The IHEU Freedom of Thought report focuses on “discrimination against Humanists, atheists and the non-religious”. But of course, the right to ‘freedom of religion or belief’ applies equally to the religious. So why the focus on non-religious people?

As an international umbrella body, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) represents Member Organizations with millions of individual non-religious people between them. However the report’s focus on discrimination against non-religious people is about more than simply advocating for our membership, or even for people who share a similar worldview to our membership. There are several reasons why a report focusing on discrimination against the non-religious is needed.

Easily overlooked

There is already good coverage of the many serious violations against members of various religious groups and individuals around the world. However, the rights of the non-religious under ‘freedom of religion or belief’ and freedom of expression relating to overtly atheistic worldviews, or simply to people without a religious worldview, have hitherto been all too easily overlooked.

Under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we all have the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (which explicitly includes the right to change religion) while subsequent treatises (such as the Declaration on the Elimination of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief) have set the language as ‘religion or belief’. (Non-religious views fall under ‘belief’ in the established international language.) Maybe it is because ‘religion’ is the only common term to both these statements of rights, and because the clunky phrase ‘freedom of religion or belief’ is seemingly so easily abbreviated to ‘freedom of religion’, that discrimination against non-religious persons is often ignored.

(The Google Trends graph above compares interest in “freedom of religion” with the terms “freedom of thought” and “freedom of belief”. Even the established language “freedom of religion or belief” compares very badly to “freedom of religion” alone. This isn’t proof of anything, but I include the graph as a flavour for how ‘freedom of religion’ accrues more attention than other equally important terms.)

As the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, said in his introductory remark to our 2012 report, “there seems to be little awareness that this right [freedom of religion or belief] also provides a normative frame of reference for atheists, humanists and freethinkers and their convictions, practices and organizations.”

A new and growing concern

Islamist protesters in Bangladesh, 2013, called for the death of "atheist bloggers"

Islamist protesters in Bangladesh, 2013, called for the death of “atheist bloggers”

As well as being historically overlooked, at IHEU we are increasingly aware that new fronts have opened in the battle to suppress non-religious views and persecute non-religious people as such. Public figures such as authors with liberal, political or critical views, and politicians or thinkers espousing secularism, have long been targets for oppression in many countries, and as the world globalizes many of those pressures are resurfacing with nations and whole regions grappling with new international and democratic norms. Meanwhile, as the internet covers ever more of the planet, we have also seen a marked increase in threats against less public individuals: bloggers, online activists, even users of social networks, are persecuted under discriminatory legal systems, sometimes for something as simple as voicing criticism of a religious institution, or expressing their own secular, Humanist values.

Many of the most shocking individual cases which occurred in 2012 feature the detention and mistreatment of young bloggers, or users of Facebook or Twitter, being hounded, publicly denounced, sometimes physically attacked and then jailed, sometimes merely for stating their identity as an atheist. As Matt Cherry points out in the Introduction to our 2012 report, this sort of persecution against individuals expressing non-religious views online has risen in the past few years even more quickly than the rise in social networking itself. The internet has allowed the atheist minority to come together in countries where association was otherwise impossible. It has allowed individuals to express liberal, non-religious and Humanist ideas openly, in some places for the first time. But this increased access to new ideas and increasing visibility has likewise exposed these ‘freethinkers’ to authorities bent on systematically suppressing their dissenting or even mildly critical views on religion.

Specific nature of discrimination against the non-religious

The report’s focus on discrimination against non-religious individuals in no way detracts from the universality of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.  This same right of course protects religious believers, and is crucially important in many countries where religious minorities or religious non-conformists are persecuted. Indeed, much of the information in the report on systematic (legal) discrimination applies to marginalised religious groups as much as to the non-religious, and we have included in the Freedom of Thought report several cases where religious individuals have been persecuted, in particular when the circumstances closely mirror the forms of persecution against the non-religious.

The report’s focus on discrimination against the non-religious should also not be taken as an argument that there are numerically more non-religious individuals discriminated against or that their discrimination is worse than against certain religious minorities.

However there may be some differences in the kinds of persecution that are most commonly faced by the non-religious. The report does not attempt to classify or measure variations in how the non-religious are discriminated against as compared with other groups, and of course all modes of discrimination are occurring to both religious and non-religious individuals somewhere in the world.  But if there are trends in how different groups are persecuted then narrowing in on the often neglected area of discrimination against the non-religious may help to bring this out. For example it may be that:

  • as mentioned above, the targeting by some countries of individuals for online statements of identity, while not unique to the non-religious, is certainly growing at an alarming rate against atheists specifically
  • many countries which do at least recognise and widely accept the existence of religious minorities still abhor the very idea of atheists and demonize non-religious thinking, resulting in a kind of “shut up and pray” message from society which forces freethinkers to conceal their thoughts
  • in some countries laws against apostasy apply to people converting to a new religion (usually if they are converting from Islam), and in some countries all citizens are forced to conform to a narrow set of predetermined religions (such as Indonesia’s six religions to which all citizens are restricted) which again affects precluded religious minorities and religious non-conformists (who fit no prescribed religious category). But in all such cases the atheist minority is always affected from nation to nation, legitimizing the exclusion and compounding the problem across whole regions.
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Communications Officer, IHEU
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