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To believe or not to believe?

So, I joined the Scouts and am going on my first training session soon. But, there's a part of me that really doesn't want to any more. Scout meetings are fun, definitely, but there is something else which came up last week as part of the application process which has made me question what I'm doing. More than that, it's made me question my own beliefs.

One question I was asked was "what are your spiritual beliefs?" Now, this struck me as a bit odd. Why ask such a question? I left it blank and thought no more about it until a couple of weeks later when I had a conversation with another member of Scouts. It seems that if I'm honest about my beliefs (or lack thereof) then I'm likely to be told that I should reconsider my involvement with the Scouts. That shocked me. Both Scouts and Guides are now multi-faith organisations, admitting children from homes of all religions, but it seems that there is still discrimination going on.

Of the various suggestions from friends, several people just said "lie". I could have done that, but it would have been wrong and I would have felt very uncomfortable doing it. As a child I looked at what I had been taught to believe, analysed it, thought about it, and rejected it. This never seemed to be a problem before, I was a leader with the Guide Association for several years and was never once asked the question. I accept that spiritual development is one aspect of what these youth movements are hoping to achieve, but I don't think that this is a good reason for excluding a whole section of the population.

Yes, I'm a scientist so I'm bound to be logical and questioning. But I don't see why it should matter what I believe. I do not intend discussing my beliefs with the Scouts, so why should it be a problem? It doesn't make me a bad person, I still have morals. If, in the end, they decide they really don't want me as a leader then, fair enough, I'll accept that.

A quote from pharyngula which seems topical:

Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. [...] You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity's knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.

Very true. I enjoy reading pharyngula but I'm often surprised at the comments he receives. People can believe anything they like as far as I'm concerned, as long as they don't force it on anyone else. If only people could be a bit more open minded.

Posted by Megan on Friday 25th Jul 2008 (10:28 UTC) | 1 Comment | Permalink


So, last week was the Annual Scientific Meeting (ASM) of the Astronomical Society of Australia. It's a big national conference, analogous to the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) in the UK, only a big smaller as there aren't quite as many astronomers here. It was an interesting meeting with talks on very diverse topics including an outreach session with updates on the plans for the IYA in Australia. This year (conveniently) it happened to be in Perth, just across the river at UWA. Although there were some really great talks, there were times when I still couldn't keep my eyes open. This was always a problem at uni anyway, falling asleep in 9am lectures was an unfortunate side-effect of doing the astronomy experiments and having been on the roof in the freezing cold until ridiculous hours of the morning (not normal student behaviour, I'll admit, but I never said I was normal). So why do I still do it now?! Nevermind, it could be worse - at least I didn't snore. Well, I don't think I did...

After the conference ended, the organisers (I say organisers, but it seemed that Andre was doing pretty much everything himself!) ran a trip out to visit the nearby observatories. First stop was the Perth Observatory, relocated to the Perth hills in the 60s when light pollution got too bad. They have quite a few working research telescopes up there and an exhibition of historical bits and pieces. They run public viewing nights and publish the Western Australian Astronomy Almanac which contains heaps of useful information. Then we went to the Gravity Discovery Centre at Gingin where there is a visitor centre, the leaning tower of Gingin, the Australian International Gravitational Research Centre which runs the AIGO detector, and the Gingin Observatory which is set up purely to run public observing sessions. It was a fun day out, but it was long and I was glad to get home at the end of it!

Having been here for two months, I went climbing on Saturday. I got fed up of not having anyone to climb with so I put an ad up on the notice board. Well, it's amazing how much strength your muscles can lose in two months. It's not that I've been doing nothing, I'm cycling over 100km a week to and from work, but I haven't used those particular muscles very much recently. Before I left the UK I was climbing at least once a week, often more than that if I could. On Saturday I was trying to climb at the level I had been at in the UK and it just wasn't working. My arms got tired way too quickly and I started falling off, not being able to pull myself up when needed. It was very frustrating. Still, the only way to improve is to keep trying, so I'll be back up there this weekend.

On Sunday I visited the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition that has been on the Esplanade since I arrived. I haven't seemed to have time to visit before now, but I figured I better see it soon as it's moving on in a week or two. It was worth the trip. A lot of the models are fixed and don't work, but there are quite a few you can play with and even a "build your own bridge" exhibit. It was fun to see a lot of his machines made real - I've read a book on some of his work and the sheer amount of stuff the guy did is pretty amazing. What was really fun was seeing the kids playing with the models and actually working out what was going on. They all seemed to be having a really good time, I didn't see a single surly teenager (but may be there is a selection effect going on here (it's possible that the teenagers were so surly that their parents decided it wasn't worth forcing them to go...).

I've been reading Touching the Void again. I didn't bring many books with me (assuming my stuff would be here fairly soon...) so I went to a bookshop the other day. I borrowed this one from a friend ages ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I figured it was time I got my own copy. Trouble is, every time I start reading a book like this I remember what it feels like to be out in the open, camping wild in the mountains (admittedly though, I've never attempted anything quite that big), and I wonder why on earth I sit in front of a computer all day....

Posted by Megan on Monday 14th Jul 2008 (09:33 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Guides and Scouts

I've been involved with the Guide Association for a long time, and I've thoroughly enjoyed it thanks to the wonderful leaders that I've known, all of whom are volunteers who give up their time (often large amounts of it) freely. It's always difficult finding adults who are prepared to commit to helping on a regular basis in order to keep a group going, and many units have closed due to lack of support from the parents. For many people, spending a night a week helping to run a unit is a big commitment. I did it for a number of years, although I'm not a parent, and for me it involved a 30-mile round trip on a bicycle every Tuesday, so it can be hard work. But it's fun, and it's great seeing the young people you're working with make friends, learn skills and achieve something new. It is supposed to be fun, after all.

But still, leaders are hard to find and, in the UK, recent legislation regarding child protection has made things worse. Now, anyone who works with children on a day to day basis (teachers, childcare workers, nurses and so on) have to be checked by the Criminal Records Bureau. But this also applies to volunteers working in youth groups such as the Guides and Scouts. This can put people off volunteering altogether and is only making the situation worse. This, from an article in the Times yesterday:

"Our research also indicates that the current obsession with adult misbehaviour has a destructive impact on volunteering to work with children. When asked if they knew anybody who had been put off by the CRB process, 28 per cent said that they did."

I understand that people worry about their children, but the more barriers that are put up and the more hoops you have to jump through before becoming a leader, the fewer people are going to go through with it. This will mean more Guide units close due to lack of adult leaders (you can't run a unit with one adult in charge) and then what will the kids do? The parents would be the first to complain.

The most ridiculous bit about the whole thing is summed up by this quote, again from the Times article:

A volunteer involved in girl guiding said that it all makes you a lot more wary about child protection. "That's detrimental to your relationship with the children, because you can't give an upset Rainbow [guide] a cuddle and they don't quite understand why." Another guider said that "sometimes a Brownie just needs a cuddle when they are away from home for the first time, and I know many adults who won't do this as they are scared it will be perceived wrongly".

I remember being that Brownie, away from home for the first time, being upset and having a very comforting hug from the Guider in charge (who, incidentally, continued to run the unit until very recently retiring and with whom am I still great friends today).

Here in Australia, I enquired about joining the Guides as a leader, but I never heard back from them. Luckily, the second weekend I was here, the Scouts were having a big city-wide event as part of their celebrations of 100 years of Scouting in Australia and I came across a group of leaders running an activity base on the south shore of the Swan River. As a result of that chance encounter, I am now applying to be a leader with my nearest Scout Troop instead.

They are a great bunch of kids with enormous amounts of energy and enthusiasm, and the leaders are great, too. In just three weeks I've been to three meetings at their hut, a hike and a weekend camp! Even though the camp was a washout, everything and everyone got absolutely soaked, and we had to put up the tents in the dark and the rain, we all had a great time.

But here too, there are barriers that would put some people off. The equivalent of the CRB check is the Working with Children card, which I've applied for. It takes six weeks to come back. There is also a lot of paperwork to complete, an interview with people from district, and compulsory training to do, but from what I hear, the training is good fun and involves a lot of camping! Sounds right up my street.

I'll keep volunteering because I enjoy it (as Womble says "it's a game, when it stops being fun, stop doing it!"), but I wonder how many have been put off already?

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 02nd Jul 2008 (02:32 UTC) | 4 Comments | Permalink

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