Girl Guides, promises, and restarting the crusades

Crusades“You’re out to restart the crusades!” I haven’t listened to the interview so I’m quoting from memory and may have missed some suitable nuance in the original, but this was the charge that came against me on 5live earlier this week.

I’ve done quite a lot of media work, especially radio, over the past few years, but this was the first time I’d done a live national radio phone-in chat show, and it was on whether the Girl Guides were right to drop god from their promise. There was a healthy bit of banter between me and Stephen Evans from the National Secular Society before callers came onto the line. I was also presented by Nicky Campbell with sections of Baden Powell’s writings citing reverence for Mein Kampf and asked if this was part of the Christian foundation for Scouts and Guides I wanted to maintain.

I should say this all began within 30 seconds of running into the office after chaos on the Northern Line. Yes, I can be at my office phone by 9am, I said confidently 40 minutes before. I threw my bag and jacket on the seat, grabbed some water and some hand towels to mop my sweating brow and picked up the phone. “We’re putting you straight through to the on air discussion, Nicky Campbell will come to you next.” Apparently you couldn’t tell I’d missed the opening seven minutes of the segment, but perhaps a lesson never to rely on London Transport when you need it most.

All of that’s a bit of colour to explain why the Girl Guides ruined my Wednesday.

What got me most annoyed was not the removal of god from the promise, but its replacement with a vague nonsense promise to be ‘true to myself’. As Nick Spencer has articulated clearly, my concern is not that eleven year old girls are especially mendacious, capricious or narcissistic, but that this orients their fulfilment towards themselves and not toward others.

On the god question, I think the proposal from the Scouts to extend their current provision for different religious beliefs to substitute in their own god or gods into the promise to also include a provision for people without any religious beliefs, is a far better option. I think this reflects the plurality of belief systems that exist and operate often in concert and alongside one another, but without the suggestion that they can be reduced to a common denominator that satisfies everyone without embracing meaninglessness along the way.

We do not all believe the same things, and we do not all base our commitment to do good and to serve on the humanist premise the new promise articulates. I accept this may well make some feel more included, but I think it lessens the weight of the promise for those whose belief in a god is the orienting perspective of their life.

As a colleague remarked, and Nicky Campbell suggested, the maintenance of the Queen in the promise somewhat undermines the attempt to make this a promise for all. It still offers a promise that some disagree with, as a promise that means anything is always likely to do. Those Christians or follows of other faiths who are of a republican inclination are likely to be particularly erked by this combination of decisions.

It has brought back to the fore a recurring conversation about what secularism is, and whether it is something desirable. The response, as it almost always is with such questions, is what kind of secularism do you mean.

If you mean a place where everyone has an equal opportunity to speak, where a variety of voices are welcome and able to participate in the public sphere, then I am all for that sort of secularism. If you mean a way of operating that regulates how all these different voices speak then I am not.

Because then that just becomes another way of deciding whether someone, or some belief, can operate in the public sphere. It is not an inclusive way of organising society, it is a restrictive mode of operation. It is saying everyone can have a seat around the table, but then designing the table in such a way which restricts who can engage and how they can engage.

This is why any effort to create a neutral, secular, space is a masquerade for imposing restrictions on behaviour. This is why the change to the Guide promise is not inclusive, but hides behind purported inclusivity to define the terms of engagement for everyone else.

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