Boy Scouts of America “Belief in God” Is Just a Shibboleth

I’m an Eagle Scout, have a Master’s in religion from a prestigious university, and I don’t shy from calling myself an atheist, so I have an uncommon perspective on Boy Scouts of America. In truth, I’m glad BSA is pursuing bankruptcy. Perhaps financial incentive will teach them that “belief in God” is dispensable just like it already taught them that Scouts need not be boys.

This is in no way a compromise on BSA values because their “belief in God” already has almost no content. Indeed, it’s contradictory.

Consider the BSA Declaration of Religious Principle, which every Scout must sign:

“…The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members… The Boy Scouts of America, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member, but it is absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward that religious training.”

Now BSA has taken admirable steps toward being “absolutely nonsectarian”:

  • The 2016 Memorandum of Understanding with the Unitarian Universalist Association reads that BSA “will respect the spiritual and moral responsibility of UUA member congregations” even though “the UUA respects the individual’s journey to finding and understanding their own meaning and existence of God and the sacred” (emph. added).
  • BSA offers a religious emblem for Buddhist Scouts, even though it’s no secret that some Buddhists are atheist or agnostic, and others while theists, only believe that divinities can help a person achieve worldly ends.
  • The 2019 Guide to Advancement indicates that BSA “does not define what constitutes belief in God or practice of religion.”

God is no longer necessarily “the ruling and leading power in the universe” and need not have any connection to citizenship or moral education. BSA has tried to establish a generic God-spirituality, but the plenitude of religions goes beyond even that.

They can’t be “absolutely nonsectarian” without giving up on “belief in God.” Indeed, Buddhism isn’t the only religion that includes atheists. There are Christian atheists, Jewish atheists, Hindu atheists, and perhaps even Muslim atheists because, for many, religion has to do with practice or community and almost nothing to do with belief.

In truth, BSA opposition to atheism is really just about the connotations of the word: Atheists are anti-Christian, un-American, immoral, cold. They are irreverent.

Now BSA “belief in God” has this affective component, reverence. But therein the problem re-emerges because reverence doesn’t imply anything about what one is reverent toward. Reverence doesn’t require belief in God as Scouts for Equality realizes.

Consider Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated from his Sephardic Jewish community, and in 1670 was the most heretical man in all of Europe. In this Ethics, he championed the “intellectual love of God” (amor dei intellectualis) rather than the religious love of God. He believed in “God,” but his God wasn’t a person, was immanent in nature, was only free to do as He (it) will necessarily do. Through philosophical investigation of God, we improve ethically and become better citizens. Spinoza could honestly sign the BSA Declaration of Religious Principle–and he was one of the most virulent atheists to ever live.

BSA’s opposition to atheism is empty; their “belief in God” is just a shibboleth.