ISTANBUL -- When it comes to religion and politics, many skeptics are convinced that strong faith leads to judgmentalism, which leads to intolerance, which leads to oppression and, ultimately, theocracy.
Many people disagree, saying that it's impossible to defend basic human rights without a religious or at philosophical commitment to moral absolutes.
It's easy to tell who is who when they speak out.
Consider this voice: "Freedom on the one hand is for the sake of truth and on the other hand it cannot be perfected except by means of truth. ... There is no freedom without truth."
That was the young Polish bishop who would become Pope John Paul II, arguing for a tight connection between truth and freedom at Vatican II.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins disagrees, to put it mildly: "To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Don't be surprised if they are used."
While it's easy to find examples of religion being used to justify great evils, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson finds it hard to grasp how Dawkins and company can study history and say things like that. It's no surprise that Gerson feels this way, since he is best known as the White House scribe who wove faith-based images into so many speeches for President George W. Bush.
"This anti-religious viewpoint claims too much. Do its advocates really intend to lump the Grand Inquisitor with the Amish? To say there is no difference between radical Salafists and Sufis?", asked Gerson, speaking at a global conference entitled "Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century." This gathering in Istanbul was organized by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.
"Surely the content of religion makes some difference," added Gerson. "But the central problem with this anti-religious attitude is this: It would remove the main source of reform -- the main source of passion for justice and change -- in American history."
If it's hard to maintain a demilitarized zone between religion and politics in America, it's even harder to do so in a land like Turkey, where many politicians insist that they have created a "secular Muslim state."
Many other Turks have severe doubts about the success of that project, especially those in the nation's shrinking Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish minorities. Ask the Armenians if trying to separate "truth" from "rumor" raises tolerance issues in modern Turkey.
While Gerson discussed a wide range of issues in an off-the-record dialogue session, including the Iraq war, his keynote address focused on the big picture -- his conviction that in "every culture, standing for truth against lies and conspiracy theories is essential to tolerance."
At the very least, he stressed, tolerance requires a belief in at least one absolute truth, a belief in human dignity. And without some kind of doctrine of human equality -- that, for example, all men are created equal and in God's image -- it is hard to defend universal standards of human rights and social justice.
In American history, said Gerson, the source of that moral truth has often been found in the prophetic voices of religious believers.
Thus, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote these words in his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." A truly "just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."
Moral relativism, on the other hand, forces leaders to root their decisions in power and power alone, said Gerson. The result is "the rule of the strong -- the rule of those who can seek their wants and impose their will most effectively."
Thus, as a contrast to King, consider this voice from the bloody 20th Century.
"Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition -- if relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be bearers of an objective, immortal truth. ... From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable."
The speaker? That would be Italian fascist Benito Mussolini.