Are there any alternatives to the (Boy|Girl) Scouts that are secular in nature?
November 2, 2008 2:54 PM   Subscribe

I have a son, almost 12, and a daughter, 9, and have been thinking about getting them involved in more outdoor activities. They're home-schooled, so they do get the opportunity to get out and play in the yard and with a few other kids in the neighborhood, but I'd like them to be introduced to a wider range of activities that outdoors-type groups like the scouts might provide (and not being an outdoorsy-type myself, might be able to better instruct in), but I'm put off by both the nationalistic and religious overtones that seem to pervade the Scout oaths. I'd prefer something with more of a global/wildlife focus.

So, are there any alternatives to the (Boy|Girl) Scouts that are secular in nature? My wife is a little more open than I am, but I'm an atheist, and I'd prefer that if there's any group that they join, that it not be one where they're going to be taught to be "reverent", and do their "duty to God", when we don't believe that that is necessarily a virtue.
posted by mboszko to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (33 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've read a lot about the Girl Scouts being quite accepting of atheists and others, but I'd be cautious about your local leaders.

CampFire Girls/Kids might be a good alternative and seems to have become.an alternative for families not cool with the Boy Scouts discriminatory activities. Wikipedia
posted by k8t at 3:01 PM on November 2, 2008


Girl Scouts was totally secular for me, in the Midwest in the 80s. I would definitely recommend it. We learned such a range of skills: tying different knots, campfire cooking, how the judicial system works, starting fires, basic sewing. But, also I think it really helped me get independence and confidence.
posted by sulaine at 3:04 PM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


When I was in Girl Scouts (in suburban Long Island) religion/'reverence" was never even mentioned. I think it depends on the local group you're in. You could always give it a shot and if your kids are uncomfortable, try something else. They might find it cool to feel connected to a national group.
posted by amethysts at 3:09 PM on November 2, 2008


Girl Scouts of America is entirely secular -- though, of course, your local troop may vary :) I was in them for years and religion was never brought up. (And, incidentally, I loved it!) Not sure of a replacement for the Boy Scouts, though.

(Incidentally, fellow girl scouts -- did you ever hear the 'fact' that 1/3 of GS leaders/adult GS were lesbians? With that number, I'm guessing urban legend, but I am curious.)
posted by kalimac at 3:13 PM on November 2, 2008


My girl scouting experiences (New Jersey, in the nineties) were totally secular. I have a vague memory of possibly saying a non-denominational prayer before meals at girl scout camp, but I'm not sure if that's even right--I have much more vivid memories of singing Riggity Jig at the end of meals, so obviously there wasn't enough religion to stick with my mixed religious, agnostic, 12-year-old self.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:17 PM on November 2, 2008


(Incidentally, fellow girl scouts -- did you ever hear the 'fact' that 1/3 of GS leaders/adult GS were lesbians? With that number, I'm guessing urban legend, but I am curious.)

Based on my experiences at girl scout camp, this wouldn't surprise me. A lot of the girls who I was friends with there ended up being queer (myself included), but correlation is not causation and all that stuff.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:18 PM on November 2, 2008


I'm a Girl Scout leader. The Girl Scouts are very accepting of religions other than Christianity, even though the word "God" appears in the Girl Scout Promise, which all Girl Scouts learn and recite often. But see this note, from their official site:

The Girl Scout Promise

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God* and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

* The word "God" 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.

And check out the law, which specifically talks about making the world a better place:

The Girl Scout Law

I will do my best to be
honest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
considerate and caring,
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do,
and to
respect myself and others,
respect authority,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place, and
be a sister to every Girl Scout.

There are usually many troops in an area, so if one set of leaders doesn't work out, another might. I am also an atheist, and I only hesitated a sec before signing my daughter up, and volunteering myself. I can't think of another institution that is so Pro-Girl as the Girl Scouts.

Things to think about, though:

Because service projects make up a lot of what the Girl Scouts get involved in, sometimes there is overlap with church groups or church activities. However, no activity (except selling cookies :-) is required for any Girl Scout. (For example, our council recently participated in a food drive sponsored by a group of local churches. My troop did not participate, as my co-ledaer and I felt it was getting a little too "religious-y" for us.)

In my area, churches are some of the only buildings that have meeting rooms available for use by the public for free, so many troops meet at churches. If this is a concern for you, you can ask that your daughter be placed in a troop that doesn't meet at a church.

Each troop is only as outdoorsy as the leaders (and to some extent, the girls' interests), so again, if you find that your daughter's troop spends more time on crafts than hikes, you can request a change. Or you can volunteer to be a leader yourself, and take your troop in whichever direction you and your girls like. :-)

The Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts share a word in their names only. They are two completely separate organizations. Anything you might have heard about the Boy Scouts' attitudes does not necessarily apply to the Girl Scouts.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:19 PM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


"co-leader", darn it all...
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:21 PM on November 2, 2008


There's Earth Scouts and Camp Fire USA.

The biggest difficulty is finding local groups, you might have to launch your own chapter in order to have one.
posted by jamaro at 3:22 PM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Where I grew up (midwest 1980s), being in Brownies (1st-4th grade?) was pretty common, but most girls dropped out at about 4th or 5th grade because it wasn't cool anymore (right after "bridging to Juniors" and hence buying an entirely new outfit and moving old badges onto the new one.) With your daughter being at that age, perhaps it wouldn't be a "cool" thing for her either? I'd also wonder if it'd be tough to join an existing troop at the ages that your kids are at. In my experience, the kids join early and stick as a group. I joined in 2nd grade and remember feeling a little late to the game in my troop that had been together for 2 years already. The girls that stayed longer than 4th or 5th grade in my town were quite nerdy and as others have mentioned, ended up being queer.

I asked my S.O. about Boy Scouts, as he made it to Eagle level. He said that there was a similar drop out around 5th grade and that the nerds stuck around. The way that he described junior high and high school level Boy Scouts sounds a lot more fun than Girl Scouts. They went to big campgrounds (Jamborees), did more outdoorsy stuff and got to build things.

Maybe contact your local outdoorsy-ness societies to see if they have any kid-friendly activities?
posted by k8t at 3:25 PM on November 2, 2008


Have you looked into the 4-H. Here's their pledge:
I pledge my HEAD to clearer thinking.
I pledge my HEART to greater loyalty.
I pledge my HANDS to larger service.
I pledge my HEALTH to better living for my club, my community, my country, and my world.

My kids are too young to be in it yet, but in addition to farm/vet training, our local group does dog obedience, community service and public speaking. And there are a lot of 4-H camps as well.
posted by saffry at 3:32 PM on November 2, 2008


Can we stick to the topic instead of speculating on the coolness or queerness of Scouts over the age of 9, which has nothing to do with the question, or with anything really?

More about the Girl Scouts Environmental Awareness Program.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:32 PM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Spiral Scouts is pagan, so not exactly secular. But it is an alternative.
posted by not that girl at 3:46 PM on November 2, 2008


Do you have a local YWCA or YMCA? I did a lot of backpacking through the Y as a teen (along with some group sports). Technically affiliated with Christianity, but the activities themselves were completely secular.
posted by susanvance at 3:50 PM on November 2, 2008


4-H is government funded, and thus 100% secular. 4-H has been changing over recent years to be broader focused than the traditional agricultural stuff that they are known for.

4-H is also fairly flexible in that you could start a group with just about any focus you like and connect it to 4H. Some homeschoolers around here did that. It was basically a 4H teen homeschooler group that did all sorts of cool stuff from D&D nights to camping trips. There was really no focus beyond have fun.
posted by COD at 3:50 PM on November 2, 2008


I'm another person who had a secular GS experience, having been a Girl Scout in 3 states and having worked at a Girl Scout camp in a 4th state (Kansas, Ohio, South Carolina, & Pennsylvania).
posted by salvia at 3:50 PM on November 2, 2008


I was in one Scouts group or another from ages 6 (Brownies) to 12 (co-ed Scouts, small town, minority language group). The group I was with was much more religious than others. I was the only atheist in the entire structure, and I know they... sort of didn't know what to do with me. I was once told I would go to Hell because I didn't go to Mass (by a leader, no less). Stuff like that.

The experience as a whole, though, was positive: I learned many things I wouldn't have otherwise, I was exposed to different beliefs and personalities (probably important if your children are homeschooled), and I learned to stand up for myself (mostly because of the religion thing). Weirdly, I think I enjoyed Scouts even more because I wasn't religious: outside of organized religions, it can be hard to find a community and service opportunities.
posted by OLechat at 3:52 PM on November 2, 2008


I had the same concerns about Boy Scouts. I joined anyway and find that it is completely non-religious except for one or two yearly generic prayers we do as a group. The boy scout oath also mentions god, but we don't let it bother us.

This thread was very helpful in making my decision to go ahead and join
. My husband and I are both atheists and would not participate if it our local troop was religious, or had too much god talk, or any inklings of bigotry.
posted by Fairchild at 4:04 PM on November 2, 2008


Have you looked into Boys and Girls Clubs? They address a lot of areas of interest/concern/enjoyment for youth including athletics...depending on your club and area, there might be some things that appeal to your kids and address what you're looking for.
posted by mumstheword at 5:13 PM on November 2, 2008


4-H is good. Also, what used to be the YMCA's Indian Guides program seems to have morphed into Adventure Guides, also worth a peek.
posted by rhizome at 5:26 PM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's also the National Park Service Junior Ranger program. Many states also have their own Junior Ranger Program (Maryland). Not as much of a group program as the scouts, but many outdoor activities and opportunities.
posted by scubbadubba at 6:06 PM on November 2, 2008


I was in Girl Scouts for many years and rarely found the religious aspect to be a problem in our troops. Like someone pointed out, there is the word "God" in the pledge but you're encouraged to express yourself however you like.

I know the organization was founded on religious values but it has evolved to be WAY more secular now. I'm a atheist myself and was always surprised to learn that Guides/Scouts had a reputation for being an authoritarian, religious regime of sorts. It never felt that way; it was more about friendships, skill-building and confidence.

Like attracts like and if you are concerned about that 'vibe,' interview local leaders before your child joins. It's in their best interests to bring together a cohesive group and have little to gain from misleading you about their values. I think a forthright conversation will give you a sense of how much God-talk there will be.
posted by cranberrymonger at 7:28 PM on November 2, 2008


It might be helpful to know where you are located. Boys and Girls Clubs, I think, can have outdoors components. Also, my experience might be sort of unique because I live in Colorado, but our city Parks and Recreation in Denver, has outdoor programs for youth. It sounds like you want something more long term or club like but Parks and Rec programming can be awesome and I'm sure some of the same kids would show up in different classes.
posted by fieldtrip at 7:36 PM on November 2, 2008


Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for the fantastic responses. I'm glad we've found a few more groups to consider. Feel free to keep 'em coming. I appreciate the insight.

A few clarifications: We're in Maryland, specifically near Frederick. We'll definitely have a look at the Junior Ranger program, scubbadubba, thanks.

As for the "under God" thing: I note several of you (and many more in the previous Cub Scout post that Fairchild mentioned) state that it doesn't bother that you have to say you believe in a god to join, or say that as part of the Oath, assuming we were to find a local group where there wouldn't be any pressure about it from the leaders. I'd have to say that does bother me. If you take seriously the fact that you're swearing an oath -- truly a solemn promise -- going into the deal knowing that you're lying about part of it seems a bit disingenuous, and rather against the very sort of "teaching kids to be upstanding folks" aim of the whole enterprise. I'm not afraid of my kids learning about Christianity at some point; but even if the local den/troop is completely secular, it feels wrong to lie -- or ask my kids to lie about their beliefs as a means of gaining entry.

Still, yes... a matter that requires some further thought. I mean, even if as per the Girl Scout Promise guidelines, you are meant to "replace the word 'God' with whatever word your spiritual beliefs dictate."... with which word does an atheist replace it?
posted by mboszko at 10:29 PM on November 2, 2008


So, I'm an atheist & just signed both my girls up. They can interpret God however they like, that's their decision. I'd be happy to talk with my girls about my decision. I also signed up as an active parent & as part of the organization, the oath applies to me as well & looking at it... here's what I think.
On my honor, I will try:
To serve God* and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

* The word "God" 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.
The God/country line is essentially redundant in concept to the next line -- to serve, to help are basically equivalent. People make up my country, and the world, I'm still pledging to help people & since I don't believe in God, replacing God with nothing (and recognizing country is a redundant subset of "people"), I figure I've fairly covered my bases with whatever word my spiritual beliefs dictate. And as a bonus, I have one less line to try to memorize.

Might not fly with everyone but the * is to cover your spiritual believes, not everyone or anyone else's.
posted by susanbeeswax at 11:48 PM on November 2, 2008


I remember a lot of group-recitation of the pledge when I was a kid, rather than times when your daughter would have to recite it out loud alone. She could just do what I did when my mom made me get confirmed into her church (which was also done group-chanting-style) - mouth the parts that she doesn't agree with (or just not say them at all). If there is a time she'd have to do it alone, it would probably be the joining ceremony (whatever that's called) and you could talk to her troop leader about skipping that line for that one.
posted by srah at 3:54 AM on November 3, 2008


I was homeschooled until the age of 13, by an atheist mother and a die-hard atheist father. Not only did they enroll me in Girl Scouts (age of 7 - 11ish), but they let me attend Episcopalian Sunday school with my best friend when I was about 8 and they let me attend Hebrew school (my father was raised Jewish) from 9 until I dropped out just before the Bat Mitzvah. Now, I'm just as atheist and resistant to any sort of religious doctrine as you sound to be. However, I really enjoyed those experiences at the time and, while I do think my parents weren't thrilled that I was so curious about those experiences, I now really appreciate that they were willing to let me explore. I mostly remember enjoying the social aspects, and I loved learning the Hebrew alphabet. I myself was somewhat uncomfortable with prayer and this feeling eventually led me to abandon religious schooling.

I bring all this up to say, what are your children interested in? Are they curious about religion - what is this thing that their parents feel so strongly about? Have they ever expressed interest in anything mildly religious? I remember reading a children's book where the main character said the lord's prayer each night (maybe a Laura Ingalls Wilder book), and "secretly" prayed to myself before bed for about a week before I decided it was bogus. You of course know your family better than mine, but I have to mention my experiences here because I firmly believe this safe exploration of beliefs that my parents clearly did not hold meant, to me as a young girl, that my parents respected me and that I was trusted to navigate these waters and engage in dialogue with my parents.

And I have to note that you're doing the right thing with regards to getting your kids outdoors... while homeschooled, I was a total bookworm and really didn't enjoy many athletic / outdoorsy activities until after college. I wish I had been exposed to more of these things - day hikes, etc - while homeschooled. Are you interested in the Scouts for the outdoorsiness or for the socializing aspect? I don't recall the Scouts as being at all outdoorsy - lots of crafty tasks, more like.
posted by pants at 5:15 AM on November 3, 2008


I just don't say the line about God. I don't mouth the words, I just don't say anything at all. (I do the same for the Pledge of Allegiance.)

And in my experience (2002-now), there is no official requirement where a girl has to say the pledge by herself. The Girl Scouts are all about not embarrassing kids or making them feel different or singled out.

I encourage you to call your local GS council and talk to the Field Manager in charge of your town. The Field Manager is a paid employee of the Girl Scouts (and oversees troops in multiple towns), and will speak in an official capacity. If you're ok with what you hear from her, ask to speak to the Service Unit Manager of your specific town. She is a volunteer, and will have more first-hand and personal knowledge of what the troops in your town are up to. She would know specifically which leaders or troops would be a good fit (or a bad one).
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:39 AM on November 3, 2008


My Boy Scout experience wasn't even remotely religious. I guess there's some lip service to God in the Scout Oath, but the paramilitary attitude and conservative political views would be a much bigger concern to me than dropping the occasional hard G.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 7:36 AM on November 3, 2008


If you take seriously the fact that you're swearing an oath -- truly a solemn promise -- going into the deal knowing that you're lying about part of it seems a bit disingenuous, and rather against the very sort of "teaching kids to be upstanding folks" aim of the whole enterprise. I'm not afraid of my kids learning about Christianity at some point; but even if the local den/troop is completely secular, it feels wrong to lie -- or ask my kids to lie about their beliefs as a means of gaining entry.

Keep in mind that any time your kids will be asked to say the pledge of allegiance, they're forced to make the same choices--and they're not necessarily going to be completely exempt from ever having to say the pledge just because they're not in public school. You really never know when these sort of situations will turn up. I think it's a really, really good idea to teach your kids how to navigate these situations, to open a discussion about living in a secular nation with freedom of both religion and speech that nevertheless has a strong Judeo-Christian history. Really, they can only benefit from knowing that, despite an organization's religiously-tinged traditions, they can still find a place within them, without having to compromise their own beliefs. This is the purpose for the allowance to not state the word "God" in the GS Promise. They're not requiring that your children, or anyone's children, lie; they do accommodate outsider beliefs, even if the default mode of operations is a religious one. Sure, this requires your kids to take a stand (of sorts), but I really firmly believe that learning to take such a stand is a good thing. They should know how to speak up for, and defend their beliefs, if need be--because chances are, at some point in their lives they are going to have to speak up in defense of them.

Still, yes... a matter that requires some further thought. I mean, even if as per the Girl Scout Promise guidelines, you are meant to "replace the word 'God' with whatever word your spiritual beliefs dictate."... with which word does an atheist replace it?

"Humanity" or "science" or "the greater good" would work in a pinch.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:55 AM on November 3, 2008


Check out John Fishback - http://www.fishbacknature.com/
posted by grateful at 1:41 PM on November 3, 2008


You are meant to "replace the word 'God' with whatever word your spiritual beliefs dictate."... with which word does an atheist replace it?

It's pretty open! The suggestion they used to give us was "faith" which I think could totally apply to atheism... I think it's a faith, after all... but you could say "earth" or "nature" or whatever you like. Maybe it will be an opportunity for the child to express their views to the group and they could engage in some interesting discussions.

It never hurts to question things, after all :)
posted by cranberrymonger at 3:42 PM on November 4, 2008


My son is a Boy Scout, so I asked him your question. He said that at the troop level they never discuss religion or sexual orientation. When he goes to summer camps they have optional non-denominational services, of which he went to one.

He has traveled the country with his troop and learned the outdoor skills you are hoping for. He's also learned first aid and leadership skills in the context of his travels. And he is becoming a steward of the environment. These are the things I was hoping he would gain from the program. The best part is that he is having fun.

Local leadership has a lot to do with the interpretation of the oaths and laws being discussed. My son's troop does not emphasize the religious aspect nor have they discussed sexual orientation. I belong to the Troop Committee and know that we purposely keep it that way. That said, Boy Scouts are free agents; the boys are free to check out all the troops in the area before they join the one they think is the best fit. They can also transfer among troops. I don't always (or often) agree with policy at the national level, but to their credit they have a strong program in place to protect boys from sexual predators.

You may also want to check out the Venture program, which is related to Boy Scouts but different from the traditional program.
posted by Breav at 6:13 AM on November 6, 2008


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