Why is the persecution of non-believers worsening?
Bob Churchill of the IHEU discusses the annual Freedom of Thought Report, which highlights state repression and extremist violence worldwide.
This year has seen disquieting trends in global politics: the continued prevalence of Islamist extremism in many parts of the world, and the rise of reactionary populist nativism in others. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that this year's Freedom of Thought Report is not a happy read. This annual survey of discrimination and persecution against non-religious people across the world has been published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) since 2012. Here, Bob Churchill, director of communications at the IHEU and editor of the report, answers questions about the report and the status of free thought across the world.
What are the overall trends for freedom of thought globally?
There are three major areas which I think are very concerning trends. One is that more governments, like Malaysia and Brunei for example, are adopting more Islamist rhetoric and harsher, Sharia-inspired penal codes.
Another is the spread of radical Islamist militant groups, where we've seen tactics that we used to see in Pakistan for example spreading to countries like Bangladesh in recent years, and now to places like Indonesia, with huge "blasphemy" protests against the Christian governor of Jakarta just for mentioning a Koran verse and how it might be misused, and in places like Mauritania. In the latter case I'm thinking of the huge protests outside the supreme court last month (November 2017) in the Mohamed M'kheitir trial which was set to decide on whether to uphold his death sentence for "apostasy". One known Islamist pressure group leader was pictured with a barely concealed gun outside the court as they all demanded that M'kheitir be executed because in their minds his criticism of Mauritania's caste-based slavery and its justifications offered in religious term make him an infidel.
And thirdly there's trend toward populism, which of course has been spoken about a lot, and in the Report this year we've taken some time to look at the link there sometimes is between populism with traditionalist or religious authoritarianism. We've seen that already in places like Turkey, Poland, Hungary to some extent, and now places like Moldova, Bulgaria and the United States following suit. I think that the wider media has really failed to look at the threat to the US's church-state separation from the upcoming Trump presidency.
Since you started writing these reports, has the situation broadly worsened or improved?
I would say worsened, I'm afraid, in that there are more countries with worse situations for freedom of thought and expression generally, and specifically for the number of countries where the non-religious seem to be more under threat.
I do think it's worth a caveat on the above doom and gloom, which is to say that in many states which persecute non-religious people, they can only do that because the general idea of humanist and secular democratic values and just of being non-religious is spreading and making people stand up and be counted. Very often the individuals who are attacked or prosecuted for expressing atheistic views are making those expressions on social media, and often (not exclusively but often) doing so as young adults exploring their own beliefs and identities. So while things have got worse in one sense, I would characterise the worsening as a backlash, and it's a backlash against increased awareness of the option of being non-religious, and of the idea that it is valid and warranted to criticise religious beliefs, practices and institutions, and even that sometimes it is a moral duty to do so. Polls tends to back this up: there is a slow, global secularisation occurring even in the midst of the radicalist backlash we can all see, even with the spawning of these competing Jihadi militant groups.
How widespread is discrimination against the non-religious?
Very widespread. Only a handful of countries in our Report get the all-clear across all four thematic strands on which we're assessing each country. Obviously this does encompass many different kinds of discrimination: it's important to note that our Report looks at every country so we have information on different kinds of discrimination. In Europe we're often talking about things like religious privileges, tax exemptions, and rules left over from established churches for example, so we're documenting things that you might describe as unfair against the non-religious. Whereas in the MENA region and some other Islamic states "unfair" doesn't begin to cut it: we're talking then about widespread social marginalisation to the point that probably far fewer people historically have even considered the prospect of leaving religion, because that option is preemptively demonised as a great offence of "apostasy", and when people do become religious skeptics they are rightly fearful about being castigated by neighbours or thrown out of their families, and of course the state has a role to play here: in the dozens of countries which claim that no civil law can be incompatible with Sharia there are often provisions in the penal code against "blasphemy" or "apostasy" which reinforce the taboos. We document countries where marriage and custody of children even can be revoked because you declare yourself an atheist for example.
Which countries are the worst offenders?
So, our Report assess countries against "boundary conditions", and each boundary condition has a level severity from 1 to 5. Any country that has a boundary condition applying at level 5 you might say is among the worst. That would include countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia which have death penalties for "apostasy". It would include countries like Bangladesh, Iraq, or Mauritania, where there seems to be impunity for violence against the non-religious, or where officials have openly justified violence against apostates. There are twenty-nine countries with at least one boundary condition applying at that kind of level.
All our data by the way is freely available. There you can find a huge table of all the countries against every possible boundary condition that we apply to each country. And all the country entries are available too.
Which are the best places to be non-religious?
Obviously there are many countries where for most people being non-religious is find most of the time - unless your family is a conservative, controlling kind that is going to make trouble for you if you come out as non-religious. So places like the UK for example it doesn't for the most part matter to most people you meet if you're non-religious, and the state isn't actively persecuting the non-religious. However, that feeling may change if you're a parent who can't get your child into the nearest local school because it's religious and discriminates in its admissions, or if your child is in a church school and gets preached to, as still happens, or if you want a humanist marriage and find that the government still hasn't legalised these ceremonies - except in Scotland. So we find that many countries have these kind of discriminatory exceptions and problems that people often don't know about until they find themselves affected. There are only five countries which we give a complete clean slate, meaning we haven't documented any systemic discrimination or any significant social discrimination. These are Belgium, Estonia - although we need more information there, Fiji, the Netherlands, and Taiwan - despite it being socially very religious.
What action can a person concerned about freedom of thought take?
Donate or get involved with humanist and secularist organisations in your country - we have a list of IHEU members at IHEU.org for example. You could also donate or volunteer with IHEU itself, and in particular we have a team of volunteer contributors who are helping to keep the Freedom of Thought Report up to date on an ongoing basis, now that it's moved fully online this year.
More generally, be informed. Join and support work that's being done. I think that's a very important message, especially for humanist and skeptical and non-religious types who very often (not always but very often) think that being a freethinker means you can't possibly sign up and join in with an organisation or a programme of work that already exists. There's a reasonable fear that if it looks a tiny bit like joining a sect or giving up a piece of our own autonomy then, well, we don't want to do that! And yes that's an important consideration - we should indeed be aware of the potential for group-think and so on. But another reasonable fear we should cultivate in ourselves is the fear of doing nothing. If you use the hypothetical risk of being associated with a group that might do something you disagree with as an excuse to never take action, to never make a donation, to never work with others to achieve a common goal, then you're not helping, you're a bystander, and that fear should override the risk of upsetting your claim to be a freethinker. So that's my message there: Unite or die!