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A survey conducted by WIN-Gallup International Association indicates that the number of atheists and non-religious people is growing around the world. In 2012, 59% of the world population defined themselves as religious, 23% as non-religious, and an additional 13% as convinced atheists. The most non-religious country was China, with 47% of the population openly atheist, followed by Japan and Czech Republic. The most religious country was Ghana, with 96% of the population identifying as religious, followed by Nigeria and Armenia.
The 2012 WIN-Gallup survey further highlighted that on a global scale religiosity declines as prosperity of individuals rises, and that a similar pattern emerged in relation to education: individuals with college education resulted 16% less religious than those without secondary education.
The number of atheists and non-religious people is growing around the world. Individuals with college education resulted 16% less religious than those without secondary education.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
On this matter, the United Nations Human Rights Committee specifies that:
1. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) in article 18.1 is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief, whether manifested individually or in community with others….
2. Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights further states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) published in December 2014 a report entitled Freedom of Thought 2014: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists, and the Non-religious; Their Human Rights and Legal Status. The Freedom of Thought report is an annual survey focusing on the rights and treatment of non-religious people in every country in the world. The report specifically looks at different forms of discrimination perpetrated by state authorities against atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers, and clearly shows that non-believers are discriminated in almost every country of the planet. In several countries criticism of religion is forbidden, non-religious views are criminalised, and atheists are more or less openly denied basic human rights, such as access to public education, employment, or the right to marry.
Non-believers are discriminated in almost every country of the planet.
In the preface of the report, Gulalai Ismail and Agnes Ojera, human rights advocates in Pakistan and Uganda, highlighted the political dimension of the persecutions against non-religious people:
“The rights of the non-religious, and the rights of religious minorities and non-conformists, are a touchstone for the freedoms of thought and expression at large. Discrimination and persecution against the non-religious in particular is very often bound up with political suppression, with fears about progressive values, or with oppression in the name of religion. Humanists and secularists are often among the first to ask questions, and to raise the alarm when human rights are being trampled, when religion is misused or abused, or — even with the best intentions — if religion has become part of the problem. Silence the non-religious, and you silence some of the leading voices of responsible concern in society.”
Silence the non-religious, and you silence some of the leading voices of responsible concern in society.
The most shocking figures concern blasphemy and apostasy. Blasphemy is punished with a death sentence in Pakistan; however, it represents a severe crime also in many countries of the Western world, such as Germany, Iceland, Denmark, Poland, Greece and New Zealand, where it is punishable with a jail sentence. Apostasy, the act of abandonment of religion, is punishable by death in 12 countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The border between blasphemy and apostasy is often very thin, and the threshold for what constitutes blasphemy can be extremely low.
Apostasy and blasphemy are punishable by death in 13 countries.
The most recent case was reported on Thursday December 25, when a court in Mauritania sentenced to death Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir for “insulting” the Prophet of Islam. The man was arrested one year ago after the online publication of an article interpreted as blasphemous by religious leaders. In his article, the man criticised the caste system and denounced social inequalities in Mauritania. Following the Sharia law, the court considered the article as an act of apostasy and sentenced the blogger to death. According to Yahoo News, “The verdict was met with shouts of acclaim from the court’s public gallery, while on the streets there were jubilant scenes as cars sounded their horns”. The last execution in Mauritania dates back to 1987, and death penalty is usually reserved for individuals accused of murder and acts of terrorism; this recent sentence clearly shows that in Mauritania criticising the social and religious status quo weights the same as killing a human being.
The equation “atheism equals terrorism” is strongly radicated in Saudi Arabia, where there is no separation between religion and state. As reported by Human Rights Watch, since the beginning of 2014 Saudi Arabia has issued a series of laws and regulations which criminalise virtually every dissident idea as an act of terrorism. Atheism is on top of the list. Article 1 of the terrorism law, in fact, defines terrorism as: “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based”.
In some countries there are laws that prevent atheists from holding positions in a public office. This is the case, for instance, of the United States of America. Article VI, paragraph 3, of the US Constitution clearly states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office”; yet, the Constitutions of seven US States (Arkansas, Article 19, Section 1; Maryland, Article 37; Mississippi, Article 14, Section 265; North Carolina, Article 6, Section 8; South Carolina, Article 17, Section 4; Tennessee, Article 9, Section 2; and Texas, Article 1, Section 4) ban atheists from holding public office. According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, one-fifth of the US population – and a third of adults under 30 – have no religious affiliation. Yet, the Freedom of Thought 2014 report mentions that “Not one out of the 535 members of the US Congress publicly admits to being non-religious”. Being openly atheist in the USA is a “political suicide”, and non-religious people represent the largest minority in the country with no representation in Congress.
The Constitutions of seven US States ban atheists from holding public office.
A survey conducted in 2009 in Brazil showed that atheists were the most hated demographic group in the country, followed by drug addicts, prostitutes, and LGBTI people: 17% of the respondents expressed feelings of hate or repulsion for atheists, 25% expressed antipathy, and 29% indifference. The situation in Europe does not appear less problematic. In a poll conducted in 2012, 25% of the Turk population living in Germany considered atheists as inferior human beings; 18% of them also considered Jews as inferior human beings. According to the Freedom of Thought 2014 report, 16% of state-funded school places (equivalent to 1.2 million children) in England and Wales, have admission policies which discriminate against atheists. The situation is even more extreme in Northern Ireland, where “94% of state funded schools are religious in character”.
Several countries do not directly discriminate non-religious people, but have systems of positive discrimination for religious individuals and organisations. One of the most striking examples, not surprisingly, is Italy: while the country is officially secular, the Catholic Church maintains a vast number of privileges. The Union of Rationalist Atheist and Agnostics (Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalisti, UAAR) estimates that the Catholic Church costs more than six billion Euros every year to Italian taxpayers. Approximately 1.25 billion Euros are spent to teach Catholic religion within schools: thousands of Christian teachers, in fact, are appointed by the Church and paid by the State. The Vatican receives another billion Euros from Italian taxpayers through a religious tax called eight thousandths (“otto per mille”): the Italian Court of Auditors (“Corte dei Conti”) recently published a verdict which defines this tax system as “opaque, lacking regulations, lacking information for citizens, and discriminatory in terms of religious plurality”.
The Catholic Church costs more than six billion Euros every year to Italian taxpayers.
In August, 2014, the IHEU hosted in Oxford, UK, the World Humanist Congress. After three days of consultations with delegates from all over the world, the Congress adopted the Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression (the document is also available in Armenian, German, Icelandic, Italian, Maltese, Russian and Slovak). The document strongly condemns violence and censorship, and asserts “the principles of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and secularism as providing the firmest foundation for the development of open societies where freedom of thought and expression will be protected and promoted”. The Congress also underlined that “Freedom of belief cannot legitimise overriding the principles of non-discrimination and equality before the law”. The Declaration further affirmed that “Freedom of thought implies the right to develop, hold, examine and manifest our beliefs without coercion, and to express opinions and a worldview whether religious or non-religious, without fear of coercion.” For this reason, the documents finally prompted each individual around the world to uphold and promote those values within their communities. Human rights go beyond personal beliefs: if we really hope to build more inclusive societies, it is our responsibility to stand up for these rights.
Human rights go beyond personal beliefs: if we really hope to build more inclusive societies, it is our responsibility to stand up for these rights.
[Head picture: © Neil Girling]