A new report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) identifies atheists, agnostics and other non-theists as a “target minority” for persecution. This global crackdown is occurring concurrently with a rise in the number of non-theists; according to the report, a full 13 percent of the world’s population now identifies as atheist, with another 23 percent identifying as non-religious.
But in many countries, the growth of non-religious communities represents a significant political threat to the established order. IHEU notes that in 19 countries, apostasy (typically defined as converting to another religion or deconverting from religion entirely) is a criminal offense. In 12, it’s punishable by death. Blasphemy laws are another major problem, as are broadly worded hate crime statutes that are often wielded against those who criticize religion and religious figures.
To further complicate matters, these statutes sometimes aren’t derived from specific anti-atheist prejudice.
“In fact, discrimination against the non-religious is often caused, not by a desire to hurt atheists, but by the desire to help one or more religion,” the report noted. “Freedom of religion or belief requires equal and just treatment of all people irrespective of their beliefs. But when states start to define citizens not by their humanity but by their membership in a religious group, discrimination automatically follows.”
Lebanon, for example, requires citizens to identify with one of 18 approved religious sects. There is no option to be officially non-religious, and the system effectively enforces sectarianism despite constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. But government-endorsed religious preferences aren’t always legally codified. Often there’s a sort of soft privileging that influences how ostensibly secular laws are created and then applied.
That brings us to the United States.
The IHEU rates the U.S. “mostly satisfactory.” That’s good news for the non-religious. Thanks to the First Amendment, our public schools are free of religious discrimination and the non-religious are able to identify themselves however they choose. Our political process is open to citizens of all belief backgrounds, and there are no legal restrictions on forming non-religious organizations.
But there’s still trouble. According to the report, the U.S. government still demonstrates a “symbolic deference to religion,” and local authorities often engage in forms of religiously-motivated discrimination. That manifests in a number of ways, from city councils attempting to ban atheists from giving invocations at council meetings to school officials leading public school students in prayer.
These practices can sometimes be remedied in court, of course, which means the non-religious can challenge them – and perhaps end them – through legal action.
The IHEU also listed a number of potential legal threats to the status of non-religious Americans. Among them: The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, which permitted the owners of secular, for-profit businesses to exercise their religion through their corporations, at the expense of employees’ rights. As a belief minority, the non-religious will likely be disproportionately affected by the ruling.
That’s not news to us. It’s exactly why we asked the Supreme Court to rule against Hobby Lobby. And we receive reports of religiously-motivated discrimination, often targeting atheists, every day.
The IHEU’s report serves as both an encouragement and a warning to American religious freedom advocates. The rights of non-Christians, including atheists, are in much better shape here than in many other nations. But there’s still work to do, and apathy doesn’t benefit anyone. Our Constitution guarantees a pluralistic society. It’s up to us to make sure it’s actually enforced.