If you are an active atheist – someone who debates with religious people to any extent – it’s more than likely you have been called a bigot for your trouble. To some, criticism of religion is bigotry, and I have heard this opinion even from atheists.
The problem is that religion tends to be a large part of peoples lives (especially those who conciously seek out conversation with those of opposing views), and thus to criticise their religion is to critice something that is percieved to be a core and unchangable part of their life.
There is a further problem, for me as a Brit at least: criticism of some religions is equated with criticism of those who tend to follow it, or to put it bluntly: racism. Here in the UK, we have a fairly large Muslim community, who tend to come from Pakistan, India (along with Hindus and Sikhs) , and Bangladesh. Quite frankly, as a wishy-washy liberal, I love it. I love the fact that curry is now a British staple dish, I love the fact that we have different and more numerous cultural influences, I love the fact that most of us can live together without a whole lot of problems. Some people don’t love that fact: the BNP are the far-right party in the UK, and their dream is of an ethnically pure Britian. Seriously. However, the vast majority of people aren’t quite that racist, so for the past few years, the BNP has been using criticism of Islam as a way of criticising immigrants.
Amongst those of a liberal persuation, this leads to a distrust of criticism of Islam: I even find myself doubting something criticing Islam from time to time because I have a knee-jerk reaction to equate criticism of Islam with a blanket criticism of those who follow it.
And herein lies the difference. Religion is something to be followed, it is not what you are. Maybe you are a religious fanatic who feels that they are nothing without their faith: but you must choose to follow through on it. If someone is Pakistani, Eritrean, Fijian, Flemish, Irish, if someone is male or female, if someone is gay or straight: they didn’t choose it and there is no creed or set of instructions to be followed. With religion, there is a creed, there are sets of instructions, and to criticise those who interpret them a certain way is not bigotry, it is simply comment on the free action of another human.