Buddhism and the Boy Scouts


When I was a boy, I was a member of the Boy Scouts. I probably grew up to be such a tree-hugger because of all the camping, backpacking, and canoeing I did with the scouts.

When I was about 13 years old, I got all atheistic and decided I didn’t want any parts of a club that made me vow to be “reverent,” whatever the hell that meant. So, I quit.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about why it seems like most kids don’t really give two craps about the outdoors. I was wondering if scouting might actually be a good thing. So, I got to thinking; If (hypothetically) I were to have a child, would I want him to participate in scouting?

Would the BSA be welcoming of a non-theistic/Buddhist child in the first place? If one can judge from a cursory reading of the by-laws, it certainly doesn’t look like it.

The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God.
Bylaws of Boy Scouts of America, art. IX, § 1, cl. 1

Well, there we have it. You can’t be a good citizen unless you believe in God. Apparently, non-theistic children are not welcome in the Boy Scouts. Bummer. Maybe there are secular-humanist-scouts, or Buddha-scouts I could enrole my hypothetical child in.

Just for grins, I typed in “buddhist” to the scouting.org search engine, and I was surprised to see that the BSA does indeed cater to Buddhist children.

Scouting serves an important role in youth development in the Buddhist community. Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops, Varsity Scout teams, and Venturing crews chartered to Buddhist organizations can be found throughout the United States. Scouts can participate within units chartered to Buddhist organizations or as members of units chartered to other organizations.

–BSA Fact Sheet on Buddhism

They’ve even got special medals for Dharma, Metta, and Sangha!
Boy Scouts Dharma Award Boy Scouts Mette AwardBoy Scouts Sanga Award
BSA Dharma, Metta, and Sangha awards

There appears to be a contradiction in the BSA’s reasoning here. If you have to believe in God to be a scout, and if Buddhists don’t believe in God, then Buddhists shouldn’t be able to be scouts.

So atheists are OK, so long as they’re also Buddhists? Is that really the BSA’s position?! Are there any Buddhist scouters out there who can enlighten (har-de-har) me to what the deal is here?

It’s too bad about all this religious horse shit. The scouts would be a worthwhile organization without it.

10 thoughts on “Buddhism and the Boy Scouts

  1. Why not just get your hypothetical son, his hypothetical friends, and their hypothetical parents and just go camping, and climbing, and hiking, and biking? Who needs that merit badge tomfoolery anyway?

  2. I got my love of the outdoors from my father. He taught my brother and me (and some of our friends) a lot of things that other boys may have learned by participation in the Boy Scouts organization, but with no religious underpinnings. There was no BSA chapter where I grew up, so it was a practical matter (rather than a matter of principle) that I wasn’t a scout. Back during college, I worked one year at a summer camp, where my responsibility was to teach kids about nature. From what I saw, kids have an inherent interest in and curiosity about nature and the outdoors. As long as you get them out there at a young age, I think you won’t have any problems getting your hypothetical kids to take an interest.

  3. Bob

    Gave the BSA a Break. They have held that position since 1910(1907). Not like they change every year to meet the current social standard. They are still the best in providing program to broardest group of kids.

    Be thankful you are not in the Middle East where you would have to comform to their standard. The European have some countries that have over hundred scouting organizations. In many counrties they will have over dozen. They can not agree on anything and so they split.

  4. They are still the best in providing program to broardest[sic] group of kids.

    Yes, and top 40 radio appeals to the broadest group of listeners. That doesn’t make it good music.

    I think I’ll just take my kids to the woods myself. I don\’t need anyone telling them that they have to be Abrahamic Monotheists to be “the best kind of citizens.”

    Be thankful you are not in the Middle East where you would have to comform[sic] to their standard.

    I am very happy that I don’t live in a the middle east. From what I hear, Al-Qaida is even more stringent about the religious beliefs of its members than the BSA is. I don’t plan to enroll my children in Al-Qaida, either.

    In any event, the reasons I would have for enrolling my children in the Boy scouts is to enhance their appreciation of nature, and to learn cool skills like how to paddle a canoe or how to tie a taught-line hitch.

    I do not want my children to be indoctrinated with religious values that I do not share.

    Don’t get me wrong, the BSA is a private club, and it can do whatever the hell it wants. My children simply won’t be participating.

  5. “I promise to do by best, to do my duty, to god and my country…”

    From the cubscout oath, or something that got burned into my memory that always creeped me out. Its not an inherently bad organization, but I clearly remember not really being all that comfortable with the oath, and I was all of 10 at the time.

  6. Justin

    The Buddhist religious medal is actually created by and for members of the Buddhist Churches of America, an American branch of the Jodo Shinshu or Pure Land school of Buddhism. They believe in the saving power and compassion of Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, and believe that by chanting the Nembutsu (Namo Amida Butsu) Amitabha Buddha will bring you to His Pure Land after you die where you will achieve enlightenment.

    So, it’s not hard to see why the BSA would be ok with this, given that this is a very theistic spin on an otherwise non-theistic religion. I imagine Vajrayana Buddhism would also be acceptable, given its wide range of meditational deities and prayers and such.

  7. Justin, you are probably right. From what (little) I know about the Pure Land School, it does seem to jive with Christian ideas of redeemers and afterlife. My experience is in the Soto Zen tradition, which I don’t think the BSA would be down with.

    I don’t know much about Vajrayana, but I was under the impression that it was also non-theistic. I have only recently begun reading about other schools of Buddhism, so I may be mistaken.

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