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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

The Brownie Promise – a case study

A North Somerset girl who doesn’t believe in god, but wants to be in the Brownies, faces a familiar quandary: what to do about the Brownie Promise which goes: “I promise that I will do my best, to love my God, to serve the Queen and my country, to help other people and to keep the Brownie Guide law.”

The NSS has reported previously on cases where the parents have approached us for advice about this. Now we have heard from another mother,Caroline Mason, whose daughter cannot join the Brownies because she is unwilling to make the promise to god – or pretend that she believes.

Mrs Mason has written to the Girl Guiding Association (GGA) as follows:

I was very upset to learn that my daughter cannot take part in her Brownies enrolment this month. As a family I am bringing up my children with strong morals, but no religious belief. This is our choice as parents and I do not understand why my daughter should be excluded from something because of it. She made the decision, when given the choice just to say the words anyway, not to enrol as “I don’t believe in a God, so that would be a lie”. I will not encourage my daughter to make a false promise. No baby is born on this planet with an inherent belief in God. Belief in God is something that is encouraged by parents or schools. I was therefore offended to be informed by your headquarters that:

“You promise to ‘love my God’, which is our interpretation of the spiritual dimension of the journey that you go on throughout your life, asking the bigger questions of the world around you. We understand that for young people, as it is for adults at different times in their life, god can take different forms, which are not always about organised religion. For us, it’s about being open-minded, and incompatibility only comes about when someone is really and absolutely certain that spirituality is not a part of their approach to life. For many of our half a million young members, who are growing up and at a transformative time in their lives, they haven’t yet reached a final conclusion, so for most people it’s really a non-issue.”

My interpretation of ‘asking the bigger questions’ is working out your own set of values, this may or may not include a God, but is not exclusive to belief in a god.

Being open-minded is not asking a child to promise love of my God. Being open-minded would be asking them to promise to be true to their beliefs and values — of which my daughter has many — not asking her to love a God. Surely such a promise would far better reflect a child’s spiritual and moral development. Values and beliefs have many forms. My daughter’s moral values mirror the Brownie values completely, and surely this is what is important.

My daughter loves attending Brownies, and I have always encouraged it as I agree strongly with all of the Brownie values. I cannot understand why the Brownies cannot be flexible enough to allow children to promise to ‘love my values’ or ‘love my beliefs’. In the 1920s, Baden-Powell himself allowed six countries to have an alternative, non-religious version of the promise.France, theNetherlandsand theCzechRepublicstill have a version where the God line can be left out. I know that she is welcome to continue with Brownies without enrolling, but it seems very unfair to not allow her to make a promise.

Every other aspect of society encourages equal access and opportunity for all. Indeed we have legislation which would now make the insistence of such a promise illegal in most other situations (work; school etc.). I look forward to hearing from you how you are going to stop my daughter from suffering inequality and discrimination at such an early age.

When the NSS wrote to The Guide Association on this matter, they concluded their reply by saying:

‘On an issue as important as this, the expression of our core values, we must take a planned and measured approach to ensure that any decisions are right for our organisation. The issue is on the Executive Committee‘s agenda and when the time is right we will review our current approach’.

The GGA is clearly aware that this is an issue which needs attention so we encourage other parents and girls to keep this issue at the top of their list by writing to The Girl Guide Association and letting us know the results.

Contact: Gill Slocombe, Chief Guide, Girlguiding UK, 17–19 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1W OPT or email chq@girlguiding.org.uk.

Published Fri, 11 Nov 2011