Today’s announcement coming from the chief executive of the Scout Association came as a bit of a surprise to me. Having explained back in April that they had no intention of changing the Scout Promise by removing the ‘God’ bit to make it more palatable to atheist children and their parents, they have now decided to have a consultation on it. In his self-penned article for the Telegraph, Derek Twine sets out his thinking behind the change of approach:
‘Almost a century ago, Lord Baden-Powell described Scouting as “a movement, not an organisation”. Our founder wanted to ensure that Scouting remained modern and relevant to society at all times, and we’ve strived to live up to his ideals. That’s why for more than 40 years we have offered alternative versions of the Scout Promise in the UK for Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. But today, adults and young people who cannot proclaim a commitment to a faith or a God are prevented from joining our movement as Scouts or volunteers.
‘No other group aside from non-believers is excluded from the Scouts on the grounds of religion or belief. We already welcome those with no faith as associate members and into a variety of support roles. But what we are looking at now is whether there might be a way of extending full membership to more people. We believe that there are many people in this situation in the UK who could otherwise support Scouting’s fundamental values, which explicitly include helping young people in their exploration of faiths, beliefs and attitudes, and our method, which includes sharing in spiritual reflection.’
This compares to the letter sent to the National Secular Society in April from their UK Chief Commissioner, Wayne Bulpitt where he writes:
‘Scouting is open to anyone who feels able to make their personal commitment to the Scout Promise, which includes “to do my duty to God”… We are a membership organisation and not just an activity programme, and share a basis of association by common belief. Similarly if a person does not wish to make the Promise and share that common association with people of similar beliefs, then that is a respectable personal choice.’
This morning, however, Mr Bulpitt was on Radio 4’s Today programme repeatedly talking about the need for the Scouts to remain relevant even when asked if that meant that God wasn’t relevant anymore.
So why this change of heart? Well, the only places there seems to have been any sort of call for the Scouts to change their Promise is from the British Humanist Association and in particular, the National Secular Society (NSS) who have been aggressively campaigning for the Scouts to drop the pledge to God as it is discriminatory towards those of no faith. It has been highlighting the case of George Pratt who in October was told that he couldn’t join his local troop because he refused to make the Promise. It also is running an online petition calling for the Promise to be made optional. So far it has attracted just over 2,500 signatures.
It appears to be the case that the Scouts are beginning to cave in to this pressure, probably expecting further adverse publicity along the way. Admittedly they are only proposing adding an alternative promise and not giving any inclination that they would consider ditching ‘God’ altogether. The consultation will allow all their members to give their feedback, which at the end of the day may or may not result in change. Alternatively, perhaps if they believe that this change will not be welcomed by members and this proves to be the case, it then allows them to go back to the NSS and anyone else who has a problem with their Promise and say that there is no desire for a change and tell them to back off.
Interestingly alongside the Scouts, the Guides have today also announced a consultation on their Promise too, stating that, ‘Over the past few years we have heard from more and more girls and Leaders who struggle with the wording, particularly in interpreting what it really means to girls today.’ In the Guides’ case they are going one step further and considering removing all references to God. The tide appears to be turning.
I’m very much in two minds over this. Derek Twine and Wayne Bulpitt’s talk of being ‘relevant’ seems to imply that keeping people onside is more important than your core beliefs. It’s something that the Church knows all about as we’ve seen from the women bishops saga recently. There’s nothing relevant about ignoring God. I wrote back in April about Lord Baden-Powell’s views on the importance of faith. In his 1908 book, Scouting for Boys, he wrote:
“We aim for the practice of Christianity in their everyday life and dealings, and not merely the profession of theology on Sundays…. The co-operation of tiny sea insects has brought about the formation of coral islands. No enterprise is too big where there is goodwill and co-operation carrying it out. Every day we are turning away boys anxious to join the Movement, because we have no men or women to take them in hand. There is a vast reserve of loyal patriotism and Christian spirit lying dormant in our nation today, mainly because it sees no direct opportunity for expressing itself. Here in this joyous brotherhood there is a vast opportunity open to all in a happy work that shows the results under your hands and a work that is worth while because it gives every man his chance of service for his fellow-men and for God.”
“No man is much good unless he believes in God and obeys His laws. So every Scout should have a religion….Religion seems a very simple thing: First: Love and Serve God. Second: Love and serve your neighbour.”
John Bingham in his Telegraph article today also adds that Baden-Powell ranked atheism alongside gambling, excessive drinking, smoking and even syphilis as a danger to be avoided. He likened organisations for atheists as “sects”, speaking of adherents as “enemies of the worst sort” and warning against “very offensive” attacks on religious belief.
“If you are really to make your way to success – ie happiness – you must not only avoid being sucked in by irreligious humbugs, but you must have a religious basis to your life,” Baden-Powell wrote in his book of advice for boys, ‘Rovering for Success’.
The question of fiddling with the Scout Promise therefore goes much deeper than just tweaking a few words. What it is actually asking is how much the Scout movement intends to stray from the principles and beliefs of its founder’s vision for Scouting. Admittedly the Scouts are not a religion and if they want to change their rules, that’s entirely up to them. There is something good to be said for being inclusive and reducing the barriers for anyone to join. Once they are a member, hopefully the ethos of the organisation will rub off on them and that might include seeing that promising to do your duty to God is not such a bad thing.
What the Scouts should never have to do is change their policies because a small number of outsiders are making a fuss about they way they do things. The number of Scouts has grown rapidly over the last few years and there are now over half a million members in the UK who don’t have a problem with the Promise. It’s the typical case of the vocal minority with an axe to grind trying to force the hand of a larger established body. If the wording is changed to keep atheists happy, will mention of the Queen have to be dropped in future to satisfy anti-royalists too?
When Lord Baden-Powell set up the Scouts his aim was to support young people in their physical, mental and spiritual development, so that they could play a constructive role in society. Bowing to society’s whims wasn’t on his agenda. Whichever direction the Scouts choose to go on this matter, and this is a decision they should make entirely on their own terms, being fashionably relevant mustn’t be the driving force.