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From the March, 2003
issue of Touchstone

 

Scouts & God by Phillip E. Johnson

Scouts & God

The New York Times reported on November 3, 2002, that a Seattle-area Eagle Scout named Darrell was asked to reconsider his outspoken atheism or leave the Boy Scouts. That this local story received national coverage doubtless reflects the determination of the elite press to take any opportunity to embarrass the Scouts for having excluded homosexual scoutmasters in an attempt to avoid the kind of catastrophe that has engulfed the Catholic Church. Darrell joined the Scouts at age nine and dropped his belief in God five years later, after studying evolution in ninth grade. Thereafter, when reciting the Boy Scout Oath, he either mumbled or omitted the words by which the scout swears to do his duty “to God.”

No one took notice, and Darrell achieved the top scout rank of Eagle in high school despite making no effort to hide his atheism. Seattle-area scouting officials decided to make an issue of his unbelief only after Darrell, now a 19-year-old college freshman and a volunteer leader in a troop headed by his own mother, disputed the statement of a scouting official at a training session for adult leaders that an atheist could advance in scouting only by lying about his beliefs. Scouting officials have so far held firm to their position that, however worthy he may be in other respects, a Boy Scout cannot fulfill his obligation to be “reverent,” or take in good faith the Boy Scout Oath, if he denies that God exists.

It is not likely that the courts will intervene, since the Supreme Court held in the “gay scoutmasters” case that the Scouts have a right to set their own membership standards. So this ruling will stand unless the officials are swayed by petitions on behalf of Darrell from local Scouts and their parents, or similar letters in the newspapers.

My own interest is not to attack or defend the decision, but to explore the problem it exposes. If it is important to the Boy Scouts that their members be and remain believers in God, then they need to make some effort to protect the boys under their care from the predictable effects of the teaching of evolution, that “universal acid,” to use Daniel Dennett’s classic phrase, which has dissolved the religious faith of so many. Perhaps there should be a merit badge for understanding the evolution controversy, including knowledge of the truth about the Haeckel embryo drawings, the Cambrian explosion, and the peppered moth story, as well as the philosophical assumptions that generate the theory. Darrel Lambert was concededly an outstanding Scout in every respect except his atheism, and my inference is that he is also a perceptive student who grasped not only the literal meaning but also the unstated implications of what he read in the textbooks about evolution and learned from other sources.

No doubt there are many youths who could get a good grade in an evolution course without ever perceiving that Darwin’s theory implies agnosticism or something near it, and there are many more adults who, having lost their faith in God, will say the words of a creed if that is necessary to qualify for something that they want to do. Like the churches, the Scouts need leaders who firmly endorse their basic premises, and who know why they believe in them, so their belief does not collapse when it encounters another way of thinking that happens to be culturally dominant for now. Lukewarm and wavering semi-believers may do more damage than outright unbelievers, who at least fly their own colors. That being the case, the Scouts have to be concerned about youths who are being taught a way of thinking that undermines biblical theism at a fundamental level, even if the contradiction is blurred or even concealed much of the time to avoid alarming the public.

But what can they do about that concern? I imagine Scout leaders responding that their job is demanding enough as it is, and that they have to rely on the schools and the churches to do their own jobs. That is fair enough, and I would agree if I did not know that the schools are teaching or insinuating evolutionary naturalism, and most churches are doing very little about it.

The totem of “science,” based on a naturalistic epistemology, is so powerful in our culture that nearly all institutions assume that they have no alternative but to accept not only its conclusions but also its modes of reasoning. If a weakened and gradually disappearing deity is the only one that is acceptable to science, then it seems that we may have to settle for that, if the alternative would bring us into conflict with science.

For now, the Boy Scouts and the churches have a legal privilege to practice what the legal and media cultures consider to be irrational discrimination, whether on the basis of sexual orientation or of religious belief, but I would not give that privilege a long life expectancy. The important thing in a culture conflict is not the current legal rules, but possession of the moral high ground. The rules change constantly in a culture based upon ideas of evolution and “progress,” and one rule that is dissolving rapidly is the distinction between public and private institutions. A private organization may defy the dominant moral creed as long as it remains below the media radar screen, but pressure can be brought to bear whenever the dominant forces decide that some obstacle to their control of the culture has become intolerable.

For now, the law may allow the Boy Scouts to exclude atheists and homosexuals, but is it right for them to do so? That question will trouble the Scouts continually until the culture is persuaded again that God really is our creator rather than merely a product of the human imagination, and that he cares about what we do sufficiently to build a moral code into the bedrock of reality.


Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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