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For Boy Scouts, the Most Divine Approach May Be Tolerance

April 04, 1998|BENJAMIN J. HUBBARD

The profound question of the nature of religious belief or unbelief has surfaced in the case of the Randall twins of Anaheim Hills, who were denied Eagle Scout awards when they refused to affirm God's existence.

The California Supreme Court has settled the strictly legal question in the case of Michael and William Randall by declaring that the Boy Scouts of America is a "social organization," not a business. So it can set its own rules for admission, including requiring belief in a supreme being.

But a philosophical and moral question remains, which the organization and its many supporters need to ponder: Should there be a religious test for membership in the Boy Scouts? To put it another way: If faith in God is a "gift," as many religions teach, should those not so gifted be denied membership in the only organization of its kind in the nation? (It is, by the way, a very worthwhile group that has helped countless boys, including its current 4 million U.S. members.)

Trouble began for the Randall twins in 1991, when they were 9. As part of the requirements for the Bear badge, they were asked by their den mother about church attendance. When they replied that the family didn't attend church, the den mother asked them if they were atheists. They didn't fully understand the question, but when it was put to their father, James G. Randall replied that it was none of the Boy Scouts' business.

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The twins were then removed from the Scout den but later reinstated after their father filed suit against the Orange County Council of the Scouts.

An appeals odyssey finally brought the matter to the state's highest court, which issued a decision March 23.

Almost any believer worth his creed has grappled with the question of God's existence. Most come through these dark nights of doubt with renewed faith, but not all. The experiences of war, terrible suffering or the loss of a child can lead to an inability to affirm God.

Elie Wiesel in his autobiographical novel "Night" tells how close he came to completely losing faith in Auschwitz. By contrast, Abbot Thomas O'Malley in the powerful 1973 film "Catholics," based on Brian Moore's novel, had lost his faith when he continued to lead his fellow monks on a remote Irish island.

There also are individuals who have never been able to affirm God's existence in the first place, because it does not make sense to them. In fact, a survey by B. Kosmin and S. Lachman in their 1993 book "One Nation Under God" indicates that 8.2% of the adult American population describe themselves as "agnostic," "humanist" or having "no religion."

Michael says the boys have thought about the matter and concluded that they simply are not sure whether God exists. So, as agnostics, they cannot literally follow the final tenet of the Scout law, reverence toward God and fidelity to religious duties.

Michael argues that they have shown reverence by respecting the beliefs of others.

I have a suggestion for the Boy Scouts of America. Do not interpret the reverence requirement so literally. Instead, let children whose parents have no religious affiliation be asked to display:

* Reverence for other people (whom most religions, after all, see as being made in God's image or being a spark of the divine) and for all living things;

* Fidelity to the Golden Rule (a variation of which is found in all religions and cultures);

* Respect for the beliefs of others.

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To its credit, the Scouts already display considerable openness to the varieties of religion, including Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism, neither of which has a theistic base. But the organization should not force belief on 9-year-olds.

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Benjamin J. Hubbard is a professor and chairman of the Department of Comparative Religion at Cal State Fullerton. He recently co-wrote "America's Religions: An Educator's Guide to Beliefs and Practices." He can be reached by e-mail at bhubbard@fullerton.edu. Call to Renewal can be reached at call to renewal@convene.com and the Common Ground Network at cgnetwork@sfcg.org.

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