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I Was an Atheist Child, and the Girl Scouts Didn’t Want Me

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The news this week from Scoutland brings controversy over a proposed end to the ban on gay Americans. But here’s another dirty little secret. The Boy Scouts also officially discriminate against atheists and agnostics. For much of their history, the Girl Scouts did, too, but in 1993, the national organization had the sense to stop this unfair and distinctly un-American practice.

That was too late for me. I was a Brownie in 1978, and wanted to become a Girl Scout. It was not to be.

I had a hard time fitting in as a kid. My Sunday school teacher’s eyes shot daggers at me when, after a lesson on the Virgin Mary, I asked, “Was Joseph a virgin, too?” I just didn’t take to the religion thing. Alongside my Bible, I read Bullfinch’s Mythology, and I much preferred the Greek gods. They fell in love and had adventures and didn’t seem to take themselves so seriously. There was laughter in heaven.  Jesus was sort of okay – I liked some of his sermons. But the Bible seemed filled with harsh desert people (mostly men) morbidly obsessed with death and suffering. What had they to do with me?

When I was eight, I became a Brownie and took much pleasure in my crisp little uniform and close association with mint chocolate cookies. I vaguely recall winding yarn around popsicle sticks and doing things like that to prove my craftiness. Like most Brownies, I yearned to join the green ranks of the Girl Scouts, so I dutifully earned Brownie points in preparation for the big event when I would be pinned by a troop leader and accepted into the upper echelon of girldom.

But something unexpected happened during the Induction Ceremony. The ritual of transition from Brownie to Girl Scout was very sacred and solemn and involved, among other things,  staring into a pool of water. It also required me to pledge an oath to God. (You can check out a video of some little tykes saying it here).

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.

This pledge didn't sit right with me, for the simple reason that as far as I could tell, God didn’t exist. To pledge an oath to him would be lying. I stood frozen when it was time to swear fealty to a non-existent being. Probably I could have gotten away with just mouthing the words, but a feeling in the pit of my stomach told me that was wrong. I sheepishly mumbled my dilemma to the troop leader and she looked at me with the exasperation adults get when confronting a pint-sized pain in the ass. “Well, that’s what it takes to be a Girl Scout.” Confused, ashamed, and a little defiant, I took off my sash and handed it to her.

That was that. I would never have those illustrious Girl Scout badges for basket weaving and what not proudly streaming across my chest. The green uniform would not be mine. Part of me was a little relieved, because I wasn’t the sportiest of children and joining the Scouts meant proving my fitness for things like orienteering and riflery. I still like the cookies, though.

Compared to the Boy Scouts, today’s Girl Scouts are known as the more progressive example of youth programming. According to The Atlantic, the Boy Scouts of America still “expressly prohibits membership (even as Cub Scouts) of atheists and agnostics.”  The Girl Scouts, on the other hand, are now cool with atheism and have shown a fondness for New Agey tenets. They've even drawn the ire of Catholic bishops. I’ll give them points for that.