This is a guest post from Bob Churchill, communications director for the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
“Atheists, humanists and liberals” are now targeted as a distinct minority by “hate campaigns.” This was the claim made in a report, of which I was the editor, launched last week.
The charge of infidel or heretic in one form or another is logically almost as old as religion itself. Religious non-conformists and minorities, as well as the non-religious, continue to face both theological and legal prohibitions against “blasphemy” and “apostasy,” as our report also covers.
But there is also something new in the world. The Freedom of Thought Report 2014 shows that there has been a shift toward the idea of atheism as a popular movement posing a “threat” to prevailing (and authoritarian) orders. It is an idea of atheists and humanists and secular liberals as such, somewhat divorced from the religious baggage of “apostasy,” and constituting as a mass movement, a “phenomenon,” as one Egyptian cleric put it this year. But not a welcome phenomenon, as examples from around the world make clear.
Saudi Arabia is no friend of human rights and prohibits apostasy with threat of the death penalty (or, more often, enforced recantation and Quranic learning). Not content with this prohibition, in January Saudi enacted a new law equating “atheism” in itself with “terrorism.” This wasn’t some insignificant or accidental inclusion, either. The very first article of the Kingdom’s new “terror” regulations bans, as a terroristic threat to the state: “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.”
In May Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak branded “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” as “deviant.” To Razak, this combined secular worldview is a kind of “new religion,” a “human rightsism,” and it’s a threat to Islam and to the state.
In a more widely reported story in June, Egyptian authorities proposed an organized campaign against atheists. Nuamat Sati of the Ministry of Youth announced a program to spread awareness of “the dangers of atheism” and why it is “a threat to society,” so that young atheists in particular, those who are increasingly vocal on social media, would be given “a chance to reconsider their decisions and go back to their religion.” Since then, several prominent atheists – young people finding their voices on Youtube and social media – have been harassed and arrested (some of their cases feature in this report).
To some readers, this might not sound very controversial or threatening. It might not sound like “hate speech.” But imagine applying these words to other descriptive or normative groups. Jews are “deviant.” Muslims are a kind of “new religion,” which will bring down the state. It’s terrorism to “call for Christian thought in any form.” We must spread awareness of “the dangers of the green movement” or “of racial impurity” or “of sexual minorities.” We must reeducate youth to explain that these Others are a “threat to society.” Such language is all too familiar and goes far beyond merely dissenting or disagreeing with a point of view. It is, as we would readily recognize with such other groups, language that is antagonistic, alienating and intolerant, and the stuff of which mass hatred and tragedy is made.
This trend — toward targeting “atheists” and “humanists” and “secularists” and even the much broader “liberals” in those terms — risks widening the range of targets for hatred and exclusion. As we write in the report: “A blasphemy accusation in Pakistan, for example, can hang on a very thin wisp of rumour. As new terms are introduced – new names to call people, new stereotypes to look out for, new modes of speech to latch onto, or indeed, new lines of false accusation to plot – the scope for bigotry and persecution increases.”
There are three important things that in my view must now happen:
1) The international community must accept the unitary and inclusive nature of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” The theist’s right to theism is the very same right as the atheist’s right to atheism and always has been. As a moral right it derives from the shared human nature of our minds; as a legal convention it is written right there in the international framework. The illiberal notion, floated all too often, that one country as a whole has a religious culture and that therefore the state itself should be permitted to ban non-belief is like saying that one country as a whole watches TV so you must do so, too. The state doesn’t get to engineer such things. We all have a right to watch or not to watch TV, even to criticise some of the programmes other people watch, and most importantly to invent our own ways of amusing ourselves instead.
2) Those who really don’t like atheism must accept that it isn’t going to go away. In fact it’s growing. Atheists are particularly hard to count, in part for some of the very reasons covered in our report and discussed in this article: it is made incredibly hard to “come out” if the threat of social stigma or even criminal charges pervades the culture. Studies therefore vary widely in their estimates of irreligiosity, but the vast majority of research does show that we are a real and growing global minority. As access to comparative religious and wider philosophical ideas becomes available through our globalising culture, the old geo-religious blocs are breaking down, and atheism is sprouting up in the cracks. Maybe you don’t like that, maybe you think it’s a cultural tragedy, but it really doesn’t matter, because the idea is out there. Anti-terror laws, “re-education” campaigns and vigilante anti-blasphemy mobs may hurt us, but they will not stop the idea from spreading.
3) Atheists and humanists themselves should not be afraid of recognising that, on the global scale, we are a persecuted minority. This language does not come easily! There are several barriers: For some of us (for perfectly understandable reasons) the barrier is resistance to “playing the victim card;” For some of us, maybe it is pride; For others, it may just sound ridiculous, because it’s such an unreality in our own lives in relatively comfortable, secular, liberal countries; For still other atheists, perhaps, maybe the very idea of being a group is antithetical to our way of thinking. If we weren’t raised atheists, if we came to it ourselves, as individuals, and maybe we left religion in part because of what we saw as the perils of groupthink, we’re damned if we’re going to be part of a group again now! The point is, atheists, humanists and secular liberals are rarely the first to naturally self-identify as a group (and there are lots of good reasons for that). Nevertheless, if we are a group, both in the eyes of the intolerant, and because in fact there is a social movement afoot, then we must recognise this, even embrace it. For some of us, we must relearn our natural rejection of being lumped together. At least we must show solidarity to the people living in parts of the world where voicing atheism or advocating humanism or even lobbying for secularism or liberalism can put you in exile, in jail, on a psychiatric ward, or in the grave.
This trend toward identifying atheists as a target minority is obviously negative, but it may also reflect a positive movement. In recognising atheism and humanism as cohesive worldviews, secular and naturalistic but not reducible to a stance on any one religion or authority, the haters may inadvertently be familiarising their societies to the very ideas they are trying to resist. If 2014 has seen something of a surge in hate directed at atheists, it is at least a backlash against a steadily globalising conception of non-religious identities. Those of us with a secular worldview are recognising ourselves more, stumbling upon new terms and new arguments through international media and the internet, coming together online, talking, in some countries meeting in secret. The non-religious are raising their heads above the parapet. There is a backlash, but it’s a backlash that is a response to a surge of new ideas and new connections, and we can hold onto that.
Bob Churchill is communications director at the International Humanist and Ethical Union. The full Freedom of Thought Report is available here.