Surprise! Atheists are discriminated against—legally. Well, we probably knew that about countries like Bangladesh, but it’s been documented by an official survey, reported in Sunday’s New York Times, “Atheists face death in 13 countries, global discrimination: study.” The survey is by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), and you can find their own summary here. And you can find the entire 244-page IHEU report, “Freedom of thought 2013” free at the link. The bulk of the report is a country-by-country survey of how much freedom of belief (and nonbelief) there is, but there’s also a 19-page preface that you should read.
First the bad news from the full report (in fact, it’s all bad news):
Our results show that 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. In the worst cases, the state denies the rightsof atheists to exist, or seeks total control over their beliefs and actions.
The most striking data show that 13 countries mandate the death penalty for people who “either openly espouse atheism or reject the official state religion.”
Guess what that religion is?
Yep, it’s Islam—in all 13 countries. But it’s not the result of religion! No, it’s due to colonial oppression; it’s all political. In fact, I’d like to see someone pin this obvious violation of freedom of thought or speech on something other than religion itself, especially because it occurs only in Islamic countries. I’ve put the country names below in bold.
This is from the report:
In some countries, it is illegal to be an atheist. For example, every citizen of the Maldives is required to be a Muslim and the penalty for leaving Islam is death. Many other countries, while not outlawing people of different religions, or no religion, forbid leaving the state religion. And in these countries the punishment for apostasy—leaving the faith—is often death. In fact, 19 countries punish their citizens for apostasy, and in 12 of those countries it is punishable by death. Pakistan doesn’t have a death sentence for apostasy but it does for blasphemy, and the threshold for ‘blasphemy’ can very low; so in effect you can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries.
More common than crimes relating to simply being an atheist, are the criminal measures against expressing atheist beliefs. Many countries have blasphemy laws that outlaw
criticism of protected religions or religious figures and institutions. For example, Pakistan has prosecuted more than a thousand people for blasphemy since introducing its current anti-blasphemy laws in 1988. And in the month of publication of this report, December 2013, the highest Islamic court in Pakistan declared that life imprisonment was no longer an acceptable punishment for blasphemy: only death would fit the crime of insulting Islam and its prophet.
The crime of criticizing a religion is not always called blasphemy; sometimes it is categorized as hate speech (even when it falls well below any sensible standard of actually inciting hatred or violence) because it supposedly insults the followers of a religion. These crimes—of expressing ‘blasphemy’ or offending religious feelings—are still a crime in 55 countries, can mean prison in 39 of those countries, and are punishable by death in six countries. In addition, most of the twelve countries which punish apostasy with death also sometimes treat ‘blasphemy’ as evidence of apostasy.
And from the IHEU summary:
In line with their words, several possibly unexpected nations come out rather badly on the scale of five classifications — which range upward in severity from “Free and Equal”, through “Mostly Satisfactory”, “Systemic Discrimination”, “Severe Discrimination”, to “Grave Violations”.
Four western countries are rated “Severe” because they can jail people for breaking laws prohibiting ‘blasphemy’ and other free speech on religion.
Those countries are Iceland (a sentence of jail for up to 3 months), Denmark (up to 4 months), New Zealand (up to a year), Poland (up to two years), Germany (up to three years) and Greece (up to three years). Jail time could be handed to someone who simply “blasphemes God” in the case of Greece, or “insults the content of other’s religious faith” in the case of Germany.
The apostasy laws violate article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“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.”
And anti-religious “hate speech” (or nearly all “hate speech”) violates freedom of expression. There is no justification for outlawing the criticism of religion, and it’s unconscionable that countries like Denmark, Iceland, Poland, Germany, New Zealand, and Greece, can jail you for “blaspheming God.” If you thought places like Iceland and Denmark were progressive, think again. And Germany, really—three years for “insulting someone’s religious faith? I’d much rather live in a country where I can be called a “dirty Jew” (as I have been) than one in which you can’t offend anyone’s tender sentiments.
As for the U.S. (pp. 105-109 in the report), we get a “mostly satisfactory” rating, but it’s not perfect because of religious exemptions from laws (not just medical, either), and repeated violations of the Constitutional requirement for separation of church and state.
h/t: Greg Mayer