I recently had some contact with a Boy Scout camp counselor facing termination due to his atheism. I took a keen interest in the case and wanted to share my take on the issue.
I am an Eagle Scout and I work for the AHA. Because of my non-theistic outlook (I am not an atheist, simply an agnostic), according to policy the BSA should never have awarded, and may at any time revoke, my Eagle, an accomplishment I value far beyond my college degree. And yet, despite all that, I received my Eagle, served as my troop’s leader for the longest period in the troop’s history, was a counselor at National Junior Leadership Training, hold many awards including an Order of the Arrow membership, and remain in good standing with the BSA.
To earn and maintain my Eagle I did not perjure myself. After all, the first point of the Scout Law is “a scout is trustworthy”. My troop–and many others, I suspect–had an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (forgive the phrase). I have no doubt everyone knew I was an agnostic, but I never called attention to it and they never pushed on it. I was at times obligated to attend semi-religious events, but nothing more extreme than a prayer before meals.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is not a perfect solution, but it worked for me and worked for my troop. In my case, and I suspect in most others, the issue of faith only really becomes an issue in two circumstances. The first is if you make it an issue, the second is at your Eagle Board of Review.
To advance most ranks in Boy Scouts you sit before a group of adults, usually the parents of your friends and peers, and these folks audit your requirements and conduct an interview. They can use the chance to push whatever issue they so please. It’s usually not a big deal; requirements have been checked in advance, the Scoutmaster has given his okay, and unless something major happens you’re getting through. The Eagle Board is different. They audit everything, you must present signed proof of all requirements throughout your scouting career, the interview is much more involved, and there is a representative from the council present.
The Eagle Board of Review makes a point of bringing up religion. I believe I was asked, “will you avow a belief in one God?” I never answered the question. Instead, I unfolded a statement prepared in advance on just this issue. In classic humanist fashion I stated there is something beautiful in people that allows them to overcome what the law of self preservation dictates and allows people from around the world to communicate in a shared human language. Whatever this happens to be is worthy of our awe, humility, and reverence.
One woman on my board of five, a Christian fundamentalist from a megachurch, went on the attack. I didn’t have to say anything; I was immediately defended by the other four, including the man from council whom I had met once. After practically no time deliberating, I received my award.
I learned a lot in my time as a Boy Scout, including about the program itself. The religious side is there, I don’t mean to downplay it. But it is so insignificant and so liberally applied as to not be that big of a deal. There are bigger fish to fry. Despite whatever the policy may say, my experience, and that of many others, is that there is a tacit agreement you can openly believe basically anything you want. The one thing that BSA has said is off limits is actively promoting an atheist worldview. You could probably be an atheist in Scouts and get away with it without lying or hiding it, you simply cannot publicize it.
The camp counselor didn’t proselytize, nor did he share his atheism with the students he was counseling. Instead, he did something even more oafish, he flaunted it. After being a youth participant in BSA, the counselor continued his involvement through summer camp counseling. As was the case in my experience, most people were aware of his beliefs and opinions. This counselor’s beliefs were not an issue until he sent an email and letter to the camp directors, the council executive, and others stating his atheism and seeking assurances that he would not be disciplined for his beliefs.
The logic of the counselor’s move is really quite odd. BSA had given tacit approval of him, so somehow he thought he could get Boy Scouts to publicly allow an atheist. It would be nice if Boy Scouts would, but it was not about to happen for the counselor and he knew it. The counselor thought he could get away with it, and was, in effect, rubbing people’s faces in what he had done.
After making the misstep of publicly “outing” himself, the counselor sought help and began an appeals process. As Martin Luther King observed, when one breaks an unjust law it is to be done “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the consequences.” It seems our counselor was hoping for no consequences.There is a word to describe those who break the rules publicly and think they are beyond consequences: arrogant.
Boy Scouts requires the recitation of the Oath and Law. The Oath contains the line “do my duty to God and my Country.” Through his atheism, the counselor was probably in violation of this but could very well have made a case that he need not believe to do his duty. The law, on the other hand, contains 12 points, including “a scout is reverent.” If you look up reverent in the dictionary it has no relation whatsoever to God, it is in fact not necessarily a religious term. Reverence is about humility and deference.
The counselor was removed from his position because he violated the Scout Law, specifically the part about reverence. The counselor violated it not through his atheism, but through his arrogance. In removing the counselor, BSA has a shot at teaching him some humility. If they do, they will prove the continued value of including “reverent” in the law.