A report published to coincide with UN Human Rights Day earlier this week is the first to systematically highlight the limitations on freedom of thought for the non-religious in over 60 countries across the world.
The report ‘Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious’, commissioned by the International Humanist Ethical Union (IHEU), focuses on current laws in a range of nations that discriminate against people on the basis of their atheism, humanism or other non-religious beliefs and limit their freedom of expression.
It also documents recent cases that show the impact of these laws on specific individuals. The report has been welcomed by the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
The research shows that many countries criminalise manifestations of atheist and humanist convictions or sceptical thoughts. In prosecuting these 'crimes' it is not always necessary to accuse a person of atheism and many states prosecute people who express religious doubts or dissent regardless of whether those dissenters identify as atheist or humanist.
More commonly, non-religious people experience discrimination when they manifest their beliefs by acting against the dictates of the religion of their family, community or country, it says.
In some societies, allegations of religious dissent are manufactured for use against minority belief communities, or vulnerable individuals, or to settle personal vendettas. In addition the report shows that there are several forms of legal measures found across many countries that either criminalise the expression of atheist and humanist beliefs or result in systematic discrimination against atheists, humanists and those who reject religion.
The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefedt, has welcomed the research and noted that there is often ‘little awareness’ that international human rights treaties mean freedom of conscience applies equally to "atheists, humanists and freethinkers and their convictions, practices and organisations".
Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and First Vice-President of IHEU, commented on 10 December 2012: "We stand for freedom of belief for all people but today we are highlighting in particular human rights violations against those with humanist and other non-religious convictions.
"Such people are often in even greater difficulty in nations that disrespect freedom of conscience than those of minority religions as they are by definition less organised, and less able to draw on community and international support.
"This report gives the first picture of the worldwide legal discrimination against atheists, humanists and the non-religious and we will be pressing the UK government to be sure that they include the non-religious in their own priority work on freedom of religion and belief.
"At IHEU we work closely with partners in many countries across the world and are very aware of how the rights of the non-religious are regularly violated. This report is intended to be a 'living document' as we learn more and more about cases being brought against them.
"The founder of Egypt’s Facebook Atheists Alber Saber is facing a prison sentence; the President of the Indian Rationalists Sanal Edamaruku is still in Europe, unable to go home because of the threat of arrest; and the Bangladeshi humanist Taslima Nasrin has lived in exile for nearly twenty years. We need to bring cases such as theirs, which are increasing in number all the time, to the attention of international bodies and call upon them to take action," concluded Mr Copson.
* Read the full report (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document) here: http://www.iheu.org/files/IHEU%20Freedom%20of%20Thought%202012.pdf