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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Saturday, November 02, 2002

The Last Boy Scout - Is Nothing Sacred?

Oh, for heaven's sake. Eugene Volokh posted on a fascinating story about an atheist in the Boy Scouts. Apparently, the Boy Scouts require a belief in God, this otherwise fine young man is an atheist, so out he goes. Or not, it is still being discussed. Well, Prof. Volokh does not approve:

"the Boy Scouts ought to change their policy, and it's right for people to publicly fault the Scouts for having their policy (though such faulting should keep a sense of proportion -- as wrongs go, this is a fairly minor one)."

Well, I disagree. But hold on, here comes Mark Kleiman:

"...in the end Eugene doesn't come down on the Scouts nearly as hard as I would. He doesn't call the policy by what I think is its right name: religious bigotry."

And, in a follow-up, Prof. Volokh becomes a bit sterner:

"They have a constitutional right to exclude people on these grounds. But we are right to condemn them for it."

So, condemning what Mr. Kleiman describes as religious bigotry. Pretty strong stuff.

A bit of background. The Boy Scouts of America were founded in 1910. The Boy Scout Oath starts like this:

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country...

Their are twelve points to the Scout Law. The final one is:

A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.

Perhaps the US is aberrant? No, similar faith-based languages appears in Scout Oaths and Laws around the world.

But it should not. How do we know this? Well, Prof. Volokh says so in his update:

"My point is simply that the Scouts shouldn't take belief in God as one of their core beliefs. I can understand if they only wanted devout Protestants, or some such -- that belief would at least have something to do with one's likely actions and attitudes about the world. But that just isn't true of the mere possession of belief of any intensity in any God, which is all that the Scouts demand."

Which clears up that puzzle. They have had a religious component to their oranization since its inception in 1910, but they shouldn't.

Well, here is a link to the International Interfaith Centre, an ecumenical group trying to promote mutual understanding among the religions of the world. Although I am not an expert in this group's work, I infer that all religions are welcome, which is to say, the "mere possession" of a religious belief is sufficient.

Now, perhaps Prof. Volokh means that the Scout Oath is a bit of a relic, not taken seriously today as to "God", if it ever was.

From the BSA fact sheets:

The Roman Catholic Church has used the Scouting program since the early days of the Boy Scouts of America. It is one of the most extensive users of the BSA program. There are more than 351,000 Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Venturers in more than 9,600 packs, troops, and crews under Catholic auspices, and an equal number of youth members in other Scouting units. Scouting is used in about one-third of the parishes in the United States.

Scouting Serves the Jewish Community

The mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young people to make ethical choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law .

Scouting as a Jewish Youth Group

Jewish institutions have used the Scouting program since 1916. Today, Scouting is flourishing in Jewish communities. Jewish leaders Dr. Cyrus Adler, Frank Weil, and Mortimer Schiff helped guide the development of the Scouting movement in the United States.

Scouting serves an important role in the Islamic community. Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops, and Venturing crews operated by Islamic organizations can be found in major cities throughout the United States .

In 1982, the National Islamic Committee on Scouting (NICS) was formed by a group of concerned Muslims who represented many national Muslim organizations.

Scouting in the Buddhist Community

Buddhist youth have participated in Scouting for more than 75 years. Since 1920, with the formation of Troop 4 by the Fresno Buddhist Church, young Buddhists in America have enjoyed the benefits of Scouting.

Scouting in Protestant Churches

Many local Protestant churches organized Scout troops in the early days of the Scouting movement. Of the 7,375 registered troops at the close of 1915, more than 4,000 were chartered to Protestant churches, and 1,645 Scoutmasters were ministers.

Scouting in Churches of Christ

There are 13,000 Church of Christ congregations in the United States, with a total membership of 1.3 million. Approximately 600 Scout units are chartered by Churches of Christ, serving more than 15,000 youth.

Based on that evidence, I hope that Prof. Volokh will hold open the possibility that at least some of these Scout packs take the religious component of the Scout Oath and Law seriously.

Next, both Prof. Volokh seem to be worried that, if the BSA is allowed to draw lines, they might draw the wrong line - what if they excluded Catholics? Surely, that would be bad. We will let Mr. Kleiman go first:

"Now imagine that the policy singled out any other religious belief for similar discrimination: that anyone could be a Scout who wasn't a practicing Roman Catholic, for example..."

or, Prof. Volokh:

"If the Scouts excluded Catholics -- everyone else, Jewish, Protestant, or what have you is fine, but not Catholics -- we'd rightly condemn them, ....

Well, yes. One of the obvious reasons for condemning them would be that such an exclusion would stand in total contradiction to both the Scout Oath and the Scout Law. This hypothetical simply does not fit the facts - the Scouts would be, under their own code, required to accept Catholics.

Prof. Volokh recognizes the flaw in his own argument, which we see as we continue past the ellipsis:

"we'd rightly condemn them, even if they said "Rejection of Catholicism is one of our core beliefs." Likewise, I think, when they exclude atheists."

Well, if their charter said "all religions are OK except Catholicism", the BSA would certainly have some explaining to do. But atheism is not a religion ( Is it? I like to learn something new every day). It may be an admirable alternative as a moral world-view, but it is not an alternative path to God. Now, I expect that an atheist who lives a good life will be in for a pleasant surprise in the afterworld - their worst punishment will be listening to a lot of "told you sos" - but that is just my opinion.

I have no doubt that atheists can be admirable people, but they have made a choice which disqualifies them from the Boy Scouts. Now, the current BSA policy may not reflect contemporary attitudes, and it may change. But to condemn a belief that has been held consistently since 1910 seems to require some strong reasons. The argument that the Oath is not taken seriously seems to require a lot more suppoert before we can acccept it. The argument by counter-example with the Catholic Church seems untenable. Let's see what else Prof. Volokh offered in his original post.

"the Scout policy doesn't even exclude atheists -- an atheist can be a Scout so long as he pretends to religiosity, and keeps quiet about his atheism. Dishonest atheists are allowed; honest ones are excluded. Pretty counterproductive, I think.

Well, point one of the Law - a Scout is trustworthy. This is largely self-enforcing. Lying about one's religion would be a violation, which is how this story got started.

"excluding people, especially if you're a charitable organization, for no good reason is not a nice thing to do.

It's rude to the excluded person, because it tells them that there's something bad about them; it's not just "We want to promote Catholic ideas, so we'd like to have a place where Catholics can raise their kids in a Catholic environment," but "We're happy to have our kids around virtually everyone, except those who hold your beliefs." It conveys a harmful idea, which is that there's something uniquely bad about professed atheists "

No. It teaches them they are different. They have made a choice (or their parents have) which excludes them from certain activities. Different is not bad.

Different hypothetical - a concerned young man, back in 1998, says, look, this "trustworthy, a Scout will not lie" thing troubles me. I respect Bill Clinton, I think his defenders make many good points, I can imagine situations where lying under oath is appropriate, I can not accept this "trustworthy" requirement as part of the oath.

Let him in anyway? Is he a victim of political persecution if he is disqualified? Will he be made to feel bad? People make choices and deal with them. Doesn't make them bad people. Every Hannukah I explain to my very disappointed kids that no, we are not Jewish, they don't get eight days of gifts. Life goes on, and then we have Christmas and, later, Easter.

OK, final hypotheticals, or perhaps, rhetoricals. The Scouts revise their laws and oath to allow atheists. Does scouting then mirror the debate over religion in the public schools? Scouts have guidelines for presenting ecumenical services - must an atheist attend? If he rises to a leadership position, is presenting such a service one of his duties that he must perform? Can he be elevated to leader if he refuses to perform these duties? Can Scouts continue to meet in Church facilities? And, as in the public schools, one wonders - can Scouts pray?

Now, there is an interesting issue to all this as regards state support, use of public facilities, and the establishment of religion. I at least am a new arrival on a well-trod battlefield. The modernizers and the traditionalists have been sluugging it out for years, and will continue to do so. In fact, we are probably noticing a sympathatic case developed by the modernizers. Several years back, the local council promoted this young man to Eagle Scout despite his assertion that he was an atheist. Well, no good deed goes unpunished - yesterday's exception is tomorrow's guideline, and this young man is being used as a wedge to force a revison of guidelines everywhere.

Now, amongst Prof. Volokh, Mr. Kleiman, and myself, we all agree that this exclusion is legal - a quick review of the Supreme Court opinion on "gays in Scouting" makes that clear, or take their word for it. However, to condemn the exclusion of atheist? I strongly disagree. If the Boy Scouts were being invented today, they might very well adopt similar language - church and religious leaders evidently value the organization as another way of appealing totheir community. Or, they might not have that language. But they do have it, and it does not strike me as so unreasonable as to merit condemnation, or even to be considered as rude.

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