Religious freedom as a human right has featured prominently in global news across the last several years, as people become increasingly aware of the persecution of religious minorities around the world. However, in battling for the protection of minority religions – and the human right to exercise or practice any faith – it is easy to forget the need to protect the right to believe in nothing.
Religious persecution is a widespread phenomenon; with a history and scope that could never be served justice in a short article. The suffering of those who are targeted due to their religion should not be overlooked – nor, however, should the suffering of those without a religion. As it stands, there are at least 13 Muslim countries which still officially use the death sentence as a punishment for atheism (or apostasy; the conscious abandonment of a particular religion such as Islam) – including Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen – with Pakistan employing the death penalty more broadly for ‘blasphemy’ such as the disbelief in God. While this penalty has rarely been applied in recent times, those convicted of atheism, or irreligion generally, still face harsh punishments for their pursuit of religious freedom; including being stripped of civil rights and jailed.
Murder and Morality; the Irreligious threat
The Qur’an is technically silent on how apostasy ought to be punished – though it does contain a large body of writing on those who renounce belief (‘hypocrites’), and advice for dealing with these individuals. Despite the unclear specifics of punishment type, the conscious abandonment in thought or deed of Islam is clearly outlined as deserving of punishment. The irreligious (such as atheists) are marked as kafir (roughly, ‘denier’ or ‘concealer’), with the Arabic for ‘atheism’ broadly translated as إلحاد (ilhad) – a term which may also be used for ‘heresy’. It perhaps unsurprising then, that religiosity bears a fundamental relationship with morality in many Muslim countries, with irreligion such as atheism being widely associated with immorality. As theologian Carson Weitnauer writes, “in atheism, there is no authority figure…who can secure justice for everyone. Therefore, if you are both powerful and evil, then there are no real consequences for your immoral behaviour”; those without a religion are those without moral accountability. Hence, the persecution of the irreligious widely arises on the grounds that non-religious persons in society pose a danger to the peace and protection of the wider public. Without the moral accountability inherent in religion to guide them, atheists represent a very real – and very unpredictable – threat.
While the instinct may be to dismiss this as a minority opinion, the anti-atheist attitude is by no means restricted to Islamic society. Indeed, despite the collective assumption in many secular western societies that the restriction of religious freedom occurs solely in undemocratic or hyper-orthodox countries, global research suggests otherwise. The 2012 report Freedom of Thought documents the widespread international use of laws to “deny atheists’ right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry”, alongside laws which “obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents”. Research suggests that “the overwhelming majority” of United Nation member countries “at best discriminate against citizens who have no belief in a god and at worst can jail them for offences dubbed blasphemy” (Evans, 2013). While these 13 Muslim countries may be alone in their state-sanctioned use of capital punishment for irreligion, a 2016 report from the Brookings Institution suggests that nearly half (47%) of countries worldwide enforce laws that penalize blasphemy, or apostasy more broadly.
In the U.S., where freedom of expression is considered as a cornerstone of society, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has cautioned the treatment of atheists due to “a range of laws that limit the role of atheists in regards to public duties, or else entangle the government with religion… being religious is equated with being an American, and vice versa”. The view that atheists are immoral, or present a risk to society, is by no means exclusive to Islam, with social-psychological research indicating atheists as “one of the most hated groups in the U.S.” (Brown-Iannuzzi et al., 2011). In a series of research (2011, 2014, 2017), psychologist Will Gervais investigated the pervasiveness of anti-atheist prejudice across the U.S., finding that atheists are viewed as more likely to commit immoral acts (such as stealing money from a wallet left on a sidewalk), and are more likely to be implicitly associated with incest, animal torture, mutilation, murder and bestiality. Across all groups measured (including Christians, Muslims, Jews, feminists, and LGBT+ individuals), the only group considered to be as untrustworthy as atheists were rapists.
These biases were found to persist even in ostensibly secularist countries such as the U.K (where the 2015 British Social Attitudes surveys found that almost half of participants reported as non-religious), the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Indeed, it seems that the pervasiveness of anti-atheist attitudes spreads far beyond the 13 Muslim countries where apostasy carries the death penalty. The view that irreligious people are somehow lesser or dangerous is not a minority opinion with no real impact on people’s lives – rather, this view informs laws which restrict the rights of non-believers in nearly half the countries around the world.
The Trials of Separation.
Several commentators have argued that the number of undeclared atheists in Muslim countries is substantial, with this number only rising. Research in this field is understandably lacking; to declare oneself an atheist in certain countries could quite literally be a death sentence. Despite this, the 2012 WIN/Gallup poll of Saudi citizens (one of the 13 countries with the death penalty for atheism) found 5% of Saudis identify as ‘convinced atheists’ – the same percentage as the U.S. Indeed, 32% of those raised Muslim in the U.S. no longer follow Islam by adulthood, and 18% hold no religious identification; while nearly 50% of Muslim-raised Germans reject Islam by adulthood (General Social Survey).
The desire to both separate and retain separation from religion prevails, yet the challenges faced by those pursuing irreligion are not widely recognized; with persisting safety concerns for ex-religious individuals in countries around the world. In an interview with the Independent, Maryam Namazie, founder of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, described the fear that many British ex-Muslims experience when separating from their religious communities, and the many cases “where ex-Muslims have gone to the police and not received any support at all because the problems aren’t taken seriously”. Being an ex-Muslim, even in a non-Muslim country, comes with its own set of dangers; but a lack of understanding of the seriousness of separating from Islam means that public services are ill-equipped to proportionality respond. Non-belief is theoretically covered by the definition of religiously-motivated hate crime, but is rarely protected in practice.
Underground, Overground, Moving Forward.
However there is hope for the future. Originally launched as the Freethought Emergency Fund in 2015, and run by the Center For Inquiry (CFI), the re-branded Secular Rescue is “an underground railroad… for non-believers in countries where simply expressing doubt about religious belief is a criminal offense or where it may lead to grave physical harm” (Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of the CFI). Secular Rescue seeks to support freedom of belief activists under threat, aiding relocation in extreme cases. In Bagladesh alone, at least 10 writers publicly questioning religion have been murdered since 2015, “and one of the worst parts is the callousness of the response from the Bangladeshi government. From the prime minister and other officials, we get several versions of ‘Well, they shouldn’t have been insulting religious beliefs.’ After one student was murdered, officials began to investigate the dead guy to see if he had written anything worth killing him over” (Paul Fidalgo, one of the spokespersons for Secular Rescue).
The plight of the irreligious – atheists and ex-believers alike – is often overlooked by ostensibly secular societies. Gathering political support to address the persecution of atheism can be almost as much of a battle as the fight against the persecution itself. It is hard to protect a group that is widely disliked; and the prevalence of anti-atheist views – from associating atheism with murder to placing it in the same trust category as rapists – makes defending atheism a challenge. Most people aren’t even aware that it needs defending. If you stop someone on the street and ask them how many countries have anti-atheist laws, how likely do you think it would be for them to correctly guess almost a hundred? Even in those countries which do provide protection for religious freedom in constitution or law, only a quarter actually respect these legal rights in full in practice (Pew Research Center).
Activism, such as Secular Rescue, is increasingly necessary; not only to provide a network of support for people attempting to leave a religion where such a move could come at the cost of their life, but also to raise awareness. Having a particular religion, or lacking one entirely, should not be a death sentence – nor should it restrict your rights in society. Attitudes towards specific religions or even atheism aside, governments must be held accountable for upholding global human rights agreements: which includes the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In our attempts to protect religious minorities, we must ensure that non-religious minorities are not forgotten; and that, ultimately, a person’s life is treated with the same respect as their soul.