Amid many life changes at the end of May, I totally missed a crazy story out of Arizona:

So here are our characters:

Juan Mendez, atheist legislator who offered some thoughts about what it is to be human, including a quote from Carl Sagan.

Steve Smith, religious lawmaker who took offense, saying what Mendez did was out of order because it wasn’t a prayer.

But, most importantly, another lawmaker named Andy Tobin who spoke in support of Mendez’ speech.

Tobin is the snake in the grass here . Let me explain.

Arizona House Speaker Tobin, along with Senate President Andy Biggs, had just finished voicing their support for the idea of beginning governmental functions with a prayer. Tobin, with a more far-reaching and global perspective than Smith, understood immediately that if he’s going to fight for opening prayers, he’d better let someone like Mendez have his say. Tolerance and all that. Sounds good on the face of it, especially when you read or watch what Mendez said.

But here’s the thing: Mendez didn’t have to say all those nice things.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe my atheism makes me a better person. I make better moral choices because of my lack of faith. I can see that morality is more than the social relativists make it out to be. There are moral truths, having to do with the dignity of individuals, the rights of free expression, and lots of other good stuff. But a strict definition of atheism doesn’t include these beliefs. A strict definition just reflects lack of belief in a higher power. Such a person could hold any number of horrible, immoral ideas and still be an atheist.

What if Mendez was that kind of atheist? Would he still have the right to lead the prayer?

Yes, of course he would, and that’s why this whole idea of prayer to begin government functions is wrong-headed. Religion is a blanket that covers any set of crazy, immoral, and incorrect ideas. Suppose next you have a legislator use the prayer to support child abuse, slavery, and death to infidels (does that list ring any bells?) As long as it’s religion, such a speech is covered. But of course the backlash would be a gigantic mess, distracting everyone from the task at hand. Our government’s task should not be sorting out religion but rather operating the government.

This is at the heart of separation of church and state. It isn’t, “let’s all be tolerant of everyone’s religion in government affairs.” Rather, it’s “Let’s keep religion out of government affairs.” Why? Because government by nature needs to value logic and sound, evidence-based argument, not appeals to unquestioned – and unquestionable – faith.

This is why Tobin and his colleague Biggs are the real villains here. It’s great that Mendez is a nice guy, and that his atheism has led him to a good place in his philosophy. But people like Tobin and Biggs would make the argument that, “See? We can be tolerant of all faiths, even a lack of faith. So we should be able to keep our government-sponsored prayer.”

No! It’s easy to be open and tolerant when the ideas offered are actually palatable (except to someone like Smith, who either is deeply ignorant or – more likely – is pandering to his bigoted constituency). But openness and tolerance mean opening the door for a whole parcel of extremely bad ideas, bad ideas that can do nothing but act as a source of distraction from the task at hand.

The Smiths of the world are easy to spot, easy to mock, easy to dismiss. Watch out, instead, for the Tobins. They are the dangerous ones. Leave religion out of government!