Atheists of Syracuse reflect on the Boy Scouts, its faith and possible progression

Atheists reflect on the Boy Scouts' faith requirement

Published: November 8, 2017
Boy Scouts uniform

Jessica remembers sitting on her back porch as a young girl sewing her own Boy Scout uniform in the hopes that someday she could join a troop as a girl. Her childhood dream that girls would be allowed to join the Boy Scouts recently came true, but as an adult she faces a new challenge with the Boy Scouts. Her 11-year-old transgender daughter is now allowed to join a troop based on her gender identity, but may be barred because of her religious beliefs. 

Jessica will only be referenced in this story by her first name to avoid outing her daughter. 

On Wednesday, October 11, the Boy Scouts of America announced it would be accepting both girls and transgender boys into their organization. Despite the Boy Scouts’ effort to improve its declining membership, the organization stands firm in its denial of atheists and non-religious kids — even though 36 percent of young millennials do not identify with any sort of religion, according to a Pew Research Study done in 2015. Now Jessica, an atheist, is worried the Boy Scouts might prohibit her children from being a part of the same organization that she always wanted join.

Jessica, among several atheist parents in the Syracuse area are asking, if the Boy Scouts are being progressive, when it be acceptable for their kids to become a part of the club.

She commended the Boy Scouts for making strides in gender equality but said she wonders why they haven’t done the same with religion. Pre-transition, Jessica’s daughter was in a troop that didn’t focus on the religious aspects of the organization. But now, Jessica said she wonders if her two sons will experience religious acceptance at another troop.

“Would my kids have to do it in hiding because of their family’s religious beliefs?” she asked.

David Orenstein, an atheist and professor at City University of New York said this discrimination stems from a misunderstanding on the part of the Boy Scouts. “It reaffirms their ignorance and incorrect assumptions that if you’re a non-believer, you’re somehow unpatriotic or un-American,” Orenstein said.

Orenstein pointed out the fact that America didn’t print “In God We Trust” on money, nor did we say the pledge of allegiance until the 1950s.

“None of this is foundational,” Orenstein said. “It’s just lines in the sand that are vestigial and I think they should be challenged.”

The Longhouse Council, serving Onondaga and the surrounding counties, did not return request for comment.

Chris Nielsen, scout leader of Troop 51 in Fayetteville, said when it comes to gender, there is value in separation. Nielsen said he is hesitant about the organization’s decision to include girls.

“I believe there is benefit to gender-based youth organizations,” Nielsen said.

But when it comes to the acceptance and denial of an atheist child, Nielsen said it depends on the individual troop and its leader. He said despite national rules, he makes the exception.

“Is religion an aspect to scouting? Yes. We say duty to God, country and self,” Nielsen said. “But when it comes to people who are non-believers, I only ask that they respect that.”

Nielsen began leading Troop 51 after his eldest son joined and soon his second and third son followed. Nielsen said he likes being able to interact with the boys in the troop and play different roles in their lives.

“It’s a unique position, compared to other organizations. I get to be a lot of different things: a father figure, a big brother, a peer,” Nielsen said. “It’s enjoyable to watch the boys grow, pick up the skills and have fun.”

But Nielsen also said he knows that one bad experience can turn a boy off from the organization forever and he doesn’t want that to be difference of religion.

“We have an atheist boy in my troop,” Nielsen said. “And I tend not to dig too deep into it. As long as he shows respect for these beliefs, then it works for me.”

Nielsen said one of his favorite traditions to do with his troop is called “Scouts Own Service.” It’s a non-denominational event and meant to be a reflection for the troop about their purpose and why they are here.

When asked if many of the boys find their answers relate to God, he said some do and some don’t. Nielsen said the exercise is supposed to make the boys appreciate what they have.

“There are so many facets of the boys growth. I don’t want to focus on one thing,” Nielsen said referring to other leaders’ decision to focus on religion. “This experience is about exposure.”

However, Bryan Oates, an atheist and former Boy Scout, vividly remembers the Scout Law and the religious aspects of the organization.

“There was never any doubt that it was a Christian organization,” Oates said. Among pledging loyalty, kindness and bravery, Oates remembers the last oath most: reverence.

“I am reverent to God,” Oates recalled saying often.

Although raised Catholic, Oates said while in the Boy Scouts, he never took the words seriously, but saw them as something to say so he could play with his friends.

“We were so focused on camping, tying knots and holding rifles,” Oates said. “Most times during prayer I just bowed my head and shut up for a minute.”

Jessica echoed this concern when she asked if her kids would be forced to hide their religion to be a part of the organization. Would her kids just bow their heads and shut up for a minute?

If so, Jessica, Oates and Orenstein all said it just isn’t worth it.