Scouts' honour questioned over its exclusion of the non-religious

By staff writers
February 2, 2008

Two leading organisations speaking for the concerns of non-religious people in the UK have challenged a major youth organisation over its exclusion of non-believers, in spite of its repeated claims to be open and inclusive.

Following a meeting at the Scout Association, the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society have written a joint letter to Derek Twine, the Association’s chief executive, saying that if they are unwilling to change their policy of excluding people with non-religious beliefs from Scouting, "they should at least be honest about it on their website and in their publications and communications."

The meeting was arranged to discuss a joint submission from the BHA and NSS to the Scout Association which called on the Association to open its doors to the growing number of young people with non-religious beliefs (some 65% of 12-19 year olds) who are currently excluded by the requirement to make the Scout promise to God, and to adults who are currently prevented from obtaining a warranted appointment.

“We were disappointed by the Scout Association’s response to our arguments”, said BHA chief executive, Hanne Stinson. “It was quite clear that there was no prospect of any change on the mandatory religious promise soon or in the foreseeable future, and they did not seem in the least concerned about the impact of their discriminatory policy on young people, or on society.”

The Scouts require that their promise is explicity made to God, and prohibit a general affirmation of the kind that both believers and non-believers use in courts and elsewhere. This means that the non-religious either have to make a promise they do not believe or are refused admission.

Ms Stinson said: “The way they described the Scout Association was as a religious organisation (Mike Goodison, the Chair of Association, said that one of its purposes was for Scouts to grow in a ‘full expression of their faith’), but if that is the case, it is quite unacceptable for the Scouts to present themselves as ‘inclusive’ and ‘open to all’ as they do on their website and in other material."

She continued: "At local level, the Scouts obtain considerable amounts of statutory funding, and last year the Scout Association received a grant of £1.5 million from the Government for its international jamboree, on the basis of their inclusivity. And that is quite simply dishonest.”

The joint letter to the Scout Association concluded: “We invite you in the interests of transparency, and indeed of honesty, to make unambiguously clear in your communications that the organisation is a religious one and to proscribe the Association and local groups from claiming to be open to all, inclusive, or committed to equal opportunities. We ask you to include an accurate description of the Association on websites and in promotional materials and, even more importantly, in communications with potential donors and public bodies making grants or making facilities available free or at a subsidy.”

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, expressed sadness at the apparent intransigence of the Scouts on this issue, and said he hoped that those of deep religious conviction would also object to the effective exclusion of principled non-religious young people from a major, highly-regarded body.

"Making profession of religious belief mandatory for participation in a supposedly open public body which receives statutory funding is surely unjust, objectionable and unacceptable in a plural society," he said. "It also violates of the freedom of belief which many Christians and others hold to be key to the integrity of faith as something that can never be imposed, because it is a matter of grace and gift."

He added: "I hope people of faith will join with non-religious people in courteously but persistently pointing out to the Scout Association, and to the statutory bodies that give them public money, how wrong and unacceptable their stance is - a clear and regrettable abrogation of 'Scout's honour'."

"The exclusion of the non-religious is also classic example of the 'Christendom mentality' that faith should be made normative in civic life, irrespective of the beliefs and convictions of others," commented Barrow. "Such an approach is deeply counter-productive. It brings genuine, free religious conviction into disrepute, associating it with compulsion and privilege, rather than love, truthfulness and peaceableness."

The British Humanist Association (BHA) promotes non-religious ethics and works against the privileging of specific belief systems in public life. It also cooperates with individuals and organisations from faith communities on common concerns. The National Secular Society (NSS) is known for its more robust anti-religious stance and promotes a version of secularism based on atheism.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.