I read The God Delusion and it makes exactly this point in the first chapters. It seems religion is such a taboo that people use it as a trump card when discussing things.
Here's an interesting excerpt:
A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts - the non-religious included - is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other. Douglas Adams put it so well, in an impromptu speech made in Cambridge shortly before his death, that I never tire of sharing his words:
"Religion . . . has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? - because you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it.
If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'I respect that'.
Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows - but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe . .. no, that's holy? . .. We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it's very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you're not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn't be."
I have previously drawn attention to the privileging of religion in public discussions of ethics in the media and in government. Whenever a controversy arises over sexual or reproductive morals, you can bet that religious leaders from several different faith groups
will be prominently represented on influential committees, or on panel discussions on radio or television. I'm not suggesting that we should go out of our way to censor the views of these people. But why does our society beat a path to their door, as though they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral philosopher, a family lawyer or a doctor?
Seventeen years ago, I was one of thirty-six writers and artists commissioned by the magazine New Statesman to write in support of the distinguished author Salman Rushdie, then under sentence of death for writing a novel. Incensed by the 'sympathy' for Muslim 'hurt' and 'offence' expressed by Christian leaders and even some secular opinion-formers, I drew the following parallel:
"If the advocates of apartheid had their wits about them they would claim - for all I know truthfully - that allowing mixed races is against their religion. A good part of the opposition would respectfully tiptoe away. And it is no use claiming that this is an unfair parallel because apartheid has no rational justification. The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justification. The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe 'religious liberty'."
Little did I know that something pretty similar would come to pass in the twenty-first century. The Los Angeles Times (10 April 2006) reported that numerous Christian groups on campuses around the United States were suing their universities for enforcing anti-discrimination rules, including prohibitions against harassing or abusing homosexuals. As a typical example, in 2004 James Nixon, a twelve-year-old boy in Ohio, won the right in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words 'Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!'
The school told him not to wear the T-shirt - and the boy's parents sued the school. The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it on the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn't: indeed, they couldn't, because free speech is deemed not to include 'hate speech'. But hate only has to prove it is religious, and it no longer counts as hate. So, instead of freedom of speech, the Nixons' lawyers appealed to the constitutional right to freedom of religion. Their victorious lawsuit was supported by the Alliance Defense Fund of Arizona, whose business it is to 'press the legal battle for religious freedom'.
The Reverend Rick Scarborough, supporting the wave of similar Christian lawsuits brought to establish religion as a legal justification for discrimination against homosexuals and other groups, has named it the civil rights struggle of the twenty-first century: 'Christians are going to have to take a stand for the right to be Christian.'
Once again, if such people took their stand on the right to free speech, one might reluctantly sympathize. But that isn't what it is about. The legal case in favour of discrimination against homosexuals is being mounted as a counter-suit against alleged religious discrimination! And the law seems to respect this. You can't get away with saying, 'If you try to stop me from insulting homosexuals it violates my freedom of prejudice.' But you can get away with saying, 'It violates my freedom of religion.' What, when you think about it, is the difference? Yet again, religion trumps all.