Saturday, January 07, 2012

Measuring Generosity and Community Involvement - The Boy Scouts

First off, Belated Happy New Year to you all.

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading American Grace: How Religions Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell.  American Grace examines religiosity in America and how it impacts so many aspects of our lives, including how we vote in elections and how we relate to one another.  Putnam and Campbell also have a blog connected with the book at here.  It's a very good read filled with lots of interesting information.  The book has also provided me with some topics for future blog posts, but there a couple of critiques I wanted to make to address one of the later chapters in the book.

In Chapter 13, titled Religion and Good Neighborliness, the authors claim that the data from the Faith Matters Survey of 2006 show that people who attend church frequently are better neighbors, that they are more generous in donating to charity, volunteering for charitable causes, more likely to be involved in community organizations, and are more engaged in local and civic political life.  One reason the authors suggest this might be is that people who attend church frequently develop stronger social networks that facilitate greater involvement in civic activities outside of church than either religious people who do not regularly attend church or those who are secular and do not attend religious services at all.

I don't intend to dispute this, though of course I am sure even Putnam and Campbell would agree that some secular people are more generous and involved in their community than some regular churchgoers.

One bone I have to pick with them though is when they cite the involvement of religious people in youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts.  The authors don't address a very important reason, at least in their book, why secular people are not involved with the Boys Scouts (and presumably the Girl Scouts) anywhere near the level of involvement as religious people.  And that is because the Boy Scouts have a mandatory religious component to their programs.  (Emphasis mine)  I know this because a couple of years ago I enrolled my then 9 year old son into the Cub Scouts.  At the time he expressed an interest in joining.  When I was filling out the application form, I noted a reference to religion and raised it with one of the Boy Scout parents there.  He tried to assuage me by telling me that the religion part only really comes into play later on.  So, I suppressed my concerns and submitted the check and the application form.

At the orientation that night, they also provided a list of items that we needed to purchase for our children from the Boy Scouts store in Massapequa, including the uniform.  My son, because of his age, was supposed to be at the Webelos level, so I also had to buy the Webelos Handbook.

The handbook advised that if your son joins the Scouts as a Webelos, he first has to earn the Bobcat badge.  Okay, I thought, let's get that out of the way. 

Item number one for earning the Bobcat badge is learning the Cub Scout Promise, which appears on page 43 of the handbook.  And that's where my first problem arose.  Here are the words to the Cub Scout Promise:

"I [say your name], promise
To do my best
To do my duty to God
And my country,
To help other people, and
To obey the Law of the Pack."

Further down the page, each line of the promise is explained, with the "duty to God" part explained as follows:

"Your duty to God is done with God's help.  That means you practice your religion at home, in your church or synagogue or other religious group, and in everything you do." (Bolded in original)

Right off the bat I was faced with a conundrum.  As an atheist parent, I was put in the awkward position of asking my son to memorize a pledge to perform a duty to a god when I am not only not raising him in any religious tradition or belief, but do not believe in the existence of a deity that wants or requires us to owe it any duty.  Furthermore, how could a 9 year old child even develop an informed opinion about whether there is a god and what, if anything, it wants from him?  One might as well ask my son for his opinion about a complex topic such as health care reform.

But then it got worse.  I read the Webelos Handbook further to see what else might lay in store down the road in the religion department.  I did not have to go very far.  Seven pages later, the handbook listed the requirements for earning the Webelos badge.  Item number eight concerned "Faith."  Jump to page 68, which had the following under the heading "Your Religious Duties":

"Webelos badge requirement 8 concerns your religious duties; it helps you learn more about your religious beliefs and how to commit to and practice ways to be closer to God."  I couldn't help but think, "That's BULLSHIT!"

Back to page 50, the handbook went into more specific detail about the religion requirement. Among the choice items:

"KNOW: Tell what you have learned about faith."

"COMMIT: Tell how these faith experiences help you live your duty to God."

"With your religious leader, discuss and make a plan to do two things you think will help you draw nearer to God."

I raised these concerns with the local Scout pack leadership.  I asked if my son could recite the Cub Scout Promise with the God language omitted, but they said they could not accomodate that.  The one sop they offered was that we could decide ourselves what God meant.  They even said that my son could fulfill his religious requirement through a humanist organization such as the Ethical Culture Society of Long Island.   But that didn't even cut to the heart of what I felt the real problem was, that there was a religious requirement at all.  My secondary objection to the religious requirement was that it only serves to reinforce societal prejudice against atheists in America by equating good citizenship with being religious and going to church.  Is it any wonder that atheists often find themselves as one of the least trusted groups of people in the United States in surveys?  Why couldn't the Boy Scouts have a character requirement of which religion could be an optional part?

After maybe six months, I pulled my son out of the Scouts.  The religious requirement issue was the main reason, though not the only one.  Several times a month my son's den had meetings at one of the elementary schools in the district.  Because it was a school at the other end of town, I often stayed in the cafeteria where the meetings were held.  Even though there were only about ten kids at the most, several of them were frequently very rowdy and poorly behaved, resulting in the Scout parents conducting the meetings to lose their patience and sometimes blow their stacks.  I couldn't help but wonder what was so great about the Boy Scouts being some kind of conduit for teaching kids good citizenship and values when the meetings of my son's den were frequently disrupted by poorly behaved children. 

I will check out Putnam and Campbell's Amazing Grace blog to see if the issue of religion and the Boy Scouts is raised, and if not, I will bring it to their attention and see if they address it.


Cori said...

When our son brought home a flyer for the Cub Scouts in the third grade, we knew enough then to raise the issue with the school's principal. At that time the group was more in the news because of a gay-rights thing, and we as parents were not about to allow a quasi-religious organization to use the schools for recruitment.

I had my own beefs with the BSA, one of which you brought to light in the lack of organization at the local level. Some good ones, some bad.

There are other secular groups available for kids, but not well advertised. The best we've found is the Camp Quest (.org) summer camps. More keep popping up, look for it near you! Our daughter enjoyed it; I wish it had been in more than Alabama when my boys were that age.

I haven't read enough to know if you have a daughter, but you should know that the Girl Scouts are far more accomodating in their oaths and requirements. Some organizations listen, occasionally.

Tommykey said...

Hi Dolo. Thanks for your input!

Robert the Skeptic said...

I was a Boy Scout and recall the BS Handbook had pictures of all the merit badges... there was a different symbol for many religions, not all, of course. I never saw an Islam merit badge... and there certainly was no Atheist badge either.

I had heard that someone tried once to establish a BS post for non-believers, but it didn't get very far.

Tommykey said...

Robert, I guess the BS recognized diversity at least when it comes to religion. The Webelos Handbook today lists, in addition to the more common Christian denomination, Baha'i, Buddhist, Hindu and Islam.

Sarah M. said...

I'm sorry you had a bad experience with Scouts. We're in our 2nd year of Cub Scouts now, and I just stumbled across this blog post while searching for ways to fulfill the religion requirement when you aren't religious. Our troop is pretty laid back, but I hate to even bring it up with the leaders because I hate the idea that we need some creative solution to not being church-goers.

BTW, there is a badge for Islam :)

Tommykey said...

Hi Sarah!

Thanks for your comments. As I wrote in my post, I was told that my son could fulfill the religion requirement for the Webelos level through a secular humanist organization like the LI Society for Ethical Culture. I don't know where you are located, but you might want to see if there are any humanist affiliated organizations in your area.

For me, I found it repugnant that the Scouts make so much about the importance of being honest and truthful, but if you are a non religious Scout, you have to be dishonest by pledging a duty to a god.

Joe Strout said...

I agree. I think BSA has a lot to offer, and if they didn't have this institutional bigotry, I'd sign both my sons up in a minute. But I value honesty very much, and forcing a child to pledge to an imaginary being he doesn't believe in simply teaches him to lie. I can't condone that. I'll look at Camp Quest and Camp Fire USA instead, though neither of these carries the respect that "Eagle Scout" does - more's the pity.

Tommykey said...

Thanks for your comments Joe. It looks like to two options are to try to change the BSA or build viable alternatives, both of which would take time. As for secular alternatives, a critical mass of people would be needed to turn it into a strong institution on a par with the Scouts.

Terri said...

Before you make false claims you should practice a little fact checking. YES there are secular Boy Scout Troops - Fire dept and VFW's are two in my town.

It just happens that churches recognize the financial benefit for "community" service and donate space and become sponsors for the local scout group.

ANY organization can sponsor a scout group. MAYBE you should start a secular group for your town.

Tommykey said...

What false claims have I made Terri?