I have just sent this letter to the Girl Guides Association:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to express my concern about the “Promise” required by Girl Guides.

I am a parent in a secular family and have two young daughters, one of whom has just been offered a place in the local Rainbows group, about which she is very excited. However, I read that she has to make a promise as follows: “I promise that I will do my best to love my God and to be kind and helpful”. I read that alterations are possible for this text in the form of replacing the word “God” with specific deity names such as “Allah” where appropriate. However, there appears to be no provision for children from secular families who object, as a matter of conscience, to theistic beliefs.

This lack of provision for people of a non-religious disposition (65% of UK citizens according to a recent YouGov poll http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-belief-surveys-statistics) surprises me in an organization that clearly goes out of its way to be inclusive towards people of non-Christian theistic backgrounds. It puts parents like me (and according to statistics like those above there must be a lot of us) in a difficult trilemma:

a)      We could decide to not participate in Girl Guiding. This would be a great disappointment to my daughters and would make them feel excluded from activities from which their theistic friends are not excluded. It would also, by the way, make their parents feel excluded. I am sure that exclusion is undesirable to the Guide Association too.

b)      We could change our cosmological viewpoints. As these are matters of conscience, this is not something we can just do at the flip of a switch. Nor is it something I desire to do. As a parent, I have always deemed it important to teach my children to seek truth through reason and evidence, and I find that theistic beliefs are contrary to that ethos. In any case, it strikes me that the whole “my God” part of the Promise is essentially meaningless: there is no decent evidence for any of the deities that have ever been proposed through human history. People who promise to love their God are therefore making promises about things that are not known to exist with any certainty. It seems contradictory to make promises about things that may not exist at all, nor could you actually expect young children to make informed opinions on them.

c)      We could ask our children to lie when they make the promise. This is probably the thing we are going to recommend to our children, as it seems the lesser of three evils, but we do it with a heavy heart. Children ought to be taught that promises mean something, and I feel that in recommending this action, we are not setting a good example.

A fourth solution is of course possible if in future the Guide Association were to recommend a change to their Promises that excluded mention of “God” altogether. If in fact the important thing about the promise is to encourage love (love for God amongst theists if they wish, and love for other people amongst atheists), then a text that would not exclude non-religious people might read “to love others” instead of “to love my God”.

I hope that you will take note of my difficulties in this matter, and I ask, if it is not already being done, that due consideration be made to make the Girl Guides inclusive to a large fraction of the UK population which are currently excluded on matters of conscience, or forced into other undesirable decisions.

I am now off to tutor my daughter on how to make a promise without meaning it, incidentally one of the most difficult tasks I have ever faced as a parent (and I’ve faced a few). I just hope she understands. .

Yours faithfully,

Peter Mayhew