriminate, where obviously a seminary for example would.

  • Dread Pirate Rogers

    I was almost kicked out of the BSA for being an atheist. A crusty old guy sat me down and pointed at the part of the law that said reverent, and the part of the oath and motto that talking about doing your duty to God. I told him that if God thought that my duty and reverence involved a belief in him, then he’d make me feel him and believe, and if he didn’t then who was he (the guy) to question it? Guy hemmed and hawed, but came to the conclusion that I could stay in the scouts.


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