No Graven Images and Other Reflections

This speech was delivered on September 16 at the twenty-third annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Mayor Richard Daley of my hometown of Chicago is not particularly known for his eloquence, but in August of 1992 he made a pronouncement on faith that was striking for its pith and profundity. Addressing some now long-forgotten local church-state wrangle, the mayor said:

"Everybody believes in some kind of God, if they want to . . . or they don't."

Well, how true that is.

I don't expect to see it replacing "In God We Trust" as our national motto any time soon, but to me it sums up the proper governmental attitude toward all things religious:

Firm. Declarative. But ultimately indecisive: "Everybody believes . . . or they don't." "In God Some Trust, Though Some Do Not. Whatever."

This is probably the last gathering in America that needs to hear this message. Those in this room tonight don't need to be persuaded that it may well be the singular genius of the American experiment that through our history we have made a comparatively decent effort to keep the grubby paws of government off of religion and the grubby paws of religion off of government.

My collected writings on this subject--not that anyone has yet thought to collect them--make this point in a variety of ways for an audience of those who do need to be persuaded. If I bring any particular expertise to this subject at all it's my experience in attempting to promote separation periodically and insistently to an audience that doesn't want to hear about it and that thinks I'm going to hell.

I'm not promising any kind of winning strategy here, just some of the arguments that have worked for me in advancing this and similar positions as positive and plausible affirmations to a public that tends to think this should be a Christian nation or maybe a Judeo-Christian nation or at least, certainly, a God-centered nation.

Because we need to keep scoring points. Because just when you start to feel a little complacent, along comes the major political party that has most reliably defended the separation of church and state--the Democrats--nominating for vice president a man who tells us it's time to "renew the dedication of our nation . . . to God and God's purposes" and ominously reminds us that, "John Adams, second president of the United States, wrote that our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," and that "George Washington warned us never to indulge the supposition 'that morality can be maintained without religion.' "

In the same speech, Joseph Lieberman said that without the Jewish and Christian traditions, the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence "could never have been written."

At which my mind reeled with responses, most of them salty, the cleanest of which was, "Well, it sure took 'em long enough."

After centuries of sectarian bloodshed, human slavery and unspeakable cruelties in the name of the Judeo-Christian God, then they found--in between the lines--oh, gee, all men are created equal . . . how did we miss that before?

Then it took this same tradition roughly 100 more years to begin to extend this equality to black men and 150 to begin to extend it to white and black women and the disabled.

Whenever I make observations like that in print, I receive a flood of angry responses making two points.

1. Lots of blood has been spilled by nonbelievers in the service of nonreligious ideology. Stalin, Pol Pot and the like.

2. Abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests of the 1960s were driven in large part by Christians.

I don't deny that. All it does is underscore for me the fundamental principle behind the First Amendment---that religion, whatever its other merits, is an unreliable basis for a free and democratic society. Far from being a source of absolute moral truth, religion and scripture are a source of absolute conflict and confusion. Mr. Jones finds in his scripture passages to prove that God believes gays, women and blacks are sub-human and should be treated accordingly. Mr. Smith finds in his scripture passages to prove that God wants us to love one another equally. And you already know the punchline. They're holding the same book.

I've titled my remarks tonight: "No Graven Images and Other Reflections."

The reference, of course, is to the third of the Ten Commandments taken from Exodus 20, "You shall not make for yourself a graven image"--in the Revised Standard Version, a graven image being a physical object of worship usually made of wood or stone, sometimes called an idol. And the Ten Commandments being the list of precepts that God is said to have revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai; they also appear in Deuteronomy 5, if you're keeping score.

I know this not because I'm a particular student of the Old Testament. I mean, why bother to read it closely? Every time you find a nice juicy passage--if "the tokens of virginity (are) not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death," or "whoever does any work on the Sabbath shall be put to death;" or God's threat to unbelievers in Leviticus 26: "you shall eat the flesh of your sons and your daughters"--you're told no, those don't apply anymore or those weren't meant literally or Jesus erased those passages that we now find appalling.

I know my citations on the Commandments because they're so often in the news these days and have frequently given me an opportunity to argue for two points I consider very important.

The first being that separation of church and state is not a burdensome abstraction but a source of our nation's strength.

The second being that George Washington and Joe Lieberman have it wrong: Even though moral behavior and religious belief sometimes go together, they are independent concepts.

One of my earliest Ten Commandments columns concerned His Egregiousness Judge Ray Moore of Etowah County, Alabama, who several years ago refused a higher court order to remove the Decalog he'd posted in his courtroom. The ever weak-minded populists in the U.S. House of Representatives then passed a resolution by a 295-125 vote supporting and encouraging him in that refusal.

The argument favoring Judge Moore's position went something like this: The American system of laws is rooted in absolute moral truths as handed down by the Judeo-Christian God in the Ten Commandments. Therefore a display of the commandments is, like a relief statue of the blindfolded Dame Justice above the courthouse door, simply a symbolic reminder of the principles upon which all this jurisprudence is, ultimately, based.

My answer to this was, in so many words . . . Like hell it is.

Taken as a whole, the Ten Commandments are explicitly based upon and reflect a particular--and, I might add, not very widely practiced--religious belief.

How many of the Ten Commandments reflect actual laws that Judge Ray Moore is charged with enforcing in his courtroom?

Seven? Five? Four?

Three.

You shall not steal. You shall not murder. You shall not bear false witness.

Another four--honor your folks, stay faithful to your spouse, don't be covetous and refrain from profanity--are simply good ideas, not generally matters of law anymore.

I try to live by them myself, though I have to admit my belief that they were composed by men for men. Good ideas are good ideas and I give the authors credit, though, I'm bound to say, they were not a stretch.

The remaining three--keep the Sabbath holy, make no graven images and have no other God before the Judeo-Christian God--are religious proscriptions, plain and simple.

"Making graven images may or may not be a good idea," I wrote in one column, "but unless I misread my Constitution, we're all free to do so and risk the consequences. Any sign in any courtroom or public school classroom that implies otherwise is in serious error."

I would add to this that making graven images, or at least the freedom to do so, is precisely, exactly what America is all about.

Freedom of conscience.

The pilgrims came here from England to escape the tyranny of governance that told them how to worship. And okay, granted, they were hypocrites. Their ideas of religious liberty were narrowly confined and they simply practiced their own brand of religious persecution once they got over here. But still. The nugget of the idea survived.

By endorsing no one faith government endorses every faith. What a person believes about the highest things--the deepest and most profound questions there are---is not at all the business of the lawmakers.

The fact that quite a few Americans, in their hearts, don't seem to believe this doesn't obscure its fundamental success: We may have our problems in this country, but widespread sectarian strife isn't one of them. Never has been.

It's my guess that never in the history of the world have so many faiths and so many different and competing franchises of these faiths flourished in one nation at one time with so little bloodshed.

And bloodshed is what you get when the graven image-makers are compelled by their government to stop making graven images by a ruling power that thinks it has the inside line on what God wants people to do.

When a society or system decides that the making of graven imagery is to be outlawed as a particularly pernicious form of blasphemy, there becomes no principled reason why it cannot outlaw, say, the display of a crucifix, the wearing of a star of David, or the reading of particular religious or anti-religious texts. Under such a system, only popularity protects religious expression. And this is exactly what the Constitution intended to guard against--a point I hope Mr. Lieberman appreciates.

What Judge Ray Moore of Alabama and the stubborn half-wits in the House clearly fail to realize is that posting the Ten Commandments in a courtroom is actually offensive to our concept of justice.

The sign in Moore's courtroom should say, "Make all the graven images you want, you pickpockets, you drunk drivers, you check bouncers, you shoplifters. This is the land of the brave and the home of the free. Rank the Gods in the order of your choice. Go to Kung-Fu movies or hold Tupperware parties on the Sabbath. Just don't break the law!"

The first columns I wrote on church/state issues were in the mid-1980s, after I got a call from a local office-supply salesman who also happened to be a leading member of the American Atheists. He'd been driving through Zion, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, on business and had noticed Christian crosses on the water tower, the police cars and other civic property. He thought it was wrong and he wanted me to help him make an issue of it. Which I did.

Public response was swift, angry and condescending: How dare he demand the removal of the historic symbol so cherished by the pious, God-fearing people of a town founded by a preacher? How dare he flout the will of the vast majority of residents? Weren't there enough real problems in the world?

To me, it marked a tragic though common failure of imagination: What if you lived in Zion and you weren't Christian? Or what if you were a Christian househunting in a suburb and saw, say, Stars of David on virtually every government-owned sign? Respect for tradition and history aside, wouldn't you feel just that much less welcome? That much more like an official outcast?

Truth is, many Americans who give lip service to religious liberty still think it means something like, "The government shall make no laws discriminating among various forms of mainstream Christianity and it will tolerate certain other forms of monotheism as long as the adherents don't dress too funny."

This is where we get back to graven imagery, Sabbath breaking and all the other dogmatic prohibitions in the Ten Commandments.

Ever ask yourself why in the name of all that is putatively holy do these zealots insist on posting the Commandments instead of, say, a nice solid list of Principles of Good Behavior?

I mean, if you've got room in your classroom or courtroom for ten rules, why would you spend one telling people not to make graven images? And another telling them to keep the Sabbath holy?

These are not big problems.

And when it comes to actual problems, does anyone really need a sign to remind them not to murder people?

Of course not. The content is not critical.

The messenger is the message: As a whole, the Ten Commandments on the wall say that God, a divine and all-powerful being, is the source of morality; that, just as Joltin' Joe Lieberman says in so many words, without God telling us what is moral and what isn't moral and defining the absolutes of right and wrong, there can be no right and wrong.

This is a perfectly fine belief for an individual to hold to regulate his own conduct.

I'd neither endorse it or criticize it as a matter of personal conscience. It's not my business, as long as no one tries to make it my business.

But as a civic belief, the notion of God as the source of morality is not benign--it's dangerous.

It's dangerous because it removes questions of law, customs and morals from the arena of human logic and reason.

Am I saying that all the moral teachings of religious leaders are therefore bad, illogical and unreasonable?

No.

What I'm saying is that God, by definition, is the highest trump card--the ultimate argument-ender. If Jones and Smith want to contest whether it should be legal to make graven imagery, Jones can play the freedom card, Smith can play the weakened authority of the church card, Jones can play the what-business-is-it-of-yours card . . . but as soon as Smith plays the God card---as soon as he says, "It is wrong because God says it is wrong," ---then the discussion is either over or they increase the stakes dramatically when Jones plays his God card.

God does not say that, Jones might insist. According to my scriptures, which are true and holy, God says just the opposite of what he says in your scriptures, which are errant and profane.

And now they're into it big time. Not only have they escalated dramatically the rather small question of public policy regarding the crafting of idols, but they've made the question all but irresolvable.

One version of God says No, another version of God says Yes.

And, frustratingly enough, there's no physical evidence either way to help decide the question. They're left, instead, to do battle by proxy, dueling with scripture and text---scripture that is in places dramatically contradictory yet supposedly written by those who have taken dictation from the master and creator of the Universe.

Talk about an ugly battle.

But, again, at its core is the belief of the theist that without absolute standards as established by God, there can be no standards whatsoever---that without God, all of morality becomes personal opinion, whims that ride upon fashion, caprices of convenience. Everything is relative. Nothing is fixed. Chaos ensues.

I've tended to answer this by posing again the old riddle: If you behave well strictly because someone tells you to behave well, are you acting morally? Or simply obediently?

Is a moral result the same thing as a moral act?

If, to put it another way, you don't commit adultery because you think God says not to commit adultery, have you really put into that decision the sort of ethical reflection that we commonly think of as a moral thought process?

I mean, there are a number of reasons not to commit adultery I can think of.

One is fear you'd get caught and get tossed out of your home and endure seemingly endless recriminations from your spouse and children and probably neighbors.

Another is fear of eternal punishment from an angry God.

Another is because God says not to commit adultery and God is good and you love God.

Another is the belief that we should respect and honor the commitments we make to one another because that is the basis for a stable and productive personal life, a stable and productive society and the strong family that gives each member the greatest happiness and opportunity.

Yet another, along those same lines, might be the belief that we should treat others--particularly those closest to us--as we wish to be treated by them. The Golden Rule.

Each reason, and I don't mean the list to be exhaustive, leads to the same result: Fidelity. But is each reason equally admirable? Equally "moral"?

I say no.

And the Commandment waver agrees with me.

But the Commandment waver says that following the absolute dictates of God is more admirable, more moral, because it abides by unchanging principle. Whereas, he adds, all my squishy, interpersonal reasons are subject to change as social values change. And any morality that you make up as you go along is no sort of morality at all.

But the opposite is true. Anyone who follows rules without thinking is simply a good soldier. A good soldier follows orders--he's taught that it's not the role of the soldier to question orders or to doubt them or examine them; that to do so risks grave consequences.

In contrast, the person who acts well in a situation by following the dictates of conscience must reason in a way that draws from larger concepts of good. Behaving ethically in that sense is a habit of mind that is applicable not just to adultery, but to theft and murder and bearing false witness and honoring your mother and father as well as situations that may not be specifically covered in some purportedly sacred text or even the lawbooks.

Believers and I agree when it comes to the Golden Rule. It appears not only in Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12, but we also hear it from Aristotle, Confucius and Muhammad and learn of it in the Talmud, the Hindu tradition, the American Indian spiritual tradition and, of course, the ethical humanist philosophy.

But, again, I would contend that the Golden Rule is not Golden because Jesus or any other wise person, prophet or incarnate God said it, but because it resonates so perfectly with our human experience.

As to the criticism that such morality is baseless, adaptable and non-absolute . . . I ask the Judeo-Christian culture how it was that slavery, mentioned repeatedly and in an offhand way in the Bible, endured on this earth with the sanction of Christian people until just the last century? I would ask that, if "thou shalt not steal" and "thou shalt not murder" reflect absolute rocks to which we can cling, how was it that so many new Americans rooted in that Judeo-Christian ethic sanctioned the genocidal treatment of American Indians and their land?

And the Salem witch trials. And the Inquisition. And the Crusades. If these are not examples of moral relativism and make-em-up-as-you-go principles, I don't know what is.

I don't mean this as a criticism of all believers of all scripture.

I agree with the argument that says no number of wicked acts by professed Christians necessarily refutes propositions in Christian scripture. I ask only in return for an acknowledgment--seldom granted, by the way--that no number of good acts by professed Christians validates the Gospels.

Another acknowledgment that I'm slow to receive is that a belief in God is neither necessary nor sufficient for morality. You don't need to believe in God to have a strong, principled moral backbone. And simply believing in a higher power and his rules doesn't give you that backbone. Either way you have to work at it, use your reason and your intuition.

I get questioned rather often about my own religious beliefs--particularly after I write columns that may seem rather harsh on practitioners of faith. What is your religion? What do you believe? Are you an atheist?

I actually shy from the term atheist. To me, the connotations are too blunt, the implied level of certitude too great and the association with the shadowy, strident Madalyn Murray O'Hair a bit too close.

Though etymologically someone who is A-theistic lives without theism, without a belief in God as part of his life--and that would define me--"atheist" seems like a fightin' word to me, one that carries a sense of rejection and denial: One that professes a strong conviction that there is no God.

But I have no such conviction: In thinking, writing and debating these questions I've concluded that we don't know what other forces might or might not exist in the universe.

How life came to be as it is on this planet, what it all means, where it's all going? . . .

I don't know. I don't know if there's no God, one God or a million gods--good, bad, alive, dead, caring or as unconcerned with our lives on earth as we are unconcerned with the lives of the dust mites under our beds.

I don't know if we are the only planet in the universe with sentient beings on it, or one of a million such planets. I don't know if this is the first time that an intelligent human race has evolved on a small, watery satellite hurtling through space, or if, in uncounted contractions and expansions of the universe through untold eons, it is the ten thousandth or ten billionth. I don't know if we are an early, discarded experiment of an intelligent creator, that creator's ultimate work, or just a fluke combination of carbon molecules.

And I'm persuaded that none of those who claim to know have any idea either, no matter how sincere they are.

And I believe a lot of them are sincere. I believe a lot of them are guided by hope and by the sense--I would call it the vanity--that they themselves and human beings in general are vastly more important and long-lasting in this vast creation than actually they are.

And I'm tempted by that thought. Who wouldn't be?

I'm as tempted as the next person with the alluring ideas that our spirits live on after our bodies die, that there are psychics and astrologers and mystics who can tap into paranormal forces and tell us important secrets.

But in the end, research and reason suppress these temptations. Almost every time I get the chance as a journalist I ask readers of the Chicago Tribune to consider the evidence.

In January 1997 the Chicago Sun-Times printed this correction: "The Sydney Omarr horoscopes in Thursday's editions of the Sun-Times were incorrect. The horoscopes Friday were correct."

My column, in response, said that in the spirit of accuracy, the paper should have said, "The Sydney Omarr horoscopes in Thursday's editions of the Sun-Times were incorrect. The horoscopes Wednesday were incorrect, too, actually, as have been Omarr's horoscopes every day for many, many years. The forecasts were equally valid for both days or for any other day of any other year, which is to say not valid at all."

I went on to point out that astrologers always fail in simple laboratory experiments. For instance, they can't do any better than random guessers in blind attempts to match astrological charts with people.

Sydney Omarr wrote me a blistering, indignant letter and enclosed two of his books. I posted these letters on the Internet along with a challenge. I said, tell you what, Omarr, I'll give you the time, date and place of the birth of ten people, then you try to match their horoscopes with their identities. Then, I said, we can all have a good laugh at how you can't tell serial killers from social workers. I must be clairvoyant, because I knew he wouldn't write back and he never did.

Just last month a suburban Chicago police department announced it was consulting a psychic to try to find a missing and allegedly murdered woman, and the psychic had given them a detailed description of the burial site.

"She's guessing," I wrote. I noted that objective analyses of these so called "psychic detectives" reveal them as frauds who build their reputations through trickery and by advertising the luckiest of their guesses.

And then I made note of a fact that relatively few people are aware of but bears constant repetition: "Since 1968, magician James Randi has offered a sizable cash award--it's now $1 million--to anyone who 'can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind under satisfactory observing conditions.' " Several hundred hopefuls have applied. All have failed.

All have failed. Not most. Not nearly all. 100 percent. For 32 years.

Does this mean there are no psychic or paranormal forces at work in the universe? A careful person, aware of the difficulty of proving a negative, would never say such a thing. What he would say, though, is that those who claim to be able to harness or usefully understand such forces have, to date, proved to be, well . . . mistaken.

Like the psychic detective now working our western suburbs, they're guessing.

So what label for me? Skeptic? Freethinker? Perhaps agnostic--someone who says he doesn't know or that the answers to these questions are fundamentally unknowable? But I go a step further--I call myself an "indifferent agnostic"--and I say that whether God exists is not just unknowable but irrelevant. It doesn't matter.

Look, if there is a living God who created and cares about this world, I think the best one can say about him and his moral sense is that it is utterly impenetrable. Take a walk around a children's hospital. Look at the videos of starvation in the Sudan. Read the stories about the just-passed 100th anniversary of the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas. Six thousand, some say 10,000 people, dead. Or visit the Holocaust museum.

The moral code of an almighty power that allegedly created and presides over such horror is, to put it charitably, ambiguous.

The Bible certainly suggests that as well. One of the most controversial columns I ever wrote touching on this subject dealt with how, in all Passover seders I've ever attended, the participants have glossed over the gruesome, inexplicable injustice wreaked by God upon the young, the innocent and the hapless of ancient Egypt.

"Passover" refers to the story in the 12th chapter of Exodus in which God, one night at midnight, kills all first-born creatures in Egypt except the children of the enslaved Jews, whose houses he passed over. This was the tenth and worst of the plagues God is said to have visited upon the Egyptian people, the one that finally persuaded Pharaoh to liberate the Jews.

I wrote: "Why, given limitless options, would an all-just, all-powerful God resort to such a ghastly device?

"The pile of Egyptian corpses that next morning had to include huge numbers of infants and toddlers, not to mention non-Jewish slaves and their children.

"Everyday Egyptians with no power over their monarch awoke to lifeless kids and spouses and farmyards littered with carcasses--this after having previously endured a horrific series of plagues, including boils, locusts and a B-movie infestation of frogs."

I went on, "At a time when many people are wringing their hands over what to tell children about allegations the President has behaved in a tawdry manner, what are we supposed to tell the kiddies about a biblical God who slaughtered children in their beds by the thousands instead of working a less devastating miracle to free the slaves?"

Then I quoted the executive director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council: "We don't always understand God's ways."

The question remains and is larger than the simple problem of evil: Whether or not all or some of the kill-'em-all stories in the world's scriptures are literally true (the destruction of Jericho and the Biblical flood also come to mind), and what implications have we drawn from them?

These stories tell us that violence is a favored way to resolve disputes, even when there are more peaceful options; that others--other tribes, nations, races, faiths--have lives of diminished value and are therefore candidates for wholesale extermination; that punishing the innocent to achieve a desired end is not incompatible with the ideals of justice.

This is by no means a uniquely Jewish legacy. We see it everywhere in history, including in the Holocaust and in the "many forms of violence perpetrated in the name of (Christianity)--wars of religions, tribunals of the Inquisition and other forms of violations of the rights of persons," in the words of Pope John Paul II.

This legacy is nurtured by the common idea that those who are otherwise virtuous but do not believe in the literal truth of the miraculous stories and assertions of given faiths--such as the account of the resurrection of Christ--deserve to suffer an eternity of misery.

I got a lot of mail after that, most of it filled with the sorts of theological hand-waving that I find unpersuasive to the point of being objectionable. This same crowd that points the finger at "moral relativists" puts more qualifiers on their "absolute" ideas than you find in a common apartment lease.

Here's my sense: If there's an intelligent force that created our world, what he wants--or wanted, if he's still around--and all he wants, if anything at all, is for us to do right by his creation. To honor the creator, in other words, by honoring that which he made---others, the land, the air and so on. And, further, this God, if he exists, gave us the impressive capacity for reason--so that we could figure out, on our own, how to live right.

Life and reason may well be God's only gifts to us. "Use Them Wisely" is certainly his only commandment.

What's striking about this is that it's exactly what's incumbent upon us if there is no intelligent creator. Nothing changes. It doesn't matter.

Every society, every civilization ever unearthed or studied has had codes of right and wrong. No matter which God or gods people have prayed to, they have ordered their existence---almost always with individual, cultural and political survival in mind.

When I objected to the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, I heard from those who said that the Commandments are an appropriate display because they reflect the fact that the morality and law of our western culture are so rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition as to be inseparable.

I don't deny the importance of the Bible in shaping our culture. Nor do I deny that it has inspired great people to do great things and behave well. I do deny, though, that without God as a starting point it is impossible to formulate a coherent morality.

If we could be sure there is no God, would it then be right to murder? If we could be sure there is no God, would our prohibitions against stealing disappear? Would lying be any less wrong?

No.

And to illustrate this I ask my critics to perform the following thought experiment:

Say you get a surprise visit this evening from all the major religious leaders of the world, the top people in every faith, the major leaders of the Protestant denominations . . . all of them, even the Scientologists. And they say, "We have a problem. We have each come across evidence--incontrovertible evidence--that the stories, the legends, the prophets, the miracles, the received wisdom of our belief systems are all massive frauds. They were perpetrated by leaders who were simply attempting for various reasons, good and bad, to control and inspire the uneducated masses. But they made it all up. Every last word. And we know it and we've not been able to agree on what to do about it."

They say to you, "We can't just announce this. People would not be ready for it. Too many of them believe that without God, anything is allowed, nothing is forbidden. And we can't agree on how to reconcile some of the differences in our belief systems.

"So what we've decided," they say, "is to select a random, decent person--you--and ask that person to create a set of moral guidelines for human beings. To write your own commandments, as many as you wish---you can leave adultery out this time, if you want---in an effort to shape or reshape the world for good."

They say they will then employ a master archeological forger to create some sort of tablets or scrolls onto which this moral code will be inscribed---along with several devastatingly corroborative prophecies---after which they will arrange for a miraculous discovery of your precepts in some cave in the Middle East. At that point, they say, they will renounce their old dogma and encourage their adherents to follow yours.

In short, what if they made you God?

And without giving you time here to ponder this, let me suggest that what you would come up with, as the decent, ethical person you are, would look a whole lot like a best-of, greatest hits list of the common highlights of the finest faiths.

Somehow, with no help from any where, you'd come up with prohibitions against stealing, murdering and lying. One can hardly imagine a sustainable society where such things were not considered wrong. You'd probably want to discourage infidelity and disrespect of parents--not much good can come of that. You'd probably see the wisdom in keeping greed and covetousness in check and asking people to watch their language.

Because at this level, morality is common sense. It enforces itself through reason.

The contrary assertion, that without God we would feel free to kill and steal and sleep with anyone because we could not possibly find a reason not to, is absurd. We have an instinctive interest in preservation . . . of ourselves, of our kin, of our community and our culture.

Peace, health and stability are essential to that preservation, and the common sense guidelines that lead to that form the bedrock of a strong moral system.

A moral system that does not refer primarily to human reason---a morality that relies on some hypothetical externality to validate it---runs the risk of being arbitrary.

Further, as Robert Ingersoll observed, God, as defined, has always shown an uncanny penchant for hating and loving exactly what his human interpreters have hated and loved, and has been "invariably on the side of those in power."

How do we test these allegedly divine commands for plausibility? With our own reason, of course, and our own instincts.

If Holy Man A says it is an abomination to God if man makes a graven image and Holy Woman B says, no, God demands that we worship idols, how do we settle this?

I mean the legal question, not the theological question. How do we, a society comprised of followers of Holy Men and Women A through Z and followers of no holy people at all, decide which of God's purported pronouncements ought to carry the weight of law?

Most societies through history have operated on the principle that the majority belief or the belief of those who hold power should rule, should carry the weight of law. And, quite obviously, most societies through history have been inferior to ours by any number of modern measures.

This is not a coincidence.

Those who have taken issue with my stance on the Ten Commandments often use the "majority rules" argument. It appears to be a very easy weapon to deploy when you're in the majority.

What these majoritarians fail to understand is that the legal cudgel they would use to reinforce their own faith today could very well be used to deny or ban that same faith tomorrow. Christians who complain about being discriminated against and persecuted in America whenever they are denied the opportunity to use tax dollars, legislation and public land and schools to advance their sectarian views don't have any idea what persecution means.

The separationist creed--and I stress this--is ultimately pro-religion because it is so staunchly pro-conscience.

I'm not bothered by what goes on in the sanctuaries and grottoes, at the altars or in houses of worship. And I'm glad when beliefs, however implausible or unproven to me, prompt people to behave well and to find comfort and happiness in this often weary world.

But it almost never stops there, with the personal, with the inner life, does it? It's not enough that they find in their faith rules to live by. They want to make you live by them too. The ban on graven imagery in the Ten Commandments is a reminder--set in stone, so they say--of the inevitable pitfalls of using the received words of God as the source of morality and law.

Posting them as officially sanctioned statements of the government is an attempt to codify the five words that sum up the Ten Commandments: GOD WANTS YOU TO BEHAVE, and the implicit threat behind it: OR ELSE.

I'd like to close tonight with a hymn.

I was raised in a secular home--we weren't church people, God never came up--except in songs. We sang religious songs all the time--my dad and I had a huge repertoire of country gospel tunes and I've always taken every chance I can to sing from the sacred harp hymnal with people who know how to read shaped notes.

I mean, no matter what you say about religion, its musical bona fides are the best--and singing hymns in a large group is a magnificent experience.

So I thought I'd like to lead you in such an experience, but of course "How Great Thou Art" might catch in some throats here, I don't know. So I have selected one of the lesser-known Monty Python songs written in the style of a hymn and I believe borrowing heavily in the melody from a genuine hymn. It occurs near the beginning of "The Meaning of Life" movie and is sung as a devotional by British schoolboys, and it follows up on the implicit OR ELSE that's so important to certain concepts of morality. The title, I believe is, "Oh Lord, Please Don't Burn Us."

To paraphrase Mayor Daley, "Everyone will enjoy singing this song. If they want to . . . or they won't."

Oh, Lord, Please Don't Burn Us

O Lord, please don't burn us.
Don't grill or toast your flock.
Don't put us on the barbecue
Or simmer us in stock.
Don't braise or bake or boil us
Or stir-fry us in a wok

Oh, please don't lightly poach us
Or baste us with hot fat.
Don't fricassee or roast us
Or boil us in a vat,
And please don't stick thy servants, Lord,
In a Rotissimat

Eric Zorn has written a metropolitan news column for the Chicago Tribune since September 1986. His father is Prof. Jens C. Zorn, professor of physics, University of Michigan, and his mother, Fran Zorn, is lecturer in English composition and medical careers there. He met his wife, Johanna Wolken, WBEZ-FM executive producer, while doing a radio column 1982-85. They have a son (1989) and fraternal twins (1997) and live on Chicago's Northwest side. He is co-author of Murder of Innocence: The Tragic Life and Final Rampage of Schoolhouse Killer Laurie Dann (Warner Books, 1990).

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  • byline: By Eric Zorn

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