On the short ride home from his Boy Scout meeting, my 11 yr old son was quiet and sullen. I asked him what was up. Had anything happened at the meeting that he wanted to talk about? I saw him looking at me from my rear view mirror, gauging how to tell me disappointing news.
“I found out tonight that I can’t become an Eagle Scout.”
He’d never been all that enamored with Boy Scouts. He didn’t much care for camping, or the tough kid role so many of his contemporaries played out with the survival skills and competitive war games his scout leaders chose. He’d decided to ‘bridge’ from ‘Webelo’ Cub Scout to a full-fledge Boy Scout to become an Eagle Scout for the prestige sold to him by his troop leaders. “Presidents, senators, and successful icons like Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Neil Armstrong were Eagle Scouts.”
“College admissions officers recognize the award and consider it in their decisions. Eagle Scouts are eligible for many scholarships. Many employment recruiters look for “Eagle Scout” on a resume.” These are just a few of the perks on an Eagle Scout information page for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), and one of the reasons we agreed when our son said he wanted to stay in their program.
I assumed he wanted to quit Boy Scouts, as he was the outlier in his troop, and had complained of being bullied at meetings and on camping trips more than a few times. I was down with him quitting, as I too felt Scouts wasn’t the right fit for him, but it was the context of what he’d said that stuck in my head, so I sought clarity. “What do you mean you can’t become an Eagle Scout?”
Again we made eye contact in the rear view mirror, and I got that my son wasn’t sad, but bemused, bordering on angry. “Mr. Baker told me tonight that even if I get all my merit badges, and fulfilled all the other Boy Scout requirements through middle school and high school, I’m not qualified to become an Eagle Scout.”
I felt my heart start pounding. “Why?”
“The new scout master said in order to achieve Eagle Scouts, or any other rank, Boy Scouts must live the Scout Oath, which means we have to believe in God.”
My husband and I introduced our son to scouting when he was 5 yrs old. Fourteen Christians and one Jew, and our kid was the only member of his Webelo troop being raised without religion. Most of our neighbors, and our kids classmates attended the local church. My husband and I are Atheists. Our kids are not privy to the benefits of participating in this tight-knit religious network. Scouting seemed like a positive way for our son to meet other boys his age in our area.
We didn’t consider the Boy Scouts an exclusively religious organization. We’d heard stories, of course, and knew of the pending lawsuit in the supreme court filed by a father for discrimination against his son who claimed to be an atheist. It motivated me to ask the women at the Cub Scout table during school registration if their troop was religious, and if so, how. Both women assured me their Den had several different faiths among its members, and their policy was to keep religion at home, not practice it in scouting.
They were true to their word during the first five years our son belonged to their Den, participating in most events from hikes, to community drives for food banks, and even popcorn sales. He earned quite a few merit badges along the way. Religion, even prayer, was never practiced or promoted in any way. He bridged from Cub Scout at the end of fifth grade, and at 11 yrs old became a full Boy Scout with the aim of eventually becoming an Eagle Scout in high school.
Picking him up from his first official Boy Scout meeting a few months back, my son informed me the troop he’d bridged to said prayers at the end of their meetings. I asked him how he felt about that. He confessed he’d already branded himself a non-believer. The scout master asked him to lead the prayer at the end of that first meeting. He’d refused, stating he wasn’t sure there was a God, and he thought praying was a waste of time because he was certain there wasn’t anyone listening. Though he’d been publicly labeled “misinformed” by the scout master at that meeting, and endured jeers and taunts from several of the boys, every Webelo he’d been with the last five years had bridged to this new troop. Our son didn’t want to look for a new non-religious troop, with a bunch of kids he didn’t know. He just wouldn’t recite what he didn’t believe, he’d told me.
That wasn’t good enough for advancement, according to his new scout master, who asked him again last Friday night to say a closing prayer. No matter how lax about religion our son’s lower division den, rank of Boy Scouts and higher stuck to the rules of the BSA, he told our son. A religious association, and faith in God is required for rank advancement. Commitment to community service, practicing Scouting’s core values of “honesty, compassion,” as well as continually exhibiting “diligence as a contributing team member,” were irrelevant. Belief in a god was more important than social service. Atheism is a sin, the scout master assured our son at the end of last Friday’s meeting.
“I could lie that I believe,” my son suggested, “If I have to…”
“Think that’s a good idea?” I asked, glad to be driving, which made it easier to keep emotional distance and sound casual.
“Maybe. I just don’t get why I have to pretend I believe in God. The Boy Scout handbook says we’re supposed to ‘respect and defend the rights of others to practice their own beliefs.’ But they’re not.”
Ah, from the mouths of babes…
He’s right, of course. Click on the ‘Litigation’ link on the official BSA website, and bring up the “Duty to God” page. Part of the Scout Oath proclaims the scout will ‘do his duty to God [and country].’ Every level of advancement requires a promise or show of faith in God. Boy Scouts are instructed to respect the beliefs of others, but this respect should only be awarded to those that believe in the Christian/Judaeo God. Turns out, prejudice, hate, racism are systemic to the Boy Scouts of America, and a large part of what they promote.
Nowhere in the BSA literature we received and perused before or after our son joined the Boy Scouts did they say they were a faith-based organization that required their members to be believers to receive equal rights and privileges as those granted to religious members. Had they disclosed this with all transparency, as do churches and other religious organizations pushing their beliefs, I doubt my husband and I would have channeled our son to participate.
We impose no religion on our kids. We discuss it often— the concept of one god verses many; various cultures and their belief systems from ancient to modern man, using everything from the Tao to biblical references. Our kids get additional religious education through their friends, and faith-based celebrations with extended family. My husband and I hope to expose our children to many possibilities, and let them discover their own spirituality.
Parents who provide religious training for their kids early on, and, it would appear, register them in Boy Scouts, are looking to validate their beliefs by indoctrinating their kids with the religion in which they were raised. And most of these parents have never stopped to consider whether the rhetoric their parents sold them is truth. They are blind believers, and turn their children into the same.
“The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) takes a strong position, excluding atheists and agnostics,” according to Wikipedia. In 2014 the BSA finally voted to allow gay kids. They still ban atheists.
Perhaps the BSA is a front for the church, and works to convert unsuspecting non-believers working to advance in their organization. Hook the kids without religiosity when they’re young, in Cub Scouts. Get them to work hard for advancement, then deny them further advancement unless they convert to Christianity. Whatever BSAs agenda, and our son now sees they clearly have one, the meeting with his troop leader last Friday night soured him to continuing in scouting. It’s a shame, really, because the Boy Scouts have so many positives to offer. Weirdly enough, they tout much of the same morality I preach to my kids, like being courteous, and honest, loving and compassionate. The only difference between us is I don’t believe a god gave us this wisdom. I give credit to humanity, over eons, watching what works to build thriving societies.
There is no god that’ll save us from hate, prejudice, nationalism, and exclusionary religious sects like the BSA who lure kids in, like the Pied Piper, under the guise of community involvement, then change the rules mid-play. Regardless of our differences, religiously, culturally, politically, PEOPLE, me and you, must use our collective wisdom to unite as one race—the Human race—for our continued existence.