The IHEU Freedom of Thought Report is a unique annual report and online resource, looking at the rights and treatment of the non-religious in every country in the world.

Specifically, this report looks at how non-religious individuals—whether they call themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, or are otherwise just simply not religious—are treated because of their lack of religion or absence of belief in a god. We focus on discrimination by state authorities; that is systemic, legal or official forms of discrimination and restrictions on freedom of thought, belief and expression, though we do also try to include some consideration of extra-legal persecution or persecution by non-state actors, social discrimination, and personal experience where possible.

In setting the parameters of this survey we focus on the global human rights agreements that most affect the non-religious: the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; the right to freedom of expression; and, to some extent, the rights to freedom of assembly and association. We consider national laws that compromise or violate these rights, or which otherwise enshrine discrimination against the non-religious. Of course, laws and practices affecting the non-religious often impact on religious groups, usually religious minorities in a national context, so we also consider corresponding impact from discriminatory laws on other groups. And sometimes we also consider wider social and ethical issues indicative of the marginalization of humanist values.

Our findings show that the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of humanists, atheists and the non-religious. For example, there are laws that deny atheists’ right to identify, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to or experience of public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, or criminalize the expression of their views on and criticism of religion. In the worst cases, the state or non-state actors may execute the non-religious for leaving the religion of their parents, may deny the rights of atheists to exist, or may seek total control over their beliefs and actions.

A secularizing world

Any rights violations and discrimination are important, even when only small numbers of people are affected. However, the non-religious are not necessarily a very small group. Atheists (those who do not believe in any god), and humanists (those who embrace a morality centered on human welfare and human flourishing that does not appeal to any supernatural or divine entities), and others who consider themselves non-religious, constitute a large and growing population across the world. A detailed survey in 2012 revealed that religious people make up 59% of the world’s population, while those who identify as “atheist” make up 13%, and an additional 23% identify as “not religious” (while not self-identifying as “atheist”). The report by the WIN-Gallup International Association1<> is in line with other recent global surveys. It shows that atheism and the non-religious population are growing rapidly—religion dropped by 9 percentage points and atheism rose by 3 percentage points between 2005 and 2012—and that religion declines in proportion to the rise in education and personal income, which is a trend that looks set to continue. Even in countries which at first glance seem to have few self-identifying non-religious people, it should be remember that often it is these states or socieites that are most oppressive of non-religious views.

Far from thinking that a country with seemingly very few non-religious people is probably not contravening the rights of the non-religious, commentators should probably recognise that the apparent absence of non-religious voices may well indicate that the non-religious are self-censoring their views in response to oppressive laws or social taboo, or that they are being actively silenced, as this report documents all too often.

Freedom of thought under the human rights framework

The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief protects the individual conscience of every human being. This right was first stated by the global community in 1948 in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
— Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This simple but powerful statement was given the force of international law by Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1976. In 1981 it was given broader application and detail by the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Just as freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief protects the right of the individual to follow a religion, it also protects the right to reject any religion or belief, to identify as humanist or atheist, and to manifest non-religious convictions through expression, teaching and practice. As the United Nations Human Rights Committee explains (General Comment 22):

“1. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) in article 18.1 is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief, whether manifested individually or in community with others…

2. Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions.”

Thus, it is not necessary to describe atheism as a religion, or as analogous to religion, to guarantee atheists the same protection as religious believers. On the contrary, atheism and theism are protected equally as manifestations of the fundamental right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

Religious believers and non-believers are equal in human rights because they are all human, irrespective of their religion or beliefs. Just as the profession of religion is protected as a manifestation of belief and conscience, so is the atheist’s criticism of religious beliefs and practices. Just as speaking in support of one’s religious convictions and moral values can be of fundamental meaning and importance to the individual, so can advocating core humanist values of democracy, freedom, rationalism, or campaigning for human rights, equality and the principles of secularism. As the United Nations says, “religion or belief, for anyone who professes either, is one of the fundamental elements in his conception of life”2UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Article 18 protects atheists’ right to be atheist and to manifest their atheist beliefs, and non-beliefs, in public as well as in private, in teaching as well as in practice. The right to freedom of religion or belief is therefore central to our examination of the status of atheists and other non-religious people around the world. But there are other rights that are necessary for people to express their conscience, thoughts and beliefs.

Other rights and freedoms

The right to freedom of expression is, obviously, necessary for people to express their beliefs, but also to explore and exchange ideas. As stated by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to freedom of expression includes the right to share ideas and, crucially, the freedom of the media that is necessary for the free exchange of opinions as well as news:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
— Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In addition to expressing their thoughts through private discussion or public media, people also have the right to associate with others who share those beliefs, and to express their thoughts at meetings, including public assemblies and demonstrations. These rights are protected by Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association” (Article 20).

It’s no coincidence that these three rights are stated together in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Articles 18, 19, and 20 are intertwined, and generally stand or fall together. Our survey therefore looks at violations to the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, as well as freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, to show how non-religious people are prevented from, or persecuted for, expressing their atheist ideas or humanist values.

The countries with the worst records on freedom of thought are usually the countries with the worst records on human rights overall. This is no coincidence: when thought is a crime, no other freedom can survive for very long.

Rights violations and discrimination against the non-religious

Apostasy and blasphemy laws

In some countries, it is illegal to be, or to identify as, an atheist. Many other countries, while not outlawing people of different religions, or no religion, forbid leaving the state religion. And in these countries the punishment proscribed in law for “apostasy” (converting religion or declaring oneself not of a religion) is often death. In fact, we document 22 countries which criminalize apostasy. In 12 of those countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen) “apostasy” is in principle punishable by death. Pakistan doesn’t have a death sentence for apostasy but it does for “blasphemy”, and the threshold for blasphemy can be very low. So, in effect you can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries.

More common than crimes relating to simply being an atheist are the criminal measures against expressing atheist views. Many countries have “blasphemy” laws that outlaw criticism of protected religions, religious beliefs, religious figures, or religious institutions. For example, Pakistan has prosecuted more than a thousand people for blasphemy since introducing its current anti-blasphemy laws in 1988. Dozens of those found guilty remain on death row, and there are repeated calls from Islamist leaders to lift the effective moratorium, enforce the death penalty, and make death the only sentence for “blasphemy” convictions.

The ‘crime’ of criticising a religion is not always called “blasphemy” or “blasphemous libel”; some countries outlaw “defamation of religion”; sometimes is included under hate speech laws (i.e. some hate speech laws outlaw expressions that fall well below any sensible standard of actually inciting hatred or violence); some quasi-“blasphemy” laws outlaw instead “hurting religious sentiments” or “insulting religion”. As documented in this report, there are legal restrictions against expressing “blasphemy”, defaming or insulting religion or religious beliefs, or offending religious feelings etc, in 74 countries. This is higher than some other lists put the figure. Our report does include laws which use variants of the word ‘blasphemy’ or ‘defamation of religion’, ‘hurt sentiments’, ‘insult’, etc, and including anti-hatred laws where those laws appear to be usable to restrict what should be legitimate free expression about religion. We do not include laws which appear genuinely to prohibit incitement to hatred only.

Of these countries with “blasphemy”-type restrictions, 43 allow for a prison term for this crime. And the crime of “blasphemy” is punishable by death in a further 6 countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. In addition, most of the twelve countries which punish “apostasy” with death also sometimes treat ‘blasphemy’ as evidence of apostasy.

‘Apostasy’ and ‘blasphemy’ laws get a lot of attention because they are often fairly quantifiable and certainly within the context of human rights discourse there is a wide consensus that they constitute human rights violations. There are other laws that severely affect those who reject religion however.

Other discriminatory laws

Some countries have family law that in effect excludes atheists from getting married (unless they pretend to be religious) or will remove parental rights from parents known to be atheists. Some countries require that certain public officers are restricted to persons of a particular religion, thereby excluding the non-religious. Some governments require citizens to identify their religion (for example on state ID cards or passports) but make it illegal, or do not allow, for them to identify as an atheist or as non-religious. Sometimes, the purpose of citizens identifying their religion is not to discriminate against atheists—or any religion—but to ensure government benefits are given to people in accordance with their faith, or that religious laws enforced by religious courts will apply to them on certain matters, especially family matters. However in many such countries this means that atheists are marginalized.

In fact, discrimination against the non-religious is often caused, not by a desire to hurt atheists, but by the desire to help one or more religion. The promotion by the state of religious privilege is one of the most common forms of discrimination against atheists. Freedom of religion or belief requires equal and just treatment of all people irrespective of their beliefs. But when states start to define citizens not by their humanity but by their membership of a religious group, discrimination automatically follows. For example, in Lebanon the entire system of government is based on sectarian quotas, with different rights and roles available to Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslim and Maronite Christians, etc. This practice not only codifies and encourages religious discrimination but it also discourages people from leaving the religion of their birth, because they will lose all the state privileges that come with belonging to that religion.

Religious privilege is also seen in many countries’ public services and public education. The most common and substantial of these privileges is religious control of state-funded schools. For example, in Northern Ireland 94% of state funded schools are religious in character. This not only reinforces sectarianism beyond the school gate, but also excludes the non-religious. In England and Wales, 16% of state-funded school places (or 1.2 million children), are subject to admission policies that discriminate against atheists.

Family law, also known as “personal status law”, is the set of laws that control marriage, divorce, inheritance, child rearing and child custody—all of family life. More than that, personal status law also determines the individual’s relationship with the community and state: for example, a wife has different legal rights and legal relationships than an unmarried woman. Many Muslim countries give control of family law to the Sharia courts operating Muslim, not civil, law. Other countries, usually those with historically large religious minorities, have voluntary religious family courts for the different religious communities. Unfortunately for freethinkers who may have left, or want to leave, the religion of their family, these “optional” religious family courts can become a trap that is far from voluntary, where opting out may raise suspicions of apostasy or threats of social exclusion or abandonment by one’s family.

In compiling this evolving, annual report, we also found that religious privilege is not only a form of discrimination in and of itself, but it is also a signifier of more general societal discrimination against atheists. When a religion is singled out as special, then it generally follows that the members of that religion receive advantages not available to others. Even when there is just a vague state preference for generic religion, or belief in a god, it may reinforce societal prejudice and discrimination against the non-religious. Therefore, we also consider in this report religious discrimination, or religious privilege, even when its supporters claim it is merely ceremonial or symbolic. We agree that some religious signalling by the state is sometimes “only” a matter of symbolism, but what it symbolizes is the state’s preference for religion or for a particular religion, and the second class status or disfavouring of the non-religious.

References   [ + ]

1. <>
2. UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief