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Boy Scouts and Religion

Updated on September 1, 2013

Do you have to be Religious to be a Boy Scout?

Involvement in scouting can be a positive youth experience on so many levels. Skills that are not taught in school are learned, and bonding with a different group of children in outdoor environments, including hiking and camping can lead to positive childhood memories.

But there is another side that has left some parents and kids concerned. Do you have to believe in God to be a scout? What role, if any, does religion play in dedicating yourself to the organization's qualities?

Woven throughout the purposes, oaths, laws and values of both cub scouting (for boys in 1st through 5th grade) and boy scouts (6th grade and above) are numerous references to God and the importance of religious education and observances.

Although the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is non-sectarian, it does highly encourage religious observances. Special patches can be earned for wearing uniforms to church or synagogue during Scout Anniversary week. In addition, it is an honor to be awarded with their religious emblem of their faith.

Before scouts can advance in ranks, they have to show an understanding of how their own faith and religious observances compliment the foundational values of scouting. Of course, all of this may be difficult to reconcile in the minds of children raised in atheist families, or those that do not have clearly defined religious beliefs.

Scouting Purposes

The purposes of Cub Scouting (for boys) are listed in the various handbooks (Tiger, Bear, Wolf and Webelos scouts) as:

  1. Character Development
  2. Spiritual Growth
  3. Good Citizenship
  4. Sportsmanship and Fitness
  5. Family Understanding
  6. Respectful Relationships
  7. Personal Achievement
  8. Friendly Service
  9. Fun and Adventure
  10. Preparation for Boy Scouts

If religion is not required for advancement, then how is "Spiritual Growth," the second item listed above defined? In fact, it is not explicitly set forth in the handbooks, or leadership guides. And, if you delve a little deeper, you will see that the Cub Scout's 12 Core Values are:

  1. Citizenship
  2. Compassion
  3. Cooperation
  4. Courage
  5. Faith
  6. Health and Fitness
  7. Honesty
  8. Perseverance
  9. Positive Attitude
  10. Resourcefulness
  11. Respect
  12. Responsibility

"Faith" is described as "Having inner strength and confidence based on our trust in God."

Boy Scouts of America
Boy Scouts of America

Scouting is Non-Sectarian

The handbooks make it clear that the Boy Scouts of America is completely non-sectarian, that is - no particular religion is advanced.

However, there is a clear emphasis on "duty to God," and an apparent requirement that the boys have some faith-based relationship with a higher power. In other words, atheists may find it difficult to feel comfortable within the organization.

As a den leader myself, I found it very difficult to lead a discussion recently with my group of ten boys about two ways they believed they had lived according to their religious beliefs. This was required before the children could earn their Webelos ranks. One child in my group insisted that he had no religious beliefs. So, we tried to bring it down to the level of the Golden Rule instead. But as the boys continue forward in scouts (they are only in the 4th grade), I anticipate potential future issues if some of them do not have a firmly established faith.

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has a connection with P.R.A.Y, a non-profit organization that stands for Program for Religious Activity with Youth. Boys are encouraged to visit the website to determine which religious emblem they can earn, among other advancements.

The Fleur de Lis is a symbol of the BSA
The Fleur de Lis is a symbol of the BSA

The Cub Scout Promise

I, [scout says his name], promise

To do my best

To do my duty to God

And my country

To help other people, and

To obey the Law of the Pack

Handbooks explain that "Your duty to God is done with God's help. That means you practice your religion at home, in your church or synagogue or other religious group, and in everything that you do."

Scout Law

A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

Again, handbooks explain the "reverent" element of the Scout Law, as "A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others."

Scout Oath

On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

There are three main parts to the oath (which is said by boys that have crossed over from cubs into boy scouts). The first is to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law. Handbooks emphasize that "your family and religious leaders teach you to know and serve God." Once again, religion plays a key role in the organization's promises and practices.

Boy Scouts and Religion

Religion is a core component to the practices of the Boy Scouts of America.

Challenges to this focus and the organization's apparent exclusion of atheists have been dismissed by reviewing courts. For now, the BSA can continue requiring boys to devote themselves to God and their County, primarily because it is a voluntary organization.

Perhaps the saving grace, if you will, is that there is no mandate to follow any particular religion.

Today, you can find Muslims, as well as Jews, Buddhists and Christians involved in the BSA.

Theoretically, you could even create your own religion and, as long as you dedicate your life to following its religious beliefs, you can fully participate in the scouting organization.


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Get religion out of Scouting and keep it out.

      For as long as religious groups have existed they have persecuted one another. Only recently have interfaith groups been springing up. In the US since the 1950's, thanks to the McCarthy witch-hunts atheists have been especially persecuted and are actively persecuted today. Why is this? Well at the time is was rule of thumb Government policy due to the fear of the Soviets. The warped logic goes communists are atheist; atheists do not believe in God therefore all atheists must be communists.

      Communists may be Atheist most atheists are not communist. Atheism is based on knowledge, not politics. It is not that we do not believe in God. It has nothing to do with belief. That is a faith-based word. It is that thanks to our understanding of geology, biology, psychology and every other ology but theology we have come to see that gods are man made constructs, myths and legends often used to have power and control over others. By making it difficult for atheists to join the Scouts and forcing religion on those that squeak in is an example of the religious using this perceived power over others. Say you believe in God and you can have fun and friends too.

      The light of this, understanding and education, is now shining into the darkest corners of religion, exposing it, in many ways, for the fraud that those who choose to open their eyes and minds can easily see. Most 8 year olds can see the contortions that the religious go through to 'prove' their truth. No matter how you say it 2+2 does not equal 5. Then when they question it most are scared, and thus mentally scarred, into accepting something they know is not right. As Mark Twain said, "Faith is believing something you know ain't true"

      The right to freedom of religion is protected in the constitution but so is the right to have none.

      Unfortunately the religious over rule the rights of the non-religious daily. Mainly thinking, incorrectly, that if they crush the non-religious they will go away and they can keep their power positions. As the growth in non-religious numbers year on year show, this strategy is not working.

      Most people who arrive at atheism have at least thought about the matter, often quite deeply and profoundly. Not just accepting the religious dogma thrust upon them. Once you have reasoned it through you cannot go back to believing in something you know does not exist. More importantly you do not become a bad person because of that realisation. You realise that your decision to be good or not is yours not a divinely enforced one. Atheists make good citizens. They certainly constitute the lowest percentage of prison inmates compared to the religious.

      Everyone wants their children to have the best education possible so that, hopefully they can have better lives than their parents. The youth of today are getting that better education and with that they recognise their right to be non-religious. With the emphasis on being religious, the BSA and scouting worldwide are losing the thinking Scouts of today but more importantly the Scout leaders of tomorrow.

      By doggedly insisting in a strong religious element in Scouting in the 21st century the Scouting movement is continuing to usurp the constitutional rights of the non-religious and putting the huge societal benefits of Scouting at risk.

      Atheists are good people they are just not God people. Why would you not want good people in an organization like the Scouts?

      What is wrong with

      Scout Oath

      On my honor, I will do my best

      To do my duty according to my beliefs and my country;

      To obey the Scout Law;

      To help other people at all times;

      To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      7 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Excellent ideas, lonestar! I am leading a new group of cub scouts (my youngest son) and having to address concerns of several parents regarding the religious aspects of the organization. Thanks for the great comment, Steph

    • lone77star profile image

      Rod Martin Jr 

      7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Steph, interesting article. Glad I finally stumbled upon it. Certainly you pose an interesting challenge.

      I think tolerance and support for individual beliefs is a good approach. But perhaps you can discuss various religious beliefs and the various plus-points of each religion. As part of the scout's "spiritual" growth, such tolerance helps them become better citizens, but the details of each religion help them appreciate differences and similarities. Perhaps placing these in the context of a larger purpose -- like spiritual awakening or recognizing one's non-physical aspect -- can prove helpful in understanding what religion, in-general, is all about.

      For the agnostic, this remains sufficiently "unknowable." Helping the scout to remain humble when faced with such subjects helps them become less opinionated and more a participant than a separate (perhaps know-it-all) lone wolf.

      As for the atheist scout, simply appeal to their sense of scientific unknown. If there is spirit, science cannot prove or disprove it. If indeed spirit is a part of our existence, then any good scientist is not going to say "yes" or "no" to it, at least from a strictly scientific stance.

      Fifty years ago and more, I enjoyed scouting myself. But that was an entirely different world in those days.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I've been a boyscout for years. The last years I became agnostic. My son attends a pack and I'm his leader. In my pack they don't enforce the religious part, most of them know I'm agnostic and don't have a problem. I think the whole religious stuff comes from the belief (wrong in my opinion) that you have to have a religion in order to be a good person. In that way, you are a good person because you fear/love a high power who can punish/reward you based on your acts. I think this is an interested way to be good person. I believe you have to be a good person because you like it, because you want to live in a fair society and give your sons the best world you can. I think for this purpose you don't need a deity. I wouldn't remove the religious feature from the boyscouts, just make it optional, ask something about being spiritual to the agnostics/atheists. You don't need religion to be spiritual.

    • Rick Feguer profile image

      Rick Feguer 

      7 years ago from Lansing, Michigan

      and to cub mom... the activities, and service work, and preperation for life, is in my opinion what the BSA is about... how different are your values and ethics than any other religion you know? i also would sugest letting your child choose his own belifs... if at home he does not learn about religion than let him learn about it in the BSA and decide weither or not HE believes... just because you do not believe does that mean you have to take that choice away from your child? i was given a choice as a child... and first chose atheism then agnosticism. as i grew i found my own faith in my own beliefs... did you tell your child right away SANTA wasn't real? FAITH, HOPE in something better than what we have how is that a bad thing?

    • Rick Feguer profile image

      Rick Feguer 

      7 years ago from Lansing, Michigan

      As an agnostic and former boy scout I know the BSA does promote religious beliefs but this “spiritual growth” and “faith” do not necessarily mean having to be religious… I consider myself spiritual though I do not recognize any one religion. I believe in the spirit of humanity and have faith in good will…

      It is easiest to recognize through religious belief but faith or hope does not have to come from religion… even as a former atheist I would say that Faith is Hope… and HOPE is all we as humans in an imperfect world have. It is also a good way to promote morals… while we may not believe in sin there is a difference between right and wrong.

    • profile image

      cub mom 

      8 years ago

      Our son joined Cub Scouts this year, and we were really surprised by the emphasis on religion. We thought Cub Scouts would be recreational and community service-based. My husband and I are not at all religious and have raised our children with the golden rule and ethical conduct in mind, not religion. I have to say that Scouting's emphasis on God makes us uncomfortable; though we like a lot of the activities and service work the Scouts do, we will probably (sadly) pull our son out next year.

    • oceansnsunsets profile image


      8 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      The encouragement for the boys to try do good and their part in life is a great thing. I too was a cub scout leader for 4 years, and a co leader for years before that. It allows for all worldviews and religions, and is encouraging good, and I think that is wonderful. I think we can observe the good they do with the food drives and everything else including striving for excellence in everything. They must be doing something right! Its great that you volunteer with children, that is awesome! I wish more people did that. Honor, duty and focus on others will always be a positive thing no matter what any of us believe.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I gotta joke, what's the difference between a boy scout going to camp and a jew?..... The Boy scout comes back :)

      But on a serious note, Boy scouts and religion? The two groups that molest((Spelling?)) the most little boys combined.... Wasn't God supposed to save the children?

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      8 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      I am still leading scouts (nearly 2 years after I first posted this article). Generally, scouts appreciate talking about religion and it is a foundational principle in the organization. However, most of the religion-based achievements are assigned to families rather than directed by me as the leader... thanks for the comment!

    • Rev. Akins profile image

      Rev. Akins 

      8 years ago from Tucson, AZ

      I was a Boy Scout for several years and was also raised in a religious family. I think there are many lessons that a boy can learn to be a better person later in life. I like the way you broke everything down and explained it. I would be fascinated to actually see someone create their own religion and then join scouting! What a great thought, way out of the box. I love it!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      "Ethics Professor": that is the worst argument against homosexuality that I have ever seen. Homosexuality is a genetic fact. Get used to it. Homosexuals have just as many rights as you, regardless of how many infantile arguments religious zealots come up with against them.

      Also: yes, two screws can hold things together quite nicely. Sometimes, one screw is enough. Ridiculous analogy.

      I am an Eagle Scout and father of a two-year-old son. I have always felt that Scouting provided me with an excellent set of core values, and am very grateful for the experience. However, I am also an atheist, which I didn't realize until after I attained Eagle. I fully intend on raising my son to be a critical thinker, not indoctrinating or brainwashing him in any religious institution. I would love for the BSA to relax the religious requirements so that he can get the same positive experience that I had, but I don't forsee that happening. I cannot let him participate in an organization that holds blind, unthinking, unquestioning faith as a virtue. Which is a shame, because there is so much about Scouting that is good. No wonder enrollment numbers dwindle year after year.

    • profile image

      Ethics Professor  

      8 years ago

      About Dan’s comments:

      The “word” God is not a word, is a term used in English language to identify the divine being; just as the term Allah. Writing it down in capital letter or not does not makes any difference; have that in mind and think about it.

      About homosexuality and BSA:

      I have this question; can a screw and another screw keep something bonded together? Or a nut and a nut do it?

      When I was a kid my parents bought me for Christmas an “Erector Set”. As I used to very well organized kid (back then), I gathered all the nuts and put them in one place; also did the same with the bolts. Nothing could be done with it; no “creation” of mine came out of it. Until one day that my father asked if I didn’t like the gift; my answer was: “Is good for nothing, just for the pleasure of seeing all the parts”. The wisdom of ages came as a thunder bolt; “Son, you have to use the nuts and bolts together to create things with it”. That jolt did it, ever since I have been creating things; from a crane that still have, 3 kids, a beach house and so many projects learned with some fundamentals from BSA; 48 years now and still going.

      And the best of all is that the term “Reverent” is in the bottom of the other eleven as a solid base upholding all the others.

    • profile image

      A buddhist Eagle Scout 

      8 years ago

      A correction to Dan's statement:

      Please research a subject before you make claims of truth. Buddhism is a wide-reaching religion that has many branches. There are as many differing beliefs in Buddhism as there is in Christianity.

      Atheists believe that there is NO higher power, no god of any kind. nada.

      Most sects within Buddhism believe in a higher power, some even fall under the definition of monotheistic.

      Not believing in your God doesn't make a person automatically Atheist.

      Scouting recognizes those religions that believe in a higher power and that you are accountable for your actions to that higher power. Any reference to "God" in the Oath, Law, etc are understood to mean the scout's "God", not the Christian meaning of the word "God". However, if you are Christian, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that other religions are being reverent to your God. We understand the assumption and do not take offense. :)

      I don't care what you believe, just believe in something..

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Personallya, I think if someone disagree with what the scouts or some other group believes, the simple answwer is to not join it.

    • BDazzler profile image


      9 years ago from Gulf Coast, USA

      Thank you for you thoughtful hub. I became an Eagle Scout in 1977. "Duty to God" is so central to what Scouting is, that to have no God, necessarily ultimately excludes one from Scouting. That is an indictment of our society, not Scouting. The existence of God (in some form) is presumed to be true ... while it is sad, even tragic, that our society makes this difficult.

      The duty to God is a higher calling than simply a patch on the uniform. The patch recognizes a pursuit of that duty. If one cannot or will not perform that duty, which is appropriately very broadly defined, then the patch is devalued for those who have gone before.

      Hopefully, these difficult questions now will lead these boys who have been denied a spiritual heritage to a discovery of God as they grow.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Dan, I have been to several Buddhist Temples in China and I'm a Christian and I can assure you I and those with me did not try to push Jesus down anyones throat. The did give the head Monk a Bible in his own language which he I must say loved because he was tired of reading the same material over and over again and he himself said even Buddah believed Jesus to be "A good man". Even though we have a few Scouts in my Troop who are not practicing anything my troop is affiliated with a "Christain" Church like most troops are. We have some committee members who are totally against anyone within the Troop sharing their religion or being reverent at all so not to offend any of the non practicing Scouts. (we have (3) I find this totally un-American and removing our right of freedom of religon. If you look on the internet you can see that some Troops who belong to churches have a time on every campout where they tell a scripture and are given a chance to offer any scout who is interested to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior. The Boy is not forced but he does have and opportunity if he so chooses. They seem to be able to do this because they are "Owned" by the the church. I'm sure if a Scout does not want to participate he doesn't have to. I would love to be able to have that same opportunity in my own troop. If not at least I would love to have a prayer time or at least a music time on Sunday morning when we are missing Sunday service since we are missing church when getting ready to pack up to come home. Just to hear praise and worship music would be a blessing. I'm just saying if you have your son or daughter at your Temple you should be able to do practice what you live and if your child participates Scouts where you don't practice your faith tell your child they don't have to participate in that its ok for them to say no thank you. But don't be offended. On Scout Sunday hand out bulletins.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      The word God, especially with a capital G, automatically means Christianity. If the BSA is all-inclusive, non-denominational, and truly respects the beliefs of others as it seems intent to instill with the boys, then it should say what it means.

      If it means God, then say God. If it means Higher Power, then say Higher Power. Currently, it says God. This is a problem with everyone but Christians.

      The use of the word God could be, and likely is, offensive to non-Christians. This would explain problems non-Christian boys have with the religious elements of Scouting.

      You do realize, for instance, that to be Buddhist is to be an atheist? There is no belief in God or even a higher power when it comes to Buddhism. BSA is either showing their ignorance, or gaming the passivity of many Buddhists when claiming it is inclusive of Buddhisim.

      In Judaism the word God is absolutely NOT used. It is to be unspoken. Period. You will see the use of G-d and g-d in place. This is an issue of respect.

      I note that all the comments excusing the use of God in the religious aspects of Scouting come from Christians. I Just thought this thread could use the perspective of a Buddhist. I found this article while looking for alternatives to BSA which don't push Christianity down my children's throats. This article and the comments following have bolstered my resolve. There is absolutely no attempt to understand and respect other's beliefs, and hardly any attempt to tolerate them.

    • goldenpath profile image


      9 years ago from Shenandoah, Iowa, USA

      Scouting should be considered an essential part of responsible character building for all young men. I am a Latter-day Saint, however, the use of the word "God" should not offend anyone. The word, itself, should not automatically mean Christianity. In general terms it can be seen as observance of a Higher Power. Atheists and others can view it as nature or whatever. It is simply a connection between the one and that Power from whom all energy is derived from. It can be as simple as that.

    • starlance profile image


      9 years ago from The Great Northwest

      I was a scout as a youth and religion was not a part of our troop. However, I think the values behind scouting play into Christianity very nicely. Nice Hub. Wish I would have thought of this topic. Get's me thinking.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks Tracker,

      My oldest is now in Boy Scouts, after achieving the Arrow of Light in Cubs. I agree with you about the program and I sincerely hope that my son continues to move through the ranks, hopefully to Eagle. I was the Webelos leader for the cub den for 2 years. I had a boy in my group that really struggled with some of the achievements relating to God, religion or a higher power. Nonetheless, he too is continuing in Boy Scouts after getting Arrow of Light.

      I really appreciate your insight and comments! Best, Steph

    • Tracker Frost profile image

      Tracker Frost 

      9 years ago from Wyoming

      PS, great hub!

    • Tracker Frost profile image

      Tracker Frost 

      9 years ago from Wyoming

      I can comment on a few different levels. I'm an Eagle Scout, have served in many positions (from advisor to Cubmaster), and participate with LDS troups. The LDS church has certainly helped swell the numbers of people involved with the BSA, but I have always believed that the biggest reason is because it helps teach boys some core values that help them be better men. BSA would exist with or w/o the LDS Church.

      The Atheist question is hard to answer, but most of the atheists I know still believe in some type of "higher power" they just have issues with a traditional "God" view. I have had kids in a troupe that didn't practice any religion, and during times when we were "studying" or working on that area of scouting, I tried to use it as a time to talk about the varied religions there are in the world, and how we should be considerate and understanding of other beliefs. Even in an LDS troup I learned that growing up, and I think it helps make me a better person today. Its also good to check with parents of kids you worry might feel uncomfortable, and explain what this week's topic is. Most parents are glad to know what's going on, and will be supportive.

      As was stated, Baden Powel did believe in God, and he founded the organazation, so of course he'd put some emphasis on religion, because he found it important. Also most American's have a belief in God, so wouldn't you want a "club" that appealed to most people?

      IMHO, the BSA is one of the best programs any boy can be involved in.


    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Sounds like a control program with or without religion.

    • LdsNana-AskMormon profile image

      Kathryn Skaggs 

      11 years ago from Southern California

      Hi -

      I will add to doghouse's comments from a Mormon perspective... there is no doubt that most likely without the support of the Mormon Church, not only would the Gay issue have not won with the Boy Scouts of America... etc., but the ability for the Boy Scouts to even continue on would become extinct.

      I have wondered with the new Duty to God program incorporated by the Church, that perhaps the Church was preparing for a pull out in the near future. Not sure... just a guess.

      But look at the recent controvery for the BSA and how very NOT good they go together:-)

      The scouting program from a financial perspective - is not - in line with the rest of the Mormon Church and how it works with other auxillaries, budget control, etc... therefore from a "mormon womans" perspective - there has never been compatibility with the BSA and Church equality, where the young women programs are concerned.

      But, I am seeing a tiny movement in this area as those young girls get louder:-) They want to white water raft just like the boy do! And they should! Our girls are going this summer? I love it!

      I will probably get in trouble for saying so... LOL

      Hey... just another well behaved woman on the loose!



      Great Hub by the way.....

      P.S. doghouse... say what you think:-) Or what do you think?

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      11 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Lissie - I wrote this from the perspective of the Boy Scouts of America. And yes, there are Girl Scout organizations as well. I don't know what their policies are with respect to religion, but it would be a good topic for someone else to research and write about!

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      11 years ago from New Zealand

      Is scouting only for boys in the US - in NZ it opened up to girls at least 10 years ago - due to shrinking numbers I think. I always understood it was a chirstain based organisation - Baden-Powel (sp?) was certainly religious

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      11 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks In the Doghouse! I think you could probably answer the question better than me, but probably not!

    • In The Doghouse profile image

      In The Doghouse 

      11 years ago from California


      Great HuB on scouting and religion. I do believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is one of the biggest supporters of the scouting program as a whole. I am wondering if scouting changed it views in regards to religion if the Mormons would be as apt to support it so fully. What do you think?


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