The BSA and Nontheists: A Reply to Steve Hays

After reading my post about the BSA’s policy of discriminating against atheists, Steve Hays is not convinced. While at one point he recognizes that I am criticizing “the opposing position internally, on its own terms,” at several other points he seems to forget that, e.g., his tu quoque claim that atheists don’t generally defend the civil liberties of theists, his question about how atheists can justify moral realism, etc. As interesting as those issues are, however, they are irrelevant to whether the “internal” critique succeeds, so we can set them aside.
Some of his other points, however, are relevant. Here is one:
iv) Finally, one way atheists secularize the culture is to infiltrate institutions which were traditionally religious or religiously-conditioned, then secularize those institutions from within.
That way there’s nothing to push back against the atheist agenda. Indeed, they’ve dragooned the opposing institutions to further the secular agenda. Infiltrate, sterilize, then co-opt for your own purposes.
What Hays forgets is the BSA’s stated reason for excluding nontheists, which I quoted in my last post. The BSA doesn’t justify their policy based on a fear of ‘atheistic infiltration.’ Rather, the BSA justifies their policy based on the claim that belief in God is required in order to be the best kind of citizen. So even if Hays were correct about ‘atheist infiltration,’ which I do not grant, this is irrelevant. (Also, note that the risk of ‘atheist infiltration’ can be mitigated by allowing atheist youth, but not atheist adult leaders; it’s not an all-or-nothing decision.)
Hays also mentions the distinction between attendance and membership:
That fails to distinguish between attendance and membership. To join an evangelical church, you’re generally required to make profession of faith. And the standards are higher for church officers.
Good point. My analogy between Scouting and a church isn’t perfect. Scouting is not a church; the focus of Scouting really is on the outdoors, first aid, community service, and the like. Churches have a much greater focus on beliefs than the BSA does (and rightfully so). In fact, other than belief in God, I can’t think of any other beliefs required for membership in the BSA. I have no idea if Hays has ever been involved with Scouting, but, speaking as an Eagle Scout, in my experience, belief in God often does not play an integral role in Scouting. For example, I was a member of a scout troop sponsored by a church and we met in a church, but our meetings never opened or closed with prayer, I never once saw the church’s pastor at a scout meeting, and there was no boy who held the youth leadership position of “Chaplain’s Aide.” The only time God was mentioned was during a recital of the Scout Oath or Scout Law. To say that makes God an integral part of Scouting would be analogous to the claim that God is an integral part of public schools because children recite the Pledge of Allegiance on a daily basis; both arguments would be bad and for the same reasons.

On the other hand, I don’t deny that God can play a major role in Scouting for some scouts. For example, it is practically a sacrament of the Mormon church that all Mormon boys join the BSA, so there were many LDS boy scout troops and I am sure that the LDS faith played a big role in LDS troops.
Finally, Hays doesn’t seem to recognize how self-refuting his defense of the BSA’s policy is.
Atheists are more likely to be moral in a culture that reinforces conventional Christian morality. To the extent that atheists are self-consciously atheistic, to the extent that atheists successfully secularize the culture, then to that extent they are less likely to be moral. They lack the same external or internal restraints. On the one hand, the traditional social sanctions are gone. On the other hand, they are taking their secular outlook to its logical conclusion.
This is the essence of my internal critique of the BSA’s policy. If it is a fact that “atheists are more likely to be moral in a culture that reinforces conventional Christian morality,” which again I do not grant, then that is a reason for allowing atheists to join. Give them all the moral support you can! The BSA’s position seems to be both “atheists are more likely to be moral in a culture that reinforces conventional Christian morality” and “atheists should be excluded from an organization that would help reinforce conventional Christian morality.” What possible moral reason could the BSA have for withholding the moral support they believe nontheists so desperately need? In fact, this suggests an ‘internal’ argument for the immorality of the BSA: by deliberately withholding moral support from people who both need it and want it, the BSA is directly contributing to the immorality of nontheistic youth.
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