Is Worldwide Discrimination Against Atheists Really Getting Worse? Big Report From Humanist Organization Says Yes

[UPDATED BELOW]

As much as I appreciate and sometimes admire the work of think tanks and advocacy groups, I’m automatically a bit leery of what they have to say.

If your job is, for example, to advocate against sexual violence, and the time comes to write your organization’s annual report, you’d probably have a hard time concluding that things are getting better instead of worse. Understandably, perhaps, you’d look at one set of sexual-assault stats (let’s say, the National Crime Victimization Survey, which claims that the incidence of rape is relatively low), and you might decide that the Department of Justice Campus Sexual Assault Study, which proclaims rape to be almost epidemic, better fits what you believe to be the truth.

This confirmation bias is all around us (there are no doubt instances of it on this very site). Whatever the statistical trend, I don’t think you’ll ever hear Greenpeace executives say that this year, humankind has made great strides in avoiding ecological disaster. Nor are you likely to hear the folks at the American Enterprise Institute touting studies that show that the government has shrunk, and that the free market is on an inexorable upswing.

Too much is wrapped up in continuing the narrative that things are, from the organization’s standpoint, getting worse. A good dose of pessimism, whether warranted or not, does at least six internally beneficial things:

  • Preserves the ideological message within the organization (“we’re fighting the good fight”);
  • Makes its workers and followers more cohesive (“we’re all in this good fight together”);
  • Makes workers and followers more motivated (“the organization needs my moral and intellectual support”);
  • Helps greatly with fundraising (“the organization needs my financial support”);
  • May therefore allow the organization to grow its payroll or projects, or both;
  • Increases the organization’s access to news media (because bad news “sells” better than good news).

This little riff is not meant to disparage the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which yesterday released a 539-page report — the real subject of this post — on how the rights of non-religious people are under increasing attack.

In fact, if anything, atheists and agnostics are probably better equipped than most for the art of asking critical questions and rejecting flimsy evidence. Again, my reservations do not specifically target IHEU; its report just happened to cross my desk as I was musing on this topic.

Let’s dive in. First, a bit about the report’s scope:

The Freedom of Thought report is the first annual survey looking at the rights and treatment of the non-religious in every country in the world. Specifically, it 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 extralegal persecution, social discrimination and personal experience where possible.

There’s some good news in the study:

[A]theism and the non-religious population are growing rapidly — religion dropped by 9% and atheism rose by 3% 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. …

[T]he non-religious are also recognising themselves more, stumbling upon new terms and new arguments through international media and the internet, coming together online, talking, in some countries meeting in secret. The non-religious are raising their heads above the parapet. There is a backlash, but it’s a backlash that is a response to a surge of new ideas and new connections, and we can hold onto that.

And a lot of bad tidings, such as these:

Our results show that the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers. … 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 for apostasy — leaving the faith — is often death. In fact, 19 countries punish their citizens for apostasy, and in 12 of those countries it is punishable by death. Pakistan doesn’t have a death sentence for apostasy but it does for blasphemy, and the threshold for ‘blasphemy’ can very low; so in effect you can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries.

Many countries have blasphemy laws that outlaw criticism of protected religions or religious figures and 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 IHEU authors point out that in the countries where blasphemy is no longer considered a grave offense, a newish term has emerged that hints at how wicked non-believers can be. That term is hate speech.

[A] crime in 55 countries, [it] can mean prison in 39 of those countries, and [can be] punishable by death in six countries.

Guess which religion stands head and shoulders above all others in denying atheists their rights?

There is a long-standing prohibition of “apostasy” and of “blasphemy” associated with Islam that is perpetuated by many modern Islamic states in various forms and to various degrees of severity. In the worst cases, people can spend years in jail, or be executed, or murdered extrajudically for these distinctively religious crimes. History’s familiarity with such illiberal controls must not blind the international community or human rights advocates to the abhorrence of those laws, nor to the reality that sovereign states, today, are criminalizing people just because they ask questions about, vocalise dissenting views on, or offer positive alternatives to, a set of state-sanctioned beliefs. In 2014, in addition to laws such as those targeting “apostasy” and “blasphemy”, we have seen a marked increase in specific targeting of “atheists” and “humanism” as such, using these terms in a broadly correct way (the users know what they are saying) but with intent clearly borne of ignorance or intolerance toward these groups.

Want examples?

In January, Saudi Arabia enacted a new law equating “atheism” with “terrorism”. Though the law sought to criminalize numerous things, some already illegal, the very first article of the kingdom’s new “terror” regulations banned: “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.”

In May, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak branded “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” as “deviant.” He described these secular worldviews and values … as a threat to Islam and therefore a threat to the state.

In June, Egyptian authorities proposed and carried out an organized backlash against young atheists. Nuamat Sati of the Ministry of Youth announced a campaign to spread awareness of “the dangers of atheism” and why it is “a threat to society”, so that young atheists in particular, who are increasingly vocal on social media, would be given “a chance to reconsider their decisions and go back to their religion.” This has not been an idle threat, nor an exercise in verbal debate about the philosophical merits of religion! Rather, senior ministers have conflated advocacy of non-religious views with radicalism, and police have detained atheists for voicing their views on religion, usually online, and sometimes in traditional media.

This year will be marked by a surge in this phenomenon of state officials and political leaders agitating specifically against non-religious people, just because they have no religious beliefs, in terms that would normally be associated with hate speech or social persecution against ethnic or religious minorities.

You can probably read the IHEU report in under 15 minutes. If that seems fast for a study of more than 500 pages, that’s because you can limit yourself to pages 9 through 22; pages 23 through 539 are comprised of reports on how humanistic/atheistic liberties are currently faring in every sovereign nation on Earth. In other words, each country gets its own brief chapter describing the state of religious liberty, and receives a rating that ranges from “Free and equal” to “Severe discrimination.”

The United States is rated “Mostly satisfactory.” If I’ve counted correctly (see also the color map on page 4), in only three countries does IHEU consider atheists free and equal: Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

That trio covers only about 51 million people, or 0.75% of the world’s population.

I told you this would be depressing.

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UPDATE: I badly undercounted the number of “Free and equal” countries, inadvertently leaving out Estonia (population 1.3 million), Kosovo (1.8 million), and Sierra Leone (6 million). That moves the meter to 60 million people who live in countries where atheists can live more or less carefree — about 0.85% of the world’s population.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.