Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


The Promise

I promise to serve my God, the Queen, the Commonwealth and the Sea Cadet Corp and to obey the orders of my superior officers. I will proud of my uniform and smart and seaman-like in wearing it. I will always do my duty.

It was a long time ago now but I remember it so clearly. Paul Love, Peter Crocker, Matthew Ferrell and I were all dressed up for the first time in our new, smartly-pressed sailor uniforms standing before the Commanding Officer and the whole ship’s company of TS Caprice to speak the Promise that would launch an amazing three-year adventure in the Sea Cadet Corps followed by six years in the Royal Navy.

For the first four weeks after joining the Sea Cadets, we had stood at the back of the hall during Colours and Sunset wearing the civvies that marked us as new entries not yet entitled to wear the navy blue uniform that our more seasoned shipmates wore. For a long month, we learned how to take care of that uniform, enduring lessons on where, exactly, to put the seven creases and how to tie a lanyard and how to wear a beret without looking like you had a blue pancake on your head. After that month, we knew what all the badges meant and how to tie a reef knot and a bowline and who to salute and we all knew which brush to use first when we shined our shoes and we could march (after a fashion). Only then were we issued our uniforms and ready to make our promises.

One minute to Colours, sir! Ship’s Company, turning aft, right and left TURN! Colours, sir! Pipe the Still! PEEEEEEEEEEEE – continue for 8 seconds – EEEEEEEEP!

On the Tuesday before our Big Day, we rummaged through musty sacks of hand-me-down uniforms searching for that special pair of bell-bottoms that was only slightly enormous and the lanyard that wasn’t too frayed and when we got home that night, most of us had our first encounter with an ironing board. Getting those seven creases sharp and evenly spaced but not shiny turned out to be quite a palaver. Several damp tea towels and a jug of water later, I had merely created a cloud of steam while the heavy blue serge conspired with gravity to guarantee that my attempts at getting my uniform smart and seaman-like ended in failure. After much practice, I was able to look like a proper sailor and I was proud of my uniform like the last part of The Promise required.

I will proud of my uniform and smart and seaman-like in wearing it. I will always do my duty.

The first part of the promise was a bit trickier.

I promise to serve my God…

Like most English kids of that era, I always put Church of England in the religion box that appeared on every official form. Need to refill your prescription? What religion are you? Need a new passport? What religion are you? I had stopped believing in God on September 4th, 1973 but I didn’t start writing atheist on the forms until I arrived at BRNC Dartmouth, the college for Naval officers in 1988. I first joined the Navy, my ID tags said C of E. By the time I left, they said ATH.

Bell bottom blues.

As far as I know, few of my school friends believed in God but we were all taught to write C of E on those forms and to make promises that we had no intention of keeping. I found this harder to do as the years went by and, by the time my own kids were old enough to make promises of their own, I found it impossible to let them make promises that were false.

American readers may remember the case of the gay Eagle Scout who was thrown out of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) because he was gay. He was actually thrown out because he did not agree to the scout’s principle of Duty to God (though he was gay too and they did not like that at all).

As a result of the controversy, the Boy Scouts of America changed their policy to allow gays to join. They later decided to admit girls too and, even later, trans kids. Still no atheists allowed.

The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to a God. In the first part of the Scout Oath the member declares, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.”

The Scout’s policy statement clarifies this to say that you don’t have to be an actual Christian or even to believe in God as such. Buddhists and Native Americans are welcome as well as a long list of other religions.

Boy Scouts of America recognizes religious awards for about 35 faith groups including Islam, Judaism, Bahá?í, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Sikhism and 28 varieties of Christianity.

Boy Scouts of America

No atheists or agnostics allowed though.

When Little Clown was a lad, two of my friends ran the local scout troop while I coached the soccer team for all three of our boys. My friends suggested that Little Clown should join the scouts.

“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.”

When I expressed my doubts about making a promise that I knew to be false, they thought I was stickling unnecessarily. They said that no one really cared whether you believed in that stuff. It was just some words that you had to say to get in the door.

The Sea Cadets have recently updated their handbook to clarify that the promise made to God can refer to any god or none at all.

The Sea Cadet Promise: I promise to serve my God, my Queen, my country, and, the Sea Cadet Corps and to obey the orders of my superior officers.
Note: My God refers to an individual’s own faith and is intended to apply equally to those from all faiths or none. (Sea Cadets’ Ethos, 2019, p4)

Sea Cadet Corps — Wikipedia

I’m glad they straightened that out.

In the 21st Century, teenagers in the UK are overwhelmingly non-religious. I wonder how many have been excluded from wholesome organisations because of their non-belief. I wonder how many were forced to make a promise that they did not believe.

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11 responses to The Promise

Chris Brooks August 11, 2022

Both of my sons are Eagle Scouts here in the US. There’s a wide band of interpretation of the reverence requirement that is troop dependent. Generally speaking their troop was fine with a belief in a moral code or philosophy.

Things came to a head though during the younger son’s board of review for Eagle Scout, which brings in outside reviewers. One of the board members was not at all satisfied with my son’s atheist–agnostic spectrum of beliefs. Review dragged on for two hours in a sort of détente until a compromise was found: my son had to admit that there is a non zero possibility of a higher power out there. A shame because there’s so much potential value in community like that.

    Ragged Clown August 11, 2022

    That’s brilliant, Chris! Almost as good as the Sea Cadets deciding that ‘God’ means the same as ‘God or no god’.

Sleuth August 11, 2022

Members of my family are declared atheists, but they are nevertheless « spiritual » in that they believe there’s « something” that keeps the earth spinning, the flowers to grow, the seasons to change, to make us want to do good, to be the best we can be. Call it Mother Nature, the Call of the Wild, the Universe, the Ancestors, Serendipity, the Force, the Mystery, whatever.

That works for me if that works for them. Whether one believes in an old man with a long grey beard and wild hair, thunderbolts in one hand, sheaves of wheat in the other, clouds emanating from his presence, many find their compass and their guide in the same general way.

    Ragged Clown August 11, 2022

    That’s interesting, Sleuth.

    ‘Spiritual’ is one of those tricky words that means different things to different people. A lot of atheists won’t use it to describe themselves because they take it to mean ‘belief in spirits’. I don’t agree with that definition.

    I’m fine using ‘spiritual’ to mean Mother Nature or Serendipity or, my favourite, The Call of the Wild. I definitely hear that call about now. I’m spiritual.

Ragged Clown August 11, 2022

OFF TOPIC: WordPress changed something recently that disables comments on new posts. I turn them back on but sometimes I forget.

SHORT VERSION: If you wanted to comment on the last few posts but couldn’t, now you can.

Rosa May August 11, 2022

Interesting read!
Just curious Kevin, why you chose my 14th birthday to stop believing in God?
For me it was a gradual process starting from the age of 4 or 5 ….

    Ragged Clown August 12, 2022

    It was the first day of Junior school and they changed the position of our hands when we said the Lord’s Prayer. Infants say it with their palms together and fingers straight. Juniors have to intertwine their fingers. That was the point where I realised they were just making it all up.

johnboy France August 11, 2022

Hello Kevin
Thank you for your expertise on smart Patients.
I over the moon with your recent treatment went well.
May you continue to make good progress.
Both of my children were in the Marine Cadets; they look back on that period with Pride.
I personally am agnostic, not atheist, I was not aware that atheists could not join these groups, I must admit it, surprises me, some atheists are people of real conviction, I see am amazing loss of resources, then again that’s me.

Anyway, my friend your writing is a pleasure and for your commitment to smartpatients I thank you, it’s important to a lot of people.

Bonne courage
Johnboy France

Clare August 14, 2022

Thank you for this thoughtful post. I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable at school in the US whenever we had the pledge of allegiance. Both the patriotic devotion and religious assertion jarred on me.
Camilla recently auditioned and received a place in next year’s production with our county youth musical theatre group but we just learned they are performing Godspell. This seems a very odd choice, especially for British teenagers. It’s extremely preachy and presents moral lessons in a way that I think even most many of my Christian friends would find dated and uncomfortable. I’m an atheist myself, yet I do sing sacred music and sing in places of worship. And I do and say as others do there as a mark of respect.
However, there’s a big difference between choosing to go to church, and being made to sing and speak fervently about religious beliefs when choosing to participate in a fun secular activity. This musical comes across like an evangelical youth bible camp! Camilla has decided for herself that it wasn’t for her.

    Ragged Clown August 14, 2022

    Godspell is a tricky one! I remember it well from the 70s. It is very preachy. A lot of Christians don’t like it either as it’s a bit happy-clappy. Jesus Christ Superstar makes for an interesting comparison as it looks at the bible stories more critically (Tim Rice was an atheist). It’s also one of my favourite plays so I would have no qualms about performing that.

    I find it interesting to compare English attitudes to religion with American attitudes. I doubt that Godspell could even be performed in an American public school, even though Americans are much more religious. English kids have a way of fudging the difference between religious and not religious where Americans are more likely to be all or nothing one way or the other. I’m still bummed that my kids never sang Little Donkey at Christmas or got to dress as a shepherd at the manger as I did in primary school.

    Brava to Camilla for making a difficult choice.

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