Posted by: Jason | September 11, 2009

Big “Phil” let me down

So I’m a  non-religious dad.  And its usually not a problem for me or anyone else.  Until now.

My son wants to join the Cub Scouts.  He wants to go camping, and he want to make Marshmallow-Fluff-and-Sour-Patch-Kid Pita Pockets (I’m not making that up).  He wants to play with his friends.

I decided to join, fully aware that I would have to sign him up and in the process sign a document that includes the statement that belief in a god is needed to grow into the best kind of citizen.  I don’t accept that at all, but I chose to sign the paper.  Why?

  1. Because my 6-year-old could care less about all of that.
  2. Because the guy running the show, Big “Phil” is a great guy and everybody loves him! (name changed out of respect for “Phil”)
  3. Because the document I signed clearly stated that the BSA is completely Non-Sectarian.

So okay.  Fine.  The Boy Scout Promise claims to honor “my God and my country.”  I can live with that.  I don’t hide my children from religion.  I explain it.  I let them know about the different beliefs.  I let them ask questions and I answer them.

Imagine my surprise when, at the end of the second meeting, we end in a prayer and afterward, Big “Phil” goes on to ask if anyone is NOT a christian, and would it be okay if from now on we close the prayers in Jesus’ name.

Sectarian Much?!

Big “Phil” went on to say that he did not want to make anyone uncomfortable, if anyone had a problem with it they could call him at home later and he wouldn’t do it.  But I shouldn’t have to call him and tell him this is inappropriate.  He should know better. Closing a prayer in Jesus’ name is sectarian.  It goes against the BSA rules as I understand them.  And I don’t think that changes even if everyone in the group is christian.

This is my one problem with believers.  Some of them – not all – will put their faith before rules that they have agreed to.  Some will even break the law to do it.  I give You exhibit A and exhibit B.

I don’t care what You believe.  Your mind is your own.  So is mine.  But don’t tell me that morality and wisdom are born out of “fear of the Lord” while you essentially lie for Jesus.  Or force kids into baptism against their parents’ will for Jesus.  Or ignore a court injuction for Jesus.

So now I have to call Big “Phil.”  I’m torn between telling him that Yes it bothers me, its sectarian and against your rules, or telling him hey look, pray to anyone You want,  just don’t kick us out for politely standing there and not praying with You.

What would You do?



  1. I hope you will post a follow up.

    My wife and I don’t have to worry about this yet (our daughter is just over 5 months old), but we have talked about different groups like the Girl Scouts and my spider senses are already tingling.

  2. How’s the YMCA when it comes to religion? I doubt the BSA is the only organization where you can provide your son with a variety of quality social interactions. 🙂

  3. Addendum: I thought you were talking about Phil Plait when I read the post title.

  4. Don’t do it! It’s a trick. Boy Scouts will kick you out for being atheist. I’ve heard anecdotes of it happening before. See the episode on Bullshit.

    “Because of Scouting’s methods and beliefs, Scouting does not accept atheists and agnostics as members or adult volunteer leaders.”

    Here’s my article on YMCA. They’ve become pretty secular over time, but they don’t have scouts or anything.

  5. Call him! Let your voice known. Raise your objections to such a specific religious reference, and ask him what he thinks. Get a discussion going.

    Worse comes to worst, simply stand to the side and not participate.

  6. D’oh! Forgot to add-

    A boy scout troop should be a unit, an all-inclusive team. To be so specific seems divisive, since Boy Scouts of America is supposed to be non-sectarian. If boys are supposed to work together and learn cooperation, dividing them up seems counter productive.

  7. you could perhaps tell a little fib (sort of) and tell him that you don’t pray in public. It’s technically true (you don’t need to mention that you don’t pray in private either), and point out in a non-confrontational way that praying in Jesus’ name is against the BSA rules.

    The problem is that Christian’s, even the kind, well-meaning ones, don’t even think about the possibility that people they know might not share their beliefs, so they assume that it’s ok to ask about it. It may not be an actual trick to ferret out the non-Christians, but even so, coming right out and challenging it has the possibility of turning ugly.

    It’s a tough call-do you let your nonbelief impact your childs life like that, or do you stand up for your (non)beliefs? For Christians, it’s a no-brainer. They would absolutely stand up for their beliefs regardless of the consequences to their children in most cases. For us, it’s a bit trickier though.

  8. I feel like Big Phil did the right thing. He seems to know that it isn’t within scout guidelines so he asked if it would be OK. The cub scouts are not sanctioned by the government and shouldn’t fall under the same rules of separation. Meaning, if everyone did want to pray than they should be able to.

    I understand that this brings up an awkward situation that I believe would be hard to deal with. I’m just saying that I don’t think that Big Phil was that out of line.

  9. Ouch, I’m not sure what we would do if all of our kids friends were in the group. I think I would just explain it to our kids and let them keep going. But I would also look to expose my kids to other friends that might be able to start a skepticamp of sorts!

  10. Considering that the only reason your boy is in boy scouts is because you lied on the form (re: religion). I don’t understand what the big deal is. Pray to one almight god, or pray to one almighty god with the name Jesus. Either way, you’re praying to something you don’t support or believe in. If you feel boy scouts is a good fit with your son and you don’t think he’s going to have to hide your (and hopefully his) true beliefs or get kicked out, then go with the flow. If there’s no god, then it’s only words–like saying thank you for a gift you hate.

  11. Is non-sectarian the same as absolutely no religion at all? In my mind, praying in Jesus’ name is not sectarian (i.e. not specific to being a Baptist, Catholic, etc), and may be what he is thinking.

    Overall, though, it is the Boy Scouts, which is, by it’s very nature and founding, a semi-religious org. I think you should clarify with him what they mean by it– I would be shocked if they did not say it meant not catering to Baptists or the like, but overall, Christian in nature…

  12. Yeah, the Boy Scouts generally have a problem with atheists, probably agnostics too, but they will accept anyone who practices an established religion from what I understand. Why not look into Campfire Kids instead? If all your child’s friends are in Boy Scouts, though, that could be a hard battle to fight. My experience (and I was a Boy Scout once upon a time) is that they aren’t as pious as all that, and the religion aspect can easily be worked around.

  13. @Jonathan – Girl Scouts officially accepts atheists etc. You may find a troop that *is* religious but unlike BSA they do not require faith in any god in any way. They also officially consider sexual orientation irrelevant. I suppose in a sort of don’t ask don’t tell way, not sure.

    As for BSA – Ticktock is right, they will kick you right out if they discover you’re atheists. I wouldn’t even go there, being in for a while will make it much harder on your kid when you all get booted. Any chance you could get any of the friends to join up and do Earth Scouts with him?

  14. Mathyoo,

    I agree with You somewhat. I don’t think this scout leader means any ill will. I don’t think its a trick, I think he sincerely thinks he’s doing the right thing. But then, he’s being dishonest at the end of the day, isn’t he? He is “bending” a rule that he subjugates to his personal faith.

    isn’t it funny that, according to the BSA website, I can be a muslim, a buddist, a christian, whatever. Just as long as I believe in SOMETHING – ANYTHING that cannot be proven. Only then can I be the best kind of citizen.

    Thanks to all, I’ll let You know how it goes.

  15. As an atheist Girl Guide leader (Canadian girl scouts) the only thing I dislike about our program is the religious bits in it which are (thankfully) limited, and I which quickly gloss over before moving onto our way more awesome secular activities.

    Having dealt with the occasional unhappy parent, I’d suggest using conflict management phrases such as “I feel, I think” instead of “You’re supposed to, You should,” etc. The optimal solution is to get your point across about keeping the program nonsectarian, while avoiding any escalation (or a religious debate) that would ruin your son’s fun by creating a hostile environment.

    Try something like “Thank you for being understanding that some of us would not be comfortable with a Christian prayer. While I know religion is a part of Boy Scouts, it was my understanding when signing up the program was to remain nonsectarian in nature, and I would prefer that it stays as such.”

    And then right away move on to asking Phil how you can help him out more with the meetings (If you haven’t already done so). Volunteer to take on more of the planning and activities – the kids can’t get jesusfied as much if you’re keeping them busy and having fun. (And bring in awesome science activities!)

    I’d do this *especially* if you decide not to talk to him about the Christian prayer thing- keep in mind if no one brings it up, Phil may interpret it as consent and approval and Jesus may show up in more activities than just the closing prayer.

    Other than that, I wouldn’t worry too much about what little tidbits of ‘religion’ slip in. For most kids, scouts is fun for a few years and then they get older, become too cool for it and quit. 20,30,40 years down the road they’ll be recounting stories to their own kids about eating Marshmallow-Fluff-and-Sour-Patch-Kid Pita Pockets. That’s the type of stuff I remember and loved most about the program when I was younger, not the God-stuff.

    Personally, If I’m kicked out for being an atheist – Well, good luck finding someone to do what I do and explaining what happened to the parents who absolutely adore me! (Also keep in mind Girl Guides/Scouts is a separate organization than Boy Scouts, despite a common ancestry – I also feel that at least in Canada, we’ve been extremely proactive about inclusiveness, and the ‘religion’ in our program is more a remnant of historical traditions than the ‘you must believe in god to be good’ BSA view.)

  16. I’ll be watching this one with interest…

    Little Skeptic Boy is in kindergarten this year, so next year, he’s eligible for Cub Scouts. And he REALLY wants to do it, partially because his big sister is a Girl Scout.

    Girl Scouts seems to have moved to be more secular and inclusive. Lesbian leaders are welcomed. The word God still appears in their oath, but in the written version, it appears with an asterisk, and leaders are instructed to allow girls to substitute any word they want.

    In fact, they have become SO inclusive, that a separate group, American Heritage Girls, has been created, that is unapologetically Christian (read: “bigoted”).

    But the Boy Scouts, in contrast to the progressive(-er) Girl Scouts, seems to still be staunchly dogmatic. A quick Google search (which we all know is the end-all and be-all deciding factor!) for “boy scout atheist” yields some frightening results, showing their discrimination against homosexuals and atheist/agnostics (and, one might assume, Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Judeo-Christians).

    And for some SCARY viewpoints from the other side…

    “Of late, … [Boy Scouts] has been the target of an exceedingly malicious assault by atheists, homosexuals and social engineers for its commitment to the highest moral standards. This has come from … funding restrictions … unjust judicial decisions and … internal subversion… [T]he attack on the BSA is an attack on America… …Their message … is: ‘Let us in, so we can subvert and pervert your boys!'” (I know — World Net Daily… **shudder**)

    “While the Boy Scouts have stood against pressure exerted by atheists, gay activists and other left-leaning forces that have sought to undermine its core value system, the Girl Scouts have become a model of political correctness, even allowing their area councils and troops to partner with Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider… Some 95 percent of Americans believe in a creator God in whose image we are made and a value system based on His character, revealed in His Word. The other value system is that of atheism or secular humanism. In that value system, everything is situational; anything goes. These two value systems are mutually exclusive. They cannot coexist…”

    Sorry to inflict those quotes on you folks…

    I wonder what will happen next year, when Little Skeptic Boy is ready for Cub Scouts. Will I stand and be counted as I truly believe, or will I sit quietly in the shadows and be one of the crowd? It’s not for me, it’s for the Little Skeptic Boy, after all…

  17. Phil asked. Give him a chance to be true to his word. You don’t owe him any explanation. Neither do you need to be confrontational. Just call and let him know how much you appreciate his offer to respect your beliefs and that, yes, for personal reasons it does make you uncomfortable. Then praise him for the all the good work he’s done and tell him how much your son is looking forward to being a scout.

    You are willing to abide by the rules despite your beliefs. You should expect others to do the same.

  18. Phil was wrong. He needs to be corrected privately. It doesnt sound like he was being malicious, just inappropriately zealous. Some here seem to also be a bit zealous…Tolerance is a 2 way street. Acceptance is a whole different matter.

    In terms of atheism or theism, thats all about personal choice. Keep the kids out of it. Let the make their own choices…

  19. Here’s my question: since you’re already being dishonest by pretending to believe in God, why not go whole hog and pretend to believe in Jesus?

    When your child asks you why you’re doing it, just be honest: “Little dude, these people won’t let you play with them unless I pretend I believe in their God. It isn’t your fault, or your friends fault, it’s just how their parents are.”

    Probably, he won’t ask for a while anyway, right?

  20. Even the fact that he asks if anyone is not a christian and objects leaves out many denominations that would not pray like that (some, I have heard, prefer to pray only with their same denomination, for example), as well as others who just prefer not to spit on the rights of others. He may be nice, but he’s still ignorant. In my area, we had other organizations, like the Police Explorers, that provided similar things as scouting, so we were lucky, even if I didn’t stay long. There are also secular scouting organizations, but last I was aware that is (still) a slow-growing phenomenon.

  21. I refuse to let my child participate in a program under false pretenses. Any perceived benefits of the program do not outweigh their bigotry. The fact is that the BSA officially rejects atheists and homosexuals from their organization. That right there is enough to remove them from consideration.

    We’ve discussed this with our 6 yr old he is in full agreement about not wanting to be part of an organization that actively rejects people based on their non-belief in a deity or who they want to marry.

    From all my research, the Girl Scouts appear to be a truly inclusive organization who welcome lesbians and atheists. My daughter will probably join, depending on her interests when she is older. We’re still looking for some sort of alternative to scouting, but there isn’t much in our area. Roots and Shoots is an environmental and community service organization established by Dr. Jane Goodall that has some potential, but the group in our area kind of fizzled out.

    If anyone knows any inclusive organizations that provide similar activities as scouting (i.e. camping, hiking, community service) I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences.

  22. @CyberLizard: Who says you have to find one? Give your children a lesson in initiative and start an organization. 🙂

  23. @MKR Believe me, they’ve seen plenty of that. Aside from homeschooling and participating in the local secular homeschool coops, my wife was one of the founding members of the Roots and Shoots chapter. And then there’s the Odyssee of the Mind group. Sometimes it would be nice to join an already formed and structured organization where we don’t have to worry about all the administrivia that goes along with running a group.

  24. Perhaps there needs to be a secular counter-movement in scouting? Something that emphasizes rationality and skepticism above dogma and superstition? I admit I like everything else that Boy Scouts has to offer (exploration and conservation of the natural world, self reliance, teamwork, plus the hiking and camping), but I am not as comfortable with their antiquated stances on religion and homosexuality.

    How does one start a new scouting movement?

  25. We just lost several boys from our den because the supposedly non-sectarian prayer at the beginning of pack meetings was heavily Christian. I put up with it… but I am really not happy about it.

  26. […] “Big Phil” Update or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell It has been a few days since I posted about my personal delima with our scout leader […]

  27. Generally, I follow the teachings of Buddhism ala “Bad Buddhist Radio,” which is derived from Theravada Buddhism but eliminates the residual woo. Siddhārtha Gautama’s just this guy who said it’d be cool we were all excellent to each other and taught some ways of doing that.

    Thus, while I’m agnostic, I can say that I’m a Buddhist despite not going to temple. That gets rid of the Christ bit, and if I refine that to Theravada Buddhist, that can get rid of God bit.

    I believe what Scouting does is really good for kids. It teaches them not to be afraid of the outside world. While my wife and I have problems with Boy Scouts’ discriminating ways, we believe the benefits outweigh the potential harms. One way of helping that is that my wife is a leader in the Boy Scout troop.

    Our children understand what’s going on and go with the flow.

    We also participate in Girl Scouts. I’m my Girl Scout’s primary troop leader, and my girls have fun while learning leadership! We love how Girl Scouts embraces diversity.

  28. If everyone in the group is the same religion, they don’t have to be non-sectarian. The point is to allow everyone (reigious) to take part– as long as everyone feels welcome, you can offer any prayers you want. I think you’re misinterpreting the rule itself.

    My brother’s Boy Scout Troop referred to Jesus for years, until a Jewish boy joined, when they immediately switched to the more generic God without even discussing it. So it’s a pretty common practice, but they have NO problem changing things when they realize they need a broader brush. The rules say they are non-sectarian as a national organization, not that individual groups that are religiousy homogenous are still non-sectarian. If you mention you do not worship Jesus, then they will return quickly to the more generic terms with little issue.

    Be careful, though, they WILL kick him out for not believing in a higher power. Best to let them think he’s kind of a generic, non-religious theist, that’s what worked for my brother (that YOU are an atheist is technically irrelevant, as long as they think HE believes in God). They don’t seem to care if you’re agnostic, they just don’t want strong atheists or anyone who causes the other boys to question their beliefs.

    Jonathon: UNike Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts is non-religious. They offer nondenominational religious services at times but do not involve prayer in their ceremonies at all, do not refer to God, and will take anyone. My mother, an avowed atheist, was a major leader in our town’s Girl Scouts for years (we also had a Wiccan, a pagan, a Buddhist, and two other atheists). Everyone knew, no one cared.

    They also are cool with homosexuality. The official policy is don’t ask, don’t tell, but they are okay with openly gay members, they just make it clear that you aren’t supposed to be talking about your sexuality much period. They even allow openly gay camp counselors as long as the counselors don’t make a big deal about it.

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