Can you be good without God? Boy Scouts face the question

The Boy Scouts of America has an oath that includes a ‘duty to God.’ Some are wondering if atheists will be allowed in the scouts, following other policy changes. (Dreamstime/TNS)
The Boy Scouts of America has an oath that includes a ‘duty to God.’ Some are wondering if atheists will be allowed in the scouts, following other policy changes. (Dreamstime/TNS) TNS

In 2013, the Boy Scouts of America rescinded its ban on gay members. Two years later, it voted to allow gay adults in leadership.

By 2017, the scouts announced that transgender boys would be allowed to join. And in October, the scouts announced that girls can become members.

The one group still excluded by the Boy Scouts? People who don’t believe in God.

“That was a cornerstone to growing developmentally as youth do, that they need to have a belief in a higher power,” said Brian Nastase, scout executive for the area Quivira Council. “And a belief in God means we are open to all faiths. We have Jewish scouts, we have Muslim scouts, Christian scouts, Buddhist scouts. It’s probably the most diverse organization in the city of Wichita, maybe even the country.”

For Jerusha Lofland, that still excluded her son, who is now 14. Several years ago the organization came to her son’s school and invited him to a community event, which he attended.

He was curious about scouting, Lofland said, but she had to have a discussion with him.

“As we were becoming less religious at the time I realized it wasn’t going to be a good fit for him,” she said. “It does bother me that they’re trying to convince boys that they need a higher power, belief in a deity, that they are somehow superior to those who can’t believe that way.”

Some say the exclusion of atheists boils down to a simple question: Whether you can be good without God.

In some ways, the Boy Scouts are a microcosm of wider changes in society. As society became more accepting of LGBT individuals, so did the scouts. Now, the number of people who believe you can, in fact, be good without God is also on the rise.

Good without God

The number of adults who say you don’t need to believe in God to be moral is currently at 56 percent, compared to 49 percent in 2011, according to a study released by Pew Research Center in October. Part of that change comes from the increase in people who are not religiously affiliated, the study found, but the belief had also changed among religiously affiliated adults (from 42 percent in 2011 to 45 percent in 2017).

While roughly seven in 10 Americans identify with Christianity, the number of Americans who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” has gone from 16 percent to nearly 23 percent from 2007 to 2014, according to a different Pew study.

Alex Simmons, an atheist and humanist, said she remembers calling a scout master when her two sons were in middle school in another state. They, too, had learned about scouts in school and wanted to join.

She remembers the scout master telling her that he was sorry, but he couldn’t allow them in after she asked if they would be welcome even though their mother didn’t believe in God.

“The whole Boy Scout policy now just proves how excluded we still are and how disliked we still are,” Simmons said. “To say that atheists have no morality, that’s, ah, that makes me see red.”

A part of scout law reads that, “A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.”

The Boy Scout bylaws include a “Declaration of Religious Principle,” which states that “The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God.”

Lofland says she hopes people will regard her values of truth and kindness as sufficient, even without relying on a deity.

She can name religious people who caused harm, she said, and also can tell how she has become a better person since leaving religion.

Is change coming?

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said he thinks the policy will change.

“Look at all the other social changes that are happening little by little,” he said. “The stigma against atheism is going to be one of the last stigmas to fall, and it will fall.”

But what would happen if atheists are allowed into the scouts?

Past policy changes have led some to leave the scouts, seeking out religious alternatives.

Scout Executive Mark Turner describes the focus of Scouting in relation to today's controversial political climate.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will begin its own program for boys age 14-18 next year after announcing that it would end its relationship with the Boy Scouts. Approximately 330,000 Mormon youth are in the scouts, making the church the largest sponsor, according to CNN.

Other Christian scouting groups include the Southern Baptist Convention’s Royal Ambassadors, Assemblies of God’s Royal Rangers and the Seventh-Day Adventist’s Pathfinders.

Christian scouting group Trail Life USA also said it saw a “tremendous response” of youth leaving the Boy Scouts after the scouts decided to accept transgender members in 2017.

However, Nastase, the scout executive, said he doesn’t see that change being made. He pointed to an October statement signed by the organization’s national president, commissioner and chief scout executive.

“We believe this nation needs and deserves more youth focused on the foundations that still serve as bedrock of our movement — duty to God and country with a desire to help other people at all times,” the letter said, with the latter half of the sentence written in bold.

Nastase said requiring a religious faith is “drastically different” than allowing girls into the Boy Scouts.

“This is a premiere defining component to the scouting program, especially locally,” he said. “We’re not going to veer away from the national policy.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess