In an op-ed in the Guardian, Brown manages to get things so wrong it is hard to know how it could possibly be set right. It’s about scouts, and the oath which they are supposed to swear. The original oath, written by Baden-Powell, hero of Mafeking, goes like this:
On my honour I promise that:-
1. I will do my duty to God and the King.
2. I will do my best to help others whatever it may cost me.
3. I know the scout law and will obey it.
That’s simple and straightforward enough, but now, reasonably, objections have been made to swearing to do one’s duty to God, and an alternate oath is to be formulated.
Brown somehow manages to think of this as absurdity run riot. He says he can see the point of this in the United States, and here is how he expresses it:
There, there is a strong sense among some Christians that people who aren’t (their sort of) Christians aren’t proper Americans, either. So the Boy Scouts, who teach all kinds of virtues necessary for citizenship, ought to be open to atheists who lack the navigational skills to find their way to an atheist woodcraft group.
But it Britain Brown sees no point in it at all. There is always the Woodcraft Folk, he suggests, but the Woodcraft Folk organisation welcomes the possible acceptance of atheist children into the scouting movement.
As an organisation founded in 1925 by former Scouts who left that movement because of Scouting’s commitment at that time to church, monarchy and patriarchy, Woodcraft Folk welcomes the Scouts’ consultation process to begin the end of over 100 years of excluding young people on the grounds of their atheism.
That sounds like a generous and reasonable response, considering the reasons for the foundation of Woodcraft Folk itself.
So, what is Brown’s problem with accepting non-believing young people into the Scouts? Well, it’s not at all clear. The main reason seems to be that young people can’t be expected to object reasonably to an oath which includes duty to God. Here’s what he says:
How many children are there who would have joined the Scouts were it not that their principles forbade them to swear an oath to God? If the number breaks double figures, I would be surprised and I would be absolutely gobsmacked if any of them came from religious households.
It’s perfectly obvious that the atheist children are in this case transmitting the prejudices of their parents. There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s silly is to pretend that the process is somehow different when religious parents do it.
So, children, to Brown, are simply carbon copies of their parents. So religious parents will have religious children, and atheist parents will have atheist children, and the process of transmission is the same, whether religious parents induct their children into religious belief, or atheist parents transmit their atheism to their children. And don’t pretend, says Brown, that there is any difference here.
But, of course, there may indeed be a very big difference. I see no reason why atheist parents, for instance, might not teach their children about the various religions, no doubt with emphasis on the idea of reasonable belief. But I do not think religious parents are very likely to teach their children about atheism, as well as other religions, emphasising that they should choose their beliefs carefully, giving consideration to standards of evidence or proof.
Brown brings his piece to an end with some really kooky ideas, which leads one to wonder what he has been trying to say up to this point.
There’s no point in over-analysing these things[!] [says he, astonishingly, have just done so!] Small boys are naturally religious, but the religion that comes naturally to them is that of Lord of the Flies.
On what does he base this? Indeed, if boys are naturally religious, it is not often that they get a chance to be isolated on an island without influence from their parents, and churches pay a lot of attention to the religious development of children, and how best to pitch their claims so as to attract them and, if at all possible, hold onto them for life.
Then Brown ends with a swipe at football. Speaking of both the Scouts and Woodcraft Folk, he says:
But their enemy today isn’t organised religion. It’s football. That’s where you find tribalism, the love of uniforms and a celebration of physical prowess all presented for children, but it’s in the service of a disgusting money-making machine, whose values are greed and pride and whose culture is saturated with racism, misogyny and homophobia.
This may or may not be so, but how is this relevant to issue of the Scouts’ Oath? The question here is whether, in fact, boys can have serious conscientious objections to swearing an oath including doing one’s duty to God, or whether, in fact, parents, even religious parents, may have problems with children expressing their duty to God without any understanding of what this might entail.
Clearly, Brown thinks the whole thing is terribly frivolous. But is it? Is indoctrination of children not a problem? Or does Brown think it perfectly appropriate for parents to indoctrinate their children in any way they choose? Michael De Dora has an interesting article on the trouble with baptism over at Rationally Speaking. Amongst other things, he says this:
To me, a baptism represents, at least in part, a parent forcing his or her religious heritage on a child unable to approve or reject the gesture. It labels a baby with a certain religious affiliation, and enters him or her into that religion, or else puts him or her on the path toward that religion. My presence at a baptism condones the practice of basing your child’s beliefs on yours.
To be quite frank, this was really an issue with me in my later years as a priest. It seemed to me wrong to baptise a child, thereby making it an obligation of the parents to bring their child up in the faith, and to make promises to that effect. The same thing goes for oaths taken by boys, of whatever age. It is not so much that they may have conscientious objections — though it would be silly to imagine that this is impossible — but that parents should have conscientious objections to children being required to make such promises. That Brown cannot see this, it seems to me, shows that he simply does not see enough. He seems to think it’s all a bit of a joke. But it goes right to the heart of children’s rights. Parents obviously have some rights over their children, but where do their rights end and their children’s rights begin? No one has really dealt with this in depth, though Nicholas Humphrey addressed it in his Amnesty Lecture a few years ago. It is something that is worth serious consideration, and Brown’s flip way of addressing the question is morally repugnant.