Coming out as an atheist Eagle Scout

This is a story I’ve only told to a few people. I’ve been meaning to tell it in a blog post for a while, but Greta’s call for atheist coming-out stories just pushed me over the edge.  So here it goes.

The background: I became an atheist (or maybe it would be better to say, admitted to myself that I was an atheist) in summer 2003, between my sophomore and junior years of high school. At the time I was in Boy Scouts, and very close to making Eagle rank.

In the few years previous, there had been incidents where some scout or other had been kicked out for being gay or an atheist. I remember at least one of our main leaders cheering a court case where the judges ruled in favor of the BSA’s (Boy Scouts of America) right to do so. I’ve just tried to find the case on Google I’m not sure what case that was. It turns out that there were quite a few cases like that.

It probably didn’t help that my Boy Scout troop was my main group of friends. One of my best friends in the troop had been raised a Christian fundamentalist, and in the last two years he and another guy had started dating two girls from a Pentecostal family, attending their church.

They had even gotten me to go with them to the church a few times. I had been raised in a liberal Christian family, so part of me thought it was nuts, but I also had it in my head that Christianity = good, so at times I felt obliged to think nice thoughts about the church.

So… when I realized I was an atheist, my immediate reaction was to not tell anybody. It feels silly now, but sometimes I can be weird about finishing what I start, and I was way far along towards being an Eagle scout, so I wasn’t going to quit then.

I went through the whole complicated process, including the “board of review” where you get asked a bunch of questions by adult scout leaders, hoping nobody would ask me any questions about religion. They didn’t. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if they had.

I don’t remember feeling conflicted about whether I could recite the “scout oath” with its line about “duty to God,” but I think I must have done it at some point.

I ended up doing the official ceremony to get Eagle rank (yes, there’s a ceremony… so weird to say after years of not thinking about it) in spring or summer of the following year. By that time, not talking about atheism to anybody I had known pre-atheism had become a habit.

In the months leading up to that, though, I did start to gravitate towards kids outside my scout-troop bubble. I never had any issue with telling those kids I was an atheist, there was never any coming out to them, or people I met after making Eagle.

I don’t remember what any of them said.  It wasn’t much of an issue, whether the person in question was an atheist or a Wiccan or the one fundamentalist girl I briefly dated senior year.  Yeah that last one was weird. I do remember her saying my parents were going to Hell for being the wrong kind of Christians.

I came out to my parents totally unplanned one Sunday morning. I had some legitimate excuse for not going to church that day, but then my mom asked, “But you still want to go to church, right?” and I said, “No, because I don’t believe in God anymore.” My parents weren’t necessarily happy with it, but didn’t make a fuss.

The one other distinct “coming out” I did was to a Spanish teacher who thought I was awesome and was going to write me a letter of recommendation for something or other. Among other things, she was very impressed that I was an Eagle Scout, but given that I had made Eagle by keeping my mouth shut about being an atheist, I was very uncomfortable with her putting that in the letter. I eventually told her that and why. She was cool with it.

I never directly “came out” to my old scout friends, but word trickled back to them eventually. At some point when I was home from college, one of them asked me “you’re running what kind of group ?” I was running an atheist student group at the time, but avoided that conversation. Now there are a couple of them who occasionally complain about the things I post on Facebook.

Now having made Eagle rank effects my life for nada, beyond being able to tell this story. I regret even caring about it when I was in high school. I regret not coming out  to everyone earlier. I regret not making more non-scout friends starting around 8th grade.

The post by Greta this is responding to was specifically asking for advice, which I feel sort of unqualified to give because I never had any real problems coming out. And I am pretty unqualified to give advice to people in high school whose parents are crazy fundies.

But when I sat down to write this, I realized I think there need to be stories like mine. People shouldn’t only hear the coming out stories about how hard it was. They also need to hear the stories where the moral was “It was fine and I wish I’d done it sooner.”

  • leftwingfox

    Now having made Eagle rank effects my life for nada, beyond being able to tell this story. I regret even caring about it when I was in high school.

    Interesting. I earned the Chief Scout award in Canada, which is much the same idea. I never recall religion being much of a factor with it.

    Heh, thinking back on it now, I wonder if that’s because of the Queen.

    Canada is officially a constitutional monarchy, with the head of state the British Royal Family. As such, the Queen shows up on everything; stamps, coins, songs, national mottos, etc. In reality though, her power is incredibly limited, and even when there was the opportunity to use it (Mulrooney stuffing the Senate to pass the General Sales Tax), she declined to do so.

    My parents were nominally Christian but much more involved in new age spirituality, and about the only contact I had with organized christianity was volunteering for ceremonial duties at the Anglican church that hosted our troop.

    As such, God and the Queen were both sort of “irrelevant facts” to me: I believed they both existed, but didn’t think either of them had any sort of impact on my life. =/

  • Patrick

    Boy Scouts taught me that it was ok to lie. No one amongst the boys really cared about religion. But you had to pretend, because it was the rules. Nothing destroys the feeling that religious oaths are serious faster than mumbling them time after time in the company of others who care no more than you.

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