“What is God?”

The little boy stares at his shoe tops as he ponders the question.

“Ricky,” his father prods gently, “come on now, speak up. What is God?”

“God is make-believe,” the boy answers finally, saying the words passionlessly, as if for the thousandth time.

“Are you just saying that to make Daddy happy?” The little boy is silent again. He shifts uncomfortably in a big, wheeled office chair. He shrugs.

“I can’t hear you, Ricky. Do you really believe God is make-believe or are you just saying that for me?”

“I don’t know,” the boy mutters.

“What’s that? Speak louder.”

Little Ricky slides out of his chair, takes in a big gulp of air, and announces, as if he’s in an auditorium: “I don’t know!”

“That’s right,” the man says, turning to me. “He’s too young to know. He doesn’t have all the information to make a rational decision yet.”

Now Ricky leans in close to his father. The eight-year-old has sad blue eyes and his mouth forms a pout. His shirttail is hanging out of his good pants. His hair is slightly messed and his wire-frame glasses sit askew on the bridge of his nose. He’s been waiting here in WGN’s green room for more than 40 minutes with his father and me. His father, the midwest’s best-known atheist Rob Sherman, kisses him on the head and whispers, “Good boy.”

Sherman is here to explain to housewives in Morton Grove and farmers in Winnebago County why he wants to destroy the Boy Scouts. It’s a tough sell, of course, because for years Sherman and his cohorts have been trying to stop people from praying in schools, from erecting creches in village squares, from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, from worshiping, for Christ’s sake!

Well, now his beef is with the United Way/Crusade of Mercy for funding the Boy Scouts; according to Sherman, the organization promises, when seeking donations, to fund only nonsectarian organizations. Sherman took Ricky to Pritchett Elementary School in Buffalo Grove one Monday evening last April to sign him up for the Cub Scouts, the junior version of the Boy Scouts. Ricky would become a scout and Sherman would become an adult leader–a scoutmaster, say, or some other kind of volunteer. Fine, fine, said Pete Forbes, Northeast Illinois Council scout executive and a registrar that night, here’s the application.

Can’t do it, Sherman replied.

Why not, Forbes asked.

There is, said Sherman, this little matter of the Cub Scout Promise right here on page one of the application. Sherman recited the pledge precisely: “I–name–promise to do my best, to do my duty to God and my country, to help other people and to obey the law of the pack.”

Then there’s the Declaration of Religious Principle here on the second page of the volunteer leader application, Sherman said, thumbing through a sheaf of documents. We can’t sign that, either. “The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen,” he read, “without recognizing an obligation to God. . . . Only persons willing to subscribe to this declaration of religious principle . . . shall be entitled to certificates of leadership.”

Sherman waited silently.

Forbes laughed nervously. “You believe in God, don’t you?” he asked.

“No,” Sherman replied. “We’re atheists.”

Forbes’s face, according to Sherman, turned cherry red.

The evening turned out just as Sherman had expected. Ricky and he were denied entry into the Cub Scouts by Forbes because they refused to sign their applications. When I spoke with Sherman the next day, I asked him if Ricky really wanted to be a Cub Scout. He was quiet for a brief moment, as if my question had wounded him. “Of course he does,” Sherman said finally. “He’s an American, isn’t he?”

Here in WGN’s green room, I have a chance to ask Ricky the same question when his father leaves the room to check how much longer we’ll have to wait. “Do you really want to be a Cub Scout?” Ricky shrugs. It seems as if he’s about to say something but just then his father reenters the room. Sherman glances at Ricky, then at me.

It’s hard not to be at least slightly suspicious of Sherman’s motives. This Boy Scout brouhaha isn’t the first installment of the Rob & Ricky show. Sherman and his American Atheists Inc. filed suit on Ricky’s behalf against Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 in the fall of 1988. The suit charged that the Illinois statute mandating the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance and its words “under God” at the start of every school day is a violation of the principle of separation of church and state and of freedom of speech. Ricky had to make the press rounds with Sherman that time, too.

Then there was the Christmas season that Sherman had baseball caps printed up with the word atheist on them. Rob & Ricky posed for photographers wearing the hats. And, of course, there was the infamous Chicago Tribune interview with reporter Eric Zorn. Sherman put Ricky onstage for Zorn. He grilled the kid about why the Sherman family didn’t celebrate Christmas. “Because we’re what? It begins with an A,” Sherman asked. Came Ricky’s reply, “Assholes?” “What is this kid like? What is their relationship?” Eric Zorn still wonders.

It is unlikely to be more complex than the relationship shared by Rob Sherman and his parents. So tenuous is the bond that Sherman made me pledge not to approach his parents or his two brothers. He will not speak for the record about his family or their views on his peculiar calling.

An account published in the Tribune in the spring of 1986, when Sherman still was something of a novelty, sheds some light on his past. In 1970 and ’71, Sherman was institutionalized by his parents, wrote reporter Jim Spencer. “I certainly wasn’t insane; I wasn’t crazy; I wasn’t neurotic,” Sherman was quoted as saying. He described himself as a “social pariah,” committed to a psychiatric hospital for his nascent beliefs. Sherman claimed he confounded the effort to straighten him out: his confinement only gave him the opportunity to develop his atheism undisturbed.

“A lot of kids that age [Sherman was 17 years old] are sent to mental hospitals by their parents,” says Eric Zorn. “Does that say more about him or his parents?”

Sherman was born in Henrotin Hospital on April 2, 1953. He was the second of three boys (“The middle child–that explains it all,” he laughs). Early in Rob’s youth, the Shermans moved from West Rogers Park to Skokie, then, a short time later, to Highland Park. At Highland Park High School, Rob’s yearbook profile was indistinguishable from those of a hundred other students there: chess club, orchestra (violin), and wrestling club. He was, by his own admission, a math wiz.

But it was in Hebrew school at Niles Township Jewish Congregation in Skokie that the nine-year-old Sherman had the first inklings of atheism. A classmate asked the teacher how he knew there was a God. “Oooh, good question,” Sherman thought. The teacher gave the standard Hebrew school response that there is no scientific evidence; it is a matter of faith. “The teacher gave the right answer: there is no proof. Then I expounded on it: there is no proof because there is no God,” Sherman says.

Over the next 20 years, Sherman tried to study the religions of the world. He talked to rabbis, ministers, priests, and laypeople. He observed Buddhist, Baha’i, and Christian ceremonies. “I was basically an investigative reporter,” Sherman says. He even underwent the ministrations of a Jew for Jesus when he was 19. The guy held his hand and prayed for him. “He prayed hard,” Sherman recalls. The Jew for Jesus finally finished. “Do you feel it?” he asked. Sherman replied simply: “No.”

The result of the trials and tribulations of Rob Sherman, the seeker? “I never really was a believer. Praying seemed to make as much sense as talking to the wall. My mind is pretty well made up that God is make-believe,” he says.

God is make-believe. Sherman likes to say that a lot. It is a good example of his ability to speak in sound-bites. Here are some other Shermanisms on the concept of divinity: God is Santa Claus; People in every culture create a god in their own image; and God is the stuffed animal for grown-ups. His knack with the snappy one-liner no doubt helped when he sought the leadership of the Illinois chapter of American Atheists, Inc., in 1984, three years after he’d joined the group. Even though his actual title is executive director, Sherman often introduces himself as the group’s spokesperson. It is not humility alone; it seems he’d rather be the flack than the boss any day.

Sherman loves a ringing phone with a reporter on the other end. On the day Sherman made his Boy Scout challenge, on the sidewalk in front of the United Way/Crusade of Mercy fund-raising office west of the Loop, Sherman never strayed more than two feet from a telephone. He keeps a mobile phone in his copper-colored Pontiac sedan–license plate ATHEIST 1. When he leaves the car, he simply takes the phone from its jack and places it in his jacket breast pocket.

“Rob loves the limelight,” says former Zion mayor Howard P. Everline. “He’s a media hound,” says a suburban reporter who asked not to be named.

“He tilts at windmills,” says southeast-sider Jim Zajac, his pal from the American Red Cross, where Sherman is a weekly volunteer. “He’s been threatened, his boy’s been threatened. But he enjoys the thrill of it. Rob loves the hoopla.”

Not that he consciously planned to become one of the most infamous people in Chicago. He only discovered his innate ability to attract press a scant four years ago, he says.

Sherman had just finished visiting a customer of his office-supply business (Robert I. Sherman & Associates, located in his Buffalo Grove home) in Winthrop Harbor in early 1986. “I drove past the Zion water tower and saw their big Christian cross on their city seal,” Sherman says.

The next day he called Mayor Everline to complain. Everline told him to call the village attorney, who in turn told him to take his case to the village council. Sherman decided to attend the next council meeting, to be held April 1. To his surprise, he claims, the village hall was filled with reporters who peppered him with questions the minute he walked into the place.

Sherman does admit he alerted all the reporters earlier that day. But, he says, he didn’t expect much response.

During the meeting, Sherman asked the councilmen to review the constitutionality of the cross on the seal. It was a simple request; there was no drama–that night. Sherman watched with astonishment and glee as the Channel Five news led with the story that night and the Arlington Heights Daily Herald put it on page one the next morning.

Sherman returned to follow up at the next council meeting, two weeks later. Quickly, he discovered the down side of all the attention. The Zion council chambers were filled with over 400 angry citizens, several hooded members of the KKK, and reporters from the dailies and dozens of community papers. Deborah Norville, too, Sherman adds proudly. Police officers with dogs in tow floated around the perimeter looking for signs of impending mayhem.

“It was quite an intense and hostile thing,” Sherman says. The angry citizens accused him of trying to take their religion away from them. He escaped that night with his hide intact. Over the next few weeks, though, he wasn’t so sure of his safety. He received numerous death threats over the phone and through the mail.

“When I was a kid,” Sherman says, “I thought it would be neat to have my name on the front page of the newspaper.”

Since the Zion case, Sherman’s life has become a whirl. His succeeding challenges–more than a dozen complaints against cities whose seals contain religious symbolism, yearly forays against Christmas and Hanukkah displays on public property–as well as his radio show on WSSY (1330 AM), his local cable-television show, and assorted other public appearances fill his days.

To be sure, it is a life that can strain a father’s relationship with his son. “Ricky is aware that Daddy’s job is to end discrimination against atheists in this country,” Sherman says.

Not many daddies have jobs requiring elaborate home and auto security systems. Not many kids can’t tell people where they go to school for fear the information will fall into the hands of crazies. Not many kids have to make the rounds of radio talk shows.

And it is doubtful any other kid has to confront the question “What is God?” with an entire city looking on. Even Ricky’s mother, Celeste Sherman, acknowledges that she questioned the existence of a divine being, “like all kids do when they’re in their late teens.” But she did her questioning in private. Now, she must guide her son’s spirituality in a media fishbowl.

“I’m definitely not an atheist,” says Celeste, a native southwest-sider who was raised a Catholic and attended parochial schools until college. “I believe there is probably a higher entity. If you want to call it God, so be it.”

Celeste, a soft-spoken bookkeeper, hesitates a moment when asked if she and her husband have agreed on how to raise Ricky with regard to religion. “To an extent,” she says finally. “I want him to learn that people have a right to believe in different things. There’s nothing wrong if Ricky wants to be an atheist, and if he wants to be a rabbi I won’t love him any less.”

Back in the green room at WGN, I look at little Ricky listening to his father’s admonitions to sit up straight and behave, and I think, unless he grows up to be the monster rebel of all time, it’s unlikely he’ll be a rabbi.

“I’m bored; can I color?” Ricky asks.

“No,” Sherman replies. “This is an adult room, and in life you’ll have to learn that when you’re an adult you must sit there and not be disruptive.” Odd, the admonition not to be disruptive, coming from Sherman.

But it is a long wait here while evening hosts Al Lerner and Ed Curran give updates on a line of thunderstorms moving through the area, shill for the Cubs, and banter with newsreader Lyle Dean. Ricky becomes whiny. Sherman spies some markers on a table. He asks me for some paper, gives it to Ricky, and says, “Draw me a picture of the Boy Scout leader refusing to let us join last Monday.”

“OK,” Ricky says cheerfully, and he takes up the pens in a corner. A moment later, Sherman asks Ricky what he’d like for his birthday, which is the next day. Ricky looks to the ceiling and ponders. “Let’s burn the newspapers!” Ricky says. The Sherman house looks almost like a newspaper morgue. Stacks of newspapers cover the living-room floor. Sherman scans local and national papers daily for articles pertaining to church-state separation and, while he’s at it, for mentions of himself. He is well behind, it seems, on his clipping. “All right, if you continue to behave, we’ll burn the newspapers for your birthday,” Sherman promises.

Finally, a producer sticks his head into the room and tells us it’s time. Rob and Ricky settle into the studio, sitting across from the hosts. While pleasantries are exchanged, Ricky goes back to his drawing.

Al Lerner introduces Rob Sherman as another in a long line of “atheist gadflies.” After the hosts give the details of the Boy Scout thing, they begin fielding callers. One tells Sherman he’s going to burn in hell. Another asks why he wants to take people’s right to worship away. Still another informs Sherman that this is a Christian country whether he likes it or not. Surprisingly, though, most callers say Sherman makes a good point.

Soon, Ricky finishes his drawing. While they are on the air and Sherman is expounding on the United States Constitution, Ricky slips out of his chair, taps Sherman on the shoulder, and hands him the drawing. It is an eight-year-old’s rendition of the scene at the Boy Scout sign-up. There is a dialogue balloon attached to the little boy in the drawing. The boy is saying “God is make-believe.”

Later, a caller asks Ricky if he really wants to be a Cub Scout. “I don’t know,” Ricky grins. Sherman chuckles and remarks on the fickleness of eight-year-olds.

The producer with me in the control room slaps his hand against his knee in anger. “Jesus, that pisses me off,” he says. “Using a kid like that! That guy can be whatever he wants to be, but why doesn’t he leave his kid at home where he belongs?”

A few minutes later, Ricky, bored again, swivels in his chair and yawns. “Can we go soon?” he asks during a commercial. “In a minute,” Sherman says.

After more than an hour, Al and Ed wrap up the Sherman segment. Once out of the studio, Ricky brightens. He’s happy to be going home.

We walk down the empty hallways of the Tribune Tower studio complex. Sherman wonders out loud if it is raining too hard for Ricky to run with him to the car. In the lobby, he asks the security guard if he’ll watch Ricky while he fetches the car. The security guard nods. Ricky, barely able to conceal his panic, asks “Where you goin’?”

“To get the car. I’ll be back.”

The child appears unconvinced. “Come on, Ricky. Behave. Remember, it’s your birthday tomorrow,” Sherman says, ready to barter.

Ricky’s eyes grow wide. “See,” Sherman says. “Now what did you want for your birthday?”

“Let’s burn the newspapers,” Ricky says.

“All right. I’ll be back,” Sherman replies. He heads off for the car. Ricky watches him intently until he can’t see him anymore.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.