By Tim Wyatt, 25 June 2020
The plight of humanists around the world has been highlighted by a UK government-funded report into persecution and discrimination against the non-religious.
Humanists at Risk: Action Report 2020, published today by the advocacy group Humanists International and funded by the Foreign Office, chronicles the abuse and oppression suffered by non-believers in eight countries: India, Nigeria, Colombia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
Although each country has, in theory, enshrined a right to freedom of thought and conscience, in reality legal barriers and social or cultural pressures make it increasingly difficult to live as a humanist or atheist, the report has found.
In India, humanists have been killed for opposing what they consider to be religious superstition or criticising faith, while in Indonesia a civil servant was jailed for two years after he was attacked by a Muslim mob for posting on Facebook about leaving the Islamic faith.
Recently, Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria has been arrested and held incommunicado, only a few years after he was forcibly held against his will inside a psychiatric ward. It is believed his latest detention is linked to Facebook posts which some claimed insulted the Prophet Muhammad.
Blasphemy and apostasy laws, which have been used to target people who deny the majority faith in countries, including Pakistan and Malaysia, are a recurring threat to humanists, the report argues. Greater separation of church and state is also cited as a pressing recommendation to alleviate persecution.
Humanists International concludes its report with specific recommendations for each of the eight nations.
Andrew Copson, president of Humanists International, said it was clear that discrimination against humanists was both systemic and increasing worldwide.
“The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief has said the non-religious are the most viciously persecuted of any minority in the world,” he said. “It’s embedded in law as well as in social practice and policy and it’s getting worse for lots of reasons.”
Religious extremism of various types was on the rise, he observed, and in many places was fusing with aggressive nationalist ideology. This could be seen in paces as diverse as Russia, where Vladimir Putin has used Orthodox Christianity to bolster his regime, and India, where the ruling party espouses a form of Hindu nationalism which appears to have emboldened those who would attack the country’s Muslim minority.
Mr Copson also said humanists faced a “double whammy” of persecution in many places, as they were often not only dissenters from the majority faith but also activists or campaigners for liberal ideals at odds with their authoritarian governments.
“It’s very true in areas of the world where the predominant culture is a religious one that non-religious activists are both a minority and dissidents, objectors, free-thinkers,” he said. “They tend to go against the grain. They tend to be LGBT activists, democracy activists, activists for the rights of women and girls.”
Richy Thompson, director of public affairs and policy at Humanists UK, said the British government was one of a few around the world that did advocate for the non-religious suffering persecution as well as those in minority faiths.
He said a Foreign Office minister had been in touch with a Nigerian counterpart to raise the case of Mubarak Bala, but thought more could be done.
“I do feel that the UK does more for some religious groups than it does on the non-religious,” he said, citing last year’s report for the Foreign Office by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen, on the global persecution of Christians.
Other countries, in particular the United States, paid a lot of attention to Christian persecution and instead the UK should take a “broad brush” approach to freedom of religion or belief as a whole, Mr Thompson suggested.
Mr Copson agreed, and said the prevailing conservative or nationalist rhetoric around Britain being a Christian country “distracted from the universal nature of persecution around the world on matters of conscience and distracts from the most viciously persecuted minority, the non-religious”.
When asked if they believed humanists or atheists experienced discrimination in the Britain, both Mr Copson and Mr Thompson made clear the situation here — where according to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, more than 50 per cent of the population had no religion — did not compare to the countries in the Humanists at Risk report.
However, both said there were structural and political barriers in some parts of British life to those without any religion, in particular around the legal requirement for collective Christian worship in schools and the prevalence of school admissions being on the grounds of faith adherence.
When you add to this the establishment of the Church of England and the presence of bishops in the House of Lords, Mr Copson said it was clear the UK was still built on a presumption towards faith.
“We are by any measure the most Christian state in the world and of course lots of disadvantages follow from that for non-religious people,” he added.