Clearly this Boy Scout business has got off on the wrong track and it's probably our duty to God and our country to switch them back before further mischief is done.

You recall the trouble arose when a scout said he did not believe in God, thus raising the perfectly logical question how he could fulfill the Scout Oath which pledges the boy to do his duty to Same.

Before exploring solutions here, let us agree that every American boy ought to have the privilege of racing off into the forest with the peers of his pack (mine was Wolf Pack, Troop 5) to burn a hot dog to cinders, to sleep on God's great outdoor rocks, and to be chewed alive by the mosquitoes, sand-flies, gnats and chiggers with which the Creator graced this earth.

It is hard for me to see how a boy can grow up at all without these benefits, among many others, that the Boy Scouts of America abundantly provide. Furthermore, thanks to the discipline and good sense of the scoutmaster in charge, very few of these lads fall off cliffs, drown, or throw bricks at hornet nests, things that would certainly occur to them if they just set out on their own.

The dilemma of the boy sworn to do his duty to a God he does not believe in is, in some vague sense, a real one, and it has inspired any number of loons to sound off in different directions, through overexcitement.

The sensible view, which is probably theologically correct, is that a boy just barely in his teens is hardly competent to proclaim what he believes and does not believe.

This boy does not believe in God, but I would point out to him it is a knotty matter to know what you believe -- many a saint agonized over it -- at 50, let alone at l4 years of age. This being so, my advice (if I had been the scout official in question) would have been for the boy to get on with his life-saving merit badge (put off far too long) and stop giving himself airs about his theological doubts.

The boy can hardly know what his duty to God is (and never mind for the moment what he "believes") until he knows what God is. The oath does not bind him to a Judaic or Christian or any other particular deity, but let us take the worst case, that the boy is supposed to do his duty to the Christian deity. Perhaps the scout official would like to say, in a nutshell, what that duty consists of? If he knows, he might publish it, since greater men than the average scoutmaster have had the most awful doubts.

And does this "belief" that the boy should have consist of a mental notion that such a deity exists, and that if you have such an opinion then you qualify as a believer?

The founder of scouting, the late Lt.-Gen. the Lord Baden-Powell, remembered for his famous defense of Mafeking in 1899, may have left voluminous papers on what a boy ought to believe and not believe about God, but if so I never heard of them in my own happy years as a scout.

The point here is that if anybody really wants to butt head-on into the problem of "duty to God," he may have a great many more dilemmas on his hands than simply knowing how to get the young scout back in the pack and out of the office.

Now I never knew Gen. Baden-Powell, though I feel much in his debt, and perhaps it is presumptuous to speculate how he would have handled this matter. Still, we know he was a brave soldier rather than a famous theologian and it seems to me very likely he would say something along these lines:

"Well, by Jove, man, this is somewhat beyond me, but you seem a sturdy enough lad and I imagine you will turn out well. Try not to, ah, do bad things. Yes. Now we do not want you to lie or say you believe something you don't, and this God business is very serious, of course, no doubt about it. Still, it is something regular men have to just hope for the best, don't you know, the shepherd with the lambs in his arm as it were. I am not sure it is wholesome -- I am almost sure it is not -- for a boy to go off on tangents about belief; I knew a chap who was much damaged by thinking beyond his powers.

"Now as for the Scout Oath, a very inspiring way to begin the day I have always thought, I should be sorry if it were used to hinder rather than assist a boy's development. At the defense of Mafeking, a day I well remember I assure you, I was in some quandary about God, myself, not having been trained in that line, what? It seemed to me well to say a prayer at the time, very settling to the troops and the general, too, I assure you, though you have fortunately not had that experience.

"Well, sir, at school we had prayers every day and of course I was dragged to church -- by which I mean it was a great privilege to attend divine office in that beautiful place. The chapel at Eton is well worth seeing, I assure you. Yes. Well, curiously I could not come up with a prayer I thought right for the occasion, not having a great deal of time for reflection just then, but one popped into my head and I daresay it was the best I could do at the time, so I said it. Defend, O Lord, this Thy child with Thy heavenly grace that he may continue Thine forever. I believe there is more but I just said Amen. Not the best prayer, possibly, but one must not bog down or start rummaging about with the bastards coming at you. A figure of speech, mind you, the enemy troops were born legitimately, possibly. It is a word you do not wish to use. I do not use it myself. A man's language should be clean, remember that.

"Now this God business. You don't have to decide what you believe and I suggest you put it on the back burner till there's time to think, as you might say. Splendid to see you. Very good, these merit badges you have earned. Kept bees once, myself, but of course they sting. Life-saving is very important. Work on it."