Secularisation can mean many things. But most basically it means the abandonment of the idea that a particular faith and morality are coterminous, or that institutions and culture can only tolerate one understanding of God. As institutions make space for diversity in society, they come under pressure to abandon references to God, or saints, or this or that faith — and can sometimes be tempted to abandon any teleological understanding altogether.
There is a major difference between accommodating a diversity of consciences, as freedom of religion demands, and imposing an authoritarian secularist ideology. One opens up an institution to reflect difference; the other abolishes difference and imposes what Pope Benedict XVI memorably called a ‘dictatorship of relativism’.
Both options were on show last week with the announcement that those venerable British institutions for young people founded by Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941), the Scout Association (Boy Scouts and Cubs) and the Girl Guides & British Brownies. Both have abandoned the idea of a traditional obligatory vow to “love my God” — but in very different ways.
The girls — half a million British Brownies and Girl Guides — will no longer have the option of vowing to God in any form, but must promise instead “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. Any alternative has been ruled out because, in the words of Gill Slocombe, the Chief Guide, “people wanted one promise that united us all.”
The Scout Association, on the other hand, is retaining its promise to “do my duty to God”, but allows alternative wording for people of other faiths — and later this year will accept atheists who will use a formula that does not include a religious reference.
The Girl Guides labour under a classically secularist delusion that it is possibly to unite people by imposing on them a banal formula which is either vacant or a licence for limitless egoism. (The formula recognises no moral authority external to the self, which is why the Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Rev Nick Baines, says the new wording “opens the door to little Hitlers”.)
What it cannot be is pluralist. Self-oriented individuals who prioritise their own beliefs above those of others are under no obligation to respect or recognise those of others. The old formula, on the other hand, recognised God in the Christian understanding, namely one who bestows equality of dignity on all His creatures. Pluralism and tolerance were written into that understanding — even if the idea of God implicit in the formula was that of the Anglican tradition.
The Guides have ditched a creed which underpins pluralism in favour of another which is either vacuous or deeply anti-pluralist.
The Scouts offer the better alternative: a recognition of the essential core values underpinning the western Christian tradition from which Baden-Powell’s movement sprang, while making room for those with other primary allegiances.
The stated aim of The Scout Association is to “promote the development of young people … as responsible citizens and as members of their local, national and international communities“.
It is an aim enabled by the Scouts’ oath — and undermined by that of the Guides.