This morning I attended a Prayer Breakfast sponsored by the Glendale Chamber of Commerce, for which my mother does volunteer work and got me a ticket. (Not to worry, I'm just collecting data here for the next book, not undergoing a converstion.)

Laura Schlessinger was the featured speaker so, as you can imagine, there was quite a turn out. According to my mom, in excess of 850 people -- AT SIX IN THE MORNING NO LESS! They announced, by the way, that Laura just this week surpassed Rush in the ratings and is now the most listened to radio talk show host in America, and her syndication set an all-time record for growth. She is now in over 440 stations.

Her lecture title: CAN YOU BE GOOD WITHOUT GOD?

The short answer: "Here and there, but not consistently and not deeply."

The long answer (I taped the lecture but will paraphrase here): Laura grew up in the "anything goes" 60s as an atheist. Her father was Jewish but didn't really believe, and in any case her parents never even brought up the subject. So, for her, "anything went" morally. This was unsatisfying in the long run, but 5 years ago she found God and converted to Judaism (since it was her father and not her mother that was Jewish, she was not an "official" Jew, and so had to convert). Her husband is now in the process ofconverting. They are orthodox, keeping Kosher, obeying the Sabbath, etc.

(The inspirational scripture reading, by the way, I found most ironic. From the new testament a high school senior read the passage from the sermon on the mount:

"Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of they brother's eye."

From the Old Testament a Rabbi read a passage about how if you do not keep the Sabbath you should be put to death. No kidding! I couldn't believe it. No wonder Orthodox Jews are so serious about this.

The other irony of the day was that this "Prayer Breakfast" was being billed as open to all religions. Yet everything from the prayer to the gospel singers was centered around Jesus, yet their keynote speaker was Jewish, who doesn't even believe in Jesus as the Christ (the "annoited one"). And, of course, needless to say there was absolutely nothing from Mohammed/Koran, Buddhism, Hinduism, native American religions, etc.

Laura's argument was similar to the one she made to me privately a couple of months ago when she quit my board, so I went to here to her say it publicly.

She has not backed off. The bottom line is that humans are innately evil, inherently bad, naturally deceitful, murderous by nature, etc. In short, if we think we can get away with something, we will.

Of course, we can't get away with just anything since we have laws and customs, so we try are darndest to get away with what we can, hoping like hell we don't get caught. Getting caught is a problem much of the time, but what if you think you CAN get away with something. THEN, anything goes.

This is what many people do, she says, and she hears them every day on the radio justifying their sins.

But, says Laura, YOU NEVER GET AWAY WITH ANYTHING. Why? You guessed it. God is always watching. He can even see through concrete she explained (to an off-handed one-liner about how even if you are in an underground bunker and no one on Earth can see your sin, God still can).

That's it. Honestly. That's the depth of her argument. Nothing about these moral principles being worthy of following in their own right. Nothing about treating others like you would like to be treated. Nothing about human rights, human dignity, etc. Just plain old "you'll be busted by Mr. Big if you sin, so don't do it."

So, squirming in my seat, ready to burst at the seams, and to the possible consternation of my Mom, I went up to the microphone for the Q and A. Here is an exact transcription of our conversation:

Shermer "Hi, Laura. It's Michael Shermer," I said in my friendliest, cheeriest voice.

Laura: "Hi Michael," she said with a big smile and in a very friendly way, suddenly recognizing me (I haven't seen in her a couple of years).

Shermer: "I have a six-year-old daughter I am raising to be a person of character, courage, and conscious [the subtitle of one of Laura's books]. We are teaching her to have the highest moral principles. I have no believe in God at all. None."

Laura: "I know, I've read your magazine," she said, still smiling.

Shermer: "Skeptic magazine."

Laura: "Skeptic."

Shermer: "Are you telling me I cannot do this? That I cannot raise her to be a moral . . . ." [person]

Laura (not smiling quite so much now): "Ultimately, no. Because you will have to raise her with an analysis with what YOU think is right and wrong and what maybe some other people think is right and wrong, and obviously, therefore, it would be a matter of general OPINION."

Shemer: "Well, I think the principles you talk about are very sound and I think most religious people have arrived at them through . . . ." [reason and intelligence]

Laura: "You bring her up with God's laws and tell her there is no ultimate authority for them -- that gives her flexibility to have her own interpretation."

Shermer: "I would hope she would have the . . . ." [intelligence and sensitivity to figure these out for herself]

Laura: "I do not have time for a long conversation . . . ."

Shermer: "I know, I know" [exit stage left -- a couple dozen people behind me awaiting their turn]

After this I was swamped by a bunch of inquiring minds who wanted to know what in the world a skeptic was doing at a Prayer Breakfast, including a reporter for the Glendale News Press, who wrote down everything I said, including my answer to the question: "What did you think of Laura's lecture." My answer:

"I have to disagree with Laura when she says we cannot be moral without God. That may be true for her and other people, but it is not true for me and lots of good people I know." I told her my next book is entitled WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE IN GOD. She asked: "Why DO people believe in God." I said: "One reason is because everyone is so afraid that without that ultimate authority, anything goes."

So, how's that for a Prayer breakfast?!

Michael Shermer

P.S. A couple of you gave me a hard time before about harping on Dr. Laura, so allow me to state that I have no hard feelings about Dr. Laura as a person, just this particular argument she makes that I find so, absolutist, intolerant, and, well, even dangerous.

I use her as a representative of this position because she is so well known and influential, but the argument itself is ancient and widespread throughout history. I figure I can get people's attention by attaching her to it than I can by quoting Saint Anselm or some other medievalist unknown to the majority of American general readers, who I'm trying to reach.

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