Will a promise change the true sense of self?

Frequently when I look out of my sitting room window in the early evening I see a group of Scouts hurrying towards the village recreation ground. It is such a common sight that I rarely think about it. I did, however, begin to think about it recently when I suddenly realised what a remarkable thing it is that an organisation that began more than a century ago — in 1907 — is still flourishing. Certainly, if I had been asked 50 years ago if this was likely, I would have been sceptical, thinking that it was unlikely to continue to appeal to a post-war generation.

My realisation was the more cogent because I never joined the Scout movement. The idea of it did not greatly appeal to me. For many years I gave scarcely a thought to it. That changed when my children became old enough to join. The village Scout group was active, and we suggested that our sons might try it. Our elder son did so with great reluctance, and quickly decided that it was not for him. His younger brother, by contrast, found that it very much was for him. (His decision caused me to be involved, as I was asked to chair the local Scout Association — and embarked on a steep learning curve!) My son’s interest has continued, and now, in Australia, his own two sons are keen and active members.

Why has the movement not just survived, but continues to thrive? There are Scout movements now in some 216 countries (including India). There is a similar number of Girl Guide movements, but in recent years in the United Kingdom many girls, including my granddaughter, chose to join the Scouts — now a possibility.

That provides one clue to why the movement has survived so successfully: it has not been a rigid organisation, running the risk of becoming an anachronism. To the contrary, it has moved with the times. Most people, I believe (even those who, like me, were never Scouts) applaud that approach. There is little future for an organisation which remains fixed in the past.

Currently some quite major changes are taking place in how the movement defines what it stands for. Traditionally, Scouts joining the movement have had to make a promise which has included a “duty to God”. When he founded the Scout movement, Lord Baden-Powell included that promise implying a duty to a Christian God, but quickly changed that to include other religions. (There is no doubt that the Scout movement would not have grown as it did if he had not done so.)

Now, the movement has been consulting its members to gauge support for an alternate atheist Scout promise, removing the invocation of a deity. The Guides, following a similar consultation, have decided to change their promise to replace a specific reference to God with a promise to “be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. The Scouts are likely to make a similar change.

Inevitably the decision has provoked a good deal of criticism, with critics making the suggestion that the change implies a move away from what the Scout and Guide movements have stood for.

To be frank, I do not share that criticism. One of the great strengths of Scouting is that it succeeds remarkably well in drawing in people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and encourages them to work together for their community. That certainly seems to be the case from my, admittedly limited, experience. Whether we like it or not (and “we” in this case means we in the UK) there are very many more people now than was the case 50 years ago who subscribe to no religious belief. Many people no doubt find that regrettable. I count myself among them. Nevertheless, it is a well attested fact, and the Scout movement is surely right not to ignore it, and right to ask the question “should we bring such people in, or should we exclude them?”

Given that the Scout and Guide movements from their beginning have been dedicated to developing young people and encouraging them to serve their community, the decision surely makes sense.

I very much doubt that as I continue to look out of my window and see the Scouts go by there will be any dramatic noticeable change. In due course, I shall consult my Australian grandsons to discover their opinion. Again, I shall be surprised if the amended promise will reduce their enthusiasm, or cause them to rethink their membership.

E-mail: bill.kirkman@gmail.com