Why Does My Beaver Scout Have to Promise to Love God?
By Rob Thomas
Photo © libertos/123RF
Nov 1, 2017
I believe in religion. I really do. I just don’t believe in God. And that is why I think Scouts Canada’s approach to spirituality and scouting misses the mark by a pretty wide margin. Let me explain.
We signed my five-year-old up for Beaver Scouts because we wanted him to spend at least one night a week running around in a church basement or school gymnasium, just the way I did when I was his age. We wanted him to meet other kids outside of school, construct sticky crafts with more glue or Popsicle sticks than technically required and also to spend some time in nature and learn to love it. The values he might learn there were just marshmallows on top of the campfire.
Beavers, if you don’t know, are the roughly hobbit-scale scouts, age five to seven. They wear festooned tan vests, bucket hats and salute by curling two of their pudgy little fingers to seem like a set of buck teeth.
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Like other former Beavers, I had a foggy memory that our motto was “sharing, sharing, sharing”. With some prompting, I could have mumbled that we were supposed to “have fun, work hard and help family and friends”. But the Beaver Promise — to love God and to help take care of the world — well, that one was buried beneath something a little denser than fog.
Fortunately, I now have a hobbit-scale youngster to bring that promise home for me. And, to be honest, that promise seems an awful lot like those goopy Popsicle stick crafts. The ones you never know exactly what to do with.
“Daddy, what is a god?” he announced.
“An awfully big question,” was the best I could muster on the spot.
I want my kids to explore [the ideas of Gods and religion] but I don’t want them to feel obliged to accept them.
The Girl Guides of Canada abandoned their promises to God in 2010. Instead, a guide is now true to herself and to her beliefs. Scouts in the UK came up with a system to accommodate non-Christian and atheist members in 2014. They also did away with a faith-specific promise for all children younger than eight.
Gods and religion are fairly abstract ideas for a five-year-old to tackle, particularly in a secular and multicultural society. They are also emotionally charged. I want my kids to be open to those ideas and to explore them, but I don’t want them to feel obliged to accept them and I certainly don’t want them to inadvertently offend people as they muddle their way through them. Religion is a big and very complicated conversation, especially when gods aren’t necessarily part of your day-to-day home life.
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In an effort to embrace that conversation, while respecting its roots and partnerships with faith-based groups, Scouts Canada has adopted a rather flexible definition of God. That definition states God “represents spirituality and for some may represent an actual deity, but it may also mean an expression of your personal spirituality.” It’s a neat little trick that gathers everyone, even those who don’t believe in an actual deity, into the scouting fold. But if God is an expression of my personal spirituality, why use the word God at all?
I can tell you it wasn’t very helpful in that “God” conversation with my son. I don’t think it was intended to be.
Personally, I think Scouts Canada should stick with the real religion of scouting. For me, that is developing a heartfelt engagement with others and with the natural world. If people see “God” in that, they can choose to use that language.