Zeb lay back, smoking, and let me stew. I knew that he smoked and he knew that I disapproved. But it was a minor sin and, when we were rooming together in the Palace barracks, I would never have thought of reporting him. I even knew which room servant was his bootlegger. 'Who is sneaking your smokes in now?' I asked, wishing to change the subject.
'Eh? Why, you buy them at the P.X., of course.' He held the dirty thing out and looked at it. 'These Mexican cigarettes are stronger than I like. I suspect that they use real tobacco in them, instead of the bridge sweepings I'm used to. Want one?'
'Huh? Oh, no, thanks!'
He grinned wryly. 'Go ahead, give me your usual lecture. It'll make you feel better.'
'Now look here, Zeb, I wasn't criticizing. I suppose it's just one of the many things I've been wrong about.'
'Oh, no. It's a dirty, filthy habit that ruins my wind and stains my teeth and may eventually kill me off with lung cancer.' He took a deep inhalation, let the smoke trickle out of the corners of his mouth, and looked profoundly contented. 'But it just happens that I like dirty, filthy habits.'
He took another puff. 'But it's not a sin and my punishment for it is here and now, in the way my mouth tastes each morning. The Great Architect doesn't give a shout in Sheol about it. Catch on, old son? He isn't even watching.'
'There is no need to be sacrilegious.'
'I wasn't being so.'
'You weren't, eh? You were scoffing at one of the most fundamental-perhaps the one fundamental-proposition in religion: the certainty that God is watching!'
'Who told you?'
For a moment all I could do was to sputter. 'Why, it isn't necessary. It's an axiomatic certainty. It's -'
'I repeat, who told you? See here, I retract what I said. Perhaps the Almighty is watching me smoke. Perhaps it is a mortal sin and I will burn for it for eons. Perhaps. But who told you? Johnnie, you've reached the point where you are willing to kick the Prophet out and hang him to a tall, tall tree. Yet you are willing to assert your own religious convictions and to use them as a touchstone to judge my conduct. So I repeat: who told you? What hill were you standing on when the lightning came down from Heaven and illuminated you? Which archangel carried the message?'
I did not answer at once. I could not. When I did it was with a feeling of shock and cold loneliness. 'Zeb... I think I understand you at last. You are an-atheist. Aren't you?'
Zeb looked at me bleakly. 'Don't call me an atheist,' he said slowly, 'unless you are really looking for trouble.'
'Then you aren't one?' I felt a wave of relief, although I still didn't understand him.
'No, I am not. Not that it is any of your business. My religious faith is a private matter between me and my God. What my inner beliefs are you will have to judge by my actions... for you are not invited to question me about them. I decline to explain them nor to justify them to you. Nor to anyone... not the Lodge Master... nor the Grand Inquisitor, if it comes to that.'
'But you do believe in God?'
'I told you so, didn't I? Not that you had any business asking me.'
'Then you must believe in other things?'
'Of course I do! I believe that a man has an obligation to be merciful to the weak...patient with the stupid... generous with the poor. I think he is obliged to lay down his life for his brothers, should it be required of him. But I don't propose to prove any of those things; they are beyond proof. And I don't demand that you believe as I do.'
I let out my breath. 'I'm satisfied, Zeb.'
Instead of looking pleased he answered, 'That's mighty kind of you, brother, mighty kind! Sorry-I shouldn't be sarcastic. But I had no intention of asking for your approval. You goaded me-accidentally, I'm sure-into discussing matters that I never intend to discuss.' He stopped to light up another of those stinking cigarettes and went on more quietly. 'John, I suppose that I am, in my own cantankerous way, a very narrow man myself. I believe very strongly in freedom of religion-but I think that that freedom is best expressed as freedom to keep quiet. From my point of view, a great deal of openly expressed piety is insufferable conceit.'
'Not every case-I've known the good and the humble and the devout. But how about the man who claims to know what the Great Architect is thinking? The man who claims to be privy to His Inner Plans? It strikes me as sacrilegious conceit of the worst sort-this character probably has never been any closer to His Trestle Board than you or I. But it makes him feel good to claim to be on chummy terms with the Almighty, it builds his ego, and lets him lay down the law to you and me. Pfui! Along comes a knothead with a loud voice, an I.Q. around 90, hair in his ears, dirty underwear, and a lot of ambition. He's too lazy to be a farmer, too stupid to be an engineer, too unreliable to be a banker-but, brother, can he pray! After a while he has gathered around him other knotheads who don't have his vivid imagination and self-assurance but like the idea of having a direct line of Omnipotence. Then this character is no longer Nehemiah Scudder but the First Prophet.'
Now, at the risk of sounding insufferably preachy, I'd like to point out a little section of that scene that is often forgotten by the SF libertarians who hold up Heinlein as their spokesman. It's that bit where Zeb is talking, not about the individual freedoms for which they're fighting, but the obligations that he believes exist for an honorable person:
'I believe that a man has an obligation to be merciful to the weak...patient with the stupid... generous with the poor. I think he is obliged to lay down his life for his brothers, should it be required of him. But I don't propose to prove any of those things; they are beyond proof. And I don't demand that you believe as I do.'
Most of the Atlas Shrugged folks out there tend to forget that paragraph. And that's a pity - because that's what makes this scene generous. Expansive. Something wide open and admirable...unlike the "Screw You Jack" position of the crude Objectivist.