Focus on religious freedom is letting down the non-religious

Too many people, including many national governments, hold “narrowly defined views on religious freedom”, leading to the exclusion of humanists, atheists and the non-religious from human rights protections. This is the view of the recently appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Mr. Ahmed Shaheed.

Writing in the foreword to a new report on discrimination and persecution against the non-religious, Mr Shaheed decries laws against ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ (converting or leaving religion):

“While anyone can run afoul of these laws, and often there are allegations of the use of such laws for political purposes, these laws potentially automatically criminalize dissent and free-thinking, and victimize “non-believers”, humanists and atheists. What is even more shocking is the cruelty with which those who are accused of violating these laws are often punished– by state agents or by non-state actors, including neighbours and relatives.”

The Freedom of Thought Report 2016, produced by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), records discrimination and persecution against humanists, atheists, and the non-religious, with a country-by-country assessment. The report finds that “blasphemy” is outlawed in at least 59 countries where it is punishable with a prison term or in some cases by death. There are laws against apostasy in 22 countries. At least 13 countries provide for the use of the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy.

Mr Shaheed’s home country, the Maldives, is strongly criticised by the report. While known in the west as a luxury holiday destination, by law all citizens of the Maldives are deemed Muslims, and all civil law is subordinate to Sharia. The administrators of atheist Facebook pages were publicly outed, kidnapped and compelled to “recant” their atheism in the Maldives in recent years, and there have been prosecutions for “apostasy” and at least one suicide related to being ‘outed’ as an atheist.

Now in its fifth annual edition, the Freedom of Thought Report is now hosted online with interactive pages for every country in the world.

President of the IHEU, Andrew Copson, said, “This is a tremendous development for the Report, and it comes at a crucial juncture in world affairs. … the rights and equality of the non-religious are under threat and there is an upsurge in the suppression of humanist values more broadly. Serious damage is being done to the brand of democracy, to secularism, and there are new threats to all our liberties.”

The report also examines the rise of populist parties and leaders, and how in some cases they are giving rise to a new breed of “traditionalist and religious authoritarianism”. With examples from recent presidential elections in Bulgaria, Moldova, the United States, and current governments including Poland and Hungary, the report’s editor Bob Churchill draws attention to “the very real risk in some countries that under nationalistic populism the rights of the liberal religious and the non-religious to manifest certain humanist values may be degraded or even lost.”

The launch of the report will be marked today with an event at the European Parliament on the persecution of atheists and non-religious people. It will be hosted by Dennis de Jong MEP, chair of the European Parliamentary Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance. The panel event will include the editor of the report Mr Bob Churchill (IHEU Director of Communications), as well as Fauzia Ilyas, a victim of persecution from Pakistan and founder of the Atheist and Agnostic Alliance of Pakistan.