What does Scouting mean by Duty to God?

Scouting embraces diverse spiritual expression, theistic or not

By Scouter Liam Morland, 1996

One of Scouting’s three Principles is titled "Duty to God." This statement has been interpreted in many different ways, some of which have lead to religious discrimination, a violation of Scouting’s fundamentals. What does Duty to God really mean to Scouting? Duty to God is about the development of the spiritual values of life and is not a statement about any required beliefs about the material world. This essay is based on the World Organization of the Scout Movement’s (WOSM) document Fundamental Principles which contains "the only authoritative statement agreed upon by more than one hundred member organizations of WOSM" (WOSM 1992:1). All quotations in this essay are from that document.

There are two realms of human understanding: the material world and the spiritual world. The material world is the realm of science, hard facts, observations, conclusions, and objectivity. "Things fall because of gravity" and "The universe is about 15 billion years old" are statements of fact about the material world. Many are testable; they can be shown to be false or true (though absolute proof is only possible within mathematics). For a number of reasons, some things in the material world cannot be shown to be true or false. For example, it is not possible to look outside the universe, so one has little to go by when hypothesizing about what might be there.

The spiritual world is the realm of emotion, ethics, beauty, and the meaning of life. "My love is like a red, red rose" and "That is a beautiful painting" are statements about the spiritual world. They cannot be demonstrated to be true or false. One may see beauty in a painting that another finds to be ugly. Neither person is wrong. A purely material examination of a painting would reveal that it is a piece of cloth covered with a substance that reflects many different wavelengths of light. There is no material way to measure or even talk about the beauty of a painting. Spiritual concepts allow us to give meaning to the cold facts of the material world.

Scouting believes that the development of a person must incorporate the development of elements from both worlds. This is expressed in the three Principles of Scouting: Duty to God, Duty to Others, and Duty to Self (ibid:5). Duty to God represents the spiritual world; Duty to Others and Duty to Self represent the material world, dividing it between our social obligations to other people and our personal obligations to ourselves. Duty to God brings rise to spiritual development; Duty to Others social development; and Duty to Self physical development for the body, and intellectual development for the mind. These together are the four areas of personal development mentioned in Scouting's Purpose: physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual (ibid:4).

Formal religions usually include elements of both the spiritual and the material in their doctrines. For example, in Christianity, love and hope are considered valuable. People are encouraged to see life as the unfolding of God's will and everyone has a part to play in spreading the good news of the love of God. These are spiritual principles. Most Christians also believe that it is important to believe that Jesus materially died on a cross and became alive again, and that just as gravity makes things fall, God pieced together the universe and created the world. These are religious statements about the material world.

To some people, both the spiritual and the material elements of their religion are important. They find the two inseparable. These people often find great conflict between science and religion because scientific findings rarely match up with religious doctrines. For others, religion addresses only spiritual issues; the material elements of religion are considered unimportant. These people do not see a conflict between science and religion because the two ask different questions and get different answers. Science finds facts, religion or spirituality gives meaning.

Let us now look at the definition of Duty to God. Duty to God is defined as "Adherence to spiritual principles, loyalty to the religion that expresses them, and acceptance of the duties resulting therefrom" (ibid:5). Fundamental Principles goes on to say: "It should be noted that, by contrast to the title, the body of the text does not use the word 'God'.... The whole educational approach of the Movement consists in helping young people transcend the material world and go in search of the spiritual values of life" (ibid). First, Scouting wants people to adhere to spiritual principles, such as valuing emotions and seeing life as having meaning.

Second, Scouting wants people to be loyal to the religion that expresses their spiritual principles. A religion is a set of beliefs and practises, not necessarily an organization. Some Scouts will be called to join a formal religious organization, others will express their spirituality outside of such institutions. In either case, Scouting believes that people should be loyal to their choice, recognizing that spiritual development would be impaired if a person were constantly changing their religion.

Third, Scouting wants people to accept the duties resulting from their spiritual principles, to be active doers, not just passive believers.

What does Duty to God mean? "[Duty to God] refers to a person's relationship with the spiritual values of life" (ibid) and not to certain beliefs about the material world. The material elements of religions are not important to Scouting. Just as Scouting does not care whether or not one believes in gravity, it does not care whether or not one believes that a god created the universe, in the material sense. Thus, atheists and agnostics are welcome in Scouting as both youth members and Scouters. Excluding such people violates the definition of the Scout Movement which states that Scouting is "open to all without distinction of origin, race, or creed..." (ibid:2). Of course, everyone in Scouting must be open to continual spiritual development.

Human understanding sees two distinct worlds: the material world and the spiritual world. The Scouting Principle, Duty to God, requires Scouts to develop their spiritual side and does not make any claims about the presence or absence of a god in the material world. It would be much clearer if the Principle was titled Duty to the Spiritual. In any case, the people in Scouting must understand what Duty to God really means so that no one is turned away from Scouting because of their spiritual beliefs. Once a person is turned away, Scouting loses the ability to help develop that person. Let us look beyond shallow interpretations of words so that we can bring to Scouting Spirit to everybody.


  1. Since this essay was first put on the World Wide Web several years ago, I have received a number of comments about it. Most of these fall neatly into two categories. First, there are those who have agreed with what I wrote and thanked me for writing such a clear expression of Scouting's position on Duty to God. The second group is those who have disagreed, claiming that it is clear that one must be a Christian to be a Scout. I have not received a single message which tried to interpret WOSM's fundamentals in a way different from what I came up with. Until I receive such a challenge to my work, I will remain confident that my conclusion is correct.
  2. This essay is based entirely on WOSM's fundamentals because it is both the authoritative statement to which all member associations of the WOSM must adhere (ibid:1) and a concise summary of Lord Baden-Powell's writings about what Scouting is. This essay could also have been based on BP's original writings.


World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM).
1992. Fundamental Principles. Geneva, Switzerland: World Scout Bureau.