On 25 May 2006 Barbara Smoker took part in the Oxford University Union Debate on the motion that "Free speech should be moderated by respect for religion". Needless to say, she spoke for the opposition.

"The chief speaker on my side was Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who published the controversial Mohammed cartoons.  As  there is  a seven-figure bounty on his head, the security arrangements for the debate were heavy, everyone being searched on the way in.

In the days when, as president of the National Secular Society, I used to take part in lots of university debates, mainly in the 1970s to '90s, I was almost invariably on the losing side when it came to the vote, but this time we won by a good margin -129 to 59.

Had the word "religion" in the motion been replaced by any other abstract noun, we would have won by 188 to nil. Suppose the word was "science". The motion would then have read "Free speech should be moderated by respect for science", and no reasonable person would vote for that - least of all a genuine scientist. So why is religion given its unique privileged status? After thousands of years, it has become the norm, so no-one ever thinks it needs justifying.

As I pointed out in the debate, the precept to respect religion is similar to the Mosaic commandment, "Honour thy  father and thy mother". But suppose your father and mother happened to be the serial child murderers Fred and Rosemary West or Ian Brady and Myra Hindley? Even your parents must deserve your respect. And most religions do not deserve it.

So should we respect religious faith? Certainly not. Well, should we respect religious people? Yes - as long as they are not antisocial and don't aim to impose their religious views on others.

But even if we respect them as good-living people, we cannot respect their beliefs. Faith, which means firm belief in the absence of evidence, betrays human intelligence, undermines science-based knowledge, and compromises ordinary morality. If there were objective evidence for its doctrines, it would no longer be faith: it would be knowledge.

We have to excuse the medieval sceptics who pretended to respect Christianity rather than risk being burned at the stake, and likewise the apostate Muslims of today who pay lip-service to Islam in those Islamic countries where apostasy is still a capital offence; but we who live in a comparatively liberal society have no such excuse. In fact, it is all the more incumbent upon us to give our support to victims of religious oppression everywhere, by coming out of the respectful closet and speaking our minds. Free speech, not respect.

Scepticism is of paramount importance, because it is the gateway to knowledge; but unless the sceptical ideas are freely argued over, they cannot be assessed, nor can the ensuing knowledge spread through society.

There can be no real freedom of religion without freedom from religion, which is part of the whole concept of free speech. As J.S. Mill wrote, no idea can be justified unless it is open to opposition - which means free speech.

And free speech must include the right to laugh at absurd ideas. Indeed, ridicule - including satirical cartoons, which have recently provoked terrorism - has always been an important element of the free exchange of ideas on everything, not least religion. Without that free exchange there can be no advance in knowledge and no social progress.

Muslims, we are told, are sensitive, and are really hurt when their religion is joked about.     Don't they credit their supposed creator god with any sense of humour?   Didn't he actually invent laughter?  And is he too weak to withstand a joke without some humourless cleric rushing to his defence? Or is their own faith so weak that they fear its contamination? Let them heed the old playground retort: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."

Claiming to be ultra-sensitive and really hurt by mere words or pictures is, of course, a way of gaining privilege. Everyone else has to speak softly so as not to hurt you.

Incidentally, the violence provoked by the Danish cartoons was deliberately stirred up by Islamic extremists publishing exaggerated versions of them in Muslim countries up to four months after the originals were published.

I have discussed it with several moderate Muslims, and while they roundly condemned the violent reprisals, they generally added "But people ought not to insult religion". Why not? No-one would denounce the ridiculing of  political views, which are open to free debate. In fact, true respect for religion would allow it to be opened up in the same way, relying on the truth emerging.    But at present it is shielded from honest scrutiny. This suggests that the faithful realise it could not stand up to it.

The humanistic slogan, Live and Let Live, calls for practical tolerance without smarmy respect, but it is never accepted by fundamentalist proponents of any locally powerful religion. That is especially true of the three major religions of the book of Abraham - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Known as "the sibling faiths", they certainly exhibit innate sibling rivalry, eclipsed only by their shared hatred of outsiders, whether pagans or atheists.

Totalitarian extremists, of whatever religion or sect, invariably put faith first and freedom nowhere.  Censorship, including insidious self-censorship, is then the order of the day, followed closely by violence. In a society where religious orthodoxy rules, there is no freedom of religion.

Though we must take care to avoid a native backlash against the mostly peaceable British Muslim community, succeeding governments have carried the exoneration of Muslim villains too far in the past. For instance, as long ago as 1989, when, even on BBC television, imams were offering bribes for the murder of Salman Rushdie, they were never charged with incitement to murder.

The word "appeasement" is rarely used except in the context of Neville Chamberlain's deal with Hitler in 1938, but what about the present appeasement of Muslims in Britain?

Of course the law must protect people - in fact, that is basically what the law is all about - and we have plenty of general laws for the protection of people, without special laws for the protection of ideas, of a particular kind.

It is obviously impossible to genuinely respect an ideology that our reason rejects as superstition - let alone dangerous superstition; so what the precept to respect religion actually means is that we should pretend to respect it, for the sake of political correctness. At the very least, then, as I pointed out in the debate, the motion called for hypocrisy. So the final majority vote was for honesty, not hypocrisy.

But hypocrisy is not the worst of it.

When the ideologies we pretend to respect indoctrinate children, some of whom may even grow up to be suicide bombers because of it, hypocrisy becomes complicity in the mental abuse of children, in the oppression of women, in the obstruction of social reforms, and even in incitement to terrorism.

 This has been exacerbated by our political representatives, for the sake of votes, setting up state-supported schools to promote the indoctrination in a particular faith - though they themselves probably accept a different, incompatible set of superstitions.

We are told that Islam itself cannot be blamed for the terrorist attacks on New York, Madrid, and London, followed by widespread carnage in retaliation for the publication of a few innocuous drawings. That is like saying that the horrors of the Inquisition had nothing to do with Christianity.

In the gospels, Jesus consistently identifies righteousness with believing in him; and in the ages of faith the statement by Thomas Aquinas that "Unbelief is the greatest of sins" was incontrovertible. Hence the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Christian burning of witches, heretics, and Jews - the flames being fanned by Christian faith.

This use of torture was not a case of bad people perverting a good religion; the persecution of sceptics follows logically from the Christian correlation of faith with salvation, not to mention the scary notion that God could punish the whole of society for the disbelief of a few.

Mohammed followed on from Jesus, and the Koran contains even more , panic denunciations of disbelief than the New Testament. Moreover, Islam has failed to moderate its cruel practices to the extent that mainstream Christianity has done, in the past couple of centuries.

The Taliban, Al-Qa'eda, and the Badr Corps, are certainly extremist, but they are orthodox - deriving logically from the Koran, which denigrates women and tells believers to wage jihad against heretics and infidels. Moderate Muslims often try to explain away this tyranny and violence as misinterpretation of the Koran. If that is so, why did Allah, or his Prophet, lapse into such ambiguity?

It is argued that, since the common-law offence of blasphemy in this country survives, though only for the protection of the doctrines of the Church of England, parity demands that the law be extended to protect other religions. But it is now practically a dead letter, and the best solution would clearly be to abolish it altogether, as in fact the Law Commission has recommended several times to succeeding governments. But now the concept of blasphemy has been given an independent lease of life by renaming it "disrespect for religious feelings".

The present government has even endeavoured to criminalise such disrespect with another change of name, "incitement to religious hatred"; but fortunately, ameliorating amendments to the relevant Bill introduced in the House of Lords were finally accepted in the Commons - by just a single vote, when Blair himself was absent - on the 31st of January 2006. But the attenuated Bill then became law.

On the 20th of February, Pope Benedict called for mutual respect for all the world religions and their symbols - though he failed to mention, of course, parallel respect for atheism

Anyway, how can the Pope sincerely respect Islam when it teaches that believers in the "blasphemous" Christian Trinity are destined to spend eternity in hell?

Pressurised by religious leaders sinking their differences in the common cause of authoritarianism, the Council of Europe is currently considering the introduction of legislation in the European Parliament, and even the United Nations, to enforce "respect for religious feelings" internationally.

Insertion of the word "feelings" lends this tendentious goal a semblance of humane empathy. But religion cannot, in all conscience, be intellectually respected, if honesty is to prevail over hypocrisy - and giving it false respect would not just be obsequious and dishonest: it could actually allow superstitions of the Dark Ages to triumph, destroying the whole range of social and individual freedoms courageously won over the past few centuries.

  So, for the sake of liberty and equality as well as truth, we must resist the indefensible furtherance of hypocritical respect. Far from our agreeing to moderate free speech in favour of respect for religion, we should moderate respect for religion in favour of free speech.

Barbara Smoker May 25th 2006