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Posted by on Feb 1, 2008 in Uncategorized | 24 comments

The Scouts clarify: atheists are not welcome

Just been listening to a debate on Radio 5 live between Derek Twine (Scouts) and Keith Porteus Wood (Nat. Secular Soc.).

The Scouts require all members swear an oath to God. The NSS wants this oath optional, as atheist children are thereby excluded (or else must lie).

Derek Twine pointed out that those of other faiths are welcome – Sikhs, Hindus, etc. But he made clear that those of none are not. Scouts welcome everyone – except atheists.

Should the Scouts be free to discriminate in this way, or not?

Is this like e.g. a political club discriminating against those of other political persuasions (ok, surely), or more like a golf club discriminating against women/black people (not ok, I think)?

POST SCRIPT at 14.57pm.

One thought I have had about this is, whether or not the discrimination is morally permitted (I don’t think it is – but I’ll explain why later), there’s something slightly distasteful about it . As there would be if secularists started up a similar organization that excluded religious kids (by making them swear an oath). I mean, why would they do that? Why go out of your way to exclude perfectly nice, decent kids in that way?

I sense that lurking back there somewhere is the view that while kids of other faiths are acceptable, there’s something rather objectionable about atheists and their kids. There’s a sort of implicit “fuck you” being directed at them (as there surely would be if the Scouts accepted kids of all faiths – except Jews).

Which is especially unpleasant when you’re dealing with kids. Kids who may even be close friends and school mates of Scout troup members. Frankly, how petty and pathetic to insist, “Atheist? Nope, you’re not coming in.”


  1. I wonder if Wicca would be OK. Or whether it would be deemed not a proper faith. Or Jedi…

  2. hmmm, looks like almost any FAITH goes, as long as they believe you can produce an oath by it:-) I somehow doubt they will accept the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but the old Nordic gods would probably make an interesting test case.CassandersIn Cod we trust

  3. Commenting on myself re. Nordic mythology. The main god Odin even had two ravens (Hugin and Munin) as scouts, what could be more appropriate 🙂 CassandersIn Cod we trust

  4. When I was taken along to Scouts, everything went well for the first couple of weeks. Then it was time for the oath-taking, and I told them that I didn’t believe in God (and that I didn’t feel any allegiance to the Queen). They tried to persuade me that I should take the oath anyway, even if I didn’t believe what I was saying, which made me feel very uncomfortable.I never went back to the troup – I can’t say that it scarred me for life, but I wasn’t exactly happy about it. Admittedly, I was likely being a precocious twerp, but two things stay with me even today.First, that I wasn’t allowed to join the Scouts because I didn’t want to swear allegiance to two authority figures of which I knew nothing, and which had nothing to do with the Scouts on a day-to-day basis. Second, and more important, that they were prepared to accept me as long as I took a false oath – which surely can’t be a good example to set a young kid?This trip down memory lane is now officially over. Normal service will be resumed.

  5. There’s also the case of Buddhists. A faith, yes. But many would not be able to swear allegiance to God as they are not (all) theists. So I guess some members of some faith groups will be excluded.

  6. They used to be the same about gays – probably still are – although there were loads of closet cases among the seniors [as there always are in officially homophobic organisations, such as the Catholic Church].

  7. So lie. Discrimination against religious beliefs is prohibited by many (I should think ‘most’) human rights charters. I imagine this would have been fought and struck down but for the cost of doing so.I also balked, and decided to just go with the lie. One thing to note is that they didn’t make a big deal of faith. I don’t remember ever being told to pray, nor were divine beings ever referred to outside that oath.That’s not the only example of an organization which has changed its belief-in-god clause to one which asserts belief in a supreme being. American immigration, and joining the Freemasons require the same. I don’t advocate this, but it’s a step in the right direction.

  8. Steve, I’m currently reading Sissela Bok’s “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life”. She maintains that even white lies are damaging not only to the character of the liar, but to the social fabric. Of course, she was writing long before near-universal mendacity took over the world.

  9. Kids don’t have to lie, the scouts religious policy only encourages the belief in god and to be members of a religious body. Leaders should be “fit and proper”, but not atheists or paedophiles. The former can, it appears, be a helper. The latter isn’t welcome in any form (do they really a statement of policy about paedophiles?)Of course, apart from the obvious, the main difference between an atheist and a paedophile in this circumstance, is that an atheist would probably tell the scout organisation they that they are an atheist… (I’m not implying atheists are paedophiles, although the scout movement seems to view atheists in the same light as paedophiles.Strangely, they have a policy about valuing diversity. Encouraging scouts to embrace the benefit that diversity brings to scouting. This appears to be at odds with the attitude to atheism.Scouting isn’t a religious movement, but does profess to work to the values shown in religion & faith, whatever that faith may be. But, it recognise that many of its members do not have active faith or belong to any religious body… which is at odds to Derek Twines view. It would appear that the scout movement is increasingly evangelical. Seeing its role as trying to encourage religious faith… and failing. Most kids want to go camping and climb mountains. While hanging from a rope in Idwal, God is far from their minds, but the awesome power of glaciation may not be.

  10. Thanks Jacky – kids don’t have to lie? That contradicts the Scout guy. Maybe there’s a lack of consistency across the movement?

  11. Strangely I always objected to having to swear allegiance to the Queen and Flag. I’ve never been patriotic.

  12. There was nothing particularly religious about either the cubs or the scouts. In fact I probably learnt enough of self-reliance through attending that I had the insight to be an atheist. Yes there was an oath but in light of the various god concepts that doesn’t mean much. As a child I thought it was a game adults played to get people to do things. As an adult I see that I wasn’t far off the mark. Maybe the lunatic fringe has managed to take over what was once a great movement that once sought to bring different people together?

  13. “The scout movement seems to view atheists in the same light as paedophiles.””It would appear that the scout movement is increasingly evangelical.”Both these statements would appear to be true not only of the scouts, but of an increasing number of other Christian-orientated organisations – including the Church of England itself.

  14. Does the Flying Spaghetti Monster count as an acceptable faith?

  15. Derek Twine could probably do with understanding his organisations own key policies before making an ass of himself on air. I like to hear the justification for such a clause: “Note: With reference to religious belief, the avowed absence of religious belief is a bar to appointment to a Leadership position.” What makes a religious person more suitable for working with young people?

  16. “There are so many possiblepictures of God picked up for one reason or anotherin childhood that as we move towards adulthood werightly reject as non-acceptable. But that does notmean that we necessarily reject God. An atheist is aperson for whom the whole of reality, and it must bethe whole of reality, is limited to what theyexperience – that is the material world around them.If a person is completely satisfied that there is nomore to life than ‘brute facts’ then, for such aperson the word God is a non-word. But a personcan be sure that there is more to life than ‘brutefacts’, but not sure what. If such a person is searchingfor meaning, looking for a way in which they can‘make sense’ of their lives, then, I believe, a person isbeginning a search, a search for God.”That last link includes this useful piece of propaganda against the atheist position.

  17. “Note: With reference to religious belief, the avowed absence of religious belief is a bar to appointment to a Leadership position.”Is this statement even legal within a equal opportunities framework, scouting isn’t officially a religious organization. Although, often sponsored by some local church. Scouts us church halls to meet, but not always.Does the word “avowed” mean that as long as you don’t acknowledge atheism you can be a scout leader, or as long as you act within the religious policy you can be a scout leader. Is this like working for a company whose policies do not reflect your own personal world view, like a vegetarian working for Macdonalds (some do!).Is this lying?Should equal opportunities statements about religious belief be word differently. Should they be more “belief about religion”, rather than “belief in religion”Reading through the scout policies you come to realize that the scout movement seems to be at odds within itself. Recognizing the changing nature of scouting, while trying to cling to outdated aspects of religious understanding. I think I may look at this more deeply, as scouting, for me, was always worthy. And never took part in the religious aspect, even as a child.

  18. Hi Stephen, An association of any kind can place certain rules that are coherent with their objectives. If Scouts could prove that their objectives, whichever they may be and without tampering them with manipulation, have anything to do with lack of faith in a god or superior being, then it would be totally legitimate to exclude atheists. Since I doubt that is the case, without a large amount of manipulation on their objectives, then there should be a case for discrimination. The reason why some associations target certain groups (this is a manifestation of violence as far as I am concerned) is because it is easy for them to do so without the risk of retaliation.Regards, Isabel

  19. interesting website that highlights some of the important issues of scouting. The move from the executives of the UK scouting movement follows similar moves witnessed with the Boyscout of American (BSA). It seem apparent that scouting objectives and principles are being turned on there head to further the agenda of a certain ideological stand point. Unfortunately these activists are claiming religion, in this case, God, is at the center of the scouting movement. Which is patently a false claim. What is really needed is for reasonable people of diversity to take a stand against those that seek to sow the seed of discontent and false division amongst us all.

  20. A possible reason for this is because Scouts are trying to get back it is origins, which has a strong link with regular freemasons (who also expect its members to be believers of some faith). Isabel

  21. “Is this like e.g. a political club discriminating against those of other political persuasions (ok, surely), or more like a golf club discriminating against women/black people (not ok, I think)?” 1. I think it’s time to fix the use of the word “discrimination”. We all discriminate, say, on grounds of ability, when choosing to hire someone. It’s not discrimination which is bad, but irrelevant discrimination. Political societies discriminating on political beliefs is relevant. Golf clubs discriminating on sex/race is irrelevant because they have nothing to do with golf. 2. Irrelevant discrimination might be bad, but should it be illegal? The Scouts are a private organisation. Why the hell shouldn’t they discriminate on any wacky criteria they like? By all means campaign against it to try to get them to change their minds, but don’t campaign for a change in the law to force them to change their minds. Similarly, why the hell shouldn’t members of a private club be allowed to refuse women or black people from joining? “I always objected to having to swear allegiance to the Queen and Flag. I’ve never been patriotic.” I consider myself patriotic but probably wouldn’t swear allegiance to the Queen and Flag. Though I probably wouldn’t particularly object to it if the social situation required it.

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