The context for the remark was a video being shot by the Church of Scotland after one of their ministers had given the Time for Reflection at the Scottish Parliament so perhaps Mr Salmond was talking about the quality of the Time for Reflection which he also spoke about in the video. It was a spontaneous remark and not thought out but it got me wondering if I preferred people of faith to those with none. I don't think I do. I certainly feel at home with many people of different faiths but I also feel at home with people who profess no religious faith. There are some people of faith with whom I don't feel at home because their faith is of a closed, dogmatic, exclusive kind that doesn't resonate with me. There is a kind of religious faith whose idealism and authoritative stance can cut people off from their humanity and harden their hearts against others. But so too with people of no professed faith, they too can be dogmatic, lacking in compassion, prejudiced, out of touch with their own humanity. The people I prefer are the open, undogmatic kind, who struggle with what it is to be human and to make sense of their lives, to be ordinary, who do their best to be kind and loving, sometimes in difficult circumstances, who don't take themselves too seriously, who are committed to the common good. Some of these people are religious and others not and I like them all.
It so happened I also had read two articles about atheism. Each of them suggested that there is a kind of fundamentalism among atheists at the moment and like all fundamentalists they want to impose their belief on society. For these so called 'new atheists' religion is intellectually bankrupt, morally destructive and should have no place in society. But this antagonism towards religion has not been always been part of atheism and atheism can be as plural with as wide diversity of world views and values as any religious or belief group.
In a Point of View on Radio 4 John Gray illustrated this point by considering an early 19th Century Italian Giacomo Leopardi. Brought up a Catholic Leopardi became an atheist in his teens and while he was a committed materialist he defended religion, which he regarded as an illusion that was necessary for human happiness. He thought tha if religion were to disappear it would be replaced by philosophies that were even more intolerant and history, especially the last century, has shown the truth of this. For Gray atheism does not need to be fundamental. It is a belief amongst others and religious believers can respect this as it's possible for atheists to respect religious belief even if they don't understand it.
Other atheists are even adapting religious structures and rituals, realising some need for a secular celebration and gathering. We even have a Sunday Assembly often called the Atheist Church. This is the kind of atheism that could be open to dialogue and mutual understanding. Thomas Merton believed that when we seek what is truest in our own tradition, we discover we are one with those who seek what is truest in theirs and perhaps the reverse is true. When we seek what is truest in another tradition we can discover what is truest in our own. And this can be as true for the dialogue with atheism and humanism as it is for the dialogue with other religions.