Unitarian Universalist Association Betrays Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics

Unitarian Universalist Association Betrays Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics March 30, 2016

Last week the Unitarian Universalist Association – the national organization which represents all Unitarian Universalist churches in the USA, some of which are Humanist congregations, and many of which include significant numbers of Humanists – renewed ties with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), praising the recent changes they have made to policies regarding gay boy scouts and scout leaders. As I’ve written before, those changes don’t go nearly far enough: the BSA still allows local troops to discriminate against gay people, and until that policy is totally overthrown, I would be against re-affiliation. Allowing your member organizations to engage in homophobic discrimination is to be party to homophobic discrimination, and the UUA should not re-affiliate for that reason alone. Furthermore, trans boys are still not fully included in scouting, and this movement to re-affiliate by the UUA is part of a long history of trans people’s dignity being shoved aside once gay people have got what they wanted. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

But let’s talk about atheists for a moment. The Boy Scouts of America is now, and has been for decades, institutionally opposed to the dignity of atheists, agnostics, and Humanists. Not only does it formally refuse to allow atheist boy scouts to participate in their programs (a rule that is indeed sometimes enforced); not only does it formally refuse to allow atheist adults to become troop leaders (as I discovered when I asked whether my non-theistic congregation could start a scouting troop – the answer was no); but it makes public statements which insult and demean those who don’t believe in god.

As UU Adam Gonnerman points out, the following “Declatation of Religious Principle” appears in the current application form which boys have to fill out in order to join, taken directly from the Charter and Bylaws of the BSA:

The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God and, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member, but it is absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward that religious training. Its policy is that the home and organization or group with which the member is connected shall give definite attention to religious life. Only persons willing to subscribe to these precepts of the Declaration of Religious Principle and to the Bylaws and codes of the Boy Scouts of America shall be entitled to certificates of membership.

Throughout the materials the BSA offers it is made repeatedly clear that all religious convictions will be respected – except atheism. Take this self-refuting phrase from the “Duty to God” program pamphlet:

A Scout is reverent. He is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties and respects the convictions of others in matters of custom and religion

An organization which “respects the convictions of others in matters of custom and religion” would not, I respectfully suggest, exclude from membership those with the conviction that God does not exist, and would certainly not insult those people by saying that they are substandard citizens.

Further reinforcing this message, here’s R. Chip Turner, recently chairman of the BSA’s Religious Relationships Task Force, on the topic of God and the Boy Scouts:

  • “we should help Scouts and their families come to realize that a belief in God is integral to Scouting and is a key element in character building.”
  • “By signing the membership application, each leader has already acknowledged the Declaration of Religious Principle which affirms a belief in God…this same Declaration of Religious Principle is now included on the youth application form which is to be signed by the parents.”
  • “Scouting, strongly affirms this fulfillment of “duty to God””.
  • “belief in God is a cornerstone of Scouting”

Turner repeatedly, in this piece, asserts that it is important that a Scout believe in God and that this belief will be tested at every Scout advancement level: “participants at each review for rank advancement will be asked how they have done their duty to God since achievement of their current rank.” The most galling part of Turner’s article, though, addresses specifically the question of what would happen if, as many parents fear, their child honestly answers this question by saying that they do not believe in God. His response is infuriating:

We have all likely heard horror stories of boys being asked in their Eagle Scout board of review about how they have done their “duty to God,” only to have the youth say they don’t believe in God…Have we not somehow failed such a young person who apparently is not concerned about violating the…12th [part] of the Scout Law?

In Turner’s view, a child coming to the good faith belief that God does not exist, and expressing that honestly when asked, is “disappointing,” has been “failed” by the program, and is violating the 12th Commandment of Scouting, “A Scout is Reverent.” Atheist kids are disappointments to the Boy Scouts of America. They are irreverent. They should, this reasoning implies, be encouraged to believe in God or, presumably, be refused advancement.

Taken together, these policies and practices of the Boy Scouts of America are disgraceful: they amount to active discrimination against children based on their religion, religious coercion through the withholding of badges and program advancement, and a consistently demeaning attitude and a history of insulting public statements towards a minority group.

So why does the UUA, representing many Humanist, atheist, and agnostic members and clergy, think that this is acceptable? Correspondence between the UUA and BSA demonstrates that the BSA’s intolerant attitudes towards nonbelievers were a significant part of the reason they disaffiliated in the first place, so what has changed to enable reconciliation now?

Nothing. None of these policies, practices, or attitudes have changed. None of the demeaning rhetoric on the BSA’s website about atheists, agnostics, and Humanists have been taken down. No commitments to policy review have been secured. No apologies for the history of discrimination and to the people it harmed. And not even an acknowledgment, in any of the public statements the UUA made to announce the re-affiliation, that the BSA does discriminate against nonbelievers. Those statements say things like “the UUA is proud to be among religious groups who are embracing the BSA’s decision to be more inclusive“; “all youth members and adult leaders of the BSA must subscribe to the Declaration of Religious Principle in the BSA’s Bylaws…[and] the BSA requires that chartered organizations be responsible for the selection of adult leaders according to the chartered organizations’ values, policies, and guidelines, and the BSA’s standards“; and “It is gratifying to have restored a relationship that was broken“. In other words the UUA has, far from openly condemning the discriminatory policies of the Boy Scouts of America, committed to following them, without any comment whatsoever.

The UUA’s response to all this, conveyed to me in private conversations and Facebook and Twitter messages (and to John Hooper, the former head of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association, here), seems to be as follows: yes, we recognize there are problems with the BSA’s policies (but we’re unwilling to be explicit about what those problems are); we will be better able to work from the inside to change these policies (though we have no concrete plan as to how to do so); we will be allowed to teach our theological perspective in scouting troops which we run (but cannot guarantee any changes to the god-language or even that atheists can participate and be leaders); some boys have been able to participate despite being atheists (but we know some have been kicked out too); we respect our Humanist, atheist, and agnostic members and clergy (but not enough to consult them about how this decision would make them feel).

This is a totally feeble response. The Unitarian Universalist Association is the national representative of a religious movement which prides itself on radical religious inclusivity, and the BSA is manifestly not a “radically inclusive” organization. It goes out of its way to actively insult people who don’t believe in god – which includes many members of UU congregations and a number of respected UU clergy. Imagine the outcry if the UUA had re-affiliated with an organization which said similar things about Jewish people, Muslims, or Pagans: no re-affiliation would have been possible or acceptable to the UUA under such circumstances, and they certainly would not have considered such a move without consulting UU representatives of those faith traditions.

This is betrayal. There’s no other word for it. The UUA has decided which of its members are important and which are not, and atheists, agnostics, and Humanists have been unceremoniously dumped as the UUA gets back into bed with an organization which practices religious discrimination and spiritual coercion of children. There are many wonderfully affirming and inclusive Unitarian Universalist churches and clergy who are fully accepting of and welcoming to Humanists. But to those Humanist members of UU churches who reach out to me frequently to express their despair that the Unitarian Universalist Association doesn’t seem to care about them or want them, I now have only one message: you’re right.

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