My tentmate and I lay in our sleeping bags, frozen in fear. This could be it, I thought to my 13-year-old self. Soon we could both be dead, two Boy Scouts mauled to ribbons by the bear that was grunting just a few feet outside our tent in New York's Adirondack Mountains.
The animal was clumsy, knocking over the pots we'd scrubbed in Scout fashion with ashes and water, rooting around in the campfire we'd extinguished after burning our food scraps with care. My mind raced.
I knew from my Scout training that I must not run like the scared kid I was, because no boy has a hope of outrunning a bear. I knew that even if the animal were to crash into our tent and take a bite out of me, I must lie perfectly still -- and I believed I could do so, at least for the first bite or two. I thought about how glad I was that I had not broken the "no food in the tent" rule, and that we'd tied our grub up high in a tree after managing an excellent rope toss over a lofty branch. And I considered the sudden possible relevance of the first aid I'd learned as a Scout: how to stop arterial bleeding, splint a fracture, treat for shock.
One thing I did not think about was God. And when that bear finally wandered off, leaving me and the rest of my troop free to creep out and find the telltale paw prints that our leader had taught us to identify, it was thanks to preparedness, not prayer, that the animal got neither our provisions nor our lives.
It's the Boy Scout motto to "Be Prepared," and I've always tried to follow that advice. So maybe, given today's political and religious winds, I should have been better prepared than I was for the news that Darrell Lambert, 19, an Eagle Scout in the Seattle area, had his membership in the Boy Scouts of America revoked this month for asserting that he did not believe in God.
The Boy Scout Oath begins with the words: "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country. . . ." And the Boy Scout Law says a Scout should be, among other things, "reverent." Lambert's atheism, known and accepted by his local troop leaders, had gone unnoticed by the national leadership of the Boy Scouts of America during the years that he rose to the rank of Eagle, the pinnacle of Scouting. But recently, while Lambert was training to become an adult Boy Scout leader, his lack of faith became known to officials, who told him to declare his belief in a Supreme Being -- pronto. Unable to find God on deadline, Lambert was ejected.
The organization's action struck me as both narrow-minded and unjust. I was a Scout for five years, and rose to the rank of Eagle, and never felt I had to declare my allegiance to a God. Quite the contrary. The beauty of Scouting, it has always seemed to me, is that it teaches practical skills and an earthy self-reliance that allows boys to venture into wild environments where they can contemplate for themselves the real meaning of responsibility, humility and their place in the universe. Why would an organization demand a rote expression of religious faith when it's in a position to cultivate the real thing from scratch?
That's how it worked for me. On windswept mountaintops and in snow-muffled woods, in moments alone and then together again with my fellow campers, I got religion in spades while in the Boy Scouts. But apparently not the kind that counts.
Scouting in general may seem corny these days, when all boyhood paths seem to lead to soccer fields and karate studios. But let me tell you, at the risk of revealing the somewhat embarrassing measure of pride I still carry in the accomplishment, it takes real perseverance and devotion to become an Eagle Scout.
When I joined Troop 14 in Syracuse, N.Y., at the age of 11, my friends and I knew little about the world beyond our gray city's limits. But with the help and patience of our Scoutmaster and other camp leaders, we learned to hike and live in the outdoors. We learned how to pack a backpack, communicate by Morse code, use a compass, read tracks and stalk animals. We learned how to tie the right knot for the job, keep warm in a snow cave, make a stretcher from branches and bandannas. We learned how to take care of each other in difficult situations.
Often in my years of Scouting I raised my right hand in the three-fingered Scout sign and repeated the Scout Oath. And more than 30 years later I can still recite the 12-point Scout Law: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and, yes, reverent. By the time I reached Eagle I had rebelled against even the low-commitment variety of organized religion within which I'd been raised. But I assumed that the words "God" in the Oath and "reverent" in the Law were meant in the broadest, most universal sense. After all, Scouting makes much of its inclusion of boys of all faiths, to whom God obviously means many different things. A Scout, my old Boy Scout Handbook told me, "respects the convictions of others in matters of custom and religion."
That view stuck with me after leaving Scouting, and I spent several years in my twenties wandering the world to further my spiritual growth. I lived in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, immersing myself in the profound teachings of mystical Judaism. I took refuge with Greek Orthodox monks in the mountains around Delphi, had an audience with the Dalai Lama in Nepal, sat with orange-robed sadhus in Veranasi, India, Hinduism's most holy city. And I spent many months in Buddhist monasteries, in some cases taking long vows of silence -- twice for six months each -- as part of my shot at enlightenment through meditation.
I may not believe in God, but am I godless? By some measures, I've had more religion than most.
I wonder if the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America really believes that any old God is better than none. What if I gave up my atheism to serve a God who demands I toss a virgin into a volcano once a year? What if I chose to align myself with a God who demands that I kill all infidels? Would I be a better Scout for believing in a God who says all those who believe in other Gods are destined for hell? Is that what Scouting is about?
Or is it about learning to live more skillfully in the world, and standing up for what's right? I think it's about standing shoulder to shoulder with good people like Darrell Lambert, who brought to Scouting the cardinal virtues of honesty and forthrightness, and for that was asked to leave.
Last week, after reading about Lambert's plight, I went deep into my closet, unzipped an old plastic hanging bag, and removed from the left breast pocket of my old Scout uniform a crisp red, white and blue ribbon adorned with a large silver eagle -- my Eagle badge. I placed it in a box with some leaves, twigs and pebbles -- bits and pieces of this spectacular universe that I first began to revere as a Boy Scout -- and mailed it to Scout headquarters in Irving, Tex., with a note.
I had not realized, I wrote, what a small God I had aligned myself with when I took the Boy Scout Oath.