Not all these criticisms are entirely fair or justified.
As I go to press, Cherie Blair stands accused of discriminating against atheists. The story (taken from the above link) is that:
Shamso Miah, 25 — described as a devout Muslim — went from a local mosque in East Ham, London to a bank where he became embroiled in an argument with another man about his place in the queue. He grabbed Mohammed Furcan and punched him in the face. Miah ran outside but Mr Furcan chased after him and demanded to know why he had been attacked.
Miah then punched him again, knocking him to the ground and fracturing his jaw. Mr Miah said he had acted in self defence but the bank’s CCTV showed clearly that he was the aggressor. He then pleased guilty to occasioning actual bodily harm.
Yet despite saying violence on our streets “has to be taken seriously” Ms Blair/Booth QC let Miah walk free from court, telling him: “I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before. You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”
Now, as the splendid @JackofKent (http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/) has noted, there is precious little evidence of discrimination here. We all, I hope, go along with the notion of mitigation and we have no reason to believe that had Shamso Miah declared something along the lines of "look, I don't believe a word of this religion horse-shit, but I've always been kind to animals and children, I help old people across the road, and I'll never do anything like this again" he would not have been treated just as leniently by Cherie Blair.
Having conceded that point, there is, nonetheless, something distinctly curious about our attitudes towards religion and morality.
If I avoid drinking and driving because I might kill or injure someone and I would rather avoid doing that, that is moral behaviour. If I avoid drinking and driving because I might get caught and be punished, that is not moral behaviour. It may be prudent behaviour, but ethics don't really come into it. (It is, of course, perfectly possible, and probably just as well, that many people entertain both lines of thought when wondering how to get home after an overenthusiastic night out.)
The traditional religious approach to persuading people to not do the "wrong" things has been to say something along the lines of: "you may think that's a good idea now, but just wait until you die and god puts you on the barbecue or brings you back as a mollusc" (depending on the specifics of the religion). I have never been persuaded that going along with this sort of thing constitutes moral behaviour.
But, especially in recent times, god seems to have become less draconian (at least within the Anglican church) and we are invited to believe that, even if we are not destined for the fiery pits of Hell, we should still go along with god's wishes.
The problem (apart from deciding what god's wishes are especially when it comes to stuff - like helicopters, internet porn, and contraceptives - that simple weren't around last time he gave us the benefit of his thinking) is deciding whether we should agree with him.
So for example, if god simply says "I think women should wear bags over their heads at all times" why can't we say in response "well I'm sorry god, but I think this is a bit bonkers". Why do we have to accept that such a pronouncement somehow constitutes a valid ethical judgement? After all, some people are quite convinced that it is god's wish that they should blow themselves up on crowded tube trains.
In reality, although people do claim that they are forced to take a particular line (for example when Iris Robinson claims we have to hate gay people because the Bible says so) they soon change their tunes when the relevant religious texts say something they don't actually agree with (for example when the Bible says the adulterers should be stoned). As a number of thinkers from Jean Paul Sartre to Dawkins have pointed out, you can't really evade moral responsibility in this way.
Some religious people are good people. Some religious people are bad people. Both groups contain moral actors who cannot, without disingenuity, claim that their goodness or badness depends on their religious persuasions.
Shamso Miah broke another man's jaw. Cherie Blair decided that, all things considered, Shamso Miah did not deserve to go to jail. Her judgement may well have been the right one. But I firmly believe that Shamso Miah must take full responsibility for all his actions (good or bad) and that his, and Cherie Blair's, various allegiances to invisible sky fairies have no place whatsoever in this matter.