Religion in the Boy Scouts: James Eiler’s Common Application Essay

The Boy Scouts of America is a dogmatically religious organization. While the organization has changed its stance on LGBT scouts even allowed girls to join, it has never accepted atheists or agnostics. Just last year, the leadership reaffirmed its commitment to faith with an official statement that all scouts must be religious. Atheists can’t be good Boy Scouts, they said. When I read that statement I laughed. As an atheist my whole life and a scout since third grade, I should have been dismayed. I laughed because years before, I had created within my troop a culture of acceptance that stands against intolerance at the national level. 

In order to advance in rank, a scout must memorize three promises. In the first, the Scout Law, one promises to be reverent. The second, the oath reads; “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” Finally, the Pledge of Allegiance declares that America is a nation under God; how that fits with the first amendment I don’t know

 I paid little attention to the presence of religion during my first year as a Boy Scout. Then, the focus was more on having fun than memorizing dogma for the sake of rank advancement. In hindsight, I was complacent; content to avoid conflict simply by keeping quiet. I could not, however, remain silent forever. 

In sixth grade, I began my first foray into the Oath and Law. I sat an old chair in the small room adjoining the Norwich Fire Department and went over the law with my scoutmaster. The first eleven terms were simple enough; anyone can agree to be trustworthy or kind. However, when my scoutmaster asked me how I was reverent in my daily life, I responded indignantly “I don’t believe in God.” 

In my experience, significantly religious people tend to have one of two reactions when you tell them you aren’t religious. The more accepting ones are taken aback for a few seconds, and then quickly try to find some common ground. “Come on,” they say, “surely you must believe in something.” The more fanatical tend to simply walk away—more quickly if they have children. Thankfully, my scoutmaster was in the first category and over the next few minutes we worked out an acceptable compromise. In the future, I would substitute a more secular abstract noun like “humanity” or “good” for God. 

Over the next few weeks, I continued to be vocal–not against religion but against the idea that I had to profess belief in it to be a good scout. I argued that upholding the first eleven adjectives did not require that the twelfth be followed. Three weeks later, we said the pledge at the opening of a meeting. As I said the words I noticed something was different. A second later a realized what it was; for the first time, no one was looking at me sideways. 

For me, that was enough. I do not require that people agree with me or understand my position nor do I pretend to ever have suffered under the tyranny of theocracy. However, expressing my beliefs and changing the minds of the adults in my troop made me realize that I don’t have to let people put words into my mouth. Instead, I should say what I believe and do my best to convince others to accept it. Rather than feign belief and say the oath and law as written, I worked towards a solution that both my scoutmaster and I could accept. 

In the end, I do not feel guilty about actively violating the religious policy of the BSA. In the years since I first said my modified version of the Scout Law most of the religious Boy Scouts in my troop have quit, while the younger scouts are increasingly irreligious. It turns out that Atheists do make good Boy Scouts after all. 


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