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On my honour, I promise….

largeThe UK Scouts have launched an historic consultation.   Amongst other things they are considering whether or not to introduce a version of the Scout Promise for those who feel uncomfortable promising to do their duty to (or in the case of very young children, to love) God, Allah or their Dharma, as doing so implies belief in a Supreme Being and the acceptance of Divine Guidance.   This consultation has been widely reported in the British press, including the Daily Mail, and deals with an area of concern that is possibly more contentious than opening up Scouting to girls (as the UK Association did in the 1970s) or being actively inclusive and supportive towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members (as happened in the UK in the late 1990s) – and both of these decisions led to resignations of leaders, much public excitement and general upheaval.

Why the rumpus?   Scouting worldwide has defined a number of core principles, in order to distinguish it from other sorts of youth work and to bind the international movement together.   These principles are included within the Constitution of the World Movement and the first  is ” Duty to God – Adherence to spiritual principles, loyalty to the religion that expresses them and acceptance of the duties resulting there-from ”    In the UK, that principle, described as ‘Duty to God’ has, until very recently been enshrined as a ‘Fundamental’ of Scouting.   The UK Trustees have agreed that the Fundamentals should now refer to a set of ‘values’ of Scouting, rather than a set of ‘principles’ – and that those values, (better able to be appreciated by the membership), should be “integrity, respect, care, belief and co-operation.”   “Belief” specifically refers to the exploration of “our faiths, beliefs and attitudes”.    So, the question is now being asked, if our fundamentals no longer specifically refer to a Supreme Being, should we not, as an inclusive organisation, open up our membership to those that have no faith?    Or is an acceptance of a Supreme Being so rooted within Scouting’s DNA that to do so would be inappropriate?

I love Scouting.  It has been part of my life (with a very short holiday from it when I was a sixth former) since I was ten years old.    It has provided me with experiences that have moulded my character and helped to determine my career.    I take the childlike, yet highly sophisticated, words of my Scout Promise (written to be understood by an eleven year old) very seriously.    The concept of ‘honour’ is one I strive to keep.   I really do try to ‘do my best’.    I think the idea of ‘duty’ is an important one.   I genuinely look for ways to ‘help other people’.   Those who know me well will understand that doing my duty to the Queen is, well, a bit of a ‘no-brainer’!   And, because I do have a belief (if not necessarily a very theologically developed one) in a Supreme Being, I have no problem in making my commitment to do my duty to God.

But, whilst that belief might have been typical of generations of young people, men and women in the 20th century, it is no longer true for the population of the United Kingdom in 2012.   The decline in religious observance is accelerating.   The proportion of people describing themselves as having no religion has risen, according to the 2011 Census, to 25 per cent of the population of England & Wales.    If Scouting is going to be a truly inclusive organisation, helping as many young people as possible to make sense of their world, to develop as individuals, to be empowered and to make a positive contribution to society, then, in my opinion, it has to make itself available and welcoming to those 25%, just as, nearly a century ago, it opened itself up to faiths other than Christianity.

Baden-Powell’s book, ‘Scouting for Boys’, published in instalments and read by eager Edwardian youngsters, was a book of its time.   It may have sold almost as many copies as the Bible in its heyday, but it is not a holy text.   Baden-Powell himself was clear that Scouting should move with the times.   He famously said that “”Scouting is a Movement, not an Organization”.   As a Christian, he wanted young people to espouse what he perhaps saw as Christian ideals – courtesy, charity, thrift and honour, courage, and cheerfulness – but he came to realise that these transcended any specific religion or faith.    Our society still values those ideals.   You only have to look at the way in which the United Kingdom revelled in demonstrating them in the summer of 2012 as we hosted the Olympic and Paralympic  Games to see that.   But they are the ideals of a good and just society, not limited to those of religious faith.

Whatever the results of the consultation, Scouting in the UK will, I am sure, continue to recognise the spiritual dimension within its programme.   I believe that young people should try to answer the question, “Why are we here?”  – and are often very, very keen to do so.  Through seeing dawn break at the top of a mountain, watching the glowing embers of a camp-fire,  taking part in service activities supporting the less fortunate, they are often drawn to consider their place within humanity and that consideration sometimes leads to an affirmation of faith or a growing awareness of the spiritual dimension of life.   Scouting should continue to draw out that spiritual dimension in its work and help its members draw their own conclusions – and it should direct young people to places of worship and religious teachers if that is what those young people want.   I believe that an atheist or agnostic leader will be able to do that just as well as an adult who has a faith.  I feel at no more of an advantage than that leader in supporting a young Muslim in helping her to find her own spiritual path; or in helping a young person of no apparent faith to ask the questions that will help them make sense of the world.

So, am I supportive of a version of the Promise that might allow someone of no faith to join me in Scouting?   Absolutely – as long as they respect my desire to make a Promise that includes direct reference to God.   Indeed, I recognise that we have countless leaders and young people already in the Movement who have made and continue to make their Promise with their fingers crossed at the point where duty to God is mentioned.   At last, they might be able to make a genuine and  public commitment to the values of Scouting without feeling hypocritical.

And if that means that the World Organization of the Scout Movement might have to rethink the wording of its Constitution a little, then so be it.    Constitutions can be rewritten.   The life chances of young people and the adults who guide them cannot.

For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that this article, as is the case with all my blog entries, is written in a personal capacity.



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  1. João Armando Gonçalves João Armando Gonçalves

    “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire
    Cheers 🙂
    João Armando

  2. Christine hills Christine hills

    In Australia we say Duty to MY God which really covers all religious or non religious denominations
    I also thought that was the promise In the UK. Chris hills (Queensland. Australia)

  3. I am in agreement with this.
    However as eloquently as anyone makes an argument there will be people that won’t be swayed and I am curious to know how large a group within the Movement is against it and of those how many consider it a deal breaker and leave.
    Whilst I wasn’t old enough to experience the introduction of ladies the biggest change I experienced was when Venture Scouts changed to Explorer Scouts and Scout Network. In my home town there were around 100 Ventures (most over the 18 y/o threshold) in 4 Units and during the overnight switch there became just 3 Networkers and 30-40 Explorers. Sure we climbed to be one of the largest Networks in the country over the next 4 years but losing over half of the 18+ was a shock and as leaders 10 years later there is a ‘missing’ generation of leaders. I doubt half the leaders in the country/world would disappear overnight but there has to be a breaking point at where too many leave.
    We have waiting lists at every section in my group, even if 5% of leaders leave those lists are going to get 6/8/10 young people longer for each leaver and if all are from one section that section (like minded stick together) will collapse with other section leaders unable to take up to what often would be their 3rd role.
    A more inclusive Movement is a better thing but not if we are going to prevent more members in the short run.

    • But you know, you hear this all the time in Scouting “Well, if X happens, thats it I’m off!” but how many of them actually follow through? In my experience, hardly any.

      As a recent Pod Delusion broadcast recently pointed out, there is an EXACT parallel here between the non-religious in scouting and the old Gays In The Military arguments of a few years ago.

      ONe very wise man said at the time that once the decision was made to allow gays in the military, the fuss would vanish – and it did. Now, no one bats and eyelid when you see military parades at the Gay Pride March. The same thing will happen in Scouting, once it is agreed to have a secular promise OPTION, the fuss will vanish.

  4. Troelsfo Troelsfo

    This was a great pleasure to read, thank you!

    The situation in Denmark, and in particular in my own association, the non-denominational Danish Guide and Scout Association (“Det Danske Spejderkorps”), where God has not been a part of the promise since 1973 (they simplified things a bit at that time and put everything in the law so that the promise is just to keep the Scout Law — we promise, in effect, to do our best to find our own faith and respect the faith of others).

    We are, however, currently undertaking a Youth Programme review (using WOSM’s RAP process), and have had occasion to also take a look at the Duty to God. For me one of the key things lies also in a kind of humility both on behalf of one self and on behalf of humanity — neither I nor my race is the apex of creation, and once you start accepting that there is something that has a value that is independent of whether any human exists to attribute that value, then you are, I think, on the road to find spiritual principles. But that road may vary very much from scout to scout, and I agree that the Movement should be able to embrace them all, and to allow them to feel welcome in the Movement.

    The spiritual dimension is, I think, a key element of Scouting, and I see it as an inclusive element — an element that opens up and invites a pluralist movement.

  5. Neev SI Neev SI

    I would think for a lot of people in the Western world in particular, this would simply be a formal arrangement to a situation that has already happened. Particularly in Ireland, amongst my friends and others I know within scouting, most of them are atheist, and amongst my UK scouting friends, I don’t know a single one who is religious. However, I do recall a situation, quite a few years ago now, back when I was a PL, when we were to attend the Scouts Own ceremony to pray for our own beliefs. My patrol kicked up a major ruckus, demanding not to have to go. Though to a certain extent I think they were just trying to make my life difficult as they had never done so before, I nonetheless could see no reason why they, as atheists, should have to attend, as they were all excellent scouts and the APL would be there to supervise them while I was at the Scouts Own. However, this was not allowed and they were made to go. This shouldn’t have been the case. The Italian scout movement CNGEI upholds the values of “the Hike, The Service, and the Belief” being the active part, the community service aspect and your own personal spiritual belief. Your spiritual belief can be anything but you have to have something. Even if you don’t believe in god, you believe in something higher than yourself, be it the universe, fate, that we simply don’t know everything yet. And I think that’s fair, especially as you don’t have to tell people what it is.

    So in many respects, this a progressive idea for the organizational aspect of the Scouts, but it will simply be acknowledging something that has already happened.

  6. James Slocombe James Slocombe

    A generational shift in thinking is about to experience a globalised resistance to change. The debate is courageous, evidence based and necessary; but this road is long and dusty. My worries do not rest with the consultation in the UK, I worry about those we leave behind. Particularly the US. It was Roosevelt who said “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” For NSAs who find TSA’s inclusion and diversity framework hard to swallow, there is still a tremendous amount of catching up to do…

    • John Dickin John Dickin

      Excellent comment James … As a life time TSA member (I joined in 1957) I’m really pleased with the progress of Scouting in the UK over the last 10 years … dedicated, intuitive & enlightened leadership at all levels … the struggle to make very important & relevant change is really worthwhile

  7. “So, am I supportive of a version of the Promise that might allow someone of no faith to join me in Scouting? Absolutely – as long as they respect my desire to make a Promise that includes direct reference to God.”

    And I can assure you that even the most hard-core secularist will be right behind you there. NO ONE wants to ‘get rid’ of the Religious Promise, not even the country’s leading secularists and humanists want that.

    This article is I think very supportive.

    All they want is an alternative OPTION among the many list of alternative options already available on the promise that would allow the non-religous (not just atheists) to take a promise they would feel comfortable with.

    When that happens, EVERYONE will be able to play the great game of Scouting, which as his writing on this subject clearly show, is exactly what BP wanted.

  8. Great post. My personal view though is to ask why we need to have an “alternative” promise – why not have a single promise to cover everyone? And if that means dropping the “Duty to God” in the promise then is that a problem? If the intention of the Fundamentals is to make good citizens, then starting that with “oh, you’ll want to make ‘that’ promise” doesn’t engender someone with a sense of belonging.
    After all, we don’t make a promise for each of the other elements of the fundamentals!

  9. Ewan Scott Ewan Scott

    Thank you for saying what many of us have been saying at grassroots for years. Let’s make Scouting more honest and more inclusive.

  10. I totally support your idea of having two versions of the promise.

    In the catholic scout association of Germany (DPSG), we don’t have a fixed text for our promise. It depends on the person and the traditions of the local scout group what someone promises.
    Usually, the promise will include following the scout law, of course. But in our formulation of the scout law, there is no reference to God either. It only says “… stehe ich zu meiner Herkunft und meinem Glauben”, which means “… I stand by my origin and my faith”. (Don’t know if this is a good translation…)

    After reading your acticle on using English properly, I hope I didn’t make too many mistakes…

  11. Andrew B Andrew B

    Surely the UK promise is going to be changing in the next several years anyway, when the inevitable happens and the Queen either steps down from office, or passes on, then Charles will take over the throne, which will mean the promise will have to be changed from “Queen” to “King”. I believe that reference to religion should be dropped at this time, and replace “Queen/King” to “Country”. That way, Scouting can be united worldwide under the same promise, making us a truly global movement.

    • What about people in Taiwan where they are part of China but many prefer to be their own nation? Just one such example, I’m sure there are several others… But hey, if the world is going to agree on anything it might as well be the Scout Promise…

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