A FRIEND of mine was in Malawi recently – a country with which Scotland has legendarily strong ties.

Visiting a school, he noticed that a girl in a history class was drawing a large and complicated flow chart. My friend was curious to know what this represented. The girl explained that this was the simplest way to set out all the splits in the Church of Scotland since the middle of the 18th century.

The point of my anecdote is this; it’s complicated.

The pattern and variety of religious belief in Scotland is certainly more complicated than 280 angry characters on Twitter are ever likely to manage to convey.

I am supporting Humza Yousaf to be First Minister.

I am, incidentally (since people are asking these things at the moment) also someone who would place myself personally quite far towards (although possibly not quite at) the liberal end of the Church of Scotland. However, as a politician, I am not going to make any religious pronouncements beyond that declaration of interests.

People of all faiths and none, as well as people of all races, in all types of relationships and family units, have a right not merely to be tolerated but to be respected. I can’t see how any other type of Scotland is likely to prosper.

But I do also want to say something about religious stereotypes.

Even within my own island constituency, the picture is one of deeply-held and largely amicable diversity. Yet the social media, and the national media in general, often doesn’t even bother to label people with the “right” stereotype that applies to the denomination in question. If you are going to reach to caricatures, in any part of the country, then please at least do your research.

In the southern half of the Outer Hebrides, the Reformation essentially never happened, meaning that Roman Catholicism remains the largest denomination there. I often find myself explaining this fact to puzzled visitors who had idly assumed that Catholicism in Scotland was solely the product of (very valuable) waves of immigration.

At the other end of my constituency there are a wide variety of Presbyterian denominations, not least the Free Church, which broke away, across Scotland, from the Church of Scotland in 1843. The Free Church, to a great extent, reunited with the Church of Scotland a few decades later, except in the Highlands and Islands.

Although theologically traditionalist, and socially conservative in many ways, again it’s important not to deal in stereotypes about that. It was the Free Church which was probably far more vocal than most people about the sufferings of Highlanders during the clearances, and it was a Free Church minister who recently backed the right of the Muslim community in Stornoway to build a Mosque.

In my view (and in the view of the SNP too, as far as I can see), people have a perfect right to much more traditionalist or conservative views than my own. They even have a right to express views that may offend people, as long as they are prepared then to have them politely challenged by others.

What is unacceptable, however, is for anyone, from any perspective, to hurl online abuse.

Perhaps, sadly, that is an inevitability when many angry people are often unable to distinguish between different denominations, let alone the subtleties of the differing views held at varying points along the Presbyterian flow chart.

People have every right to interrogate organised religion (and its mixed record), but they also have a responsibility to check their facts before they hit out. The equivalent advice may also be addressed to people of faith, I would hasten to add.

Perhaps the best option, in the unlikely event that Twitter is reading this article, is for all of us, regardless of our religion, to heed the words, given in a very different context, by Scotland’s makar Edwin Morgan. He asked us simply to: “Deplore what is to be deplored, and then find out the rest.”