The big news today is that the Boy Scouts of America are keeping their policy banning homosexuals from participating.
I was a Cub Scout leader for four years, and my son has recently moved on into the Boy Scouts, after he and 3 other boys in my den successfully earned their Arrow of Light - the highest award in Cub Scouting. He enjoys scouting and it is one of the only hobbies that he has stuck with for any length of time. We’ve been through baseball, soccer, karate, piano lessons, guitar lessons and many other activities, but Boy Scouts is the only one that he really enjoys and has stuck with through the years.
As an atheist, I do find some of the scout rituals a little unsettling, but in the four years that I taught as a leader, I mentioned religion on only one occasion. The Bear Scout award has a religious requirement to it, and rather than do it myself, I recruited the local Pastor (the father of one of my scouts) to do a non-denominational talk on faith. From what I remember, it mostly involved trust-falls and having “faith” that when you sit in a chair it would hold you and not drop you on the floor. It seemed mostly harmless, but it was obviously alluding to having faith in God and that He would be there to support you, just like the chair. Whatever.
(The pastors son quit at the end of the year, apparently to pursue other sporting activities, but in the back of my mind, I like to imagine that he was irked by my obvious lack of faith and chose to pull his son out of my scout group. Oh well.)
Incidentally, the religious requirements for the Bear Scout award can very easily be bent to support atheism, and that is exactly what I did for my son. The other parents just signed the book and I took their word that their boys had completed the requirements. I was not about to dicuss religion in one of my meetings.
Atheism and homosexuality are the two pillars of intolerance promoted by the scout movement. So why would I, an atheist, continue to promote and support the scouting movement? Is this not the very height of hypocrisy on my behalf? This is a very good question, and I hope to provide an answer to it…
Firstly, I live in California, and our scout group is very lenient when it comes to pushing religion. I did not mention religion but once in four years of weekly den meetings and in the three months or so of weekly Boy Scout meetings we have been attending since graduating from Cub Scouts, I have not seen one religious reference either. I can only assume that this same lenience would hold true if one of the boys – or parents - announced that he was gay.
This may very well be different in other parts of the country, but from where I am standing, I simply do not percieve the hostility towards homosexuals or atheists that is portrayed in the popular media. Again, this is not to say that it is not true – just that my personal experience with scouting is not one of hate and bigotry. But, this is California – one of the most liberal states in the US – and I don’t doubt that things would be markedly different in the Bible Belt…
Secondly, and most importantly, my son enjoys scouting and I believe it to be beneficial to him as a whole. Sure, we roll our eyes at the occasional non-denominational prayer, and I perhaps ought to feel a little more outraged by it, but I don’t. Incidentally, any prayer must be non-denominational because scouting is accepting of all faiths. Only atheism is not counted as a faith, but as I mentioned above the rules can be bent to include it, just as long as religious people continue to claim that “atheism is a religion” or “atheism requires more faith than Christianity”. Of course, we all know this is nonsense, but a few seconds of eye-rolling in silence is far outweighed by the many other activities and positive benefits that scouting provides – and many of these activities simply cannot be achieved without the backing of such a large and well-organized movement.
However, at the end of the day, there is no doubt that the Boy Scouts of America is continuing to promote outdated, bigoted views that in reality, cannot be justified. But the Boy Scouts is not really the problem here – their policies are simply a side-effect of the culture in which they live.
In other words, as long as homosexuals and atheists are viewed as second-class citizens by the laws and politics of the country, then they are under no real pressure to change. As soon as all 50 states legalize gay marriage, I guarantee that the Boy Scouts policy will be updated to include homosexuals. After all, they don’t exclude black people, because that would be illegal.
The real battle here is with the mindset of the country as a whole. Once the country moves forward and puts the bigotry behind it, the Boys Scouts will fall in line - or become as obsolete and unnecesary as printed newspapers in a world where everyone owns a tablet.
That said, I have been accused (by other atheists) of supporting a movement that very clearly discriminates against people, and I readily admit that I do. But I am not about to pull my son from the one extra-curricular activity that he truly enjoys, simply to make a statement. He is ten years old. He does not deserve to be used as a pawn in a much larger political game that he does not fully understand.
However, if his membership in Boy Scouts is ever questioned due to his atheism (or sexuality), then you can be assured that it will not end there. But I would hope that one day he will realize for himself that the policy of discrimination is wrong and stand against it.
And that will be the proudest day of my life.