Parenthood, Promises and Progress: Why Scouting Makes Me A Reluctant Hypocrite.

Posted on November 22, 2011. Filed under: Atheism, Atheist Ethics, Canadian Politics, Personal, Religion, Social Justice |

On my honour
I promise that I will do my best
To do my duty to God and the Queen
To help other people at all times,
And to carry out the spirit of the Scout Law.

The man I am today owes a debt to my life in Scouting.  I can build a fire, make a camp, cook a meal from whole ingredients. I can sew, lash, and build with tools. I am passionate about getting involved and being of service to my community.I am a better leader, a better peer, and a better citizen.  I am a responsible steward of the environment.  When I go on a walk with my children, I can name trees and plants, rocks and minerals, animals and insects- I can show them how nature impacts us and how we impact nature. I am a better Dad, a better husband, and a better man because of scouting.

The idea that skills are important, that people are important, that passion is important- lie at the heart of Scouts from Beavers to Rovers and beyond.

When I was a Scout, I thought I could change the world.  We were told we could change the world.  We were taught how to change the world.  My troop collected newspaper and glass bottles before our community established a recycling program.  We planted trees, collected trash, gave our time to food banks, the elderly, and community organizations.  We were told that it was our duty not just to leave nature better than we found it but to leave our world better than we found it.

Scouts is about camping and hiking, yes- but it is really about more than that- it is about giving kids the skills they need to succeed in life, and building within themselves the passion to always “do your best”.

So when it came time to find activities that might interest my own children, I could think of no better fit than Scouting.  My kids love it.  My oldest son has met a group of kids he really meshes with, who share his interests and goals.  My second son is better behaved, more attentive, and shows palpable pride in the things he has realized he is capable of doing independently.  Scouts has been good to me, good to my family, and has strengthened the relationship between me and my boys.  It is no surprise, then, that when I was asked to be a leader of my son’s Cub Pack, I was excited and honored at the opportunity.  The leaders I work with are great- seasoned veterans of scouting who have been helpful and patient with me as I slowly immerse myself back into the program.

As a child, I grew up in a somewhat religious family.  My dad bought a business when I was quite young that prevented us from going to church with any regularity, but God was certainly an ever-present assumption in our family culture.  For this reason,  in my seven some-odd years in scouting from Beavers to Scouts, I paid nary a mind to the religious language and culture present in the program.  It was no more religious than my home, my public school, or my baseball team.

The Problem With the Promise

When I first picked up my Cub Book and welcome package, I was set aback by how tied to religion scouting really is.  God has a mention in every promise at every level of scouting.  The promise is not just an aside to the scouting program, but something children are required to memorize.  It is the “vision statement” of every young Beaver, Cub and Scout.  My children memorized this promise dutifully, as did I- but for my oldest son and myself it is a promise that we have no intent to keep.  My twelve year old son doesn’t believe in God, and neither do I.

Whether or not God has a place in Scouting and whether He deserves a mention in the Scouting promise is not a question of tradition.  Scouts is traditionally a male-only organization.  I have four girls in my Cub Pack, my son has two girls in his Scout Troop.  Scouts was at one point a traditionally Christian-focused organization, and they now welcome Buddhists and Baptists, Sikhs and Seventh Day Adventists, Hindus, Quakers and every faith from Anglicans to Zoroastrians.  A Scout today would find much wrong with the 1908 founding book “Scouting for Boys”, starting with the title itself.

Before investiture, I had the opportunity at a leader’s meeting to broach this subject with a few of the other leaders in my Pack.  At a leaders meeting, I gingerly brought up the subject and was told by my Akela that he saw no issue with refusing membership to a child or adult who refused to make The Promise.  Scouts, according to him, is an organization that takes faith seriously.  I immediately dropped the subject.

Badges of Honour

Later that evening, I went to the Scouts Canada website.  Scouts invites children and leaders to achieve a “Religion in Life” badge- a badge that has different requirements for several different faith systems.  There is no “Humanist” equivalent.  There is, of course, no reason someone “needs” to get this badge- nor is it to my knowledge a necessary prerequisite to achieving other badges or awards.  I suppose that one could argue that this should hardly be a problem; that if you want a swimming badge you learn how to swim, if you want a first aid badge, you learn first aid, if you want a religion in life badge you learn to love God.

I take issue with this for the same reason that Scouts has expanded the scope of the Religion in Life badge in the past- it necessarily excludes people of a certain philosophy. This changed with the inclusion of the many faiths in which one can receive this award. Given that such a badge exists, if metaphysical philosophy is a skill worth valuing and teaching, then either there are common attributes that can be learned regardless of specific philosophies or there is one singular “right way” to learn the skill.  I don’t think you can argue that a Sikh and a Baptist have mastered a skill that is unavailable to an atheist without admitting there is something fundamentally wrong with a non-theist metaphysical philosophy.  In essence you are saying that Sikhism, Christianity and Buddhism are right, and Secular Humanism is wrong.

There is a badge designed to bypass this issue, known as the Spirituality Award.  It is designed to be an exclusive replacement to the “Religion in Life” badge for children who are “not a member of a specific faith”.  The name and description of the badge make at minimum deistic faith an assumption, and separating the badge from the religiously themed badges again seems to be a subtle measure of exclusion.  The problem is not the accommodation Scouts Canada has obviously made to include people who are non-practicing, it’s the method of accommodation.  It is as if they erected a ten person tent with the purpose of housing the whole troop-finding that they have an eleventh member- and building an outshelter instead of a bigger tent.  The problem is that the tent is too small to fulfill the spirit of it’s purpose- the answer is not to build an extra tent- or to try and jam an extra person into the tent you already have.

Do Your Best

Scouts, at the heart and soul of the program, is about responsibility.  It is being accountable to the resources we use, and paying that forward.  Responsibility for our environment. Responsibility to our peers.  Responsibilities to our families.  Responsibility to our communities.

To be responsible to our community is to be inclusive.  This is the spirit of community in the first place.  It is celebrating those things that make us peers in spite of those things that make us individuals.  What lesson do we seek to teach our children by systemically excluding and marginalizing people who share the same goals, aspirations, and dreams as the rest?  Humanists are saying the same things- giving the same time- working toward the same goals.  They are using a different language, but they are speaking the same words.

I was taught as a Scout that that I could change my community for the better.  I was told to help other people at all times.  I was taught to do my best.  When I look at a Promise that seeks to be exclusive, an organization intolerant of different paths to the same goals- as the person Scouts has taught me to be- I want to do something to change it.  I want to do my best.  I want to work within the organization to make it better.  I feel, as it stands, powerless to change a system that has taught me that I have the power to change things.  I have been told that I am not welcome as I am- that my son is not welcome as he is.  For the sake of my children and for the sake of an otherwise enriching program, I’ve chosen to thus far bite my tongue and accept it.

  I am, in spite of the lessons of community I learned as a scout, reciting a promise that is exclusionary because I believe deeply in the promise of an organization I believe is inclusive.  In the process I have made myself a reluctant hypocrite.  

Here is my Scouting Promise:

On my honour,I promise that I will do my best,to do my duty to my world, my community and humankind, to help other people at all times, and carry out the spirit of the Scout Law.

That should be the universal Scout Promise.  That is the spirit of Scouting.

Do your best.  It is the motto of the Cub Scout, it is the ultimate promise of the Scout.  I was taught through Scouting that I can do better.  As an organization, as a community, as stewards of the communities we seek to improve- we are not doing our best.  We can do better.


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8 Responses to “Parenthood, Promises and Progress: Why Scouting Makes Me A Reluctant Hypocrite.”

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Good promise – with one small suggested amendment: how about changing “man” to “human beings”?

Completely true story, Ophelia, I actually thought about that same thing while I was walking to work this morning. I’m not convinced that “fellow man” is gender-exclusive, but I understand how it perpetrates past prejudices.

I hated scouts. I lasted three months back when I was about nine or ten years old. It all seemed so pointless, and the group was every bit as annoyingly cliquey as school was.

As for changing the world, well… that was a lie. Maybe I’m just feeling particularly cynical today, but the lesson I got from scouts is that you’re to be an obedient little robot, and to do your best, but don’t rock the boat. If you must change the world, do it in such a way that nobody notices, because we privileged like the world the way it is.

Oh, and welcome back, George. Good to see you posting again. As an overly competitive jerk, maybe your return will give me the kick I need to spend more time on my own blog.

Growing up, I didn’t possess a strong desire to join the Boy Scouts because I didn’t know much about them. My mother mentioned it briefly once and I agreed to do it, but then she realized that the cost would be prohibitive, so neither of us made further mention of it.

Now that I’m older and understand the program, I wish I’d had the opportunity to join. I think the character building values would have done me a ton of good. As a young adult, I was so far off the straight and narrow path that I found myself behind bars more than five times before I was 20, solely for alcohol-related offenses.

I can’t say with any degree of certainty that things would have been different had I joined the Boy Scouts as a child, but they quite likely may have been quite different. This is why I am making sure my son is able to join.

I don’t mind the religious aspect of it, even though I do not consider myself a believer. I’m not a fan of the discrimination women, homosexuals, and non-believers are certain to find within the organization, but I take the good with the bad. If my son decides he wants to believe in God, great. As long as he compliments his religious beliefs with the tolerance and respect I have tried desperately to instill within him, I see no problem.

So rather than make a political statement by keeping my children out of the program, thereby cheating them out great experience (from what I hear), I’ll lobby here and there and support members like you who are looking for a serious, meaningful change.

Here in Canada at least, Scouts has a policy not to turn anyone away for an inability to pay.
I think any child interested in the program ought to have the opportunity to join. Seeing what Cubs has done for my son, and what it has done for the other kids in my Pack, convinces me that it is a program with the ability to make a real impact in a young persons life. As with any activity, kids will get what they put into it, but Scouts is uniquely positioned to expose kids to as many new experiences as possible. With badges ranging from swimming to astronomy, computers to first aid- the idea is to give children the chance to discover for themselves what lights a fire inside them.

I’m not asking for religion to be exorcised from Scouting. Far from it. I’m asking that Scouts make their foundational promise open to every child and adult who shares the goals of the scouting movement. I like the concept of the Religion in Life badge. I think it allows Scouts to tie their Scouting to their outside community, to learn more about their cultural beliefs and traditions, and explore something that is a fundamental part of the human experience- epistemology.

Scouts has been proactive in making itself open to children of all ages, genders, and religions. As I mentioned in my post, my Cub Pack has a few girls, and two of them are Sixers (youth leaders). I hope that you give all your kids the opportunity to discover Scouting- perhaps I might see them one day at one of the National or International Jamborees!

We are all one…

Nice to see you back George! I think you are a fantastic human being with a huge heart of gold. Scouts are lucky to have your direction and influence. I’m sure you will find your way to make things better. ❤

I was a cub, then a scout, in the nineteen-sixties
I left when the family moved to a new area, joined my school’s cadet force, then the Air Training Corps.
In the later organisations, I thrived because of the values taught to me by the cub and scout movement. I’m not religious, nor was I back then. But I learned from scouting the virtues of being honest, trustworthy, doing your best for others as well as for yourself, being self-reliant and always ready to learn.
Having been a scout, and listening to my scoutmaster’s teachings, learning to make shelter and a fire, how to read a map and travel through difficult terrain safely, these things later saved my life.
Baden-Powell set up scouting in a different age, he was a military man, and, as was the norm in his day, a christian, a believer in god.
Scouting could these days ditch its insistence on god-fearing vows, it’s true, but no person should let that get between them and the fact that scouting will teach a kid a load of useful things, whilst giving them good friends and great fun.
I’d guess that few kids who are or have been scouts will regret that opportunity.
Those who were not may scoff, but they’ll never know what they missed.

[…] got deeper into the Scouting movement, becoming the leader of my son’s Cub pack.  (They don’t officially allow atheists, but, […]

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