When Will Boy Scouts Accept the Non-Religious?

It's the right thing to do. And here's the bonus: Once the Boy Scouts open up to non-believers, they're going to discover they have a lot to contribute -- just as they've been contributing all along.
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Man in a Boy Scout uniform.
Man in a Boy Scout uniform.

Depending on what happens at the Boy Scouts' national meeting this month, gay Scouts might soon be accepted into the venerable organization. Even then, there will remain a large and growing group of Americans still barred by the Boy Scouts.

When will the Boy Scouts accept the non-religious?

The Boy Scouts of America recognizes an impressive range of religious affiliations that qualify one as "reverent" and, thus, eligible to participate. Two dozen varieties of Christianity get the nod, plus Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Bahai'ism and more. However, the non-religious are not welcome, and that poses a problem the Boy Scouts should address in addition to the sexual orientation question drawing so much attention.

Undergirding the Boy Scouts' ban is the dubious premise that people cannot be moral without religious belief. It's an assumption that non-believers are wisely challenging as the public face of atheism moves away from angry anti-religious diatribes, typified by the late Christopher Hitchens, toward a positive expression of non-belief summed up by the pithy phrase "good without God."

Can atheists be good Scouts? Neil Polzin's story suggests a resounding "yes." Polzin, now 29, contributed to a successful life-and-death rescue operation during a Boy Scouts backpacking trip when he was 13. He later became an Eagle Scout and an aquatics program director as an adult. In 2009, as he tells it, a rival who wanted his job made an issue of the fact that Polzin is an atheist. Hoping to clear the air, Polzin notified his regional council of his atheism -- and was unceremoniously booted.

One would think that his long track record would have proved his skill and moral worthiness by that point. But all the years of good Scouting and service were erased by a single dreaded word: atheist.

Margaret Downey, president of the Freethought Society (and the mother of a young man who was barred from the Scouts as a boy), is leveraging the new focus on Boy Scout inclusion policies to prompt a fresh look at its ban on atheists. Downey welcomes the new momentum for inclusion of gay Scouts. Even so, she asks, why no consideration of non-believing boys, too?

"There is no question that people can be good without a god belief," Downey says. The Boy Scouts offer a great program, she adds, "yet their bigoted membership policies are harmful."

Welcoming non-believers might seem a difficult bridge to cross for the Boy Scouts and traditionalists who defend current membership requirements. Wouldn't acceptance of atheists force revisions to the Boy Scout Oath, which pledges duty to God and country? Why should a private, voluntary organization have to do that, particularly when most Scout troops are chartered by churches?

These and other obstacles can be navigated through nuance, common sense and mutual respect. Let the churches that charter Scout troops adopt the attitude that churches usually adopt when it comes to non-believers: Welcome them in the hope of having a positive influence on them. Require atheist Scouts to respect the religion of their fellow Scouts, leaders and sponsors, with the assurance that their non-belief will be respected in kind. And, as Downey suggests, an additional "o" can go a long way; let the atheist Scout pledge his devotion to "good" rather than "God."

Ultimately, it would be self-defeating for the Boy Scouts to forfeit the chance to spread Scouting skills and values among the population of people who identify as atheist, agnostic, or otherwise not religious. More and more youths are growing up in non-religious homes. Why would the organization squander the opportunity to serve and influence these boys?

Yes, as a private association, the Boy Scouts have a right to decide for themselves who's in and who's out. But just because they can exclude atheists doesn't mean they should.

"There are millions of young, secular Americans committed to civic duty, community service and personal improvement," says August Brunsman, executive director of the Secular Student Alliance. "They're looking to serve their country alongside their religious friends, and it's long past time for the Boy Scouts to wake up and let these admirable young men serve."

It's the right thing to do. And here's the bonus: Once the Boy Scouts open up to non-believers, they're going to discover they have a lot to contribute -- just as they've been contributing all along.

This article originally appeared in USA Today on May 12, 2013.

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