Religion in Scouting

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Scouting and Guiding flags in St Marys Church, Brownsea Island

Religion in Scouting and Guiding is an aspect of the Scout method that has been practiced differently and given different interpretations over the years.

In contrast to the Christian-only Boys' Brigade, which started two decades earlier, Robert Baden-Powell founded the Scout movement as a youth organization (with boys as 'Scouts' and girls as 'Guides'), which was independent of any single faith or religion, yet still held that spirituality and a belief in a higher power were key to the development of young people.

Scouting organizations are free to interpret the method as laid down by the founder. As the modern world has become more secular and as many societies have become more religiously diverse, this has caused misunderstandings and controversies in some of the national member organizations.

Views of religion's place in Scouting

Founder's views

When creating the Scouting method, Baden-Powell was adamant that there was a place for God within it.

In Scouting for Boys, Baden-Powell wrote specifically about Christianity, since he was writing for youth groups in the United Kingdom:

We aim for the practice of Christianity in their everyday life and dealings, and not merely the profession of theology on Sundays…[1]

Indeed, the Scout Promise as originally written by Baden-Powell states that Scout does their "duty to God".

However, the founder's position moved shortly after the Scout movement began to grow rapidly around the world, and his writings and speeches allowed for all religions. He did continue to emphasise that God was a part of a Scout's life, without dictating a particular faith:

When asked where religion came into Scouting and Guiding, Baden-Powell replied, It does not come in at all. It is already there. It is a fundamental factor underlying Scouting and Guiding.[2]

Though we hold no brief for any one form of belief over another, we see a way to helping all by carrying the same principle into practice as is now being employed in other branches of education…[3]

Take a negative instance. A Mahommedan Guider comes to England and addresses a lot of Girl Guides on religion, in the course of which she quotes Mahomet as the one divine teacher. This in spite of the fact that her audience are believers in Christ. How would you regard her action? As tactless, as insulting, as fanatical? At any rate it wouldn't be exactly polite or in accordance with our laws of courtesy. Yet I have known Christian Guiders as well as Scouters do exactly the same thing with Jews or Hindoos or people of other beliefs present, and these on their part have sat under it, too polite to raise objections but none the less made uncomfortable by it. Once, at a mixed gathering at a 'Scout's Own' a speaker carefully avoided much reference to Christ and was accused by some there of 'denying Him'. His defence was that he was rather following Christ in that he was showing Christian deference to the feelings of others who, equally with himself, were sons of one Father, under whatever form they rendered homage to God.[4]

Baden-Powell's gravestone bears no cross or other religious symbol. Rather, in addition to the Boy Scout and Girl Guide Badges, it bears a circle with a dot in the centre, the trail sign for "Going home" / "I have gone home":   I have gone home.[5]

Current interpretations

Religion and spirituality is still a key part of the Scouting method. The two major world organizations have slightly different interpretations.

The World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM) states the following in its Fundamental Principles:

Under the title "Duty to God", the first of the above-mentioned principles of the Scout Movement is defined as "adherence to spiritual principles, loyalty to the religion that expresses them and acceptance of the duties resulting therefrom". Note that, by contrast to the title, the body of the text omits the word "God" to make clear that the clause also covers non-monotheistic religions, such as Hinduism, and those that do not recognize a personal God, such as Buddhism.[6]

The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) stated the following in the 21st World Conference in 1972:

The essence of Duty to God is the acknowledgement of the necessity for a search for a faith in God, in a Supreme Being, and the acknowledgment of a force higher than man of the highest Spiritual Principles.[7]

National organizations may further define it. For instance, the current Religious Policy of The Scout Association of the United Kingdom states that:

  • "make every effort to progress in the understanding and observance of the Promise to do their best to do their duty to God or to uphold Scouting’s values as appropriate
  • explore their faiths, beliefs and attitudes
  • consider belonging to some religious body;
  • carry into daily practice what they profess."[8]

Many Scout/Guide groups are supported by local religious bodies, including Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Sikh communities. These local groups often have a more strict interpretation on the original writings of Baden-Powell concerning religion. However, since they often belong to national organizations that are not of a specific religion, there are usually groups in the neighbourhood that have a less strict interpretation.

Additionally, some national organizations are aimed at the adherents of a specific religion, but there usually are other Scouting/Guiding organizations within that country that are more open or have a more neutral point of view concerning religion.

The Scout Promise is easily adapted to accommodate these, and other, faiths.[9] For example, in its section on the Girl Scout Promise and Law, the website of the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) includes a note that:

The word "God" [in the Promise] can be interpreted in a number of ways, depending on one's spiritual beliefs. When reciting the Girl Scout Promise, it is okay to replace the word "God" with whatever word your spiritual beliefs dictate.[10]

In Belgium, The association "Les Scouts" offers a neutral Promise text,[11] with no mention to God. FOS Open Scouting replaced "duty to God" with "loyal to a higher ideal" in their promise.[12] The SGP association (Scouts et Guides Pluralistes) offer that same text as an alternative to "God" or "my religion".

Membership requirements

"Duty to God" is a principle of worldwide Scouting and WOSM requires its member National Scout Organizations to reference "duty to God" in their Scout Promises (see WOSM Scout Promise requirements). Scouting associations apply this principle to their membership policies in different ways. There are Scouting associations in some countries, such as France and Denmark, that are segregated on the basis of religious belief.

Boy Scouts of America

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in the United States takes a hard-line position, excluding atheists and agnostics.[13] The BSA has come under strong criticism over the past years due to their religious policy and stance against agnostics and atheists:

"Declaration of Religious Principle. The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, ‘On my honour I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.’ The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of his favours and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members."[13]

The Boy Scouts of America has accepted Buddhist members and units since 1920, and also accepts members of various pantheistic faiths. Many Buddhists do not believe in a supreme being or creator deity, but because these beliefs are still religious and spiritual in nature, they are deemed acceptable by the BSA since their leaders subscribe to the BSA Declaration of Religious Principle.

Scouts Canada

Scouts Canada states that all scouts have what's called a "Duty to God", defined as "The responsibility to adhere to spiritual principles, and thus to the religion that expresses them, and to accept the duties therefrom".[14] Additionally, the scout promises for each age group include references to God such as the Beaver promise: "I promise to love God and help take care of the world." and the Scout/Venturer promise "... To do my duty to God and the Queen ...".[15] Scouts Canada maintains that a spiritual element is required for membership.[16]

Scouts Canada has a "Religion in Life" emblem that is awarded upon completion of a particular denomination's program by a scout.[17] In 2009, a "Spirituality Award" for scouts and guides who did not belong to any denomination was established.[18][19]

Girl Guides of Canada

Girl Guides of Canada suggested a new version of their Promise that uses "my beliefs" instead of a direct references to God in 2009.[20] The new Promise was approved in 2010.[21]

Scouts Australia

In Australia, Scouting makes no effort to find out if potential child members are atheists or agnostics. The Australian Scout promise contains "duty to my god" as opposed to "duty to god" used by many other countries, allowing each member to make an individual personal interpretation.

Girl Guides Australia

In 2012, the promise was reworded to have to "develop my beliefs" instead of a direct reference to God.[22]

The Scout Association in the United Kingdom

The Scout Association of the United Kingdom allows members of any religion, or no religion at all. Leaders, like all members, are not expected to be a member of any particular faith nor hold any religious belief of their own. They are, however, expected to abide by the Association's religious policy which promotes mutual acceptance of beliefs within the Movement such as by encouraging young Scouts to explore their own beliefs as well as making general provisions and considerations for members, such as giving them advice and guidance and allowing for the observance of religious practices within the Group. Previous to January 2014 it was necessary for all members of the Association to hold a faith, however this is no longer the case.[23] Scouts of religions other than Christianity can choose from a selection of alternatively worded promises. Scouts of no religion can choose to make a promise that replaces "duty to God" with "to uphold our Scout values" followed by "to do my duty to the Queen".[24] Any member making their Promise can choose which version of the Promise they wish to do.

The change in policy followed a consultation conducted in 2012 to gauge support among members for an alternate atheist Scout promise, removing the invocation of a deity. At the same time, the Guide Association, the parallel movement which began two years later, is to launch a consultation about its very similar promise, with views sought on all parts of the wording from early January. TSA UK chief commissioner Wayne Bulpitt said religion would remain "a key element" even if a new variant of the promise was approved. Julie Bentley, chief executive of the Guide Association, said its consultation would begin on 3 January.[25]

From 1 September 2013 Girl Guding UK introduced a new promise, in which members promise ‘to be true to myself and develop my beliefs’ replacing ‘to love my God’ [26]

Non-aligned Scouting organizations

Approaches toward religion vary considerably in Scouting organizations not aligned with WOSM and WAGGGS. For example, the website of Camp Fire states "We are inclusive, welcoming children, youth and adults regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation or other aspect of diversity".[27] On the other hand, the American Heritage Girls are explicitly Christian and require all adult leaders to adhere to a specific Statement of Faith.[28] Indeed, the AHG was founded by parents who did not agree with the Girl Scouts' decision to allow other words to be substituted for "God" in the Promise (see above) and the GSUSA's official lack of membership policies based on sexual preference.[29]

Current practices

File:Portable altar.JPG
Jacques Gagey, Chaplain General of Scouts et Guides de France with an altar built with pioneering techniques
Boy Scout camp during the pilgrimage season in Mina, Saudi Arabia

Scout groups handle religious practices in different ways.

Some Scouting organizations have many obligatorily religious merit badges[30] as a way of fulfilling a requirement for a rank and others have a single voluntary religious merit badge or none at all.[31] Scouting organizations may recognise religious programs run by other organizations, like the religious emblems programs in the United States and Canada.


In Austria, Pfadfinder und Pfadfinderinnen Österreichs is a member of both WOSM and WAGGGS. The association is open to members without prejudice to birth, nationality, religion or belief. Both Promise and Law contain references to god.

There are chaplains on national level for Lutheran and for Roman Catholic groups and members, as well as a commissioner for spirituality on national level. There can be chaplains on council- and group-level. Some groups are attached to religious communities or parishes; but even these are open to members of all denominations or religions.

There are religious merit badges. Requirements for awards include religion and spirituality.


Scouting Ireland is a member of WOSM. The association is open to members without prejudice to birth, nationality, religion or belief. The Law contains no reference to God and members are offered two alternative variants of the promise, one which refers to God and a second requiring that the member do their best to further their understanding and acceptance of a Spiritual Reality.


In Jordan the units are affiliated with the International Union of Muslim Scouts.


In Malaysia Girl Guides working on their Bintang Anugerah Ketua Pesuruhjaya (Head Commissioner Award) must complete a requirement about their faith.


In Slovenia, Zveza tabornikov Slovenije is a member of WOSM. The guiding principles include plurality, openness to members without prejudice to birth, nationality, religion or belief; provided the member abides by the principles of pacifism, personal freedom, high moral and ethical principles and principles of the international scouting movement. In the promise the reference to God is replaced with "acceptance and development of Spiritual reality". No religious merit badges are in use.

A separate organization, Združenje slovenskih katoliških skavtinj in skavtov actively practices the Roman Catholic religion in its ranks. This organization is a member of WAGGGS. By agreement, the two organizations have a common highest level body and reciprocally provide to their members the benefits of membership in the two international organizations.

United Kingdom

The Scout Association

All members of The Scout Association are encouraged to:[8]

  • make every effort to progress in the understanding and observance of the Promise to do their best to do their duty to God or to uphold Scouting’s values as appropriate
  • explore their faiths, beliefs and attitudes
  • consider belonging to some religious body;
  • carry into daily practice what they profess.

If a Scout Group, Explorer Scout Unit or Scout Network is composed of members of several denominations or religions, the young people should be encouraged to attend services of their own form of religion.

In October 2012 an eleven-year-old atheist boy was denied entry to the Scouts in Somerset, England.[32]

As of 1 January 2014, an alternative promise is available for those of no faith.[24]

United States of America

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) celebrates Scout Sunday and Scout Sabbath in February,[33] while the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) celebrates similar holidays, known as Girl Scout Sabbath, Girl Scout Shabbat, and Girl Scout Sunday, in March.[34]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) includes Scouting as an official part of its religious program for boys and young men. The LDS Church was the first institutional sponsor of the BSA in the USA, and currently sponsors more BSA units than any other organization.[35]

The Boy Scouts of America requires all scouts to believe in a God or comparable higher power, but currently admits Scouts who are non-theistic Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus from non-theistic sectarian groups. The religious awards of all three faiths are recognized by The Boy Scouts of America. The Girl Scouts of the USA does not have any requirement of faith or belief, and admits girls of any or no religious belief or doctrine, regardless of the presence or absence of belief in a God or comparable higher power.

Both organizations require their members to recite a pledge that includes a reference to God; the BSA pledge requires a commitment to do their "duty to God", while the GSUSA pledge asks girls "to serve God". However, while GSUSA allows the elimination or substitution of "God" with an alternate word that represents a scout's beliefs, BSA does not.

Boy Scouts of America

In Cub Scouting, Cub Scouts working on their Bear rank must complete a requirement about their faith. Members of the BSA's Scouting programs are eligible to work on their faith's religious emblem.

Unitarian Universalist Association controversy

Currently, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has been the only religious emblems program, Religion in Life, to lose its BSA recognition. In 1992, the UUA stated its opposition to the BSA's policies on homosexuals, atheists, and agnostics; and in 1993, the UUA updated the Religion in Life program to include criticism of the BSA policies.[36] In 1998, the BSA withdrew recognition of the Religion in Life program, stating that such information was incompatible with BSA programs. The UUA removed the material from their curriculum and the BSA renewed their recognition of the program. When the BSA found that the UUA was issuing supplemental material with the Religion in Life workbooks that included statements critical of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or personal religious viewpoint, the BSA's recognition was again withdrawn.[37]

International religious bodies in Scouting and Guiding

A number of religions and denominations have formed international organizations within Scouting and Guiding that should further the spiritual development of their adherents. Most of these organizations employ two types of membership: individual and organizational.

The religious organizations include:

ICCS, DESMOS, IUMS, WBSB, IFJS, CPGS and Won-Buddhism Scouts enjoy consultative status with the World Scout Committee, ICCG and CPGS with WAGGGS.

A number of non-religious associations, mainly from French speaking countries, formed in 1996 the Union Internationale des Associations Scoutes-Guides Pluralistes/Laïques (UIPL; International Union of pluralist/secular Scout and Guide associations).

The Friends Committee on Scouting is a religious body of the Religious Society of Friends and serves Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the USA, Scouts Canada, Girl Guides of Canada and Camp Fire.

See also


  1. Scouting for Boys, Baden-Powell, Oxford University Press.
  2. Baden-Powell's position on God and Religion,
  3. Baden-Powell on Religion,
  4. Guiding UK - miscellaneous - B.P.'s writings
  5. B-P's Grave in Kenya
  6. [1]
  7. "Exploring Spirituality - Resource Material for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts" (PDF). World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. 2000. Retrieved 2 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 "The Religious Policy" (PDF). Policy, Organization and Rules. The Scout Association. 2014. Retrieved 6 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "The Promise" (PDF). The Scout Association. 2006. Retrieved 2 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Girl Scout Promise and Law". Girl Scouts of the USA. 2006. Retrieved 4 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "la Promesse et la Loi scoutes". Les Scouts - Fédération des scouts Baden-Powell de Belgique. 2014. Retrieved 8 August 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Wet en Belofte" (PDF). FOS Open Scouting. 2006. Retrieved 6 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  13. 13.0 13.1 "Duty to God". BSA Legal Issues. Boy Scouts of America. Retrieved 3 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "duty" defined multiple times with different content
  14. "Scouts Canada Mission Statement". Scouts Canada. Retrieved 4 January 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Scouts Canada Promise, Law, and Motto". Scouts Canada. Retrieved 4 January 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Scouts Canada on God". Retrieved 4 January 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Girl guides make progress". Terahertz.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Australian Girl Guides drop Queen and God from pledge". Toronto Star.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Girl Guides drop Queen, God from promise". ABC News.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "POR Chapter 2" (PDF). Policy, Organisation and Rules. The Scout Association. Retrieved 10 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. 24.0 24.1 "The additional alternative Scout Promise FAQs". The Scout Association FAQs. The Scout Association. Retrieved 2 November 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Scouts and guides consider adopting atheist oaths
  26. "Welcoming more members with our new Promise". Girl Guide UK Press release. Girl Guides UK. Retrieved 2 November 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "Core Values". All About Us. Camp Fire USA. 2005. Retrieved 5 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. "Statement of Faith". About Us. American Heritage Girls. 2004. Retrieved 5 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. "Some Unhappy with Girl Scouts Form New Group". Associated Press. 2006. Retrieved 5 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. "badges vie chretienne". Guides et Scouts d’Europe. Retrieved 8 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. "insignes voor de Scouts". Scouting Nederland. Retrieved 8 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. "Schoolboy 'banned from Scouts for being an atheist'". The Telegraph Newspaper. 2012. Retrieved 19 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. "A Scout is Reverent". BSA. Retrieved 6 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  34. "Girl Scout Days". GSUSA. Retrieved 6 December 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. "History of Scouting in the Church". The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Retrieved 2 December 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  36. Gustav Niebuhr (22 May 1999). "The Boy Scouts, a Battle and the Meaning of Faith". New York Times. Retrieved 9 May 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. Isaacson, Eric Alan (2007). "Traditional Values, or a New Tradition of Prejudice? The Boy Scouts of America vs. the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations". George Mason University Civil Rights Law Journal. 17 (1). Retrieved 14 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

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