Good alternatives for an ethical secular family
January 10, 2014 11:49 AM   Subscribe

Is your family looking for an inclusive alternative to the Boy Scouts of America? Lance Finney posts a rundown on the Skepchick parenting blog Grounded Parents. The list is based on research he did when working to start a group with families from the Ethical Society of St. Louis that was “fully inclusive of religious belief, ethnic background, sexual orientation, and gender.”

Among the options, Finney recommends the Baden-Powell Service Association for those who “want to be hiking and spelunking and setting up camp while wearing the type of uniform that Lord Baden-Powell himself might have worn” and Navigators USA for those interested in scouting based in Humanist principles. Other options include not-quite-scouting groups like 4H and others dedicated to environment and science themes.
posted by audi alteram partem (22 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Just looked up Lord Baden-Powell on Wikipedia, since I wasn't familiar with the name. This part of his wiki entry kind of stopped me cold: (emphasis mine)
Tim Jeal, who wrote the biography Baden-Powell, argued that Baden-Powell's distrust of communism led to his implicit support, through naïveté, of fascism. In 1939 Baden-Powell noted in his diary: "Lay up all day. Read Mein Kampf. A wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organisation etc. – and ideals which Hitler does not practise himself." Baden-Powell admired Benito Mussolini early in the Italian fascist leader's career.

posted by Strange Interlude at 12:10 PM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

which goes to show, good luck finding a group that matches each and every one of whatever your criteria are to a T.. (Paraphrasing Groucho..) Or at least a group that either would have you as a member, or have members other than you.
posted by k5.user at 12:12 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

My experience with 4H in my area was essentially "no non-Christians wanted".
posted by Brocktoon at 12:15 PM on January 10, 2014

4-H is government funded. By law they can't discriminate based on religion, or promote religion for that matter. The one 4-H group in your area may have been run by assholes, but it's not indicative of 4-H as a whole. Our experience, being involved with 4-H at the local, state, regional, and national competition level is that religion is basically a non-issue. They may do a generic benediction to open meetings (which they really shouldn't) but that is generally it as far as pro or con religious programming goes. It's about as inclusive a youth organization that exists in this country.
posted by COD at 12:28 PM on January 10, 2014

I'm hoping Hacker Scouts takes off.

As of January 1 the Boy Scouts are open to gay youth.

This is addressed in the first paragraph of the first link.
It was all over the news last year—the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) changed their policies regarding homosexuality, and now they’re perfectly acceptable for any secular family, right?

Well, not really. The policy change means they will no longer expel non-straight boys from scouting immediately, which is progress. But BSA still requires adult leaders and volunteers to be straight, so it’s only a half measure. Also, “Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God,” a position that applies to all ages and doesn’t seems to be in danger of changing any time soon. Now we’re down to a quarter measure. And just boys?
posted by zamboni at 12:38 PM on January 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

My friends and I call (Canadian) Girl Guides "feminist training camp." I wish so hard that I could put my son in Guides. Great suggestions in the article though! I wonder which ones are available in Canada?
posted by arcticwoman at 12:52 PM on January 10, 2014

And, because this is America, if you think the Boy Scouts have become too liberal with their recent decision to allow gay scouts there are alternatives from the religious right too: 1, 2, 3.

I've talked about my conflicted feeling about the BSA before. (Several people did in this previous thread.) I think there is room in the world for all sorts of youth/service organizations. I also recognize the importance of joining a group where you can feel comfortable and accepted. I also know that alternatives to the BSA are not a new thing. (Royal Rangers has been around since the 1960s.)

Still, the atomization of "scouting" saddens and worries me a little bit. One more example of "cultural bubbles" or "cultural balkanization" (see previous discussion)? Seems a little backwards that the very people on either side of the political spectrum who most decry monoculture are setting up systems to stifle any alternative viewpoints reaching their kids.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:47 PM on January 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

The Navigators page is pretty vague on what they actually do...
The "Curriculum" pages has badges, but doesn't really outline what a child would need to complete one.

The BPSA is closer to what Scouting should be, but unfortunately, they seem to have decided to inherit some of the worst traits of scouting, including silly names for people (Ahmeek? Really?) and many, many ceremonies.

I don't know, I enjoyed my time in the Cub Scouts. Less so in the Boy Scouts, but that was more me than them.

My pack/troop was pretty East Coast liberal though. I can't recall anyone ever suggesting we pray. Sure, camp had chapel, but you could just as easily do a Polar Bear swim in the morning instead. We had Jews, Catholics, atheists, whichever. No one cared.

Similarly, the issue of sex didn't even come up that I ever recall. It had nothing to do with why we were there, so who cared?

The boy/girl issue is a little tricker for me. As the father of a little girl, I certainly don't want her to be shunted off to do "girl things" and spend all her time organizing cookie sales, but at the same time, I don't think every activity needs to include everyone all the time.
posted by madajb at 1:59 PM on January 10, 2014

Seems a little backwards that the very people on either side of the political spectrum who most decry monoculture are setting up systems to stifle any alternative viewpoints reaching their kids.

If people want their children subjected to homophobia, bible-thumping, and bigotry, there's always the public school system.
posted by el io at 2:02 PM on January 10, 2014

Yeah, I didn't do either, but 4H seemed pretty decent in my area (rural NM) when I was a teenaged chaperone. Archery and cooking, mostly.
posted by PMdixon at 2:18 PM on January 10, 2014

I'm hoping Hacker Scouts takes off.

Aren't they getting litigated against by the jerks at the BSA because for some reason, the BSA has the be all and end all rights to the word "scout" in perpetuity?
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 2:41 PM on January 10, 2014

If you want a non-bigoted and creepy-fascist-patriot organization (like the Boy Scouts) that is also mixed gender and generally awesome you need look no further than Camp Fire.

I was in that growing up and even in the 80s they were great. They are still around and all of the stuff I can find on their website indicates their general goodness continues.

We did all the good stuff that boy scouts did (summer camps, scouting stuff etc...) and in a really great organization. From the top down they were great people.
posted by Riemann at 3:00 PM on January 10, 2014

forgot to include the link:
posted by Riemann at 3:02 PM on January 10, 2014

btw (sorry to spam but I just love me some Camp Fire):

Camp Fire is not some recent thing designed in opposition to the Boy Scouts. It's been around over 100 years. It's been co-ed since since 1975 (originally only for girls) and has never had any of the bigotry or political problems of the boy scouts and isn't an evangelical Christian recruiting center like Royal Rangers.
posted by Riemann at 3:08 PM on January 10, 2014

I know I've said it before in previous threads, but none of these are anywhere close being viable replacements to the BSA. I looked really hard at all of these options when my son (and I) started scouts last year. They all lack the economies of scale and network effects that make things like insurance, summer camps, merit badge instruction and a calendar full of well-organized events doable. Campfire is the closest, but it's spottily available. I know someone has to be the first, but I didn't have the time to run recruitment, programming, events, and also to run every meeting myself. Looking harder at the BSA, I sensed they were modernizing. Slowly, yes, but it is happening. The reaction against the reaffirmation of the anti-gay policy in 2012 was pretty stunning and coincided with my research on alternatives.

The national leadership is heavily weighted with old men and Mormons but even they are starting to see that the current generation of parents will not enroll their kids in a program that discriminates. Cub Scout enrollment fell from 2.1M in 1998 to 1.5M in 2012. The big wigs with corporate backgrounds and the handful of younger people saw the writing on the wall.

The ban on gay leaders will fall quickly. The current situation allows a gay 17 year-old to get an Eagle badge and serve as the SPL, but says he is incapable of serving in an adult position when he turns 18. It won't be that way for long. The logical contortions required to continue the discrimination will be too much to bear. The incremental change will continue.

The religious element probably won't go away for awhile. I think it's a much smaller issue to be respectful through a non-denominational prayer before dinner than to hide your sexual orientation, but recognize that it's still an issue and that some troops ask for more. (for the record, I was an atheist kid and had no trouble getting through an Eagle board of review, but recognize that's not a universal experience).

As for integrating boys and girls, I wish it would happen. The BSA is pushing Venture Scouts, a co-ed program for 14-21 year-olds (when they're actually likely to distract each other/get each other pregnant). Not sure why they object to including all kids in cub scouts. Or why the Girl Scouts object to boys in brownies (they do allow transgendered kids but not male-identifying boys).

All that said, I wish these alternatives the best of luck. I would like to have better choices. I would especially like LBGT parents to have better choices. I'm privileged to be able to be a dissenting adult leader in the BSA and recognize that's not an option for everyone.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 3:32 PM on January 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

Things Get Better may be a Dan Savage truism…but, truisms are, unlike some cliches, generally true. And it is true (and a true blessing - oops: religious implications in that phrase) that things have been been getting better at a remarkable rate for LGBTQ/Q folks. (Today is the 1967 anniversary of Lester Maddox's inauguration as governor of Georgia, for a quick mental comparison.)

BTW, the Ethical Society of Saint Louis is a wonderful - ummm - church. This is where I first heard Ram Dass speak, during his book tour (Be Here Now). Enlightening.
posted by kozad at 5:25 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

To echo Christopher above, the BSA is too big to bail on just yet, and in my time there was even room for an obstinate psuedo Goth such as myself. I often wondered why I stayed all the way to getting Eagle and its that pitching tents outdoors can be better than pitching tents in the back of math class.
posted by JamesMytton at 6:56 PM on January 10, 2014

Finney posted a comment that addresses the question "Why not BSA?" He says he's happy that some are able to work with local BSA chapters that are more tolerant with regard to sexuality and atheism, but he also explains there are good reasons why that isn't the best choice for everyone.
And as an atheist myself, being a leader of and bringing my children into an organization that believes that I cannot “grow into the best kind of citizen” would have been an ethical dilemma for me. Many people have faced that dilemma and have taken different approaches – the ethical compromise was not acceptable for me.

I hope that Scouts for Equality is successful, and I think pressuring for change from within from is useful. However, I also think that pressure is also brought for change by creating and supporting strong alternatives from the outside.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:04 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

In regards to the BSA, bear in mind that since they do not allow non-straight volunteers, it means many for many families, the -parents- will be excluded from assisting.

They may be too big to bail on for some, but for me, the policies would exclude me -and- my husband (neither of us is straight, though we are in a het marriage) from volunteering or assisting - and how can I look my child in the eye and tell him to accept everyone for who they are when an organization would prevent ~his own parents~! from being volunteers?
posted by FritoKAL at 10:28 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

> Not sure why they object to including all kids in cub scouts. Or why the Girl Scouts object to boys in brownies

I'm a leader for a Brownie troop. I don't know about official policy, but my daughter benefits from having some time that is just about girls. When I help in her classroom I've noticed the people who get the most attention from the teachers are boys, and I suspect the same thing would happen in a troop meeting. At her age the boys tend to be rowdier and to not care as much about negative vs positive attention. So for her, being in a single-sex environment is the best.

Campfire is groovy, though. They seem to be the group that's the most welcoming to kids with disabilities -- they even do respite care. If I thought a co-ed group would be best for my daughter, or if my son were interested in scouting, that's where we'd go.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:58 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

On the other extreme : Six Realities of the Secret 'Troubled Teen Industry' (See also Help at Any Cost)
posted by jeffburdges at 3:15 AM on January 16, 2014

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