Scouts drop obligatory God vow to woo atheists
For the first time in its 106-year history, the Scout pledge has been tweaked to give newcomers the option of leaving out God. Is The Scout Association right to move with the times?
‘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.’ Over the past century, this oath has issued from the mouths of millions of boys and girls in Britain and beyond, with three fingers raised: it is the central principle of The Scout Association.
From now on, however, an important part of this pledge will no longer be uttered by all newcomers to the scouting community. After a 10-month consultation the UK Scouts have introduced an atheist alternative.
The Scouts’ core ideals were coined as long ago as 1908 by the movement’s patriotic founder Robert Baden-Powell. And young people with religious convictions will utter the same time-honoured words. But those without a faith will now have the option of dropping the promise ‘to do my duty to God,’ swearing instead to ‘uphold our Scout values’.
Subtle tweaks to the way a children’s manifesto is worded might not seem like particularly momentous news. But for many people this issue has huge symbolic power.
Two months ago, the Girl Guides (originally the female equivalent to Scouts) made similar changes to their central promise. The Guides, however, were a little more radical: instead of giving girls the choice over whether to mention God, they removed religion altogether and replaced it with a promise ‘to be true to myself’.
The backlash was intense. One commentator foresaw a new influx of anarchists, nihilists or even satanists into the Girl Guide ranks. The Bishop of Bradford called the new oath ‘vacuous nonsense’ and claimed that it ‘opens the door to little Hitlers’.
Why the big fuss? Because some people of faith believe that without God all moral principles are on shaky ground. Relativism and individualism will become the only universal rules.
Some atheists, however, go much further. The religious worriers are correct, they say: without God there really are no fixed definitions of right and wrong. Each individual must form their own set of values – so perhaps it is better for young people not to take any oath at all.
Scouts have always been bound by a shared set of ideals, say traditionalists – that’s the whole point. If we start allowing each new member to adapt the pledge, it will soon become a muddle of meaningless platitudes. Loyalty to God and country are the moorings for morality; we must not allow them to be lost.
Nonsense, say Scout leaders: it’s perfectly possible to have a firm set of principles without appealing to a higher power. A lot of people in modern Britain no longer have faith; organisations like the Scouts can move with the times without abandoning their core belief in certain fundamental values.
- Would you take an oath promising to ‘do your duty to God’? What about your country or your king or queen?
- ‘If you insist on the primacy of self, then, in the most important respect, there is no organisation; just a room, filled with random individuals, all self-expressing, like an endless live-stream from the Big Brother House.’ Do you agree with this columnist?
- Think of one outdoor activity you have always wanted to do and find a way to make it happen!
- Write a short pledge that sums up your own basic principles. How many of your classmates would be happy to take the same oath as you?
Some People Say...
“Morality is neither rational nor absolute nor natural.’Friedrich Nietzsche”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I’m not a Scout, so this really doesn’t bother me one way or another.
- Well, have you thought about joining or volunteering? If you want to meet new people, learn new skills and spend some good active time outdoors, scouting is a great way to do it. And the movement also encourages people to help out in their communities. If all that sounds fun but you don’t want to be a Scout, there are alternatives – Woodcraft Folk, for instance.
- Nah, not interested thanks.
- That’s fine. But the debate about the role of God in morality and society in general has a much broader significance than this one issue. What is the basis for your beliefs about right and wrong? Faith, reason, or something else altogether? These are questions that anybody who wants to live a good life must grapple with.
- Robert Baden-Powell
- Lord Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell was a lieutenant-general in the British army who fought in many colonial battles before writing the book that would brand his name on history: Scouting for Boys. His arguments about how outdoor activities could help build character were the basis for the founding of the Scout movement in 1907.
- Literally people who believe in nothing (from Latin). In moral philosophy it refers to someone who doesn’t think morality exist at all; some thinkers, even more radically, deny the possibility of asserting that anything exists.
- Often conflated with nihilism, but not exactly the same: being relativist about something means that you only think it holds true in particular contexts. A moral relativist, for instance, might say that it’s wrong for someone born in modern Britain to marry their sibling, but perfectly fine for an Ancient Egyptian pharaoh.