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Boy Scouts of America (BSA)

Part 4: More about discrimination against Atheists &
other non-theists. Efforts to eliminate discrimination.

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This topic is a continuation from the previous essay

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Summary:

For many decades. the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) discriminated on the basis of:

  • Religious belief: No Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, and other non-theists are allowed, and

  • Sexual orientation: No gays and bisexuals were allowed.

In early 2013, they modified their exclusionary policies slightly to allow gay youth into Scouting. Gay youths are now welcome. They no longer have to hide their sexual orientation. However, they are expelled from the BSA on their 18th birthday. Adult gays and non-theists of all ages remain excluded.

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Discrimination against Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists and other non-theists:

Many non-theists cannot ethically recite the Scout Oath because of its preamble which states:

"On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law." 1

The BSA's Charter and Bylaws" contains an "Article IX: Policies and Definitions" whose "Section 1. Declaration of Religious Principle, Clause 1" states very clearly the linkage between the BSA and belief in a very specific concept of God:

"The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. ... 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. No matter what the religious faith of the members may be, this fundamental need of good citizenship should be kept before them. The Boy Scouts of America, 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 the organization or group with which the member is connected shall give definite attention to religious life." 2

The Declaration is internally inconsistent:

  • One one hand, it states very plainly that God is to be interpreted as a single male deity of infinite power, who delivers "favors and blessings" on any basis that he chooses. There is an implication that he monitors the daily activities of all humans rewards them according to their behavior.

  • On the other hand, it states that its approach to members' religious beliefs are "absolutely nonsectarian."

  • Finally, the "Special Considerations" section of the BSA web site states in Section 5.0.5.0 "Religious Principles" that:

    "The Boy Scouts of America does not define what constitutes belief in God or practice of religion. Neither does the BSA require membership in a religious organization or association for membership in the movement. If a Scout does not belong to a religious organization or association, then his parent(s) or guardian(s) will be considered responsible for his religious training. All that is required is the acknowledgment of belief in God as stated in the Scout Oath, and the ability to be reverent as stated in the Scout Law." 3

Yet:

  • Unitarian Universalists have no required belief in an omnipotent God. Many "UU's" are non-theists.

  • Deists teach that God created the universe and its laws, disappeared and has not been seen since; they do not believe in a God who actively controls the universe or monitors humans today.

  • The Buddhist religion has no concept of God in its foundational principles.

  • Hinduism teaches the existence of millions of deities, both male and female.

  • Wicca and other Neopagan religions acknowledge the existence of both a God and a Goddess.

  • Many aboriginal religions, like Native American Spirituality. Vodun, and other polytheistic religions teach the existence of multiple deities.

The above faith groups teach beliefs that are incompatible with the God defined in Clause 1 of the BSA Charter's Declaration of Religious Principle. At the very least, the BSA needs to clarify exactly what range of deities qualify to be recognized as "God."

When a Scout does not believe in a male God with the traditional attributes of omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, it can difficult to commit to doing one's duty towards what the Scout would consider a nonexistent mythical being. Some simply do not speak the phrase "to God" when they recite the Scout Oath. Others interpret "duty to God" as meaning that they have to follow the Golden Rule. Still others have different ways of wiggling out of the obvious intent of the phrase.

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Promoting change in the BSA towards non-theists:

We have been unable to detect major organizations having been formed specifically to fight this form of exclusion. However, several existing religious and philosophical groups have commented in favor of allowing non-theists to become Scouts:

  • Austin Cline, writing for the About.com Agnosticism/Atheism guide, notes:

    "Official, institutional bigotry and discrimination against atheists used to be much more prevalent in America. ... Atheists today continue to encounter personal bigotry and resulting discrimination, but not so much in the context of social institutions enforcing official policies."

    "The biggest exception to this shift away from bigotry and towards equal treatment has been the Boy Scouts of America. Although the Boy Scouts' discrimination against gays appears to be most widely known, they discriminate against atheists on basically the same basis. According to the Boy Scouts, atheists cannot be morally straight or the best kinds of citizens; therefore, they have no place in the organization either as scouts or as adult leaders. People who admit to being atheists are kicked out regardless of their past accomplishments -- in other words, the amount of good a person has done either in their lives or in the Boy Scouts is less important than simply not believing in any gods. ..."

    "Many of the court cases challenging Boy Scouts' discrimination have been brought by atheists. It was just such a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and established that the Boy Scouts are technically a private organization which has a right to discriminate against anyone they want and for any reason they want. The fallout from that decision is still developing: as a private organization that discriminates, they have no moral or legal claim to public assistance, support, or endorsement."

    "This outrages conservatives who want it both ways: they want the Boy Scouts to be private so they can in [sic] bigoted discrimination, but they want them to be public in order to obtain lucrative benefits and government support. In effect, they want the Boy Scouts' discrimination to come without social consequences. Their arguments end up trying to make the case that discrimination against gays and atheists is a positive public good which deserves public support." 4

  • During 2013-JAN, when the BSA was considering various options to reduce discrimination against gays in the organization, David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said:

    "If they are considering lifting the ban on gays, that's a good thing, that's progress. If they lift that bigotry from their requirements, I would hope they remove the rest of the bigotry and admit atheists as well."

    Refusing to admit atheists who decline the oath, Silverman said:

    "... tells boys that atheists are immoral. If local groups want to behave in an ethical way, I'm confident they will make Boy Scouts about Scouting, not about bigotry." 5

  • Also during 2013-JAN, the Freedom From Religion Foundation issued an Action Alert, titled: "Protest BSA's slap in the face to nontheists:" The Alert said:

    "BSA spokesperson Deron Smith said a change in policy toward atheists is not being considered because "Duty to God" is one of its basic principles.

    With one in five Americans — and as many as one in three young people — identifying as nonreligious, clearly millions of nontheistic families and their sons are being treated as undesirable members by BSA. It should not be socially acceptable to exclude either gays or atheists. Talk about proof of who's on the bottom of the social totem poll in our culture!

    BSA has always falsely advertised that "any boy may join" and has relied upon and received major governmental favors. In the 1970s, discrimination against atheists became entrenched as BSA adopted a religious litmus test, forcing parents of boys interested in joining to sign a 'Declaration of Religious Principles' returned with membership fees. The declaration states: ' The Boy Scouts of America maintain that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God.'

    No one can grow into the best kind of citizen being told it is good form to discriminate against nonreligious children. BSA needs to be reminded it is not what you believe that makes you a good person, but what you do. Wrapping oneself in a mantle of piety is often counterproductive of moral action, as witnessed by the way in which "God belief" was used by BSA to justify excluding gays and atheists.

    Challenge the knee jerk assumption that professing an orthodox belief in an unprovable deity has anything at all to do with ethical conduct. Clearly, the outcome of such piety for BSA is immoral — it places dogma over people, in this case real children, teenagers and volunteer leaders who are being shunned for holding the intellectually respectable position that we need proof before swallowing dogmatic claims.

    Religion builds walls between children, and religious litmus tests have no place in a fraternal organization with a congressional charter." 6

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Promoting the continuation of discrimination against Atheists and other non-theists:

Chris Hill is chairperson of the Lone Star District of the Circle Ten Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Peter Sprigg is a senior fellow for Policy Studies at the Family Research Council -- an organization listed as an active anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, because of its:

"... propagation of known falsehoods [and the use of]... demonizing propaganda" [against the LGBT community]. 7

The two wrote an article in USA Today for 2013-MAY-25. They suggest that the decision by the BSA to allow gay youth into Scouting represents the top of a slippery slope that will inevitably lead to the BSA allowing gay and lesbian adult leaders as well. They also suggest that the slippery slope will continue with pressure to allow Atheists to join.

Actually, the situation extends beyond Atheists to include Agnostics, Humanists, many Buddhists, and other non-theists.

Hill and Sprigg continued:

"The vast majority of Americans believe in God and don't consider it "bigotry" to do so -- nor to choose certain private associations with people who share that belief. And if there is no higher being to provide a standard against, which one's beliefs and conduct are measured, how can the atheists know with any certainty what is "moral" at all?" 8

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Webmaster's note: (Bias alert):

Hill and Sprigg's comment about atheists not knowing what is moral is no different from Christians not knowing. Sincere, intelligent, thoughtful, prayerful theologians in the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Church of Christ teach three very different sets of beliefs about the morality of the two minority sexual orientations: bisexuality and homosexuality. Yet each theologian is totally confident that they know the truth and that they have accurately derived it from Biblical passages.

I have been unable to find any group that suggests that to believe in God is a form of bigotry. Also, the same people who feel that non-theists should be able to join the BSA do not feel it is bigotry to want to be associated with people who hold similar religious beliefs. Such association happens every week on Saturday and Sunday as Christians attend their own congregations. The real questions are:

  • Is it bigotry to teach 2.7 million Scouts that Atheists and other non-theists can never exhibit moral behavior? That is a really hard sell, particularly with data that shows that Christians are over-represented and Atheists are under-represented in the prison population.

  • Is it appropriate for an organization like the BSA who operates under a charter given to them by the Federal Government, and who bill themselves as serving all boys in America, and who receive many free or low-cost perks and services from municipal and state governments, discriminate on the basis of religion?

Hill and Sprigg do not address these questions. However, USA Today did add the following note to their report:

"In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors."

I hope that they decide to publish an report that addresses the above two questions and provides an alternate view.

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Related essays on this site:

bullet Main menu: Discrimination within the Boy Scouts of America
bullet Menu: Homosexuality and bisexuality
bullet Different religions, different beliefs

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "On My Honor," Boy Scouts of America, 2012, at: http://www.scouting.org/
  2. "Charter and Bylaws and Rules and Regulations of the Boy Scouts of America," Boy Scouts of America, 2011, at: http://www.scouting.org/
  3. "Special Considerations," Boy Scouts of America, 2011, at: http://www.scouting.org/
  4. "Boy Scouts must be prepared to fight Godless Atheism," About: Agnosticism/Atheism, undated, at: http://atheism.about.com
  5. Brian Shane & Mike Chalmers, "Boy Scouts Rule On Atheists Unchanged As BSA Reconsiders Ban On Gays," Huffington Post, 2013-JAN-29, at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/
  6. "Action Alert: Protest BSA's slap in the face to nontheists. BSA to keep discriminating against atheists," Freedom From Religious Foundation, 2013-JAN-23, at: http://ffrf.org/
  7. "18 Anti-Gay Groups and Their Propaganda," Southern Poverty Law Center, Intelligence Report, Issue #40, Winter 2010. Online at: http://www.splcenter.org/
  8. Chris Hill & Peter Sprigg, "Slippery slope to accepting atheist Boy Scouts: Column," USATODAY, 2013-MAY-25, at: http://www.usatoday.com/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 
Originally published on 1999-AUG-9 
Rewritten: 2013-MAY-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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