Freedom of Thought Under Siege Around the Globe: When You are Not Free to Not Believe

Much of the world has just celebrated the most sacred Christian holiday, yet persecution of Christians has never been fiercer, especially in the Middle East.  Other faiths also suffer varying degrees of persecution. 

Nonbelievers also often are mistreated.  The lack of religious belief is less likely to be punished by communist and former communist regimes.  But such systems penalize almost all independent thought. 

Moreover, atheists and other freethinkers are at special risk in theocratic and especially aggressively Muslim states.  The International Humanist and Ethical Union recently published its second annual report, Freedom of Thought 2013: A Global Report on the Rights, Legal Status, and Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists, and the Non-religious.

America’s Founders enshrined religious liberty in the U.S. Constitution because they understood the imperative of freedom of conscience and thought.  If a state is unwilling to respect a person’s most fundamental and intimate views, it is unlikely to leave them free to act.  Argued IHEU, “when thought is a crime, no other freedom can long survive.”

Freedom of Thought 2013 addresses the status of the non-religious.  Unfortunately, governments routinely violate the liberty not to believe. 

Concluded IHEU:  “the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers.  There are laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, 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.” 

Restrictions are many. IHEU figured that “in effect you can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries,” all Muslim.

Persecution often fades into less virulent but still offensive discrimination.  Noted IHEU:  “Other laws that severely affect those who reject religion include bans on atheists holding public office, and 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.” 

Moreover, “Religious privilege is one of the most common forms of discrimination against atheists.”  More controversially the organization includes “religious discrimination, or religious privilege, in this report even when its supporters claim it is merely ceremonial or symbolic.”  The latter is common in the U.S.

Not all persecution emanates from government.  Extra-legal violence is common and governments often do little or nothing in response. 

As I point out in my latest column for Forbes online:

Some religiously faithful may be inclined to dismiss the freedom not to believe.  However, Matt Cherry, the report’s lead author, emphasizes that “the fight for the rights of the non-religious [are] inextricable from the fight for the rights of the religious.”  All possess a fundamental right of belief and conscience, and an equally fundamental right to act on belief and conscience.

Obviously, one can disagree over details, including IHEU’s individual assessments.  Nevertheless, Freedom of Thought 2013 addresses a genuine and very serious threat to liberty.  Governments the world limit the most basic freedoms of belief, thought, and expression.  Moreover, it is easy to ignore the impact on individual lives if one shares the majority’s religious or other worldviews. 

IHEU judges 46 countries (counting the Palestinian territories) as involving “severe discrimination.”  The greatest problems come from the 29 nations categorized as guilty of “grave violations”:  Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, China, Comoros, Egypt, Eritrea, Gambia, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Swaziland, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Americans should review their practices at home.  Moreover, U.S. officials should include the liberty of non-believers in Washington’s human rights dialogue with other nations.

The rest of us also should promote freedom of conscience abroad.  Not by coercing and invading other countries, but by convincing, encouraging, pestering, pushing, pressuring, and embarrassing.  Everyone, from citizens to policymakers, has a stake in expanding liberty for those around us.