Commonly Asked Questions About Non-theists
by David Perry, Teacher
Scouting for All Midwestern Regional Director
Although the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is for all practical purposes a secular organization, its leaders refuse
to allow non-theists (atheists and agnostics) to be members or leaders of the Boy Scouts. The policy applies to
both adults and children. While Scouting's focus is on hiking, camping, earning merit badges, ethics and citizenship,
they also maintain that one must believe in God to maintain a high standard of morality and ethics.
While this is a commonly held perception, in fact there is no evidence to support it. In fact, some evidence leads
to the opposite conclusion.
Below are common arguments that are used to keep non-theists out of the Boy Scouts, with responses following each
Argument: Belief in God is required in the Boy Scouts because it is written in the by-laws.
Response: This does not make discrimination against non-theists any more right than if it were written into
the by-laws that you have to be white or Christian to be in the Boy Scouts. Scouting should be available to every
American citizen regardless of religious beliefs. This country was founded on the principle of religious freedom
and restricting membership on the basis of religious beliefs violates that principle.
Argument: It says right on the application form and the guide book that "you can't be the best kind
of citizen without the obligation to God." The Boy Scouts have the right and the responsibility to maintain
the highest moral standards for its members.
Response: To say that "you can't be the best kind of citizen without the obligation to God" is
no different from saying "you can't be the best kind of citizen if you are a non-theist." This is terribly
offensive to those who don't believe in God and is no different from saying "you can't be the best kind of
citizen if you're Jewish, if you're African American, etc."
In addition to being offensive, it's just plain false. There is no research, data, or statistics to demonstrate
that people with no belief in God are any more inclined towards immoral acts than anybody else. In fact, only 1%
of the prison population professes no belief in God -- compared with 5%-10% of the general US population. In addition,
countries like Sweden and Germany have rates of atheism of over 40% and they have not "gone to Hell in a handbasket."
Being a non-theist just means that you interpret the Universe from a different perspective from most other people.
Non-theists see the Universe in natural terms while believers see the Universe in supernatural terms. Neither perspective
necessarily influences morality.
Argument: The Boy Scouts was founded on the principle of God and country. You can't expect them to abandon
the cornerstone of their philosophy.
Response: No one is asking them to abandon this principle. We're merely asking them to accommodate those
whose convictions do not allow them to take an oath to God. The Girl Scouts also have an oath to God but they allow
non-believing members to substitute for the word "God" another word of their choosing. Thus they maintain
their duty to God while also
accommodating nonbelievers and people of other spiritual beliefs.
Approximately 10% of US citizens do not profess a belief in God. This is too many people to keep out of the Boy
Scouts. BSA leadership needs to be flexible and change with the times, as have most other youth organizations and
indeed most scouting organizations in the Western World.
Argument: The Boy Scouts is a religious organization and has the right to require belief in God.
Response: The Boy Scouts is not a religious organization. It is a nonsectarian organization. It is a youth
organization that is supposed to embrace the diversity of beliefs represented in the American culture. There are
no religious teachings and no prayers at troop meetings or on outings. If people do pray, it is voluntary and is
not a required component of the Boy Scout program. Church attendance at outings is not mandatory.
For all practical purposes, the Boy Scouts of America is a secular organization. It is not appropriate for a secular
organization to exclude members on the basis of their religious beliefs.
Argument: Non-theists hate religion and this is their attempt to remove God from the Boy Scouts.
Response: Removing God from the Boy Scouts is not the goal. Rather, persuading them to find a way to accommodate
those whose convictions do not allow them to take an oath to God is the goal. Non-theists want to take part in
the Boy Scouts just like other people. Our only goal is to be able to do this without having to lie about who we
Secondly, if non-theists are sometimes angry with religion, it isn't because they hate religion but rather because
they oppose the abuses of religion. In fact, many moderate and liberal theists non-theists reject many of the same
things as non-theists. They hate it when religion is used to promote intolerance and bigotry, when it's used as
a tool for political oppression or the suppression of new ideas, when it's used to promote self-righteousness and
the concept of absolute morality (theirs, of course)!
But most of all, non-theists get angry when they're told that they can't be the best kind of citizens, are morally
deficient and are a bad influence on society.
Most non-theists have a "live and let live" philosophy -- and some non-theists even like religion. Many
are members of a Unitarian Church. Others accompany religious family members to church. For many non-theists, church
is a place to find solace, meditation, and spirituality.
Argument: Most Scouting For All supporters are religious and they'll be offended if we support non-theists.
We don't want to lose their support.
Response: Once people understand that the Boy Scouts' treatment of non-theists truly is discrimination and
a human rights abuse, they'll be supportive, even religious people! You can disagree with a group of people on
an issue but oppose abuses against them at the same time.
The way to overcome this obstacle is through informing our members about the issue. With a better understanding,
they are more likely to be supportive. Many people with whom I discuss this don't understand why an organization
that is about hiking, camping, merit badges, etc., would even care what someone's religious beliefs are.
Summary: The bottom line is that there are no good reasons to keep non-theists out of the Boy Scouts and
there are, in fact, a lot of good reasons to let them in. There are many non-theists who are law-abiding, contributing
members of society and would be excellent Boy Scouts or Scout leaders. Many adults who would make good Boy Scouts
leaders are teachers, social workers, counselors, doctors or nurses. Through their careers, they have demonstrated
their commitment to society. Shouldn't that qualify them to be leaders of any secular organization?
Once people have shown that they are of good will and have a commitment to society, why should anyone care what
their religious beliefs are? By excluding non-theists, the Boy Scouts of America are losing out on a valuable resource
that would, without question, strengthen their organization.