Nonbelievers also are often 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, in politics and elsewhere, for being, well, independent.
Persecution of Christians in much of the world has never been fiercer, especially in the Middle East. Other faiths also suffer varying degrees of persecution.
Moreover, atheists and other free‐thinkers are particularly at risk in theocratic systems, 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 Nonreligious.”
America’s founders enshrined religious liberty in the 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, then government is unlikely to respect other beliefs, including dissident political opinions.
And if it refuses to leave people alone in their beliefs, 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 nonreligious. Unfortunately, governments routinely violate the liberty not to believe.
Concluded IHEU: “The overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and free‐thinkers. 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.
More common, according to the report, “are the criminal measures against expressing atheist beliefs.” The toughest punishments, including death, are applied to “blasphemy laws that outlaw criticism of protected religions or religious figures and institutions.” Lesser penalties attach to “hate speech” and other commentary.
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 nonreligious.”
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.
Some religiously faithful may be inclined to dismiss the freedom not to believe. However, Matt Cherry, the report’s lead author, emphasized that “the fight for the rights of the nonreligious [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. For instance, the descriptions offered suggest that some cases of “severe” discrimination are less severe than others. Moreover, in a world in which a majority of people are religious, it should not surprise that social, cultural and governmental institutions often reflect beliefs.
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 nonbelievers in Washington’s human‐rights dialogue with other nations.