Kate Abbott | Longreads | July 2017 | 11 minutes (2,730 words)

My 8-year-old son Henry believes in Santa but not in God. I frequently question when to break the news about Santa, but I’ve never worried about his religious beliefs, or lack of them. He is so young; surely existential questions can wait. At least that’s what I thought before the Cub Scouts required him to choose between his own beliefs and a desire to go camping with newfound friends.

Friends are a problem in his life right now. Henry has had to jump from school to school in his short scholastic career, and since we’ve moved to a new town, he’s had trouble making new pals. My friend is a Girl Scout leader, and her daughters enjoy Girl Scouts, so after a particularly lonely day for my kid, I thought, why not try Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts for younger kids? I imagined boys in uniforms with caps and kerchiefs, huddled around a campfire after a day of hiking and learning to tie knots. I had visions of Scouts helping an old lady cross the street. I thought of Henry learning the names of plants and constellations and, most importantly, the names of other boys in the pack. I emailed the nearest den leader right away.

Convincing my shy, reluctant joiner to go to a den meeting exhausted me, but when we finally got there he played with the other boys during free time near the end of the meeting, which was more playtime than he’d spent with any kids recently at all. He ran into the living room where I had been talking with the den leader and his wife, all smiles and out of breath. “We’d love to join,” I said.

We were all in: we drove 40 minutes to the closest “Scout store” and the adult Scout employee picked out all of the required bits of clothing and ornaments, down to official Cub Scout socks. I didn’t even blink when the register totaled $148.66. I handed over my credit card and told Henry he was going to have so much fun. He even seemed to think so. His enthusiasm increased and I didn’t flinch when I met with the pack leader later in the week to officially register him. I signed off on the forms freely, not reading them carefully enough, and gladly wrote a check for $100 (the fee for registration and a pack t-shirt). As I saw it, I was paying for more than stuff; I was paying for instant companionship and camaraderie.

At the next meeting, Henry balked at wearing the uniform, but I reminded him that Grandma had spent four hours sewing on all his starter patches and all the other boys would be wearing it too. He deemed the uniform “hideous” but put it on. He really wanted to try because he knew I wanted him to try.

We joined Scouts midyear, so we started off already “behind” what the other kids in the den had done and we would need to work at home to “catch up” on requirements before April. (Feeling slightly contrary already, I asked “Or what?” but I didn’t really get an answer.) Still, we had committed, so we taught ourselves how to tie a square knot by watching YouTube and I signed off as we sped through the basic requirements in the official Cub Scout handbook (spiral-bound edition, because it was far superior to the paperback edition, the guy at the Scout store had assured me). We were going to do this right, down to the spiral-edition book.

Henry has had to jump from school to school in his short scholastic career, and since we’ve moved to a new town, he’s had trouble making new pals.

When we got to the next requirement on the list, though, I had to pause. This one was called “Duty to God” and consisted of several parts. We would have to complete part 1 and choose some of the options from part 2.

I immediately flashed back to that first den meeting, before we had signed up. I specifically asked the den leader if there was a religious component to the Scouts, because we were not religious, and some other parents involved in Cub and Boy Scouts I knew were religious, but I was assured that it would not be “a big deal.” The leader, a pleasant, mustached man my age wearing a Scout uniform, said, “We let you handle that at home however you think is best.” Great, I thought. I will think totally ignoring it is best. But, as I flipped through the official handbook, I saw that was not an option.

As I dove into the Duty to God requirements, I began doing all the mental and spiritual gymnastics I could to make this work for us and our beliefs — or lack of beliefs. I personally believe in a God, but I am not religious and my family does not follow any particular faith. Henry does not believe in God at all, and I respect that. But the more I read from the handbook, the more I saw that the Boy Scouts of America did not.

Requirement 1A: Visit a religious monument or site where people might show reverence.

“Well, it doesn’t say that the Scout has to worship there himself,” I pointed out to Henry, sitting next to me. “We can find someplace to go and it will be a good way to learn about another culture.” He nodded. I mentioned some places nearby we could visit. “Oh, there’s a PokéStop there!” he said. Maybe this would be OK.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

The next page featured a painting of a rather formidable man in uniform, apparently Robert Baden-Powell, who “started Boy Scouts in England more than 100 years ago.” The handbook says he “taught Scouts to be reverent toward God, to respect each other’s religion, and to treat each other like brothers.” Sure, respecting other religions is a noble goal.

I continued to read aloud to Henry: “ ‘Every Scout should have a religion,’ he said. ‘Religion seems a very simple thing. First: Love and serve God. Second: Love and serve your neighbor.’” I stopped. “Maybe you could go play while I look through here some more?” He ran upstairs and I prepared for a long afternoon.

“Every Scout should have a religion?” I twisted my head around that statement and thought that maybe this didn’t mean a literal religion, more like a philosophy of doing good? That could work, right? I convinced myself and moved on.

We were all in: we drove 40 minutes to the closest “Scout store.” I didn’t even blink when the register totaled $148.66.

Requirement 1B: Create a visual display of your [religious site] visit […] and show how it made you feel reverent or helped you better understand your duty to God.

Well, if we thought of God as a philosophy or concept of doing good, this could work…but it was becoming increasingly harder to persuade myself, and I wondered how I would explain any of this to my atheist son.

Requirement 2A: Give two ideas on how you can practice your duty to God. Choose one, and do it for a week.

Still with a positive make-it-work mindset, I read the book’s suggestion that Scouts “can share how praying to God helps you when you are worried or scared.” In previous attempts to introduce my son to prayer, he has looked at me with the curiosity of a cultural anthropologist but never took any interest in actually doing it himself. This approach would not be one he could follow. Maybe I could tell him that we could substitute meditation here? How to explain the difference between meditation and prayer? What was the exact separation of meditation and prayer? This was way more than I expected when I sat down earlier in the day to learn to tie some knots.

Requirement 2B: Read a story about people or groups of people who came to America to enjoy religious freedom.

Henry has been learning about the Pilgrims from Europe in social studies. Still, the handbook only talks of those coming here to “practice their religions freely.” It does not mention people who choose not to follow a religion. Shouldn’t religious freedom also extend to those who do not have one?

Requirement 2C: Learn and sing a song that could be sung in reverence before or after meals, or one that gives encouragement, reminds you of how to show reverence, or demonstrates your duty to God.

This one stumped me. We do not say (or sing) grace before meals, as the handbook suggests. The book goes on to explain that “songs of hope and faith are written during difficult times to show patriotism, respect for our nation, and reverence for the bravery of our people.” Maybe we could get away with “God Bless America”? Henry says the Pledge of Allegiance, and cruises past the God reference, so he could probably do the same here.

I think of my vision of Henry being “one of the guys,” of hiking on a clear day through a forest, sketching animal tracks and laughing with his new buddies.

It’s just a word, right? Just one word. He could do this.

Requirement 2D: Offer a prayer, meditation, or reflection with your family, den, or pack.

“In Scouting, we use prayers to show reverence,” the handbook informs me. It says we can look through the Boy Scouts of America pamphlet “A Scout Is Reverent” for some prayers and to “have your parents or guardians help you select some that support your family’s beliefs.” An example prayer: “For health, strength, and daily food, we give you thanks, O God.”

I sigh and put the book down. I don’t think it’s possible to select a prayer to God that my son would actually believe in. But maybe he could fake it. God might just be a word he could mumble while saying the pledge, or even sing. Isn’t it worth that in the name of socializing and bonding with other boys and making new friends?

And yet…there was a heavy feeling in my chest that this was wrong. Do I want him to feel he must pretend to believe something he doesn’t just to make friends? Would any parent in the history of parenting ever advise their child to just go along with what the other kids are saying and doing, even if you don’t think it’s right?

I’ve made it to the last page of the Duty to God requirements. (Thank God.) The last line of the section: “Follow the guidelines of your family’s faith when you pray, and be respectful of how other Scouts show their faith.” The Scouts clearly will accept any faith, but what about being respectful when other Scouts do not have a faith?

As in all times of trouble, I turned to Google. Maybe I was fundamentally misunderstanding something about this handbook’s explanation of the task. I had to be.

I easily found clarification on Scouting’s official blog. And it was impossible to misinterpret.

Again, a large quotation from Robert Baden-Powell, from 1908: “No man is much good unless he believes in God and obeys his laws. So every Scout should have a religion.”

When we got to the next requirement on the list, though, I had to pause. This one was called “Duty to God” and consisted of several parts.

I let that sink in. Nope, there were no mental gymnastics or rationalizations I could make that would twist that statement around to make it more inclusive. The article spells it out: “We should help Scouts and their families come to realize that a belief in God is integral to Scouting and is a key element in character building.” It (rather defensively) claims that this “does not reflect a change in BSA policy.” So, the Scouts do require a belief in God and always have (although all of the older former Scouts I have talked with maintain that religion was not a component of their Scouting experience).

My caring, non-believer husband and I talked. “You know I don’t agree with any of that,” he said. “But do what you guys think is best.” I called Henry down to help make dinner. I said as casually as I could, staring at my skillet and not his face, that one of the requirements for Scouts was called Duty to God, and to do the parts of the task, you had to believe in God.

Henry thought for a bit, and then said, “Can you ask my den leader if we can just skip that requirement?”

A most reasonable solution that would surely yield a reasonable answer. I emailed the den leader and the pack leader after dinner and awaited their reply like it was a college acceptance letter.

I didn’t have to wait long. I got a call from the pack leader, even though it was almost my son’s bedtime on a Sunday night. When someone calls you instead of writing back, you know something is up.

I was informed that the Duty to God requirement is, in fact, required and cannot be skipped. I said that my Scout does not believe in God. The leader assured me that my family could handle fulfilling that requirement however we wished. I asked again if belief in God is still an official requirement, whether or not we personally fudged it, and she agreed that yes, technically, it is.

Henry had crept down the stairs and was snuggling next to me. I put my arm around him. “I am not sure that I would feel comfortable lying about doing this requirement,” I said into the phone. I looked at Henry, staring off into the wall with a pained expression. “You know, actually, I don’t know that I’m comfortable having my son in a group that excludes people on their lack of religion.”

“I understand that and whatever you decide is perfectly OK,” she said.

“I need to talk with Henry,” I told her. I didn’t have to say much. He had heard my side of the conversation. But I explained the situation again, and watched his face fall. “I just wanted to go camping,” he said quietly.

Many people have suggested that it is just his specific den or his specific pack that has this emphasis on religion. Actually, his den/pack is one of the more liberal in this sense, since they have said they would overlook his lack of faith. The official Scouting policy, for all packs, is that you must believe in God. The emphasis that a particular den or pack places on this might differ, but it is still there. And clearly the Scouts feel it is important enough to their mission to make it a requirement.

The Scouts are a private organization and they can set their own conditions for membership. It’s perfectly legal for them to discriminate based on a lack of religion. But is it moral? Is it moral to exclude anyone, much less children, based on their religious beliefs? Of course not. So why should it be moral to exclude children on their lack of religious beliefs? Would it be moral for my son to hide and lie about his personal beliefs just to be in a club? I can’t think of anything less moral (or what I think of as Scout-like) than lying about what you believe to be right.

The Scouts should change their policy regarding God, but if they choose not to, this requirement should be made abundantly clear to new families immediately. When Scouts recruit at public schools, do they mention this? When parents come to a first meeting with questions, do they reiterate how serious this is? Or do they only let parents discover what exactly they have enrolled their children in after the boys get excited, after they join a den and start to make friends, after their parents register them for $100, buy their $149 uniforms and handbooks and starter badges, and their grandmas sew on patches for four hours?

We quit the Cub Scouts that night. I came away from this Scouting experience angry, frustrated, and disappointed with Scouting, but proud of my son for not wanting to bow to pressure, even from me, to fit in.

Henry, meanwhile, is excited to take art classes, LEGO engineering classes, and swim lessons in the coming months. My friend and her Girl Scout daughters are going to plan a campout with us and our ex-Cub Scout. He is excited to have started in July at what will hopefully be his last new school for a long time.

“Well,” he said to me the day after he quit, “at least we learned how to tie some knots.” And we know when to cut ties, too.

* * *

Kate Abbott is the author of the YA novel Disneylanders and the memoir Walking After Midnight. She lives in Northern California with her husband, son, little scruffy dog, tiny parrot, and a lot of fish.

Editor: Sari Botton