Scouting For Secularists

Chief Scout gets a grilling.

The National Secular Society, of which I am a member, has challenged the Chief Scout, Bear Grylls, on his claim that the Scouts are open to all.

This is the letter the NSS has sent to Grylls and this is the response from the Scouts’ UK Chief Commissioner, Wayne Bulpitt.

From Bulpitt’s letter you will see the Scouts are indeed open to all – if by “all” you mean all religious people, that is.  The Scouts don’t seem too bothered about which god or gods you choose but it’s clear that the non-religious are prohibited from becoming members or from assuming leadership positions.  Have a look at Rule 1.1 of Chapter 1, Fundamentals of Scouting, to see how the Scouts accommodate different faiths but exclude the godless.

Like other secularists I find the segregation and labelling of children – especially young children – on the grounds of religion or lack of it as unpleasant and absurd as segregating and labelling them on the grounds of their supposed political preferences.

I don’t think it’s possible to set a universal age at which a child can sensibly be considered to have a political or religious label because maturity levels will naturally vary from child to child, but if I was really forced to pick an age range where the labelling started to reflect a degree of individual, conscious choice by the child then I might go for, say, 12 to 15.

Having said all that, the Scouts or any other private organisation have the freedom of association to organise themselves as they see fit, which is a theme that Bulpitt deals with in his letter, and if that means excluding the godless then so be it – however crazy and undesirable that might be in the context of children.

Although the Scouts are not a religious organisation they are also not a manifestation of the state and neither (so far as I am aware) do they provide public services, so in principle I am not concerned about the blatantly religious dimension to their quirky internal rules and regulations.

The Scouts are free to refuse me entry into their organisation and I am equally free to establish a separate organisation specifically excluding not only all current scouts but also (with the exception of myself) all former boy scouts – if I were so inclined.  And on the basis that the law would not and should not compel mosques, synagogues or churches to open their doors to the godless, it should not compel the Scouts to do so, either.

What we are dealing with here is a private organisation merely exercising two lawful rights: freedom of association and freedom of religion.

It’s perfectly understandable for religious organisations to have religious criteria for their membership and management because, well, that’s what those organisations say on the tin, but it’s slightly weird for an ostensibly non-religious organisation like the Scouts to have such criteria.

I say it’s a real shame that an otherwise great institution – which has so much experience and skills to draw on and which has so much to teach all children – should choose to exclude the godless from its ranks.  Ultimately, if the Scouts insist on having religious criteria then that’s their business.  How sad is that, though?

If the Scouts won’t change their rules then is it too much to expect some honesty from them?  The Scouts should acknowledge they are a religious organisation (albeit a bizarrely unique one, being open only to those of faith regardless of the actual religion), but if they slam large doors in tiny godless faces they cannot claim to be open to all.  They need to be open to all about that.

There is as much intellectual and moral honesty in the Scouts’ claim of being “open to all” as there is in my assertion that I don’t have a drink problem “as long as I have a drink”.

Mr. Grylls, do your good turn for the day and open up your fantastic organisation to all children.  Please.  Religious organisations do a perfectly adequate job of creating and maintaining division and segregation amongst our children on the basis of religion or lack of it, so leave that job to the experts and concentrate on more worthwhile activities, such as scouting.

And that’s my good turn for the day.