Most of the world live in countries that "severely discriminate" against the non-religious. Freedom of thought may be a right, but it is not a given.

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In the recent and incredibly important annual Freedom of Thought Report, published by Humanists International, research shows that most of the world lives in countries that openly discriminate against the nonreligious.

The report looks at every country in the world, looking at laws and policies that are in place and enacted to give a detailed account of the state of global freethought. As Humanists UK detail, the report finds the following rather depressing conclusions:

  • More than 80 countries have laws that criminalize apostasy or blasphemy, or atheism, with punishments ranging from fines and imprisonment to, in the case of 13, death.
  • Nonreligious people continue to face discrimination, violence, and persecution in many parts of the world, both state-sponsored and extrajudicially, particularly in countries with high levels of religious conservatism or conflict.
  • In some countries, nonreligious people are denied basic rights, such as the right to marry or the right to hold public office.
  • In the strictest sense, less than 4% of people live in states that are ‘truly’ secular. A secular state is a country in which there is separation of religious and political power, and a deliberate policy of neutrality and equality towards all beliefs, with an interest in maximizing freedom of religion or belief for every citizen.
  • On the other hand, those countries that are not secular include theocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia. There are also officially secular countries, like France, that have scored worse in the report in recent years due to heavy-handed attempts at enforcing religious neutrality that have in effect discriminated against religious minorities.

Freedom of thought and religion are enshrined within the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which in General Comment 22 explains as follows:

1. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) in article 18.1 is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief, whether manifested individually or in community with others…

2. Article 18 protects theistic, nontheistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions.

Rishvin Ismath, the Founding President of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka, states in the foreword to the Freedom of Thought report:

When I did eventually declare my true self—an ex-Muslim—to the public, it was before the media at the Parliamentary Select Committee on 20 June 2019, while I was giving testimony regarding the Easter Sunday Suicide Attacks. After that, I lost the last iota of the freedom I had. There was an unannounced bounty on my head for leaving Islam. I happened to choose to live in the dark, in hiding. Over the years, there have been several unsuccessful attempts on my life, confirmed to me by the state intelligence of the country. I have been living in fear; I am forced to spend my days in hiding and running for safety. I live my life online.

As the world progresses in so many ways, other areas see little or slow progress, and sometimes backsliding. At a time when we are worried about democratic backsliding in our own backyards, we must also be wary of the plight of so many people around the world who suffer continued assaults on their right to freethought.

Freedom of thought may be a right, but it is not a given.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...