In many parts of the world, humanists, atheists, and other non-religious people are routinely persecuted for their beliefs and forced to hide their true identities to avoid discrimination, prison terms, or even death–be it from state-sanctioned punishment or vigilante violence.
Humanists International–the global representative body of the humanist movement, of which the American Humanists Association is a member–is the only non-governmental organization (NGO) that employs a dedicated member of staff to support people like this. We asked Emma Wadsworth-Jones, who joined the organization in 2020, to tell us about her work to protect humanists at risk.
Victoria Howson: How many people do you help each month and can you tell us a little bit more about the requests you receive?
Emma Wadsworth-Jones: Every month, on average, I receive more than twenty requests for help from individuals across the globe who are under threat for their beliefs–and the number of requests is increasing all the time. In general, the requests come from countries with poor human rights records; countries that persecute people for thinking differently, asking critical questions, or as a result of religious ideology. Right now, the majority of requests come from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran.
We receive more requests from men; most of them are between the ages of twenty and fifty. Sometimes they are very active on social media, but other times they are closeted and afraid. Many of the women that turn to us are being forced into marriages or forced to behave in a certain way.
Howson: What kind of support can you offer people?
Wadsworth-Jones: The kind of help people need differs from case to case. They often live in repressive societies where they do not feel that they can publicly identify themselves as humanists, atheists, or express their non-religious beliefs. Many people have received abuse or threats. Others have been ostracized by friends and family, or have experienced difficulty in securing employment. In some countries, people also fear blasphemy charges; there are currently fifty-seven countries that punish blasphemy with a prison sentence and seven where it may be punishable by death.
Very often, people ask for advice or help to relocate, either within their country or abroad. Sometimes we receive requests for financial help from people who are in hiding and cannot earn a living to support themselves, or they might need help to cover medical or legal expenses.
At other times, people want publicity to raise awareness about their circumstances, like news pieces or interviews. Sometimes people just want to know there is a community out there that shares their ideas and values.
We also help individuals who are facing charges or are already imprisoned for their humanist values or non-theistic beliefs. These cases can be complex and take many years to support. The vast majority of our casework is confidential, not only to respect the individuals’ privacy but also for their security and protection.
Owing to the high numbers of requests we receive each month, we must prioritize those at the greatest risk whom we know we are best positioned to help. We try to provide as many people as possible with the help that they need and–thanks to the support of the global humanist community–last year we were able to help almost 150 people.
Howson: What else is Humanists International doing to tackle the wider problems driving the discrimination that humanists face?
Wadsworth-Jones: Alongside the work I do to support individuals, I also coordinate the production of the Freedom of Thought Report, which documents each nation’s record of upholding the rights of the non-religious. The Report looks at how non-religious people–whether they call themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, or are otherwise just simply not religious–are treated because of their lack of religion or absence of belief in a god. It highlights the current laws and punishments related to blasphemy and apostasy and also considers wider social and ethical issues indicative of the marginalization of humanist values.
The Report serves as a tool for local and international activists to lobby governments for change, providing the evidence needed to make reliable and authoritative claims. Each year, the launch is widely promoted internationally, providing coverage in the media that would rarely happen otherwise, and opening the door for conversation on a topic all too easily ignored.
In 2017, the Freedom of Thought Report was cited by the new UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in his inaugural report. Our report was the only civil society publication to be cited in this way: a measure of its uniqueness and importance. The Report is increasingly cited in discussion of non-religious rights under ‘freedom of religion or belief’.
Thanks to the Report, Humanists International and our Members and Associates are better able to support non-religious people at risk. It might be by using information in a country entry to inform a letter of support for an asylum claim. It might be using the report to challenge a State’s long-standing discriminatory policies–often existing because of a lack of understanding about the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the experience of the non-religious. And it allows us to advocate for change at international institutions, such as the United Nations.
To find out more and to support the Protect Humanists at Risk project, please visit: https://humanists.international/protect-humanists