UK-Based Scout Association Offers Half-Hearted Alternative ‘Promise’ for Atheists

Back in June, we learned that the UK-based Scout Association would finally allow atheists to become members for the first time in over a century, perhaps due to pressure from their counterparts at Girlguiding UK, who had just changed the wording of their “Promise” to make it more secular and inclusive.

The Scout Association didn’t want to go that far. They said their Scout Promise wouldn’t change. It would still officially say “To do my duty to God and to the Queen,” but atheists would be given an acceptable alternative.

Yesterday, the SA announced that alternative Promise for the first time:

The new pledge, which is to be an alternative — not a replacement — to the old Promise will state: “On my honour I promise that I will do my best to uphold our scout values,” instead of “On my honour, I promise that I will do my best, to do my duty to God.”

The National Secular Society also reports that the SA will revise its Equal Opportunities Policy to allow atheists to become Scout leaders — a position they were also banned from until now.

I guess this is where we’re supposed to celebrate?

While I welcome the new changes, this is pretty much the least the SA could have done. They couldn’t legitimately claim to be tolerant and inclusive while at the same time barring non-religious boys from joining, so they caved in under pressure. It’s about damn time, but it shouldn’t have been this difficult.

Their official statement just shows how unenthusiastic they are about this decision:

The core Scout Promise, which refers to a ‘Duty to God’, remains intact and Scouting remains fully committed as a Movement that explores faith and religion as a core element of its programme.

I don’t think they understand the meaning of “explores.” Hell, atheists love to “explore” religion, too, but the official Scout Promise will still pay homage to God. No questioning or “exploring” in there.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, put the change in perfect context:

This is a massive step forward and we welcome it. It means that the Scout movement is at last open to everyone, and young people who don’t have a religious belief can join in good conscience.

At the same time, we think the Girl Guides’ response to this issue was infinitely superior. Their approach relieves young people of having to make a decision about what they believe at a time in their lives when maybe they haven’t decided.

There’s no reason the SA couldn’t have officially changed their Promise just as Girlguiding UK did. The girls didn’t suffer. No one was left out. The values of the organization remained intact. And the press was overwhelmingly positive.

If you’re going to go through with a change, why half-ass it? The current Promise already allowed substitutions for Muslims and Hindus, so it wasn’t written in stone to begin with, but you mean to tell me they’d rather have a religious pledge that everyone can change instead of one pledge that is just inclusive of everybody?

Half-hearted golf claps for the Scout Association leaders… I guess.

The alternative wording will go into effect on January 1.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • MD

    Let me show you how big this is. Hello, I’m an atheist, a secular humanist, and a Scout Leader. I couldn’t say this full sentence 3 days ago. I could have been asked to step down from my volunteer role, harming the kids in my pack who depend on adults who give up many hours a week to prepare and run meetings.

    Atheist leaders were the big elephant in the room. As long as we didn’t say the A word, we could join. Now there’s no need for pretending, and since we’ve been in the organisation for ages, theists can’t claim we don’t make good Leaders.

    • Rationalist1

      First of all MD. Thanks for being a Scout leader.

      I’m a Scout leader in Canada. We have “duty to God and the Queen” in our promise. How do I handle it. There are some in my Scout troop whose duty to God is to not eat pork, for others it’s to not eat meat, others need to prayer in a certain way. As a Scout leader I help them keep their duty to God as they see it. My duty to God is none of those.

      Fortunately Scouts Canada requires a belief in God or a higher purpose. I have no belief in a God but in a higher purpose. My higher purpose is to learn as much as I can about this universe I’ve found myself in and to teach that love and wonder of nature to my Scouts. Before I became a leader I contacted Scouts Canada and they had no problem with this. I’ve always answered my forms truthfully when asked about religion, putting down none.

      Do I wish they didn’t have duty to God in the promise? Sure. Can I live with it? Yes, for now. Scouting is too great a movement to deprive children of because of our quibbles about God.

      Note : Scouts Canada is co-ed and does not discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.

      • MD

        Thanks. The Scout Association also has a stong non-discrimination policy, and now it is complete. It is the reason I chose to help out in the beginning. I didn’t consider myself an atheist when I started, but became one over the years. I was uncomfortable with pretending I was religious when it was time to fill out a form.

  • atheismFTW

    “If you’re going to go through with a change, why half-ass it?”

    Because they still want everyone to know that they are true Christians and will find any backhanded way to please their imaginary God.

  • Coel

    Hmm, I’m a bit more welcoming of this. So they label one version of the promise the “core” one, but the other variants are equally valid.

    I don’t think they understand the meaning of “explores.” Hell, atheists love to “explore” religion, too …

    I think they *do* understand the meaning of “explore”, and realise what it implies in that carefully worded statement. They do want to welcome all kids as Scouts, and calling one version of the promise “core” is just a sop to the churches that sponsor many troops.

  • Matthew Booth

    I’m an atheist and a Scout Leader, and this is huge for me.

    I think this post is disingenuous. For me, the solution offered by the Scout Association entirely satisfies me, as I am no longer asked to make a promise with my fingers crossed for part of it. The question of which version is ‘core’ is irrelevant to me. If you read the full guidance, they are unequivocal that any version may be used by anybody, and that discrimination on these grounds is absolutely forbidden in all circumstances. Think of marking one particular version as ‘core’ as a political sop to the more conservative element. Why should I care if I don’t have to say it myself?

    The Girl Guides decided to change their promise, and they have pissed off a large number of volunteers, who have now left. This is a huge problem for any volunteer organisation. The new alternative will likely also piss off some Scouters, but as they won’t be forced to use it themselves we will hopefully not lose very many of them. I don’t see a downside here.

    I think you’re in danger of crossing the line to proselytising. As secularists we don’t want to have other people’s religious beliefs foisted on us, but it’s none of our business what other people choose to do themselves.

    • ShoeUnited

      I guess the argument I’d make is, if your friend only comes over to play your video games and the moment you say or have something he doesn’t like he ridicules you and leaves you to flounder; then he wasn’t really your friend anyway.

    • Matthew Booth

      I’ll also point out that as an atheist Scout Leader I think I do a good job of ‘exploring faith’ completely in line with both the letter and the spirit of the Scout Association’s meaning, without compromising my own beliefs. I don’t see why it should be a problem for an atheist to examine the beliefs of others in the community. We’re objective: we’re the ideal choice!

    • Brian Westley

      Yes, this is similar to the other alternate versions for Hindus, Muslims, etc

    • Erp

      Have a large number of Girl Guide volunteers left or just a lot a news about those few who have? I’ve lurked in a public Girl Guide forum and the breakdown seems to be

      1. Those who are enthusiastic because they can now make the promise and become leaders (volunteers don’t have to make the promise unless they are leaders/assistant leaders). Or can now make the promise without mental contortions.

      2. Those who were enthusiastic/accepted it because it makes Guides more inclusive.

      3. Those who aren’t happy so won’t say the new promise but will continue to participate (apparently once an adult has made the promise it is good for life).

      4. A very few who have left over this.

      Those in 2 seem to be by far the most numerous and those in 1 outnumber those in 4. A lot seem to be discussing activities for their girls to explore what the new wording means.

      There are has also been some external pressure but inside the Guides seem to be fairly happy. The external pressure btw seems to include the Church of Ireland (the Anglican church in Ireland) which stated:

      ‘The Church of Ireland wishes to convey to Girlguiding Ulster and Girlguiding UK the high value it places on their work with children and
      also the partnership between the Church and Guiding through the
      provision of premises, leadership and other support.

      ‘However, we are deeply concerned that, as of 1st September 2013, all new members and leaders will be expected to make a new promise “To be true to myself and develop my beliefs”, replacing the previous promise to “love my God”. We regard the words in the promise “To be true to myself” as falling far short of Christian values and therefore cannot support this promise being used.

      ‘We request that Girlguiding Ulster and Girlguiding UK, as soon as possible, provide its many children and leaders from a Christian background the option to make a promise to serve God.

      ‘In addition, we request that no Church of Ireland based Guiding unit compel its new members to make this new promise containing the wording “to be true to myself”.’

      • Matthew Booth

        I confess I don’t have much to do with Guides myself, but have 3 friends who are leaders. The indication I have from them is that it has been a problem, but I obviously have no idea if this is representative.

  • ShoeUnited

    It’s a bit sad that places like Britain don’t have a first clause. Them being so progressive, such a clause could really empower the people. As it stands, this is an attempt to be inclusive while keeping in the StateChurch mentality I’m sure a lot of their financial aide comes from. I hope these alt. pledges don’t do any child undue harm and that the children/parents are made aware that there are alternatives. The advantage of the female opposite is these kinds of things don’t need to be watched over anymore.

    • guest

      We couldn’t have a clause like that without changing our government radically. Church and state are entwined at the highest levels; The Queen is head of the Church of England, Charles is ‘defender of the faith’, there are bishops in the house of lords, the CofE gets specieal privileges in regards to marriage and is the official church for national events. We don’t have a written constitution and all of us are technically subjects of the queen. Until we joined the EU, there were no written rights we had to appeal to. Personally I’d like the C of E disestablished and the monarchy democratised, but most British people don’t want such radical changes made because they prefer stability and want government to focus on things like the economy (and a lot of them like being different from the USA).

      • islandbrewer

        Well, at least you’ve ended peerage, and there are far worse official religions other than the CoE.

  • eric

    Reading the above responses, it appears the UK scouts are happier with it than Hemant.
    That may be because of differences in 20th century US/UK history. We have a very bad history with “separate but equal” solutions, and tend to be immediately suspicious when anything like that is offered. Doesn’t mean it can’t work for others, it just means that in the US, it usually hasn’t.
    For US scouts, such a solution would probably lead us to suspect that any scout choosing to actually use the alternate pledge would be setting themselves up for future proselytization or subtle discrimination by the more ‘hard-core’ christian scouts and scout leaders. That, however, is based on our culture, and Britist christian scouts (even the ‘hard core’ ones) may be far more passive or accepting when faced with a scout or leader with a different religion.

    • guest

      The attitude towards religion in the UK is completely different; it’s considered your own private business and preaching to people is frowned on. It’s part of the ‘negative politeness’ culture which emphasises leaving people alone and not bothering them as opposed to the American culture of friendliness.

  • guest

    I’m fine with that change. It’s enough to be included, the entire orginisation doesn’t need to change for us. I believe the law courts are the same- they give an alternative to swearing on a Bible. Good enough.

  • SJH

    They should not have changed their pledge because religion is a fundamental part of scouting. As it stands however, many scout troops do not emphasize religion. This is an unfortunate product of the secularization of the nation but that does not mean that the organization should change. I would rather the organization wither away because no one likes it then for it to change its convictions.

    If they are going to start being “inclusive” to atheists then they have to change their whole philosophy and they are no longer the same organization. It would be like asking an atheist organization to start acknowledging God’s existence and telling its members to reverence God. At that point it is no longer an atheist organization.

    • Coel

      If they are going to start being “inclusive” to atheists then they have
      to change their whole philosophy and they are no longer the same

      Not true, there are many, many Scout troops in the UK where religion has never played much or any part (except for the minor lip-service in the promise). They have long had large numbers of atheist leaders and scouts, and this is just recognising the situation and being honest about it.

    • Spuddie

      You are full of crap.

      Scouting was founded as a non-sectarian organization. A way to foster nationalism among youths without the divisiveness various religious based youth groups created.

      The fact that is heavily undermined by the funding of the organization by various religious organizations. Many have chosen sectarian obedience over the values Scouting was intended to produce. It has gotten so bad that people like yourself claim with a straight face that sectarian religious nonsense has always been part of the organization.

      “If they are going to start being “inclusive” to atheists then they have
      to change their whole philosophy and they are no longer the same

      Actually it will be the organization it was intended to be. Finally rid of the influences which have undermined its core values and brought shame to the organization with their institutionalized prejudice. Bigotry is not a value one should be learning in Scouting.

    • MD

      Let me get this straight. You would rather an organisation that teaches kids to care for themselves, their communities and their world, wither away than not fit your narrow views. You’d like to see a secular Scout go away so they can’t show kids how to be fit, healthy, curious, and caring. Just because they don’t believe in the supernatural?

      What a piece of work you are.

      • John

        Seems like a lot of the louder theists fit that “if I can’t have it, nobody can” mentality. Hell, just look at the US government shutdown for an obvious example, though that one’s not directly about religion.

    • Sven2547

      religion is a fundamental part of scouting.

      Your entire comment seems to hinge on this completely unjustified premise. Could you please support this claim?

      • Jon M Wilson

        Here in Australia, Scout meetings always start with a prayer – but with the Cubs and Joeys (younger than Cubs) the standard invocation seems to be “Dear God, I hope nobody gets hurt too much tonight.”

        • Itarion

          That’s as good a thing as any to hope for…

          • Jon M Wilson

            And that, in my experience, seems to be as deep as the religion runs, thankfully. :-)

            • AudenS

              Having gone through scouts in the UK and later volunteered with Cubs I laughed at this.

              On a more serious note, while scouts start with a prayer and cubs ended with a version of taps, it always seemed to me to be more for tradition than any strong religious element.

  • Itarion

    “our scour values” naturally includes a duty to God, so this isn’t precisely removing the oath to serve God, just hides it.

    Tricksy bastards, aren’t they?