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Poland’s version of the Boy Scouts, the Polish Scouting and Guiding Association (ZHP), just made a harmless decision that has still, somehow, infuriated its most religious supporters. In the past, all scouts had to take an oath to “serve God and Poland.” Now there will also be an alternative version for scouts who don’t believe in (or are questioning) God that omits that part of the oath.

It’s hardly a significant change, and yet some ZHP leaders are acting like the sky is falling.

The organisation’s pastoral council—made up of seven Catholic priests—warned that the change “can even be perceived as discrimination consisting of open de-Christianisation…[which] over time will result in the atheisation of members and not only moral but ideological conflicts”, reports Catholic weekly Niedziela.

“We take a negative view of the change, believing that it serves primarily to remove Christian values[,]…undermine the identity of the Polish scout, and violate a more than one-hundred-year-old tradition of scouting, which was clearly oriented towards God and Christian values,” they continued.

How weak must their faith be that the omission of “God” from an oath most kids never even think about after they say the words is both a slippery slope to atheism and alleged anti-Christian discrimination? And how is removing God the same as removing “Christian values”? You would think the mission of the Scouts—to “develop their fullest potential as responsible and active citizens”—is paramount for Christians, not the arbitrary mention of God. It’s a self-own to act like the removal of a word, and not a change in the mission, is what matters to the Christian faith.

It’s not like this move came out of nowhere either. According to the ZHP, it’s been under consideration since 2014 and was finally made in May at the group’s 42nd National Congress.

“As an organisation, we want to give young people the opportunity to look for their own path,” wrote the ZHP in a statement. “Establishing a version that…omits the word ‘God’ will legitimise the accession of people who are not ready to define their faith, but are still looking for it.”

It noted that the decision had come “after a long discussion” and consultations with instructors since 2014. “The ZHP is a constantly evolving organisation that discusses issues that are important to its members” and allows “instructors to democratically decide on the most important matters”, it wrote.

Those are valid reasons to make the change! Even in a country where belief in God is significantly higher than just about all other European countries, there are plenty of young people in Poland who aren’t quite ready to take that leap.

Graphic via The Guardian

Keep in mind that this is a smart move for the future of scouting! It’s a way to make sure young people don’t see the Polish Scouting and Guiding Association as a fundamentally religious organization. In the United States, even as the Boy Scouts of America has struggled with low membership and sexual abuse allegations; and even after their too-little-too-late gestures to welcome gay troops, gay leaders, trans boys, and girls; they’ve always maintained their religious stance. The Scout Law requires members to be “reverent” while the Scout Oath includes the line, “I will do my best to do my duty to God.”

But belief in a Higher Power isn’t a prerequisite to having good character or being a great leader, and it’s absurd for any group that aims to teach leadership and life skills to insist otherwise.

The Scouting leaders in Poland understand that, and they made a simple change to accommodate non-religious or God-questioning members. As they should! It’ll remove a pointless barrier of entry. That’s it. No more, no less.

But that’s not going to stop religious zealots from acting like this is a personal attack. Even a government official is getting involved.

Yesterday, the critics were joined by a government minister, Jan Dziedziczak, who serves as a secretary of state in the prime minister’s office. The change made by the ZHP is a “very sad” and “bad decision”, he told Radio Poznań.

Dziedziczak agreed with the pastoral council that this is part of an effort to remove Christian values. “There is no such thing as ideological neutrality,” he said. “Often, under the slogan of ideological neutrality, attempts are made to implement atheist ideology…to build a world without God.”

He’s arguing that if something’s not explicitly pro-Christian, it’s automatically anti-Christian. Religious neutrality is inherently anti-religious. It’s just a completely insane way to see the world when you’re supposed to live in a democracy.

As the Catholic website Aleteia notes, though, the ZHP isn’t unique in offering an alternative oath. The Scout Association in the UK introduced a secular option back in 2013. And that’s not all:

In Denmark and Sweden, members are only required to swear to uphold scout law. Switzerland has also made the oath to God optional, and in Australia scouts must only be true to their “spiritual beliefs.” 

These are sensible moves for smart organizations. There’s no good reason to force kids to pledge an oath to God as if that makes them better people. It’s insulting to even suggest that. It’s long overdue for any scouting group to give kids the option of a secular oath because all the important words are still retained no matter what.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.