George Pratt's faith in atheism: Scouts must Promise to Obey - and if they don't, they're out

The Scouts’ exclusion of atheist children is not a demand for faith, it is a demand for unquestioning obedience.

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What must an aspiring Scout do to be a member of the world’s leading youth organisation? He must be prepared, of course.

He must help other people, and keep the Scout Law – an admirable set of seven instructions that basically boil down to Bill and Ted’s more pithy maxim: “Be excellent to each other.”  So far, so uncontroversial, but looming above all of this is a rather more troublesome instruction: a Scout must do his duty to God and to the Queen.

When Lord Baden-Powell laid down these instructions over a century ago, he had a specifically Judao-Christian God in mind. In our more multicultural age, this has relaxed to allow members of other faiths and religions access.

You can be a Scout while believing God appears as Shiva, Vishnu or Shakti, that the soul is on a transmigrational journey through seven spiritual planes, or that the Jade Emperor rules over heaven and a pantheon of vexatious deities. It’s a fairly inclusive approach to belief systems, with one exception.

Should you believe, based upon a rational appraisal of scientific evidence and application of reason and logic, that our planet and universe are ruled by nothing more than physical laws, and that humanity and all other living beings are no more than evolving, spiralling coils of self-replicating DNA, the door to the Scout hut is slammed in your little face.

The latest youngster to fall foul of this rank discrimination is 11-year-old George Pratt of Somerset. He made the papers last week after refusing to make a promise to a God in which he does not believe, and being told there is no place for him in the movement.

The gross injustice of this is surely self-evident, and it must be noted that in making a courageous, honest, self-sacrificial stance of principle, George has shown considerably stronger adherence to the spirit of the Scout Law than I did 35 years ago, when I held up three fingers and promised obedience to a god I had already long-since disavowed.          

The international scout and guide movement is a loose, informal family. Several other countries have changed their rules to allow non-theistic young people to take a secular ethical oath. But despite many years of pressure from The British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society and other campaigners, the Scout Association UK has stuck rigidly to its demand for religious faith in its members.

In doing so, it is typical of many (small-c) conservative and traditionalist movements. The privileging of spiritual faith – any faith - over secularism is endemic in our societies. In 2008, Prince Charles agreed that when he succeeds the crown he will not swear to be Defender of the (Anglican) Faith, but simply “Defender of Faith.”

In September this year, the unelected Baroness Warsi was appointed to a new position of ‘Minister for Faith and Communities.” It would be a Sisyphean task to list the manifold ways in which religiosity is presumed through our democracy, institutions and culture, and it is worth considering why.

When the atheist Leo Strauss and his acolytes in post-war Chicago laid out the philosophical foundations of Neoconservatism, they acknowledged that religion is indeed the opiate of the masses. Strauss referred to his own Jewish belief as a heroic delusion. "What is a delusion?” he once asked. “We also say a 'dream.' No nobler dream was ever dreamt. It is surely nobler to be a victim of the most noble dream than to profit from a sordid reality and wallow in it." In Neoconservatism we see the apotheosis of the cynical utility argument. It doesn’t matter whether something is true, all that matters is that people believe in something, anything, beyond evidence.

The demand for supernatural faith is at heart, an insistence upon obedience and unquestioning compliance. It is no coincidence that the Roman Catholic church in particular has long considered heresy – the challenge to orthodox dogma through inquiry or independent thought  - to be a greater threat than apostasy or rebellion, and has policed and punished it accordingly.

In demanding non-specified faith, institutions are saying that it is acceptable to believe in any authority except one’s own; to take guidance from any moral framework except personal conscience. The greatest sedition is independent thought. 

The exclusion of young George Pratt from his local Scout troop is not the most egregious instance of discrimination we will see this year, or even this week. He seems a confident young lad, and doubtless his disappointment will pass. He may also have learned a valuable lesson about how the world works. George, the Scout Association, like many other institutions, is uninterested in your honesty, your integrity, your compassion or your courage. What they really want is your unquestioning obedience.

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