Saturday, May 31, 2014

Exclusive Scouting and the Defamation of Atheists

A year ago the Boy Scouts of America adopted a resolution to end the ban on openly gay scouts. Many cheered, despite the fact that the BSA - the scouting group with the greatest resources and prominence in American society - still won't allow openly gay leaders and continues its ban on atheist leaders and scouts.

In response, Herb Silverman, founder of the Secular Coalition for America, lamented:
There is no similar step forward for atheists. This modified policy would still require local groups to discriminate against atheists, apparently because the Boy Scout Oath implies that an atheist can’t be “morally straight” unless he can do his “duty to God.” 
Using this twisted logic, a number of courageous and honest atheists have been kicked out of the Scouts for rejecting all supernatural beliefs. Among them was my friend Darrell Lambert, an Eagle Scout, who had been supported by his entire troop.
Dan Kennedy was optimistic (well, sort of, I'll explain below) in his response: 

Though Thursday's vote can be seen as a modest step forward, another possible compromise floated earlier this year would have been far more workable. You may remember that one: groups that charter troops, such as churches and civic organizations, would have been free to set their own policies. 
Such a compromise would have accurately reflected how the BSA actually operates, as troops are considered part of their chartering organizations. To concoct a hypothetical, it would have opened the way for a Unitarian Universalist church to sponsor a troop that allowed gay scouts and adult leaders as well as atheists, another group banned under current BSA policy.
I write "sort of " optimistic because policies varying so much from troop to troop remind me of the event that inspired Margaret Downey to devote herself so passionately to defending the rights of atheists: she saw her son in tears because of discrimination. Downey's son had been a Boy Scout at a troop where his atheism was tolerated. But when the family moved, he was denied membership because of his lack of belief. 

My daughter will be old enough for scouting in a year, and as a parent I'm interested for many typical reasons. Scouting instills a sense of responsibility through community service, encourages positive relationships with peers, and offers kids opportunities and the motivation to learn new and useful skills. Scouts are generally thought of as eager to lend a hand, adept, and principled.

I am therefore deeply grateful for Lance Finney's of Grounded Parents article Ethical and Inclusive Scouting, which gives a rundown of scouting alternatives for secular parents. I live in a major metropolitan city outside of the Bible Belt, so my kids have several good scouting options to choose from. Not every American atheist family is so lucky.

As an atheist parent, simply acknowledging the history of scouting can be painful. All scouting has its origins not only Christianity, but an exclusionary mindset that falsely asserts that people must believe in and worship the Christian God in order to be good.

I can't think of a more clear example of the moral defamation of atheists than this previous wording (changed less than a year ago) in the BSA's Declaration of Religious Principle:
The BSA maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law."
Consider if such a thing were said of any other faith group: Jews can't be the best kind of citizens. Buddhists can't be the best kind of citizens. Mormons can't be the best kind of citizens. And so on. Pretty awful, isn't it? 

Many of these attitudes persist today, especially in America, where atheists are the most distrusted minority. Not because of anything we real flesh-and-blood atheists do (we tend to be pretty model citizens, actually), but because groups such as BSA maintain an association of God-belief with character, integrity, and high moral standards, thus associating atheism with bad behavior.

Austine Cline suggests:
...atheists are being saddled with the "sins" of American society generally. They are "a symbolic figure" that represent religious theists' "fears about ... trends in American life." Some of those fears involve "lower class" crimes like drug use; other fears involve "upper class" crimes like greed and elitism. Atheists are thus a "symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether."
Prejudice against atheists, particularly when instilled in children and youth and under the guise of moral superiority, contribute to discrimination

Over the years the views among many scouting organizations around the world have broadened to include all or most sects of Christianity, Jews, and even people of non monotheistic faiths and atheists. The Girl Scouts of America is an example of a scouting organization that discriminates against none based on worldview, which personally pleases me, as I have daughters.

But what continues to disappoint is that so many scouting organizations persist in discriminating (most often against atheists and homosexuals, but sometimes other non-Christian faiths and certain sects of Christianity) even as they give lip service to the value of inclusiveness and brag about how inclusive they are in other respects. 

The BSA Scout Oath includes:
A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.
What meaning does "respect" hold if the organization is formally excluding certain people based on their beliefs regarding the meaning of life, gods, and afterlife? Or maybe they just meant that they respect the religious beliefs of others, but screw all the secularists. 

Trail Life USA is an alternative to BSA that launched in 2013 specifically in response to BSA's allowing openly gay scouts (but remember, not leaders.) In their statement on Membership Standards, Trail Life USA writes: 

While the program is undergirded by Biblical values and unapologetically reflects a Christian worldview, there is also a clearly defined inclusion policy for youth. Accordingly, all boys are welcome irrespective of religion, race, national origin or socio-economic status. 
But all boys are not welcome since individual Charter Organizations are permitted to exclude boys of certain faiths. 

American Heritage Girls, a sort of sister organization to Trail Life USA, contradicts themselves even more blatantly in their own Inclusion Policy

All girls of any color, creed, race, national origin and socioeconomic status who agree to live according to the standards of the AHG Oath and the AHG Creed are invited to be a member of the American Heritage Girls. 

So AHG accepts those of "any creed" so long as they agree with their "Creed"?

Seriously, how do the leaders of these organizations not recognize their own hypocrisy? Their organizations are either inclusive (which means being inclusive to the nonreligious) or they discriminate based on religion.

Camp Quest is an excellent example of an organization that is genuinely inclusive. Though Camp Quest is explicitly set up to promote the values of humanism and is generally run by and attracts secular humanists, there are no oaths or creeds. There is nothing in their mission statement that is exclusive to any people of faith because humanist values are pretty similar to Christian values, minus the religious exclusion, sexist gender roles, sexual repression, and bigotry against homosexuals.  From Camp Quest's FAQ: 

Are campers at Camp Quest required to be atheists?   
No. Campers at Camp Quest are encouraged to think for themselves and are not required to hold any particular view. We firmly believe that children should not be labeled with worldview labels by adults, and instead should be encouraged to ask questions and explore different worldviews as they grow.
We do present atheism and humanism as valid and reasonable options for an ethical and fulfilling life, and most counselors at camp consider themselves to be atheists.

Would a child who believes in God be comfortable at Camp Quest?
Yes. Campers at Camp Quest explore different worldviews, and many children aren't decided yet on their beliefs on the God question. Campers who believe in God may get a lot of interested questions from their fellow campers, but the camp environment fosters asking these questions in a spirit of dialogue and mutual respect. As far as we know, campers who believe in God have all had fun, made friends, and had a great Camp Quest experience.
This isn't just lip service. I volunteered as a camp counselor for Camp Quest in Ohio (relocated from Kentucky because a group of Baptists got a law passed just so they could legally refuse to rent their camp grounds to us dirty atheists.) One year we had a Catholic boy who was there because his atheist grandfather had suggested it and his Catholic parents were open minded. This boy was immensely popular with the other campers who were eager to show him the tolerance and respect that they who live in very religiously intolerant communities longed for. (Sadly, I've met several kids who lost Christian friends because their friends' parents found out about their atheism.)

One of the purposes of Camp Quest is to let kids from secular homes know that it's okay to choose no religion and to be skeptical of the existence of god/s, because our kids are constantly bombarded with the opposite message. 

Photo from Camp Quest South Carolina's blog

It's bad enough when peers tease and bully. But it is much worse when in addition, parents, adult mentors, and whole institutions tell a child You don't belong here. Go away. At that point the exclusion can feel like a hopeless situation because it seems the whole world insists they change who they are, or simply disappear.

Exclusion based on personal worldview is wrong, just as exclusion based on race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, disability, or sexual orientation is wrong. It's wrong because it results in needless suffering. It encourages feelings of fear and shame in the people being excluded. It also encourages self-righteous bullying among members of the in-group.

Scouting groups that exclude atheists (or gays, or other religious sects, etc.) can tell themselves that they have high moral standards all they want. In reality, they are just bullies teaching intolerance.

1 comment:

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