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Scouting for atheists?

It was recently reported that an 11 year old boy, George Pratt, was unable to join the Scouts because, as an atheist, he refused to swear to do his duty to God.  Some have argued that the Scouts should be able to set what admissions criteria they wish.  But – how would people react if a well regarded group, promoted by many schools, refused admittance to members of a particular religion – unless they were willing to renounce their faith in public?

In a recent Telegraph piece Graeme Archer tells George he is making far too much of a fuss.   He describes the boy’s situation with a sneer that I doubt he’d use if writing about a devout child who had been treated in a similar way:

Poor 11-year-old George’s sad face was splashed across the newspapers, as he explained that his sincere atheism prevented him from making the Scouts’ promise, since it involves the clause “to do my duty to God”. The Scoutmaster thus refused to allow George to join his troop.

Bravo, Scoutmaster. Bravo George, too – what’s the point of being an 11-year-old if you can’t cause a bit of a rumpus? His photo reminds me of (Just) William, who would have loved this – though George’s anti-theological solemnity was a little undermined when he expressed his disappointment not in terms of the impossibility of belief, but because his exclusion means he won’t get to go on a caving expedition with his friends.

George was laying no claim to ‘anti-theological solemnity’ – and it seems quite reasonable to feel uncomfortable about the hypocrisy of such an oath.  It reminded me of the time when, in connection with work, I had to read out an oath of a similar nature when I started a new job.  I hadn’t bothered to read the text beforehand, so was startled, a few minutes before I was due to make this promise, to notice that it had a religious element.  I never answered the ‘in what circumstances would you be willing to lie’ question on my Normblog profile, but ‘to avoid social awkwardness’ might be one, and I just metaphorically crossed my fingers and got on with it.  Of course in a sense it’s easy for us atheists – as we don’t believe in God it’s not perhaps such a big deal – it’s not like having to swear by someone else’s God if you are religious.

That leads on to the strangest part of Clarke’s post, an account of his experience on jury service.

I saw something powerful and almost transcendental occur (in the sense that its importance seemed to be greater than the specific activity in the courtroom).

What happened was this: an imam from a Bethnal Green mosque was called to give evidence by the defence counsel. He was asked on which holy book he would like to swear his oath or otherwise give his affirmation that he would tell the whole truth. I don’t suppose I was the only one who assumed he would insist on being presented with a copy of the Koran.

He flapped his hand around and said: “The Bible. I will swear on the Holy Bible.” Perhaps that man had a sense of theatre (his evidence was among the most compelling that we heard).

Why is this ‘almost transcendental’ – it seems downright bizarre to me.  I gather that mainstream Islamic teaching, not unreasonably, forbids Muslims to swear on the Bible – why on earth didn’t the Imam swear on the Qur’an?  Why make some odd interfaith gesture at the risk of undermining the credibility of your evidence?

I suggested earlier that these matters are easiest for atheists because these are not, for us, (after)life and death issues.  But it’s insulting that we should be expected to behave, in certain circumstances, as though our lack of faith was something to be ashamed of, something to keep hidden away.