Secretary of State John Kerry: Freedom to ‘Not Believe’ is a ‘Birthright of Every Human Being’

Earlier today, the U.S. State Department released the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report. The annual report sheds light on abuses of religious freedom worldwide and reinforces America’s commitment to make those freedoms “an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.”

The report itself makes references to atheism (albeit in a very loose way):

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Congress took a momentous step in support of religious freedom when it passed the International Religious Freedom Act, establishing within the Executive Branch the position of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. With this measure, the U.S. government made a bold statement on behalf of those who were oppressed, those who were persecuted, and those who were unable to live their lives at the most basic level, for the simple exercise of their faith. Whether it be a single deity, or multiple deities, or no deities at all, freedom to believe — including the freedom not to believe — is a universal human right.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at an event marking the release of the report and his speech, too, celebrated the freedom to not believe in God:

But freedom of religion is not an American invention. It’s a universal value. And it’s enshrined in our Constitution and ingrained in every human heart. The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith, to believe or not to believe, or to change one’s beliefs, that is a birthright of every human being. And that’s what we believe. These rights are rightly recognized under international law. The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama, and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State. I am making certain, and will continue to, that religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.

Kerry also spoke about the problem with blasphemy laws and countries where apostates live in fear for their lives:

Lastly, another troubling trend is the increasing use of laws governing blasphemy and apostasy. These laws are frequently used to repress dissent, to harass political opponents, and to settle personal vendettas. Laws such as these violate fundamental freedoms of expression and religion, and we believe they ought to be repealed. And because we defend others’ rights of expression, we are also ensuring that we can express our own views and practice our own faith without fearing for our own safety or our own lives.

You can be cynical and say this is just a report and it doesn’t change the practices that go on in other countries, but it’s important to note that our government recognizes these problems exist and it’s working to fix the problem. Kerry is saying that we support universal religious freedom, which includes the right to be an atheist, something many countries in the world are afraid of doing.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Rich Wilson

    I’m having trouble finding my cynicism for this story. I think I’m actually happy about this one.

  • Robert J. Williamson

    Well if they mean this they need to refuse international aid to countries like Pakistan and selling arms to Saudi Arabia both of which have laws to execute atheists. In fact all apostates.

  • Matthew Baker

    He mentioned the “Nones” that is going to upset someone

  • Sven2547

    Even if it’s not a practical change in policy, the rhetorical change is a welcome one.

  • milwaukeeprogressiveexaminer

    How long before possibly fake atheist S.E. Cupp state that she is offended on behalf of CHristians for Kerry mentioning the freedom not to believe in a god. She is still upset that President Obama mentioned them, somewhat indirectly, in his 2009 Ignauration.

  • SeekerLancer

    This is exactly the kind of thing I want to hear from our Secretary of State on the issue of religious freedom. Bravo.

  • Renee L. Ten Eyck

    ” The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith, to believe or not to believe, or to change one’s beliefs, that is a birthright of every human being. And that’s what we believe.”

    but that’s NOT what everyone believes. We have terms such as the “religious right” dominionists and christian reconstructionists for a reason: because people generally in those categories do NOT believe that this freedom is a birth right, and are perfectly content to insist that America is a christian nation, demanding that others observe their version of christianity.

  • Steven Cannon

    …And if those same people were suddenly put into massive amounts of power, we would have a return of the dark ages: You don’t believe in our god? Burn you at the stake. You still practice herbal medicine? Not in the bible… Burn witch…

    Here’s where Americans are so damn ignorant…. Your religion is largely based on where you were born and the majority around you at the time. Many Americans do not understand that there are HUGE areas of the world where Christianity is a serious minority religion. Born in India? Guess what, Hindu… Japan? 84-96 percent of the population (I looked it up) are either Buddhists or Shinto. Taoism has a huge foothold in China, considered among the “folk religions.” And of course, big surprise here, almost 99 percent of the people in Afghanistan are (wait for it)… Muslim… Meaning Islam is their religion….

    Imagine if you were born in one of these other countries… Why do Americans think they are so special? The protestant religion is “big” in Norway, although it’s more a political function, and a popular saying is there’s only a few times when people will visit the church: when they are carried in or carried out… How do you think you would view the christian faith if you were a buddhist? I know a Buddhist. They think those Jesus flesh eating cannibals are weird… And their god is a violent, angry god that delights in the destruction of all things living. (he had a good point about why god destroyed so many innocent animals during the flood, for surely animals do not sin, do they?) Try to put yourself in the other people’s shoes… Islam or Buddhism might be all they know. Why don’t you try studying other religions, even some obscure and far out ones like Zoroastrianism, or Gnosticism… Mary Morrisey said it best “There are underground streams of truth that run throughout ALL the great religions of the world…”

  • tinker

    It’s too bad Kerry didn’t talk like this in 2004, I might have voted fro him.

  • Daniel Brown

    Kerry needs to shut the fuck up.

  • brian schneider

    Kerry is right, you need to fuck off.

  • Erp

    Note the full report is also online at the State Department. A quick check shows that atheists are explicitly mentioned for at least a few countries (I checked Indonesia though atheists are far from alone in having problems in that country). This btw is a contrast to some earlier years.

  • Compuholic

    Let me help you find it again: It is really sad that the general population is in a state that this kind of speech is even necessary.

    You are welcome.

  • midnight rambler

    Thanks, I can always count on someone to come through.

  • Randay

    Some of the people are wrong most of the time, some of the people are not wrong most of the time, but all of the people are not wrong all of the time.

    There are no “great religions”, big but not great, and if there are underground streams of truth somewhere there, they are no more than trickles–insignificant–and there just by accident. The priest caste wasn’t smart enough to get rid of all of them no matter how much it tried.

    Many years ago, before the current radicalization of many Muslims, I spent some time in Tunisia and stayed in non-tourist hotels. I was able to talk to young men there and they were very interested in what I had to say about my non-belief which seemed new to them and asked many questions. I may have been the first atheist they had met. It probably isn’t possible today.

  • Rayven

    I hate that witch. I now refuse to watch the show she co-hosts. I watched it a few times and simply could not stomach her any longer. She’s arrogant, rude, and vile. I watch msnbc all the time but if that show comes on, off the TV goes.

  • Ewan

    “You can be cynical and say this is just a report and it doesn’t change the practices that go on in other countries”

    Other countries? It doesn’t change the practices that go on in the US.

  • Gus Snarp

    Except that’s not the way international relations work, on any issue. There are lots of reasons to cut off international aid to lots of countries, but we’re more likely to have influence with a country where we give aid than one where we don’t. And much of that aid goes to people in real need, people who are manipulated by their governments and religious leaders and who shouldn’t be punished for where they were born. We probably could do a better job insuring that less of those funds are funneled through theocratic or simply dictatorial governments, but even then, sometimes ensuring stability by funding government can have multiple positive effects.

    It’s harder to argue against cutting off military aid, but even there the idea is that we gain so much from helping to secure those nations that it’s just essential to keep it up. I tend to disagree with this point, and a lot of what we gain is money for oil companies and arms manufacturers, but if we’re going to cut off arms sales, we should probably cut off all of them and start from scratch establishing standards for them.

    And we should include Israel on that list, though I know you didn’t mean to be exhaustive in any way.

  • Gus Snarp

    Secretary Kerry said the right things in the right way and without reservation. Actions speak louder than words, but the words are so often wrong in the first place that I’m grateful for this small step.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Right, but we also don’t believe in murder, yet there are serial killers. Should we allow them to dictate to us?

  • The Other Weirdo

    Right. Americans, as a whole, don’t understand this. How very… understanding of you.

    There are no great religions. I don’t know this Mary Morrisey, but she didn’t know Jack. And what is your point about these religions, anyway? That they exist? We all know this? That some of them are abusive to adherents of other religions, and those of no religion at all? We also all know this.

  • Space Cadet

    Does Kerry need to STFU because of what he said, or because he’s Kerry? If the former, to what, exactly, are you objecting? If the latter, seriously?

    Try expanding your thoughts to more than 7 words.

  • meekinheritance


  • meekinheritance

    I believe in murder. It happens every day. In America, we have the right to elect our representatives, whether they are serial killers or not, because we don’t live in a dictatorship.

    I am having trouble figure out what your point is. There certainly is no logical connection between your statements.

  • Terrence Andrew Davis

    God says…
    3:43 Thou hast covered with anger, and persecuted us: thou hast slain,
    thou hast not pitied.
    3:44 Thou hast covered thyself with a cloud, that our prayer should
    not pass through.
    3:45 Thou hast made us as the offscouring and refuse in the midst of
    the people.
    3:46 All our enemies have opened their mouths against us.
    3:47 Fear and a snare is come upon us, desolation and destruction.
    3:48 Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water for the destruction of
    the daughter of my people.

  • The Old Wolf

    That’s not loosely at all.. that’s direct and to the point.

  • darga45

    Daniel Brown does not believe in freedom of speech or freedom of religion. Daniel Brown must be a foreigner.

  • Zaoldyeck

    And Hippocleides doesn’t care.

  • Alex Pretorius

    You sir win for that statement. BTW is was awesome to site in your office chair while on Close Up in Washington DC during my senior year.

  • Matt

    Did you go to Reed?

  • Zaoldyeck

    No, I’ve just read Herodotus.

  • realitycheck

    … as long as it is in our best economical interests. Otherwise, nevermind.

  • jeff walker

    Blasphemy is illegal in Massachusetts 300.00 dollar fine and a year in jail!

  • Confuscan

    I can help you. Talk is cheap. Actions and consequences speak a lot louder. Some of the worst offenders are key US allies that receive tremendous US (and the West for that matter) military, economic and political support. One hand taketh (a little political embarrassment) and the other hand giveth (much, much more).

  • hd

    Forced genital mutilation on infants will be banned next hopefully, for BOTH SEXES..?

    It’s all about imposing others’ religion views on a defenseless child, chopping off his most sensitive body part to sell it to cosmetic companies like Skinmedica( supported by Oprah WInfrey) or INtercytex, who make wrinkle creams for old hags out of it.

    Thousands of children die every year from circumcision, including in the US (117 deaths per year according to THYMOS: Journal of Boyhood Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 2010, 78-90

    It’s a punitive surgery that was introduced first in the US to make masturbation more difficult and less pleasurable. In those times, Female Genital Mutilation was also supported by doctors…

    Having the whole body you were born with is a fundamental right.
    True doctors should never perform a risky surgery on heakthy body parts.
    Circumcision is a crime akin to sexual abuse, it’s just worse than rape because not only is your body part raped, it’s also taken away, depriving you of normal sexual sensations.

    A victim of these butchers. You may be happy with your circumcision because you don’t know anything else, but I’m pretty sure if you were intact, you would not do it as an adult if you had the choice. People who have experienced their complete genitalia don’t feel the need to chop off parts of it.

  • Mirza Borogovac

    Maybe John Kerry should also say something about the right of Palestinians who are being slowly ethically cleansed from occupied territories just because they are born into a wrong ethnic group.

  • Anon

    Anyone who believes in gOD is de-lusional

  • MeetJohnDoe

    “God says”???

  • rtb61

    Freedom to believe has to still be governed by right of access to the truth. Example, you can believe giving cigarettes to children is healthy for them, this belief in turn fostered by people selling those cigarettes. However it is the governments responsibility to ensure you are informed of the truth, that cigarettes are unhealthy for children and are in a more sound position to make proper decision based upon truth rather than beliefs.
    Much like the religious works of the Koran and the Bible. You can believe they are true, however because of the impact of those works, it is really the governments responsibility to ensure your are informed on the very bad bits in those written works, those bits that if carried out are considered criminal acts and are advised as such. In fact it is a criminal act for the Government to ignore that, incitement to crime especially when passed onto children.

  • mrssky

    We can start implementing this idea of the birthright “to believe or not believe in God” by changing the laws that say you cannot hold political office in the state of South Carolina or Texas and several other states in America if you are an atheist.

  • Liz Zimmerman

    The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Let us not forget, we are skeptics yet can only progress through positive measures. When we leave skepticism and become cynics, we become that which we fight against. I will not be bound by that and prefer to remain the best example possible for me of what I believe humanism is.
    Thank you Secretary Kerry for remembering that we also need representation.

  • hope
  • waraji

    It looks like a step forward, I’ll take it.

  • waraji

    No, God doesn’t say that, some book says that.

  • baal

    It would be nice if the various States cleaned up their statutes and State Constitutions but they are dead letter. Federal law and the Constitution say you can’t have a religious test for office.

  • Gloria


  • Katherine Harms

    It all depends on what you mean by “Christian nation.” If you mean that Christianity is in charge of everybody and Christianity is a state religion, then no, we are not a Christian nation. However, demographically, we certainly are. Depending on the poll you choose, somewhere around 75% of the population identifies itself as Christian. That means that when opinions count, more Christians will express opinions than others. If something that matters to Christians is up for a vote, there will be more Christians to vote for it than against it. (Of course, the likelihood is high that all Christians will not hold a single view on any subject, so it is unlikely Christians would ever actually be a bloc in any vote.)
    Historically in the USA, because there have always been more Christians, Christian viewpoints have been expressed culturally in our habits and practices and societal morality. That is always the way it is with majorities.
    It is unfortunate that some of the people in the majority have not been gracious about things, but that does not change the truth that the majority vote decides the issues.
    Just sayin’

  • Katherine Harms

    When I read what you say, I am pretty sure you meant “ethnically” cleansed, not “ethically” cleansed. As it turns out, that whole problem was created by the Arab Muslims. They badgered their brethren living peacefully within the boundaries of the new nation of Israel to leave, even as the Israelis begged them to stay. The Arabs wanted what the Israelis feared — the Arabs wanted the refugees to obtain arms and fight their way back in. That is why the Israelis refused them entry when they tried to come back, not without advance warning, I might add. The Arab neighbors created the refugee camps. They could have ended that problem the day it started by simply taking the refugees into their nations and making them welcome. They begged those people to run away, and when the refugees arrived, the voice who had lured them out of Israel shoved them up against the border and told them to go home. That is why there are still “refugees” third or fourth generation by now along the west bank. They came to their own, and their own threw them back. Reprehensible.

  • Katherine Harms

    I’m sorry to tell you that sacred texts are not up for editing or filtering by the government. The government exists to serve the people. The people don’t exist to serve the government. Government has a few roles that serve all the people — public order, fire safety, defense from external threats, and so forth. Telling people what they can and cannot believe is not on the list.

  • sugarstaker

    Am I the only one to find this God quote funny? It has to have been posted as a joke. Good one.

  • Mirza Borogovac
  • Katherine Harms

    Because every wiki article is subject to be modified by anybody and everybody, I don’t use Wikipedia as a source when information is contested. However, if you read the entire article, you will see exactly what I am talking about. The Arabs resented the creation of Israel, and they wanted what they stll want — to wipe it off the face of the earth. The articles you linked tell how they took action to carve Israel up in advance of the “start” date, and for reasons nobody can explain, the British handed over police stations and arms to them despite the directive for them to surrender the territory to the Israelis. The Arabs never dreamed Israel could survive this long, but they don’t mind sacrificing their own people to their fervent desire to destroy Israel. I think it is extremely sad.

  • Mirza Borogovac

    Wikipedia is pretty accurate and if anything it is biased for Israel because Israel and pro-israeli groups are better organized on the internet than pro Palestinian groups. In any case there are references at the bottom of the article that you can check out.

    Palestinians are an ethnic group and not an organization that can act in unison.

    Here are some quotes from Ben Gurion on this subject:


    He is absolutely right. And yet, in spite of the absurdity of the argument, there are far too many who contend that there is no freedom “from” religion in this country.