Victoria Coren, in yesterday’s Observer, wrote an article bemoaning the recent change in pledge from the Brownies. Instead of promising ‘to love God’, would-be Brownies will now vow to ‘be true to myself and develop my beliefs’. Quite aside from the fact this new pledge means absolutely nothing, she states ‘I’ve never met a child who wasn’t true to itself… Every bit of acting up through resentment, impatience, temper, boredom or sadness [when she was a child] was “true to myself” and if my parents had sent me to the Brownies, I suspect it would not have been for a pat on the back’.
Like Coren, I do not think the Brownies are a bad organisation. Unlike Coren, I am not particularly concerned they have removed the statement to ‘love God’ from their pledge. It seems better to remove this vow altogether than force children to make statements of belief to which they evidently don’t subscribe. Nor does it place churches in the ‘insidious position’ Coren thinks. Many churches allow secular community works to use their buildings, usually as long as the specific activity is not opposed to the work of the church itself. For example, one should imagine it very odd were the church to grant a meeting place for the British Humanist Association, whose sole mission is to see religious organisations closed down altogether. Similarly, other religious groups propagating a message fundamentally contrary to the church (a category under which one might argue the BHA fall) would also be unlikely to find a home. Nevertheless, secular language classes, toddler groups, homework clubs and the like often find a home in church buildings and, despite their decision to drop the pledge to ‘love God’, there seems to be no reason the Brownies couldn’t benefit in the same way.
The rather more troubling element of this change is not the part of the pledge they dropped but the insertion that has been deemed better. I am not remotely bothered that Brownies who probably don’t love God are no longer pledging that they do. Rather, it is concerning they deem it better to vow to be ‘true to myself’. As Coren notes:
Although, I repeat, it doesn’t mean anything at all, it certainly carries a suggestion of something utterly individualistic. It’s the language of The X Factor. It feels stubborn, self-important and faintly aggressive. It brings selfhood looming into the foreground, reducing the rest of the world to passers-by who benefit or suffer by mere coincidence as the individual dream is followed.
Indeed, in step with the national zeitgeist, God goes out the window in favour of being true to oneself. Self takes centre stage whilst God doesn’t get a look in.
And where does the desire to be true to oneself end? Weren’t many of the heinous individuals of the past century, whose very names are now by-words for evil and moral vacuity, merely being true to themselves? Surely the string of court cases currently being pursued against countless celebrities are merely the product of their having been true to themselves? If being true to oneself is life’s raison d’être – the summum bonum of existence – does the good of others even factor?
Surely, the Brownies are left with a total contradiction when they simultaneously pledge to ‘be true to myself’ and yet to ‘help other people’. Which is it? Unless we are going for complete doublespeak and trying to claim that ‘helping other people’ includes ‘being true to myself’ they have something of a problem. Of course, they may have in view the totally self-serving sort of altruism that expects something in return or is merely done because it makes us feel good about ourselves. That would certainly involve being ‘true to myself’ whilst sort of ‘helping other people’. But, one suspects, that is not in view given most people would – were such intentions stated honestly – consider the action morally questionable. It is largely agreed that altruism is not altruistic when we do it with the inheritance in view.
Such views of being true to oneself and following one’s own dreams are fairly widespread. The advancement of self is part of our national consciousness. However, it is interesting to note that Aleister Crowley, famous occultist and founder of Thelema, stated ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’, and that people should learn to live in tune with their ‘True Will’. Similarly, the Church of Satan claim they do not believe in gods and devils but that oneself is god. They go on state that Satan ‘represents indulgence instead of abstinence’. Such thinking seems to be the basis of occultic and satanic thought.
Now, I am not for one second suggesting that the Brownies are now following occultic practice and aligning themselves with the Church of Satan. What I am saying is our national consciousness reflects these same values and the Brownies are reflecting the national consciousness. Could it be these strands of occultic thought (Crowley as early as the late 1800s) were reflecting something of a change in public attitude? Perhaps. More likely, especially given these groups are relatively young and the language they choose to adopt specifically Koine Greek and Biblical, they actively – and self-consciously – stand in opposition to Christianity in particular. Such ideas of self-promotion and being true to oneself share an uncanny resemblance to this school of thought.
All of that is to say, what does our national focus – and the Brownies specific focus – on being true to oneself say about us? Could the dropping of God, and the promotion of self, say something far more serious than mere attempts to be inclusive? It is interesting that the Brownies pledge has not come out the blue, for nationally we dropped God a long time ago and the indulgence of self has been promoted ever since. If self is the summum bonum, what exactly distinguishes us from the Aleister Crowley school of thought?