Writing, life, politics

Can Atheists Be Scouts?

The answer, incredibly, appears to be no.

The Boy Scouts of America are very blunt about it. Their web site first makes it very clear that child members really do need to believe in a God:

In the Scout Oath, a Scout promises to do his “duty to God,” and in the Scout Law he promises to be “reverent.”

The Boy Scout Handbook (11th ed.) explains a Scouts’ “duty to God” as “Your family and religious leaders teach you about God and the ways you can serve. You do your duty to God by following the wisdom of those teachings every day and by respecting and defending the rights of others to practice their own beliefs.”

The Handbook explains “reverent” as “A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.”

All levels of advancement in the Scouting program have requirements recognizing “duty to God”.

…before becoming very explicit when it comes to adult organisers:

Boy Scouts of America believes that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. Accordingly, youth members and adult volunteer leaders of Boy Scouts of America obligate themselves to do their duty to God and be reverent as embodied in the Scout Oath and the Scout Law. Leaders also must subscribe to the Declaration of Religious Principle. Because of its views concerning the duty to God, Boy Scouts of America believes that an atheist or agnostic is not an appropriate role model of the Scout Oath and Law for adolescent boys. Because of Scouting’s methods and beliefs, Scouting does not accept atheists and agnostics as members or adult volunteer leaders.


The UK scouts appear to be less blunt, in that if you do a search for “atheist” on their website you get no results, but the effect is still the same. They say:

The Scout Movement includes members of many different forms of religion. The following policy has received the approval of the heads of the leading religious bodies in the United Kingdom.

All Members of the Movement are encouraged to:

make every effort to progress in the understanding and observance of the Promise to do their best to do their duty to God

belong to some religious body

carry into daily practice what they profess


Now they might say that “encouraged” is not the same as “required”, but children are required to swear an oath to God to join the scouts. There is no opt out allowed.

This is something that the British Humanist Association is protesting against.

Now, some might say that atheists have no right to complain, that this would be like complaining that atheist children aren’t allowed to go to Sunday School. But I’d say that the two are not comparable. Sunday Schools are inherently religious organisations. Their entire purpose it for children to be worship and be educated in a particular religion.

The scouts are not a religous organisation and being a scout isn’t about religion. After all, people of all religions can join. They have an entirely secular purpose: educating and entertaining children with the goal of helping them grown into responsible citizens.

They just don’t let atheists join.

Religious people might say that atheist parents should just let / tell their children to make the oath. They might ask what they harm is, or say that the parents are selfishly stopping their children doing something nice simply over a point of principle. But would those same people instruct their children to make an oath to a different religion (Christian children swearing an oath involving Mohammed, say)? I suspect not.

People might also say that since I haven’t bothered to get involved and help out as a scout master, I have no right to criticise those who do devote their time and effort to what’s a very noble task. I feel this would be very fair criticism to make of me were it not for the fact that if I did decide I wanted to volunteer, I couldn’t.

Because I’m an atheist.

It’s also a bit weird knowing that if my wife and I do have children, those children will not be able to join the scouts, simply because they don’t happen to be followers of a religion.

Oh well, sod it. I think I’d much rather they joined the Woodcraft Folk (basically, hippy scouts), anyhow. Then all they’d be required to pledge would be:

This shall be for a bond between us,
That we are of one blood you and I;
That we shall cry peace to all,
And claim kinship with every living thing;
That we hate War, Sloth and Greed,
And love fellowship.
And that we shall go singing to the fashioning of a new world.

Can’t see how anyone could disagree with that!


  1. Brian

    As a former Boy Scout (USA), I can tell you, Scouting IS, and always has been, steeped in religion. “Duty to God” is/was part of the original stuff Baden-Powell wrote, and kind of a key ingredient of the whole deal.

    Ultimately, I don’t really have a problem with it, save in the USA, that they get some particularly huge benefits from the government (such as the 30-year “free” use of Fort A.P. Hill for the National Jamboree, amongst others).

    If they’re going to practice exclusivity, they shouldn’t be getting any kind of taxpayer-provided benefit (such as use of facilities without paying for them).

    • Jonny Nexus

      Hi Brian,

      Sorry for taking a couple of days to reply.

      I think I would say that I have nothing against a religious organisation. For example, in the UK, we have a scout-like organisation called the Boys Brigade. (It is world-wide apparently, so you might have it in the states).

      It is explicitly Christian:

      “The advancement of Christ’s kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Obedience, Reverence, Discipline, Self-respect and all that tends towards a true Christian manliness.”

      I can’t tell from their website whether you have to be a Christian to join. You probably do. But that’s fair enough. It’s a Christian organisation. It’s the same as a vegan organisation saying you have to be a vegan.

      But scouting is not a relgious organisation. It’s fine if you’re a muslim, or a Jew, or a Christian – as long as you follow a religion that believes in a supreme being. That seems a little… arbitrary to me.

  2. Brian

    Also, dumb question – is there no chance of your future child choosing to practice a religion and joining Scouts?

    I mean, the odds of it happening with the parental influence is likely nil, but won’t they get that choice?

    • Jonny Nexus

      Yeah, there’s every chance of that, and that would be fine. At the end of the day, I’d hope a child of mine would grow up to believe in some kind of moral code, and follow it.

      I feel I have more in common with genuine Christians, like my parents for example, than the census-ticking “Christians” who laugh at “God botherers” and see the church as nothing more than a cultural identity (sometimes with racist overtones) and a service offering nice, cheap venues for wedding, birth and death ceremonies.

      I hate the sick hypocracy of it all, the attitude of, “I don’t believe in any of that bible-crashing crap, but you can bloody well bet that all those towel-heads are ticking Muslim on the census, so I’m bloody well ticking Christian, let ’em know there’s more of us than there are of them!”

      But what I don’t want to do is to have to tell my child to gain access to an organisation by telling a big, fat lie in public. If my child did become a Christian, then the problem would go away, because they could join the Scouts without having to tell a lie.

      (Although if my child really was a Christian, I think I’d rather he went to a church affiliated Boys Brigade unit rather than a general, run-of-the-mill scouting unit, as I’d be afraid that if it got out that he was an *actual* Christian as opposed to a bullshit “cultural” one, he be bullied by the other boys).

  3. Peter

    When I joined the Scouts here in the UK, they asked me what religion I was, when I said I didn’t know they assumed I was Protestant. Being too young at the time to know what that meant it is only looking back now that I am offended. I’m a godless barbarian after all 😉

    • Jonny Nexus

      Yeah, it’s the default attitude. If you’re not anything else, you’re CofE.

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