Where is the Outcry from Theists Against the BSA’s Reason for Its Policy of Discrimination against Nontheists?

I want to begin by clarifying that I am not raising a constitutional or legal question at all. Let’s assume that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) have the constitutional right to associate or not associate with whoever they wish.

I’m coming at this from a very different angle. Again, I’m stipulating that the BSA has the legal right to exclude atheists and agnostics from membership. But what if their reason for choosing to exercise that right is flawed? 

Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Imagine a bowling club that had a policy of excluded anyone with red hair. (So far as I know, red heads are not a “protected class.” If I’m wrong, then pick some other group.) The bowling alley has the constitutional right to exclude red heads. But why are they doing that? Imagine they released an official position statement which stated: “The bowling alley maintains that red heads are immoral people and therefore requires that members be either bald or not have red hair.” Everyone, I think, can agree that this would be a stupid reason for excluding red heads from membership. Not only is that a stupid reason, it would also be bigotry. Red heads would rightfully be offended and non-red heads would condemn that sort of bigotry.

How is this any different from the BSA’s discrimination against atheists and agnostics? The BSA’s stated reason for doing so is that belief in God is required to become the best kind of citizen. In their words:

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.” (italics mine)

With that position statement in your head, I want you to now think about what defenders of moral arguments for God’s existence typically say. They argue that, on the one hand, there is no ontological foundation for objective moral values if God does not exist, while, on the other hand, nontheists can lead moral lives. If they truly believe that nontheists can lead moral lives, then where is the outcry from these same apologists against the BSA’s stated reason for discriminating against nontheists?

But what if someone says, “I don’t care what some Christian apologists have written. I don’t think nontheists are moral. I don’t trust them.” From that perspective, there is even more reason to allow nontheists to join the BSA. If nontheists are so ‘morally defective,’ then what better course of action than to allow them to join an organization which, other than its policy of discrimination against homosexuals and nontheists, promotes good moral values? If nontheists are morally handicapped, why not give them as much “moral support” as possible to ensure they turn into adults with the best kind of moral character?

Can you imagine a church or Sunday school group banning non-Christians or even just non-theists? Of course not! They welcome them. They view it as an opportunity for evangelism. By the same logic, then, why not view the BSA as an opportunity for moral evangelism, i.e., trying to get boys to develop the best kind of moral character?

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About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    On the issue of the outcry, I do not know that William Lane Craig truly believes that atheists can lead moral lives. If he does, and if he also beliefs other things he says about atheists, his position is absurd:

    William Lane Craig maintains that plausibly, people aren't sent to Hell for murder, theft or adultery, but for the rejection of Jesus as lord and savior, which is an instance of rejection of God, and plausibly a sin of infinite gravity and proportion.

    So, on this account, in particular atheists engage in a crime that is morally far worse than murder – indeed, infinitely worse.

    Assuming that rejection of Jesus as lord and savior is much worse than murder, theft, etc., saying that atheists can lead moral lives seems no more sensible than saying that, say, con artists or committed KKK members, or even professional assassins can lead moral lives.

    Now, Craig might try to get out of that by saying that murderers, thieves, etc., are also committing the crime 'rejection of God' when they murder, not because of the murder itself, but because God tells them not to and they disobey.

    However, that would not cut it, since rejection of Jesus would still be worse than murder, theft, etc., and an atheist would be engaging in that all the time (at least, when awake), or (depending on the extent of Craig's claim) at the very least every time they walk pass a church without acknowledging Jesus, which makes them more common offenders than many, perhaps more criminals.

    Moreover, if an atheist attempts to persuade others to become atheists, he would be trying to persuade others to engage in behavior which is far worse than murder, and for which they (i.e., the targets of the convincing) would deserve infinite punishment.

    Perhaps, Craig might try to get out of that by saying that atheists may engage in some morally good actions, and avoid some immoral actions.

    But then again, the same may well be the case of con artists, or KKK members, who may (for instance) love their children, protect them from assailants, etc., and given the frequency and infinite gravity of the atheist's actions, Craig's position would remain untenable.

    So, where is the outcry?
    I do not know how many philosophers who defend metaethical arguments for theism would disagree with Craig about atheists, but in the case of Craig, if he truly believes what he says, then given that he believes atheists are so evil, I would not expect him to complain about BSA's policy.

    Of course, if he also believes that atheists can lead moral lives, well, I do not know. Maybe he should realize that he's very confused, but I doubt he will.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Jeffery, regarding the issue of someone who believes atheists are morally defective, I suppose it depends on things like whether they believe that the defect can't be fixed without a previous conversion

    In particular, they might believe that atheists actually know that God exists (also Craig's position, it seems), but are willingly failing to recognize their moral obligation to God, and willing failing to even try to be good.

    They do not have to ignore what Craig has written; they may actually be embracing part of what Craig has written, like the points I mentioned above, or the following:

    From: http://stephenlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/craig-reason-leads-to-atheism-or.html

    "Therefore, when a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God." 

    [William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), pp. 35-36.] 

    By the way, with regard to my points in the previous post, one can find Craig's claims about 'rejection of Jesus' vs. murder, etc., in his own website:


  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01023334706549710089 Marc Gravell

    @Angra your point about rejection of God/Jesus is trivially dismissed, as otherwise there would be no justification to allow a non-Abrahamic religion like Sikhism or Hinduism – both fine. Indeed, the BSA even recognises Buddhism, which is an *atheistic* belief system. If you were correct, none of these would be acceptable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu


    Okay, good point.
    So, it seems to me they may agree that atheists are rejecting God, and willfully choosing not to be good people, but not agree that others who reject Christianity but not theism are doing the same.

    If so, they would be picking and choosing from what Craig and other philosophers say, if they're even taking that into consideration (which may not be the case of most involved in making or keeping those rules), or (perhaps, more likely) just coming to that view by listening to other sources.

    There are other interpretations, though. What's your take on that?

    The language they use is ambiguous:

    When they say that "without recognizing an obligation to God" that might mean that atheists are failing to acknowledge an obligation that they know they have, or that they may be failing to realize that they have an obligation.
    Alternatively, some of them might mean the former, others the latter.

    What's your interpretation?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu


    Regarding Buddhism, going by their statement I would say that they do not accept Buddhists who do not accept the existence of a Supreme Being (which might require them to be inconsistent) and recognize obligations towards them.

    But maybe they accept Buddhist atheists. If so, of course it's not the case that they do not accept any atheists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    To expand a little on the immediately previous post, when I said "But maybe they accept Buddhist atheists" what I meant is that maybe my assessment is mistaken and they do accept Buddhist atheists.

    However, it seems that they would have to except them from the pledge, which includes a promise to do their duty to God. But that seems implausible to me.

    If they were to except Buddhist atheists, why not other atheists?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15738381414795204410 Ryan M

    This is off topic. But have any of the non theists here attempted to look at the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics?

    For the most part I think the Thomistic conception of God is still too problematic for me to believe in, but is there anything wrong with the rest of the metaphysics?

    I think it would be interesting if Oppy, Law, Lowder and others read some of the contemporary defenses of Aquinas by people such as Stump, Feser, Davies, etc. Seeing atheist philosophers or at least extremely well read atheists read their works and discuss them would be worth while.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    In order to go to hell, it’s not enough to fail to believe in God. You must also be a philosopher. And have your epistemology right. Only good philosophers may go to hell. Which I suppose is good news for all non-philosophers who kind of worry about the issue. But not good news for philosophy departments. “Study philosophy and risk going to hell” does not sound attractive.


    Incidentally, this is not a joke.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Interesting post, Dianelos.

    I might comment more later (if it's not too OT), but briefly, I would say that that makes a number of questionable assumptions.

    For instance, I would take issue with the claim that a philosopher could deserve infinite torment (if they claim so; it seems implicit, but if they do not claim so, I would still argue that no philosopher would deserve that):

    What would the action that the philosopher actually undertakes, in order to deserve that?

    Let's consider two options:

    a) The philosopher concludes that God does not exist.

    That would be a case of an epistemic error.
    Even if culpable, how would they deserve infinite punishment for that?
    One can use the same argument given in the case of the bubblegum.
    Let's suppose a philosopher makes that mistake, and other philosophers who know better grab her and start beating her up.
    Let's say that they continue to beat her up, for a week, until they break all the major bones in her legs, and a number of other bones as well.
    Now, going by my own sense of right and wrong, their behavior is very unjust.

    Of course, someone might say that only it's morally right for a morally perfect being himself to punish her in an infinitely worse manner, and that the other philosophers have no right to it.
    But if they claim that that's what their sense of right and wrong tells them, mine tells me otherwise.
    As usual, others will have to use their own moral sense to assess the matter.

    b) The philosopher concludes that God does exist, but rejects him.

    Then, how does the philosopher reject God?
    Does she say 'I believe that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect creator, but I call him a SOB?", or something like that?
    That would be incoherent, it seems, since she's saying that he's morally perfect.

    On the other hand, if the philosopher concludes that there is a creator that is not morally good, then she's not concluded that God exists, in the sense of 'God' that seems to be relevant here.

    So, in what does the rejection consist, if she concludes that he exists?

    But let's let that pass for the moment: let's say that the philosopher concludes God exists, but willfully chooses to carry out some action X (whatever X is), believing that she will deserve and suffer eternal torment for that.

    In that case, it seems to me that she's so severely mentally ill that she gets an insanity defense at least.

    But moreover, it seems plausible to me that no X would meet the requirement, illness aside: for, what would make her deserving of infinite torment?

    Whatever it is, after considering usual alternatives (e.g., murder, torture, calling God names), it seems we can easily come up with the beating scenario again, and once again the beating appears very unjust.

    Granted, someone might object to the above and say that I do not understand God well enough, so that's why I reach those mistaken conclusions. But for that matter, I can reply that those making that claim are the ones making a mistaken assessment of how a morally perfect being would behave.

    As usual, readers will use their own sense of right and wrong to assess the matter – and incidentally, if someone tries an authority argument, I could point out that there are plenty of philosophers who would find their assessment mistaken, and they would have to argue why those philosophers are bad ones, which would require getting into the actual arguments, rather than trying to use authority.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    On the second argument (i.e., free choice), I would say the following:

    1) As far as I know, no philosopher has ever chosen to suffer eternal torment.
    Indeed, they may mistakenly believe that there is no Hell, but in any case, they're not making a choice to get eternal torment.

    2) More importantly, it seems very plausible that no human with accurate understanding of infinite torment and who is in her right mind would choose infinite torment.
    It seems that only severe mental illness or at least a temporary incapacity for reasoning and assessing consequences might lead to such a choice.
    An exception is, perhaps, if they believe that in that sense, they're saving someone else from similar torment, in which case their action might be seen as heroic.
    However, I would say that that scenario does not obtain if God exists, either:
    For instance, let's say Alice does X, believing that X will lead her to eternal torment, because she does not think that there is any other way she can spare Mary of suffering for eternity.
    And let's say that the creator made the world in such a way that Alice's choice would indeed land her in Hell, where she will suffer for eternity.
    Then, I'd say that the creator isn't God; in particular, he's not morally perfect.
    A morally perfect creator would not make a world in which someone (by mistake, perhaps) who chooses to suffer for eternity because she sees no other way to save someone else from such fate, will indeed suffer for eternity.
    Why not?
    Because creating such a world would be immoral.
    Granted, that requires a moral assessment on my part. But then again, those arguing against that position need to make their own assessments as well, so that's not a disadvantage for that position.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    To clarify, when I say "An exception is, perhaps, if they believe that in that sense, they're saving someone else from similar torment, in which case their action might be seen as heroic", that might be heroic case, but it depends on a number of factors. It might not be.

    At any rate, the point is that it would not be right to make the rules so that they go to Hell if they do that (that requires a moral assessment, but the arguments to the conclusion that only philosophers could go to Hell, as well as other arguments in this context require one or more moral assessments)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    But have any of the non theists here attempted to look at the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics?

    That system premised on the idea that matter isn't made up of atoms, and that rocks fall to the ground when dropped because they "want" to be there?

    Yes, some of us have looked into it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    I find it fascinating (and disturbing) that not one theist has responded to this post with a comment expressing disapproval of the BSA's policy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    To put the BSA's policy of discrimination against atheists into perspective, I just discovered this article, which claims that the BSA allows convicted felons and rapists to join.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Jeffery, thank you for the link.

    I'm surprised by the claim that Mr. Hurt is serving three life sentences for sodomy; what does that mean?
    Maybe a law that changed but kept its name?

    Anyway, after further consideration, I think it's not the perceived severity of the 'crime' of being an atheist what counts, but that some persistence on it, for the following reason:

    If someone (for instance) is an atheist and argues for atheism, but later he converts to Christianity, as far as I know the BSA will allow the former atheist to join.
    So, regardless of matter how evil they consider being an atheist and arguing for atheism to be, they're willing to allow former atheists who "recognize" their obligations to God, to join the BSA.
    So, the hypothesis of the severity of the offense does not seem to be correct.

    Moreover, they're willing to allow rapists to join*, but I'm pretty sure that the BSA would not grant membership to a rapist who vows to continue engaging in acts of rape if he ever has the opportunity, and/or fails to acknowledge that raping people is immoral.

    Based on the above, it seems to me that a more plausible hypothesis for the ban on atheists is that expressing a will not to engage in such allegedly immoral behaviors (or omissions; I'm using 'behavior' broadly) anymore is what counts in the eyes of the BSA, in order to allow membership.

    If that is the case, then in the case of atheists, the behavior in question would be to refuse to "acknowledge" their obligations to God, or to "choose to believe" that God does not exist, or both, or something along those lines.

    If so, plausibly those making the rules do not know that not to believe that God exists is not a choice (at least, not for many of us), or that atheists do not believe that God exists and that they would be speaking insincerely if they claimed to have obligations to God, or both.

    That hypothesis would appear to be in line with what the article says about the BSA's position on homosexuality: assuming the article is correct, their stance is that being an 'avowed homosexual' is not compatible with the principles of the BSA.
    But would they refuse membership to someone who was what they call an 'avowed homosexual', but now is a born-again Christian who denounces gay sex as immoral and claims that he's no longer homosexual?
    Their policy as far as I can tell seems to indicate they would not, at least not officially (even if the presence of that person might be a headache for a good number of them).

    * Though only as long as they're in prison, so it's a conditional membership so to speak, unlike the former atheist; that might be either because of age, or because they actually consider rape to be morally worse, or because they consider the risk of new offenses higher, or for some other reason.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    "I find it fascinating (and disturbing) that not one theist has responded to this post with a comment expressing disapproval of the BSA's policy."

    They've got more important battles – they're still fighting Hitler and Stalin and their atheist apologists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis


    You write: “I find it fascinating (and disturbing) that not one theist has responded to this post with a comment expressing disapproval of the BSA's policy.

    I didn’t respond because I did not think I could contribute anything particularly useful to the issue. The BSA is a century old organization and the first sentence of the oath every new member must take is about duty to God. Would a parent whose child does not believe in God want her child to take that oath? I don’t think so. Should the BSA change its oath to accommodate atheistic children? I think probably yes, but then again I know little about the BSA and perhaps they are proud of their tradition and do not wish to change it.

    You say that the reasoning the BSA give which is based on morality is stupid, and notice that theists recognize that atheists can lead moral lives. I don’t see anything in the reasoning you quoted which implies that atheists cannot lead moral lives. Rather it implies that atheism is some kind of hindrance to moral development. Is that latter idea stupid? I personally don’t think so. Naturalism (which is most atheists’ actual worldview) has trouble making sense of the concept of morality (hence moral non-realism, moral error theory, and so on), and the idea that the whole of reality is a mechanism which evolves blindly and purposelessly is certainly not helpful for leading a moral life, pragmatically speaking. To put is simply, non-religious people have less reason for being moral, and both statistical and historical evidence appear to bear this out. The standard theistic view is that since we are all built in God’s image there is an intrinsic tendency towards goodness in our nature, a tendency which can and normally does bear fruit even in those who are ignorant of God. But it also entails that being ignorant of God, or more generally of the spiritual and thus intrinsically moral nature of reality represents a handicap for moral development.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    @Marc Gravell,

    Sorry I misspelled your name.
    I was reading the posts by Mark Jones in the thread about Victor Reppert when I wrote that, and got you mixed up.

    After you pointed out that the BSA accepts all of those religions, I did some digging and it turns out that in the beginning, they seemed to be talking about the Christian god, but today they do not take a stance on that.

    As for Buddhists, there are Buddhist emblems and the like, yet Buddhists do have to "recognize" their duty to God. So it seems to me that those scouts are asked to say something that (in most cases) contradicts their own beliefs.

    In my assessment, the most plausible hypothesis so far for the ban on atheists and agnostics is that they believe that failure to "recognize" an alleged 'duty to God' is an immoral behavior or moral flaw (and a serious one at that) that atheists are failing to renounce, and that if they were to accept them, that would give the impression that atheism is not immoral, thus spreading false moral beliefs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu


    The BSA officially says that atheists cannot grow to be the best kind of citizen. I do not see how you interpret that as not being incompatible with leading moral lives. If someone leads a moral life, wouldn't that be enough to be the best kind of citizen? What else would they require?

    In any event, an argument can be easily made in the following manner:
    The BSA officially claims that atheists cannot become the (morally, of course) best kind of citizens, implicitly saying that atheism is some sort of moral flaw, a failure to recognize a moral duty.
    However, they provide no good reason to believe that such is the case.

    You said: "Rather it implies that atheism is some kind of hindrance to moral development. Is that latter idea stupid? I personally don’t think so."

    I'm not sure 'stupid' is an adequate description, as smart theists can come up with sophisticated (even if unsound) arguments to defend it. It's a confused idea, though (more below).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu


    "Naturalism (which is most atheists’ actual worldview) has trouble making sense of the concept of morality (hence moral non-realism, moral error theory, and so on), and the idea that the whole of reality is a mechanism which evolves blindly and purposelessly is certainly not helpful for leading a moral life, pragmatically speaking."

    While I've not yet been able to ascertain what 'naturalism' mean, essentially the usual claims on the matter is that one or more of the following is a problem for morality and 'naturalism' (whatever 'naturalism' means):

    a) Unguided evolution.
    b) No souls.
    c) No afterlife.
    d) No intrinsic value (whatever that might mean), and/or no mind-independent value (whatever that might mean).
    e) Determinism.

    Yet, you've not provided any good reason to believe that any of that is in any way a problem, or that any other feature of what you call 'naturalism' is.
    So, if you claim that it is (or that somehow something else is), the burden would be on you, so I would ask you to make your case or provide your evidence (still, I did post an argument against theistic metaethical arguments in my blog, if you or anyone else is interested).

    Also, you provide no good reason to believe that a lack of intent behind the whole of reality has anything to do with leading moral lives. That seems to be gratuitous attack on atheist's moral character.

    "To put is simply, non-religious people have less reason for being moral, and both statistical and historical evidence appear to bear this out."

    Regarding the first part, the reason for not behaving immorally is that, well, that would be immoral. Are you suggesting that theists have non-moral reasons (e.g., fear) not to behave immorally, and that makes them more suitable for being good people?
    If not, what's your contention, and your arguments/evidence to support it?

    As for the second claim, I would ask you to provide your statistics, or your historical accounts.

    As for historical accounts, if you're going to talk about communism, etc., I will point out that those killings were not because of atheism but because of a specific atheistic ideology, namely Marxism. You can find plenty of atheists in Europe and the US today (for instance), and their behavior is nothing like that.
    Also, on that note, there were and are atrocities committed because of Christianity, Islam, etc. Granted, those actions weren't carried out because of some generic belief in theism, but you won't find many theists who aren't Christians, or Muslims, etc., but just generic theists, whereas you'll find plenty of atheists who aren't communists, or to any other ideology that would lead to committing atrocities.

    What you call 'the standard theistic view' seems to be mainstream among theists, though it's not implied by theism.
    In any case, I'd say that spreading such view is wrong, since it's spreading false negative moral claims about atheists.

    Of course, I expect you to disagree with the moral assessments above. We can debate if you want to.

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