As every good Puritan knows, God sent a plague on the New England Indians to clear them out shortly before the Pilgrims arrived in 1620.

Smallpox was the divine agent in that case, and for the next century or so the Pilgrims, who were not of a naturally thankful disposition, at least gave thanks for that.

John Winthrop, the great Puritan leader of Massachusetts Bay, said it was God's way of "thinning out" the heathen (in 1616-1618) just in the nick of time. Otherwise, no doubt, the virtuous Puritans would have had to kill them at considerable investment of gunpowder.

The plague came again a few years later, enabling Winthrop to write that "the natives are near all dead of the smallpox so as the Lord hath cleared out title to what we possess."

An important function of God, as millions of His worshipers see Him, is to curse or send plagues upon other people who are troublesome.

The Book of Mormon -- though I do not hold Mormons responsible for what is written in their book any more than I hold Jews or Christians liable for some of the things in the Bible -- says that blacks used to be white until God cursed them for their sins.

God appears to have been busy through many generations cursing this group and that, so we should not be surprised to hear today that AIDS has been sent to wipe out the gay population. This is only said or believed by the ignorant, the naturally vicious and the generally Hell-bound part of the American public, but that is a sufficiently large group to make itself heard.

The same idea of a divine curse is sometimes disguised slightly. Thus you may hear that "they brought it on themselves," or "what could you expect from the way they carry on," or "they wouldn't be in trouble if they lived decent lives."

The "decent lives" that the straight population leads may not be perfect, what with a few divorces and murders and broken homes, etc., but the lives of gay people must be far worse, else God would not be killing them.

It's hard to believe anybody believes that, no matter how benighted he is, but plenty of people do believe it, just as they believed God killed off the Indians for the sake of some Puritans.

The sane person is always on guard over his own prejudices, knowing how easily a human finds high authority for any convenient belief he may hold. The human (as distinct from the more enlightened and more innocent animals, such as the dog) first notices some circumstance or some person or group that he could happily do without. After mulling this over a few hours or a few years, he concludes it must be God's will for that group to get out of the way. Often enough it occurs to him it would be a service to the divinity to act as agent, to rid the world of (depending on which century and nation we're talking about) Jews, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Christians, Quakers, Baptists, blacks, Japanese, Presbyterians, Moslems, bankers, aristocrats, lawyers. Lawyers -- but never mind. Not all of them.

The human brain, even if it is brought up short and does not allow itself to go quite as far as discovering divine curses, still finds it easy to believe whatever is most convenient or profitable to believe.

I remember when the three civil rights youths were murdered and buried in a dam at Philadelphia, Miss., the prevailing rumor down there was that all three were living in luxury in the Plaza Hotel in New York, laughing their heads off.

It was almost certain from the beginning that they were murdered, but as it was more comfortable to think they were in New York, that's what people decided to believe. As if that absurd belief could deflect the guilt that would otherwise be felt.

We'll all go to our graves as irrational as the day we were born, and the best we can do is watch out whenever our personal interest seems to coincide with celestial virtue.

It's better, surely, to say it was lucky the Indians got sick and died and left the land vacant, than to say God killed them for our benefit. It's better to say (if it comes to that) that greed or fear made us do somebody in, rather than to blame it on God.

There was a preacher once who had some particular knowledge of what went on in Hell, and told his flock about a batch of sinners down there. He said they hollered considerably and cried out, "Lord, we didn't know, we didn't know."

Then a whirlwind voice was heard (the preacher went on) that said, "Well, you damned well know now."

Of course, nobody can say with certainty but it's a pretty point to argue, how many of those who say or hint that people with AIDS had it coming, will one day hear it from on high:

"Well, you damned well know now."