I’m an atheist. It’s not something I wear on my sleeve because I’m not a militant atheist. I don’t walk around my town wearing a sandwich board declaring everything that’s wrong or objectionable about scripture. That’s the Internet’s job.
In real life though, I’ve never been made to feel dirty or discriminated against because of my (lack of) religion. No old ladies throwing rotting vegetables at me in the street or public shunning of any kind. Well, until recently. Here’s what happened:
Enter the local scout group
My oldest son is painfully shy. After years of trying to get him to participate in football clubs and after school activities, we finally found something he loved and enjoyed: the local cub scouts group. I’ve never seen him so happy or fulfilled, making new friends and getting involved in games.
But there were a couple of problems. The long-established leaders of the pack were planning to leave, and the numbers of children attending were quite small. It was very likely that the pack might disband if nothing was done to bring stability to it. There was one new pack leader who’d started in the same month as my boys, but really no-one else was stepping forward. And with child protection regulations, there was no way a ratio of 1 adult to 8 children was going to be allowed.
So – and totally painting myself as a modern day hero here – I decided that there’s no point in complaining about people not being community minded if I wasn’t going to step forward myself. And so I did. I put in an application to be an assistant, which involved a standard police check and some references to make sure that I wasn’t a shady dude. Fair enough. (Passed with flying colours, by the way!)
A few weeks ago, I was surprised to receive a call from a man inviting me to an interview for the position of pack leader. This was curious, because I’d assumed I was applying to help on a more informal basis. You know, show up every 2-3 weeks and offer a hand with whatever was planned. So an interview seemed a tiny bit over the top. But hey, I decided to go with the flow.
And so I went along to the interview with a bit of the reading material the Scouts people had sent me. It was while I was sitting in a coffee shop before the interview that I read the literature they’d sent me. Uh-oh. To be a pack leader, you must have recognize an obligation to God. It doesn’t have to be the Christian God, mind you. Any God will do. Just not “no god”.
Before the interview, a lumbering, white-haired bear of a man approached me and introduced himself as one of the leaders who’d be interviewing me. Apparently there was a problem with my application – I’d ‘forgotten’ to fill in the religious denomination section. Silly me. I explained that I tend to leave that blank because I’m an atheist and…
It was as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. The formerly genial gentleman who’d been talking to me was reduced to uncomfortable stammering. Damn, I’ve never experienced anything like this before. He awkwardly pointed out that the Scouts aren’t a Christian organisation – presumably for equality reasons more than anything else – but that an atheist cannot make a pledge to God. I agreed. It’s something I would never do, not even to cover my ass and ‘fake it’.
He rushed off to consult with his colleagues about this, but the vibe was frosty. And then I was called in to meet with the three leaders.
What I explained to them…
- No, I’m not a Christian. I have no problem with anyone’s religious beliefs, but I won’t fake a belief to fit in. I think that stands testament to my credibility and self-respect.
- I admire the Scouting organisation. I understand that they have a code of conduct that they try to instil in the children, and I admire and support that. I just don’t believe that religion is the only way to treat kids morality and right from wrong.
- My decision to help out with my local pack was an attempt to be community-minded and volunteer to give something back to an organisation that was having a profoundly positive effect on my children.
- I explained that my religious position is long held and will never change. It was the product of a long and traumatic period of questioning in my life that led to the conclusion that there is no God.
I did not try to be a facetious smart-arse and list my religion or say that Simon Cowell is my God. Though I was sorely tempted. You open your doors to all religions, as long as the person can say that they pray to a deity.
It’s profoundly insulting to be told that a door is closed to you because of your beliefs. What, I can’t be around Cub Scouts because of my lack of religious belief? I suppose I’m not fit to be a parent at all by that logic.
Here’s the real kicker:
After having what was a genial but frank discussion with these three leaders, the head honcho guy laid out the problem for me: there’s no way you can ever be a pack leader. (Er, I didn’t want to be in the first place, I just wanted to offer support, not get married to you!) But I possibly, maybe, could be a pack assistant. You don’t need to make the vows, but you can wear the uniform. Cool. I think.
But the leader of the leaders had to squeeze in one final insult along the way:
We’re going to have to check this out with the area leadership. But it’s not as if people are knocking down our door to sign up as leaders, so it’s probably okay and we should be able to offer you a position as pack leader.
Er, back it up there Baloo! So what you’re saying is that if you had a queue of Christians, sorry Deists wanting to help, I wouldn’t be good enough for your Scouts group? How unutterably rude! It goes without saying that you clearly aren’t inundated with nice, religious mums and dads lining up to help out. Instead, you’re sitting in a circle around an atheist dad who’s keen to help your organisation. Grrr.
That made me angry. “Ordinarily, you wouldn’t be good enough. But since no-one else cares enough to step up, you’ll probably get a position by default.” Not cool, Scouting dudes.
In the last week, I was offered a pack assistant position. Incredible. But totally expected. I presume the legal position was a bit sketchy – you can’t really discriminate against people based on their religious beliefs. But obviously the pack was in dire need of extra hands and there was really only one applicant.
Now, I could be bitter and offended about all of this, but I’ll probably take our local scouts troupe up on their ‘kind’ offer. Ultimately, it’s good for the kids, and not just my own kids. And I still like the idea of contributing to the community somehow. And I still respect what scouting’s about in providing a firm foundation for our kids.
But a question for Christians and Atheists reading this: how would you have reacted? Am I doing the right thing by staying involved, or should I have been more vocal about my objections?