In a move designed to increase diversity, atheists could be welcomed into the British Scout movement for the first time in 105 years, the Scout Association says.
The movement, led by TV adventurer Bear Grylls, is launching a consultation to see if members would support an alternative Scout promise for those who feel unable to pledge a “duty to God”.
For more than 40 years, versions of the oath have existed for faith groups including Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, but this is the first time Scouts have considered an adaptation for atheists.
Founder of the movement Lord Baden-Powell approved the use of promises with reference to a higher ideal, higher truth, an optional reference to God, or without a reference to God, for Belgium, the former Czechoslovakia, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Finland.
The proposed changes in the UK are designed to increase diversity in the movement and enable more young people and adults to join.
Leaders insist the existing Scout promise – which also contains a vow of allegiance to the Queen – will continue to be used alongside alternative versions.
Wayne Bulpitt, the association’s chief commissioner in the UK, said: “We are a values-based movement, and exploring faith and religion will remain a key element of the scouting programme. That will not change.
“However, throughout our 105-year history, we have continued to evolve so that we remain relevant to communities across the UK.
“We do that by regularly seeking the views of our members and we will use the information gathered by the consultation to help shape the future of scouting for the coming years.”
Membership of the Scouts has risen during the past seven years from 444,936 in 2005 to 525,364 this year, figures released by the association show.
Since 2002, the number of girls taking part has increased by 69 per cent, while more than 50 scout groups catering for young people drawn mainly from Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities have opened in the last 10 years.
The Scout promise reads: “On my honour, I promise that I will do my best to do my duty to God and to the Queen, to help other people and to keep the Scout law.”
Alternative versions allow Hindus and Buddhists to use the word “my Dharma” while Muslims can use the word “Allah”. Non-UK citizens are permitted to replace the phrase “duty to the Queen” with “duty to the country in which I am now living”.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said the consultation was a “move in the right direction” and would put an end to “unpleasant confrontations” such as that of 11-year-old George Pratt, from Midsomer Norton in Somerset, who was excluded because he did not want to make the Scout promise in its present form.
“By adjusting their promise to include people without a religious belief, the Scouts will bring themselves in line with the reality of 21st century Britain, where more than two-thirds of young people say they have no religious belief,” he said.
“If the Scouts decide to change the promise, it would relieve many young people of having to lie about what they believe in order to be part of this great organisation.”