When I last mentioned the "there is probably no God" bus on here, someone - ok, my mother - said she wasn't sure I should have said I was an atheist. Agnostic, she suggested, might have been better, by which I assume she meant less likely to offend people. Or possibly she meant it could be construed as a bit arrogant to say you definitely don't believe, rather than admitting to having doubts.
Anyway, there were obviously some who found the atheistic bus offensive (or should that really be, the agnostic bus - it said 'probably' after all). And they've now retaliated with their own "there definitely is a God" bus. No 'probably' there!
I'm not offended by this; it's no different to what you see outside many churches. But I do think that the calls to respect other people's faiths, which we frequently hear, should also be extended to people's right to not believe. And then you get into the question of quite how far that respect should stretch....
The mantra usually recited by British politicians these days is 'people of all faiths and of none'. (But then they consult the faith groups and not the others). And Obama was, I think, the first president ever to refer in his inauguration speech to 'non-believers', which is a step forward.
At today's Gaza rally in Bristol several speakers - included an iman and a canon - referred to 'Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians and non-believers' or variations on that theme. But despite the reference to non-believers, there was very clearly a religious thread to the event, with speakers referring to 'one God which unites us' or something along those lines and the opening remarks of my speech being interrupted by someone starting a chant of allahu akbar (God is great) - not by way of heckling, I hasten to add, but in appreciation of something I said.
I don't have a problem with this, any more than I would if I went to an event at the cathedral and they started singing hymns. The march/rally was organised by Bristol mosques after all. But I do often find myself in the situation where I go along with other people's expressions of faith, whether it be by joining in hymns and prayers at the Cenotaph ceremony on Remembrance Sunday or attending civic services at Bristol Cathedral, or covering my head and taking off my shoes when I visit a mosque or Sikh temple. Or listening respectfully to colleagues when they talk about their faith, blithely assuming I must share their views.
The mosque/ temple thing is easy; it would be wrong and rude not to respect their wishes, even if on some level I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea that a woman has to protect her modesty by covering her hair. Attending weddings and funerals is simple too; you respect the wishes of the people getting married, or the person being buried. (Whenever I tell my mother that if I go first, I don't want any religion at my funeral, she says I won't be around to argue about it. For the record, I want 'Find the River' by REM.).
In church services I tend to bow my head rather than join in the words of prayers, but without making an issue of it - unlike during school assemblies when my friend Mark and I used to make a point of staring straight ahead, eyes wide open, as teenagers do. But I'll be frank - there are times during official services when I feel very uncomfortable singing the words of some hymns or listening to the words of a sermon, or a prayer. Probably more uncomfortable than a Muslim would at a Christian service, or vice versa.
I guess people with strong religious beliefs may find it difficult to comprehend how someone without faith feels when confronted with expressions of it. Like the nurse from Weston who was suspended from work because she'd offered to pray for someone when changing their dressing. (Which I think would be a little bit alarming actually, as if someone was offering to read you the last rites.). She was on TV yesterday saying she was back at work, hadn't been told she couldn't offer to pray again, and was "happy to pray for anyone". I wouldn't want someone praying for me, or offering to pray. Would I find it offensive? Yes, I think I would.And then of course there's Tony Blair... but I'm saving that for part two!