The Silent Plight of Secularists
Religious freedom is internationally recognized as an inherent human right and draws advocates from a wide variety of diverse religious backgrounds. However, one demographic is frequently left out of the discussion: secularists. For the purpose of this article, secularists can be defined as those who approach religion with skepticism, indifference, or rejection. Though widely persecuted for their lack of faith, secularists are not explicitly protected under legislation that safeguards human rights and religious freedom. This is primarily due to the difficulty of categorizing secularists, a group that inherently defies categorization in a religious context. Nevertheless, the absence of the protection of secularists’ rights in human rights legislation is conspicuous and damaging. In order to increase protection of this largely overlooked persecuted minority, it is imperative that their rights are explicitly guaranteed in both national and international instruments.
In 13 countries, all of which are Muslim, citizens can be sentenced to death because of their atheist or secular beliefs on charges of apostasy or blasphemy. This appears to stem from the fact that, according to Ibn Warraq, author of “Leaving Islam,” atheism is the number one sin under Sharia—even ahead of murder. In April of this year, Avijit Roy, a prominent atheist blogger in Bangladesh, was attacked by a group of people with machetes and killed as the police looked on. This follows the murder of another Bangladeshi blogger and imprisonment of atheists in Egypt.
Some governments discriminate in more subtle ways, including criminalizing religious incitement, which is generally used in a similar way as blasphemy laws; recognizing only one religion; requiring religious identification on official ID cards; and governmental religious registration.
Even in Western countries that boast the values of religious freedom and tolerance, discrimination against secularists is widespread. In seven American states, laws prohibiting atheists from holding public office are still on the books and were cited as a disqualification for office as recently as 2009. Studies show that 48 percent of Americans would not want their child to marry an atheist and 48 percent would not vote for an otherwise qualified atheist presidential candidate. In other modernizing countries, similar negative beliefs regarding secularists persist. Surveys in Brazil name atheists as the most hated group, above ex-convicts and drug addicts. A study in Turkey indicated that 25 percent of people believe that atheists are inferior human beings.
Given the magnitude of this problem of persecution, it is clear that something must be done to stop it. In the articles pertaining to freedom of religion and thought in the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not only is the right to manifest the religion or belief or one’s choosing defended, but also the freedom to change one’s belief. However, nowhere in these documents is the right not to manifest any religion or adhere to any belief specified. It is generally assumed that the right is implied, and this was even clarified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by an official comment from the UN Human Rights Committee. However, according to the Freedom of Thought Report as well as the Report on Discrimination Against Atheists, Humanists, and the Non-Religious presented to The United States Department of State in 2012, “the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers although they have signed U.N agreements to treat all citizens equally."
The numerous instances of oppression previously outlined demonstrate that implied rights for secularists are not enough. In order for the rights of atheists and other secularists to be protected, their freedom must be explicitly defended in human rights documents. In 2012, Humanist activist and former Western and Southern African representative to the International Humanist and Ethical Union Leo Igwe-leet stated, “I have heard it proclaimed at the UN that the rights of women are human rights. I have also heard it proclaimed that the rights of gay people are human rights. These proclamations changed the way human rights are perceived around the globe… I do not want these rights [of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers] to be implied or assumed, as is currently the case in most countries. I want them to be expressly declared as universal human rights.” The fact that the right to manifest religion is specifically protected but not the opposing right, if anything, devalues the right to lack of belief.
The challenge that arises when attempting to include protections of secularists in human rights documents is how to phrase such clauses. Protection is generally cited as falling under freedom of religion or belief articles. However, many non-religious take issue with this categorization due to the very definition of atheism. According to the American Atheists Center , “Atheism is not a belief system nor is it a religion.” Similarly, the Oxford Dictionary defines atheism as a “lack of belief “in the existence of a God.
Therefore, secularism should be generally protected under freedom of conscience, as it is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and expressly specified in subsequent clauses of such articles in the future. Many freethinkers already support this as a form of protection, including atheist activist Kile Jones who has created a forum to discuss and support freedom of conscience with his friend, Ahmadi Muslim Kashif Chaudhry. This phrase is one that may be universally acceptable, as it does not contain the terms “religion” or “belief” explicitly and simply protects the right to follow one’s own beliefs in matters of religion and morality, not necessarily to “manifest” them. However, this safeguard should stay included in the freedom of religion and belief category. Although some secularists may take issue with even the association of the non-religious with religion, the fact remains that secularists are persecuted in the sphere of religion and must be protected as such. According to the Report on Discrimination Against Atheists, Humanists, and the Non-Religious, “[secularists] often suffer the same forms of discrimination as other belief groups.”
Persecution of secularists is on the rise and their beliefs—or lack thereof—must be protected. Since most discrimination that targets secularists is due specifically to their lack of adherence to a certain religion or a religion generally, their freedom must be included in articles pertaining to freedom of belief and religion while being differentiated under the term “freedom of conscience.” Although this may not immediately affect much of the ongoing persecution of secularists, this inclusion will give them some form of legal protection, work to close the loopholes through which discrimination occurs, and raise awareness of a largely ignored persecuted minority.