As an atheist I feel under a degree of obligation to respect the religious faith of others. I have certainly been witness to a whole series of very admirable behaviour from people whose religion has taught them to be charitable and tolerant. Unfortunately we are also witnessing the exact opposite in many parts of the world.
I draw two conclusions about this. The first is to be wary about anyone who treats religious, political, economic or environmental opinions in the same way as they do their allegiance to sport. Ideas aren't an issue of which team you support. Thinking works best when you don't worry too much about which side the good ideas come from and you are prepared to listen and learn from a wide range of views and take on board the things that are plausible. Bigotry begins with a belief that your own "side" is always right and the opposition is always wrong.
Politically this kind of thinking results in people on the left turning a blind eye to some appalling human rights abuses because they happened to take place in Cuba or the Soviet Union. It enabled many people to turn a blind eye to the bad economics which went with some great intentions in Venezuela and seriously undermined the outcome of those good intentions. It results in the kind of political sectarianism that dominates Trotsyism. At its worst it creates the kind of fanaticism that will push Jews & Gypsies into gas chambers or allow previously decent people to behead infidels.
Again and again we hear the same words from the friends of the torturers. "He was such a nice ordinary person. Wouldn't hurt anyone. I can't believe it was him that did this." But when you start to believe that you belong to a club that has special access to the truth and that those who don't belong to that club are enemies of the cause there can be no limit to what some people will do.
This doesn't mean that we should never belong to a cause or have strong beliefs. It does mean that we should constantly question and challenge the ideas of that cause and refuse to cut ourselves off from interesting thinking coming from others. I may belong to the Green Party because I think they are right about the extent of the environmental crisis. I do not have to accept every daft idea someone claiming to be Green comes up with or reject every good idea coming from a Conservative or even, whisper it, on rare occasions, UKIP!
The second conclusion I have come to about religion is that not all religions are the same. Some foster open mindedness, thinking for yourself and co-operation between equals. For example, Quaker and Sikh teaching promotes astonishingly radical and admirable principles that border on anarchism in the best sense of the word. A belief that ordinary people can sort things out collaboratively without the need for authoritarian leaders.
But the world also contains a range of religious faiths that don't work that way at all. They operate on the assumption that there is one truth and one leader will tell you what that truth is and you should learn it rather than argue about it.
Within this tradition there are milder and more extreme variants. The new Pope for example is using his authority to tell us some remarkably important things bluntly and honestly and to get people to listen who might not otherwise do so. He is right about the urgency of the environmental crisis. He is right about the need to have an inclusive society that supports the poor. He is right to recognise that humanity is all part of one great family and we must look after each other.
Nevertheless I still have a lot of reservations about Catholicism. When there is one prime source of interpretation of the truth it can be used very well. It can also be used very badly. So at the moment a lot of ordinary women who place their faith in this religion are made to feel guilty because they need to control their own contraception and to have appropriate access to abortion when all else fails. And the authority of the last Pope was used very differently before he was forced out of office for reasons that we have yet to see properly explained.
I take much the same attitude to the authority of the Muslim Imams. I have seen that authority used admirably but I remain suspicious of the idea that there should be someone in authority who tells you what it is appropriate to think. The vast majority of Muslims I have met have gained some fantastic attitudes about charitable giving and caring for others from their faith. There is, however, always a risk when you allow someone to dispense the truth to the faithful that the truth they will dispense will be horrible. When you put together a bigoted set of views with a deep religious faith and a lot of money you have a very dangerous mix. The prime example is called Saudi Arabia.
The views about women's rights in that country are horrible. Women are legally under the control of men in a form of sexual apartheid that sometimes exceeds the racial kind. At least black South Africans could drive a car, control their own assets, and show their face in public.
The attitude to freedom of speech in that country is also appalling. For doing what I am doing now a Saudi citizen has been given 10 years in jail and 100 lashes each week. For doing what I am doing now a Saudi citizen is to be executed and then crucified. He was 19 when he wrote his blog.
Huge amounts of money are dispatched by the Saudi regime and even more by private Saudi citizens to back extremist groups who preach the most narrow minded form of Islam. Saudi money financed 9/11 and it was Saudi citizens raised on prejudice who flew the planes into the twin towers. Saudi money was the original source of ISIS weapons and the reason why Syrian opposition moved from being about democracy and freedom to being about murdering those who disagree with oppression, beheading and torture.
Even on the Hajj the appalling prejudices of the clique in power have become evident. When hundreds of the faithful died immediately after cleansing themselves via ritual the regime didn't question whether the cause might have been the parade of a pampered Prince through the crowds. Instead they told us it was God's will. They must think him to be exceptionally vindictive. The reason for their brutal disregard of the faithful? Those who died were not rich and many were from the wrong sect so they didn't really matter and it was no great surprise that God selected them for punishment.
The prime source of the funds for this genuinely evil empire is oil. So if you have friends who don't believe in climate change or don't want to support environmentalists because they are a bunch of woolly minded liberals try this argument on them. If we can radically cut down on our consumption of oil and gas then we can stop sending so much money to the source of terrorism and one of the prime creators of the waves of refugees. The best way to defend our values is not to waste money on irrelevant weapons like Trident. It is to cut off the funds for Saudi Arabia and start properly challenging their malign influence wherever it rears its ugly head.
Andy is an FE lecturer, a bee-keeper and lives in Cononley.