With news that the UK’s Scout Association is considering creating a version of their promise that does not mention God, one Anglican priest has accused them of becoming “a tree-hugging values based atheist coven.” In making his attack, however, there is revealed a deeper prejudice about atheists that cannot go unchallenged.
First to the news that prompted this vitriol. The Scouts announced they have opened a consultation on creating a Scout Promise sans the mention of God. This comes after a concerted grassroots effort from secular organizations after a number of kids said they felt they were precluded from joining because they don’t have a religion.
Wayne Bulpitt, the association’s chief commissioner in the UK, said: “We are a values-based movement and exploring faith and religion will remain a key element of the Scouting programme. That will not change.
“However, throughout our 105-year history, we have continued to evolve so that we remain relevant to communities across the UK.
The standard scout promise reads: “On my honour, I promise that I will do my best to do my duty to God and to the Queen, to help other people and to keep the Scout Law.”
Altering the oath isn’t actually unprecedented. The oath has, for instance, been amended to cater for children coming from Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist backgrounds. Those who were not born in the UK are allowed to skip swearing fealty to the Queen. Also, while it is true to say that, should this change be made, it will be the first time the oath has not mentioned religion at all, the association’s leaders have been quite clear that the oath would be used alongside their Anglican standard oath.
This, one would hope, would be a straightforward change that wouldn’t attract column inches or rile anyone. Sadly, not so.
The Reverend Dr. Peter Mullen, writing for the Telegraph, has thrown his woggle out of the pram on this one. He’s convinced that this is in fact a disgrace to the “Christian” heritage of the Scouts. Were he to settle at that simple-minded opinion, it could be dismissed. However, he’s decided to go on the attack, implying that you cannot have real values without God.
Lovely turn of phrase, Wayne! I adore that “values-based,” “exploring” and “key element.” Baden Powell would have been proud of you, once someone had been kind enough to provide him with a translation. For the original boy scouts were not anything so woolly as “values-based”, which might mean anything from ancestor worship to declaring paid-up membership of the Amalgamated Coven of Tree-Huggers: they were founded as a Christian organisation. They did not go in for “exploring faith”, they merely practised it. Good God, so to speak, the scouts were one of the few remaining sections of the churches in England who actually believed in God.
So Muslims have for some time been allowed to substitute the name Allah for God. And suitable allowance for Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists has been made. That is all very right and proper. But what sort of vow does an atheist take? A vow means a solemn promise, and solemnity is something which belongs to the realm of religious faith and practice. We have seen what happens when attempts are made to solemnise secular events and invent non-religious rituals: you end up with something brash, sentimental and ersatz, resembling a combination of a cheerleader’s speech at the high school prom and the canting expressions which advertise Red Nose Day.
But let us not pretend this is really about the Scouts. Oh no, this is about the Reverend Mullen, his prejudice and his fear of the secular.
Mullen is operating under the delusion that taking a vow to uphold a moral code precludes atheists, as though without a religious text to tell us what to do, any moral choice, any sense of values an atheist might have, is hollow. This is not only false, it is patronizing and even demonizing in the extreme.
I as an atheist, though not because I am an atheist, have made a number of moral choices in my life, and I have reasoned my way toward them based not on a book of dubious historical value and whose extraordinary claims fail to find even ordinary evidence, but because facts and reason have led me to make these decisions.
When I am welcoming to my fellow humankind it is because I strive not for a deity’s approval but because there is value to increasing happiness wherever I can, because there is joy to be found in another’s freedom, and because all evidence suggests this is the only life I and anyone else will ever have and so to burden another unjustly would be a callous and deep injury.
So too, when I feel a sense of duty — something that is, I am led to believe, at the heart of what being a scout is — it is because I recognize that, for instance, my father has made great sacrifices in raising me and that to repay, in many tiny ways, the debt of gratitude I feel is a privilege because it recognizes the love that was shown me.
I do not do these things to get into Heaven, and I do not do it fearing Hell. I do it because I have made a vow to myself that I shall interact with others based on the same principles of dignity, kindness and respect which I would like to be shown.
To make a power grab as Mullen does where he says that vows and in extension values of worth belong only to religion, is deeply offensive. To what? Well, intelligence, actually. Take this bitter treatise, “They did not go in for ‘exploring faith,’ they merely practised it,” said as though blind obedience is a virtue, and as though history’s precedent is a perfect template so what has been should always be. Both are demonstrably false.
That the Scouting Association has moved to recognize atheist children — of which, even done up by their parents in the corset of religion, most children are, anyway — demonstrates a shift toward integrity and, indeed, the secular, and this is why the Reverend’s words matter. In arguing against this change, he is essentially arguing against the veracity of the careful justice of the secular state, he is arguing against a moral life without a deity, and he is arguing against an ability to discern what is right and wrong without a religious body breathing down our necks.
Oh, and to the charge promulgated in the Reverend’s subtitle that the Scouts are becoming a “tree hugging ‘values based’ atheist coven”: why Reverend Mullen, you say that like it’s a bad thing.
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