Monday, February 4, 2013

Will the Boy Scouts ever admit atheists?

Apparently, the Boy Scouts of America is reconsidering its ban on gay kids and gay leaders. Oh, even if this passes, there will still be plenty of room for homophobia, because the idea is to leave it up to local groups.

But it's definitely progress, nonetheless. And why is this happening? Well, they've been taking a lot of heat about their bigotry. Just not about all of their bigotry...

From The Atlantic:
Now that the Boy Scouts of America is reconsidering mandatory discrimination against gay men and boys, might the organization also consider ending its mandatory religious discrimination, targeting non-believers? Not likely. Gay and lesbian people still encounter bias, of course, but in increasingly isolated segments of society. Bias against atheists remains much more respectable.

Secularist groups have protested government support for the Scouts, given its exclusion of the godless, but with a predictable lack of success or support, even from gay rights groups fighting the exclusion of gay people. The Human Rights Campaign, which courts religious groups, declined to join protests of the BSA's ban on atheists. GLAAD celebrates the proposed elimination of a national ban on gay scouts and leaders, without apparent concern that only godly gay people will benefit from it.

I've been wondering about this for a long time. I see a lot of protests against the Boy Scout ban on gay people, but hardly a peep about their similar ban of atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers. Why is that?

Every atheist I know (all of them straight, as far as I know) supports gay rights. We've joined together in protesting the discrimination of gay people, because we see how wrong that is. However, the fact that atheists also face discrimination - the exact same discrimination, in this particular case - seems to get no notice at all.

Well, we atheists notice, but that's about it. Wouldn't you think that gay rights groups would also support our cause? But no, supporting the rights of atheists probably wouldn't do them any good, would it? Like straight people supporting gay rights, huh? At least, before it got trendy...

Note that a private organization is perfectly within its rights to discriminate against gays and nonbelievers alike - or against black people, for that matter. No one is going to require the KKK to accept any of us. But the KKK doesn't get the respect that the Boy Scouts get, and it doesn't get the government favors that really blur that private/public line.

Also note that the Girl Scouts of the USA does accept non-believers. Yes, I'm sure they're overwhelmingly religious - Christian - in outlook, but that's not a requirement. They accept lesbian and transgender girls, too. After all, as they indicate, "personal matters" don't have anything to do with their core mission.

So it's not as though the Boy Scouts don't have a very good example they could follow. I doubt if the Girl Scouts are perfect, but they seem to be doing pretty well when it comes to being inclusive.

As I say, I've been wondering, as I see this energetic campaign to end discrimination in the Boy Scouts, why its religious discrimination is completely ignored. But then, it's not all religious discrimination, is it? The Boy Scouts would face a torrent of criticism, and would certainly not receive any government assistance, if they discriminated against Jews or Muslims.

But, although there are two to four times as many nonbelievers in America as Jews and Muslims combined, discrimination against us is accepted. Sadly, it even seems to be accepted among gay rights groups. And that's something I have a hard time understanding, since I'm a straight atheist who fully supports their cause.

Well, here's a column by Tom Flynn which might explain some of that:
Way back in a Summer 2003 FREE INQUIRY editorial, "No Passing: Time to Leave the Closet Behind" (not available online), I recounted the success of what was then called the gay and lesbian movement in forcing one of the most remarkable attitudinal shifts since Americans north of the Mason-Dixon Line decided they really, really disliked slavery in the South.

"Circa 1950, homosexuality was universally reviled," I wrote. "Today, people expressing a broad variety of sexual orientations are embraced by many Americans and accepted by most, excepting staunch conservatives. Gay interests are reflected in literature, political discourse, and popular entertainment. What made this happen? The gay community achieved irresistible visibility. ... The Stonewall riots, pride marches, and equal-rights legislation all helped to shift attitudes. But the gay movement’s most powerful strategy was also the simplest — its relentless call for gays and lesbians to 'out' themselves. Each person out of the closet made self-disclosure that much easier for the next. After millions came out, most Americans discovered that yes, they did know gays and lesbians firsthand as valued neighbors, coworkers, fellow students, fellow citizens. America’s gay minority delivered on its slogan, 'We are everywhere'; that’s the real reason attitudes changed."

Most atheists are still in the closet - and yes, most of them have good reasons for that. (I do not encourage you to 'out' yourself if it's going to cause you big problems.)

I might also note that many nonbelievers, even those who are 'out,' shy away from the "atheist" label. I think that's a mistake, but what you want to call yourself is entirely up to you.

Still, there seems to be evidence that atheists could successfully follow the model of gay people:
Two recent studies have demonstrated that discrimination against atheists is based on distrust, not fear. The difference is subtle, but very important. In America, prejudice against Blacks and Hispanics is driven by fear of personal safety, and to a lesser extent, fear of property loss. This fear is often reinforced by the media, which is keen to report on rampant gang problems and crime waves in urban areas. We are also reminded that property values tend to decline as "unwanted" elements move into previously White neighborhoods. Neighborhood watches are often expressions of this very fear, as the tragic case of Trayvon Martin illustrates. The natural extension of this fear is the belief that if there are more of "them" around, our lives and property are more at risk.

Prejudice against atheists is a more generalized feeling of moral distrust. In other words, if you were to ask a hundred random Christians what specific things atheists do, you wouldn't get a lot of agreement. Instead, you would hear that they are generally immoral, lead lives of depraved sexuality, or other such vagaries. This is also reflected in the media, which often portrays atheists negatively (as in the World Trade Tower Memorial debate), but rarely if ever points to any specific crimes committed by atheists. When surveyed, Christians often say that atheists do not share the "American vision." But exactly how they are deviating from this vision is seldom expressed, save for their rejection of Christianity.

From these observations, researchers proposed a hypothesis: If Christians were to realize just how many atheists there really are, their conceptions of atheists would be challenged, since so many of their neighbors -- and often dear friends -- are secretly atheist. The direct evidence that their friends, neighbors, trusted employees, and beloved family members are not immoral or untrustworthy might well soften their opinions.

Across four different studies, this hypothesis proved spectacularly true. After controlling for relevant confounding variables, the evidence was clear. When prejudiced religious people come to believe that atheists are very common, their opinion of atheists shifts away from distrust towards more acceptance.

I should point out that there's one big difference when it comes to us atheists. No, it's not choice. I couldn't "choose" to believe in a god any more than you could choose your skin color or sexual orientation. (I could pretend to believe, just as you might pretend to be straight, but that's different.)

No, the difference is that black people can't make you black and gay people can't make you gay, but atheists could change your mind about your god. Then again, that's the case with all religious minorities, isn't it? So why would you only fear atheism? (Is it because you suspect that we're right?)

At any rate, if you can come out as an atheist - without causing big family or business problems - I urge you to do so. But please note that important qualification. Don't ruin your life. Living a lie might not be much fun, but sometimes it's necessary. (I imagine that it's still necessary for many gay people, too, unfortunately.)

And second, I'll continue to support civil rights for gay people, just as I support civil rights for racial minorities (and for other religious minorities, for that matter). But why not throw a little love our way? You don't have to be an atheist to see that bigotry against atheists is wrong.

After all, the Boy Scouts would never even consider ending their ban on gay scouts and troop leaders if it were only gay people complaining about it. No, plenty of us straight people are also on your side, just because it's the right side.


Eric Krieg said...

I am a dedicated boy scout leader who was thrilled when the gay ban was dropped. We always helped more gay kids than any other group. I am a theist, but I wish scouting could drop their ban on atheists. I knew that most scout leaders like me wanted to drop the gay ban, I wonder how many want to admit open nontheists

WCG said...

I'm glad to hear that, Eric, and I'm sure there are other people like you in the Boy Scouts. Unfortunately, I think you're in a clear minority there.

Scouting is changing as society does, but slowly, reluctantly, with a lot of opposition. These days, discriminating against gay people is increasingly unacceptable to most people.

Discriminating against atheists, though, is not. We have a long way to go, and as I said in this post, I think it will require increased visibility (more atheists coming out of the closet).

Frankly, I've never expected the Boy Scouts to take a lead in this (despite the good example of the Girl Scouts). But I have been surprised at the complete lack of support from gay rights groups, among others.

Religious discrimination goes against everything this country stands for. And given the governmental support the Boy Scouts gets,... well, it's hard for me to understand why everyone doesn't see this as obviously, undeniably un-American.

But I'm very glad to hear there are people like you in the Scouts. Thanks for that, and thanks for the comment.