Girl Guides, God, and Being an Asshole

Girl_Guides_centenary, was going to be a post about not being an atheist asshole.

Back in June, atheist blogger Matthew S. McCormick posted a slide show presentation he had given to a students’ society, in which he argued that it is necessary for atheists to be assholes in order to counter the oppressive superstition and irrationality surrounding us. He cites Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to support this position, while criticizing Carl Sagan’s view that a kinder, gentler approach to fellow truth-seekers is more appropriate, given that none of us has all the tools necessary to fully understand the universe. McCormick disagrees with Sagan and announces, proudly, that he is an asshole in the name of atheism. He believes other atheists should be assholes, too. I disagree with McCormick’s position as a general practice — but today I feel the need to be a bit of an “asshole.”

On Saturday, the Guardian published an article by Observer columnist Victoria Coren in which she moved from bitching about new words (“linguistic horrors”) such as ‘chillax’ and ‘vino’ to criticizing the UK Girl Guides’ recent decision to drop loving God from their pledge. (The Girl Guides have also dropped the part of the pledge referring to loving one’s country, but no one seems to care about that.) Coren feels that the phrasing of the new pledge “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs” is mere gobbledygook:

“Oh for the love of God! (Or, rather, not for the love of God.) What ghastly committee meeting, what endless wrangle, what months of debate, what conferences and whiteboards and PowerPoint presentations led to this lame, weak, hollow clump of Californian couch jargon?”

I’ll give Coren points for alliteration here (lots of w-words), and certainly the old pledge to love God had a certain simple, direct charm. But the rant that follows demonstrates that Coren is an idiot.

She objects to removing God from the pledge because Brownies and Guides often hold their meetings in churches:

“It seems a mean trick to play on all those churches that lend their halls for Brownie and Guide activities – forcing them to choose between continuing to house an organisation that has publicly severed its link with what they stand for, or withdrawing the space and leaving local children with nowhere to gather.

In other words, they can choose between feeling foolish or cruel. It’s an insidious position in which to place anyone, especially given that the new Promise also swears to ‘serve my community’, of which churches are surely an important part.”

Really? The Guides’ pledge change is going to hurt the feelings of local churches? So badly that they will be wringing their hands over allowing a bunch of little girls to use their space without invoking God? Or so badly that they won’t let them use their space any longer, forcing said little girls to meet outside in the harsh elements (or, say, to meet in school gyms)? As for the community bit, the importance of a church within a particular community varies considerably. And is it me, or is Coren suggesting that Guides should serve the churches?

If British Brownies and Girl Guides are anything like Canadian Brownies and Girl Guides, then the pledge is about the only time God is mentioned. I noticed that Coren never refers to having been a Brownie or Guide herself — perhaps she thinks that meetings are like Sunday school.

The comment that made me shoot my morning tea out of my nose was this:

“But even if there is some reason why God must be dropped entirely, was there really no better alternative? Could they not have looked for something like the “higher power”, which Alcoholics Anonymous allows so cleverly to stand, in the minds of atheists, for cycles of nature, the universe, time, society or anything that helps a person to realise they are part of something bigger than themselves and behave with accordant responsibility?”

Let’s get this straight. “Higher power” in pledges and such means a god of some kind, or, at best, a force governing our lives. No atheist I’ve ever come across thinks nature, the universe, time (WTF?), or society is a higher power that requires us to promise to love it. For many of us, the point of atheism is that we don’t recognize, and certainly don’t worship, any higher power. “Higher power” is a useful way to accommodate believers of different faiths, as well as agnostics, who wouldn’t find a pledge to the Christian God meaningful. It’s meaningless to atheists, who don’t require a supernatural higher power to make them “behave with accordant responsibility”. We’re perfectly capable of being responsible members of society without granting our society higher power status.

Coren, in her ignorant priggishness, seems incapable of grasping that “be true to myself and develop my beliefs” allows all of the girls who might make that pledge to follow their own faiths, if they have one, without assuming that they must have a faith. Being true to oneself will, for many girls, include loving God. The new pledge does not take that away from them.

Some Girl Guide leaders in the UK are “revolting” against the new pledge, insisting on using it while allowing non-believers to use the new one (because, obviously, the sky will fall if little girls don’t promise to love God). The issue has been framed as a believer vs. non-believer conflict, as if those are the only two possible positions. There are religions for which pledging to love God (which means, let’s not pretend otherwise in the British context, the Anglican God) doesn’t make sense: Wiccans, for instance, don’t worship God. Neither do Hindus or Buddhists. Strictly speaking, Catholics and Muslims probably shouldn’t be taking the old pledge either.

Predictably, the Girl Guides have been accused of “secular totalitarianism,” while its opponents are “rebels.” This kind of language is worth paying close attention to, as it demonizes one group while romanticizing another with heavily loaded terms that manipulate readers and listeners. Who wouldn’t want to rebel against totalitarianism? The new pledge is not, of course, totalitarian in any way; it’s a clear attempt to be inclusive toward those who don’t share the official state religion. Those who want to keep the old pledge and let non-believers “opt out” fail to grasp how difficult it might be for a young girl to do that when her peers are following their adult leaders.

I don’t personally care very much about references to God in most pledges, oaths, etc. It’s not as if I worry that a non-existent being is going to punish me for breaking a promise to love it. But if we want children, especially, to take pledges and oaths seriously as commitments to act in certain ways, then those pledges and oaths had better make sense to them. It’s time for recognition that promises to love God, and treating a certain kind of belief as the default position, simply don’t make sense to everyone in pluralistic societies. Kudos to the Girl Guides for taking a step toward greater inclusiveness.

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