Why the BSA Will Not Admit Atheists Any Time Soon

January 30, 2013

The Boy Scouts of America appears to be ready to take a small, but significant step forward by changing its national policy prohibiting gay scouts. This is good news. Unfortunately, the BSA will continue to exclude atheists, and I predict the organization will continue to do this for some time.

I applaud the BSA for reconsidering its policy barring gay scouts. A policy reversal is long overdue, but better late than never. Admittedly, the change in policy, if it is confirmed next week, will only end discrimination by the national organization. Local scout councils will retain the discretion to ban gay scouts based on the “best interests” of the local group. So the BSA change is a baby step. Still, CFI is a strong supporter of LGBT rights and we are encouraged by any movement toward social and civil equality for members of the LGBT community.

Of course, the BSA continues to demand belief in God as a condition for membership. In other words, atheists and other nontheists are excluded. Given the BSA’s willingness to reconsider its position on gay scouts, is it possible the organization will soon reverse its position on exclusion of atheist scouts?

I don’t think so. First, there is the practical matter that many local scout groups are sponsored by churches or other religious bodies. Many of these local groups have already indicated they are unlikely to admit gay scouts. They are even less likely to admit atheist scouts.

Second, the pressure felt by the national organization to change its policy came in part from the withdrawal of support by some major corporate sponsors. These corporations recognized it is bad for business to be associated with an anti-gay organization. Reality check: being known as an anti-atheist organization does not currently have the same business implications.

But there are other reasons as well. As I wrote in an essay for the Huffington Post last year, discrimination against atheists is a different beast than discrimination against members of the LGBT community. LGBT individuals have probably suffered more from the effects of discrimination than atheists in recent times, in part because it’s easier for atheists to remain closeted. However, prejudice against gays and lesbians may be easier to overcome than prejudice against atheists.

Gays are different, but they don’t send the message that heterosexuals are mistaken about their sexuality. On the other hand, not only are atheists different, but explicitly or implicitly, they are telling the faithful that they’re mistaken about a core commitment (for some the core commitment) of their lives.

Another key difference between being gay and being an atheist is that no one can persuade you to be gay. The religious, however, are susceptible to arguments that their religious beliefs have no foundation. If your straight son shares a pup tent with a gay scout, you may worry about his engaging in some “immoral” act, but unless you’re a crazy you’re not going to worry that he’s going to turn gay. But what if he comes home from the jamboree with a copy of The God Delusion in his knapsack?

Finally, understanding why the BSA excludes atheists also indicates why it will be difficult for them to admit atheists. The BSA, as is true with many individual Americans, holds that there is a necessary connection between God and morality. Atheists are excluded not so much because they have a different understanding of the universe, but because with God absent from their lives they do not have a secure moral foundation. The supposed connection between God and morality is critical for religious institutions and believers. Indeed, it’s the last card they have to play.

The intellectual arguments in favor of God’s existence are a joke, and have been ever since the argument from design was laid to rest. Fear of death motivates some believers, but increasingly less so. If believers can’t claim that God is indispensable for morality, what basis do they have for convincing people of the need for religion?

Allowing atheists to become scouts would constitute a tacit admission that we don’t need God for morality. And if we don’t need him for that, what do we need him for?

Don’t expect the BSA to change its policy on admitting atheists in the near future.