Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It’s certainly possible that I’m wildly optimistic (it would not be the first time), but I am inclined to disagree with the recent suggestions of Joseph Knippenberg and Matthew Franck , based on recent (possible) changes in policy on sexual orientation, that the Boy Scouts of America would change its position on theism and atheism, at least at any point in the foreseeable future. There are several reasons to think this.

(1) Scouting as the Boy Scouts conceive it structurally  involves at least a very minimal theism.

Policies like those governing rank requirements and eligibility for being a scoutmaster are easily changed, but the very conception of Scouting on which the organization is based is another matter entirely. The Boy Scouts of America have always seen themselves as the legitimate representatives in the United States of the pure Scouting movement, as originally concevied by Robert Baden-Powell.

Robert Baden-Powell, who was the son of the liberal theologian Baden Powell, explicitly developed Scouting to teach boys brotherhood under God. It was intended to be an educational movement suitable to a British Empire united not by blood or race but by ideals, among which were that of a moral order involving respect for God, whatever else one might think about God. The early founders of the Boy Scouts of America, who were mostly deists or liberal Protestants themselves, made this particular element of Baden-Powell’s vision even more central to their organization.

(2) Even the Girl Scouts handle this question in a relatively conservative way.

Contrary to popular belief, Girl Scouts of the United States of America is not the sister organization of Boy Scouts of America. It is the exact opposite: the only successful rival organization. The sister organization for Boy Scouts of America was Camp Fire Girls. The Boy Scouts spent much of their early history unsuccessfully trying to eliminate the Girl Scouts by legal attack and social pressure.

In other words, the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts have radically different organizations, with distinct visions of Scouting, and much less commonality than their names might imply. Most of what they do have in common are simply things they both independently took over from Baden-Powell. One of the consistent differences between the two is that the Boy Scouts have always been a much more conservative organization; even on moves that have widespread support, the Boy Scouts will often lag anywhere from ten to thirty years behind the Girl Scouts. Part of this is due to the fact that the Girl Scouts have always had a more unified and centralized structure, and part is due to the fact that the Boy Scouts are built on a much more conservative vision of what a Scouting movement should be. The Girl Scouts have always prided themselves on being ahead of the game on social issues; it is for them one of the things Scouting is about.

So what has the Girl Scout position been on this particular point? In 1993 the Girl Scouts voted to allow members to avoid using the word ‘God’ in the Girl Scout Promise. This was sometimes presented in news outlets as opening up the Girl Scouts to atheists. However, as often happens, quite a bit of nuance was dropped in these reports. The actual decision re-affirms that God is important for the organization’s vision of Scouting. The traditional Girl Scout promise is still the expected default, and Girl Scouts cannot simply drop the “To serve God” part of the Promise.

What the Girl Scouts decided was that if the girl in question believed in something that allowed for the same traditional Scouting function of religious education — religious and spiritual self-cultivation based on the principle of a moral order of which the Scout can be a part — she could substitute her preferred name for that instead of using the word “God.”

This is a very conservative change, entirely consistent with Baden-Powell’s original vision. The Boy Scouts still require one to use the word “God” in the Boy Scout Oath, but their substantive position has never been very far from this. You don’t have to understand the word “God” in any particular way for it to count. It is entirely possible, and has always been possible, to be an atheist as a Boy Scout, if you can accept the basic idea of a moral something-or-other to which we should hold ourselves accountable, as long as you are comfortable calling it God at least as a metaphor . It has long been established that you can be a polytheist, a pantheist, or a believer in God as an “ideal”; none of these stand in the way of membership.

At-least-metaphorical theism is a very weak commitment. All the Girl Scouts did was loosen up the requirement that you actually call it “God,” which was the smallest possible change they could make. If the Girl Scouts are still being that conservative, the Boy Scouts are not even close to a change.

(3) The World Organization of Scouting Movements stands in the way of any sudden change.

There’s a good explanation for why the Girl Scouts are so much more conservative on this point than they usually are, if you don’t accept the explanation that they really do take their original conception of Scouting seriously. The Girl Scouts have to remain part of the world Scouting movement, which for them means maintaining their position in the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. Membership requires maintaining the key elements of Baden-Powell’s original vision, as encapsulated in the Scout Promise and Scout Law. Making any more drastic change in their position than they did would have put them in clear danger of violating the requirements. For that matter, even the change they did make was very controversial for precisely this reason.

The counterpart of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts for the Boy Scouts is the World Organization of the Scout Movement. It also requires members to base themselves on the value system in the Scout Promise and the Scout Law. The Boy Scouts are even more unlikely than the Girl Scouts to put itself in danger of doing anything that could put into question its membership in its world Scouting organization.

To sum up: Until the World Organization of the Scout Movement drops its current requirements and the Girl Scouts stop insisting that they still think duty to God-or-something-just-like-God is essential to Scouting, I wouldn’t bet on the Boy Scouts making any significant changes here. It is a much more difficult change to make than just deciding who can be a scoutmaster.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles