If you are engaged in an act of cruelty, there is an easy, effective way to silence your critics and snatch some space to carry on. Tell us all that your religion requires you to do it, and you are "offended" by any critical response. Erect an electric wire fence around your nastiest actions and call it "respect".
There's a good example of this religious modus operandi playing out on a dinner table near you – and this week, we found out it is becoming more and more common. In Britain, it is a crime to kill a conscious cow or sheep or chicken for meat by slashing its throat without numbing it first. The reasons are obvious. If you don't numb an animal, it screams as you hack through its skin, muscle, trachea, oesophagus, carotid arteries, jugular veins and major nerve trunks, and then it remains conscious as it slowly drowns in its own blood – a process that can take up to six minutes. So we insist that an animal is stunned before its throat is slashed, to ensure it is deeply unconscious. There isn't much humanity in our factory farming system, but this is – at least – a tiny sliver of it, at the end.
But there is a loophole in the law. You are allowed to skip all this and slash the throats of un-numbed, screaming animals if you say God told you to. If you are Muslim, you call it "halal", and if you are Jewish you call it "kosher". Back in the Bronze Age, or the deserts of sixth-century Arabia, it was sensible to act this way. You needed to know your meat was fresh and the animal was not sick, so you made sure it was alive and alert when you killed it. As Woody Allen once said, it wasn't so much a commandment as "advice on how to eat out safely in Jerusalem". But we have much better ways of making sure meat is fresh and healthy now. Yet for many religious people it has hardened into a dogma, to be followed simply because it was laid down in their "holy" texts long ago by "God".