The Boy Scouts’ Other Discriminatory Policy

Over the last decade, a lot of attention has focused on the Boy Scouts’ policy banning gays and lesbians from participating as Scouts or working for the organization. Most recently, a group of Eagle Scouts have returned their merit badges in protest of the policy. Unfortunately, very few have protested the Boy Scouts’ equally unjustified exclusion of atheists and agnostics.

It would be understandable for the Boy Scouts to exclude atheists if the purpose of the organization was to promote a particular religion, such as Catholicism or Judaism. But in fact that is not their purpose at all. They accept members of any and all religions (including ones with beliefs that most Americans would find highly objectionable) so long as they believe in God. Such an “anyone but atheists and agnostics” policy smacks of bigotry.

The most likely reason for the Boy Scouts’ policy is the belief that you can’t be a moral person without believing in God. As I explain in this article, such beliefs are widespread (shared by about 50% of Americans), but false. One can be an atheist and yet still have strong ethical commitments. And there is no evidence that atheists or agnostics have higher rates of criminal or unethical behavior than religious believers do.

It’s also worth noting that the Girl Scouts have allowed open atheists and agnostics to participate since the early 1990s, allowing members to omit the word “God” from the Girl Scout oath. There is no evidence that this has caused any problems for the organization. The Boy Scouts should follow their example.

Prejudice against atheists is more widespread than hostility towards any other religious or ethnic group, and more common even than homophobia. But the Boy Scouts – and others who aspire to moral leadership – should reject that bigotry rather than promote it.

To avoid misunderstanding, I should emphasize that I do not want the government to forbid the Boy Scouts from excluding either gays or atheists. Private organizations like the Scouts have a right of freedom of association; I agree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Boy Scouts v. Dale. But other private parties have a right to criticize the way the Scouts use that freedom.

UPDATE: As co-blogger Dale Carpenter reminded me, the Girl Scouts also allow lesbians to become scouts and both gays and lesbians to work as employees of the organization. That, like their nondiscrimination policy towards atheists, hasn’t hurt the organization in any way. The Boy Scouts can and should learn from that experience.