The Flame of Freethought Burns Brightly

This text is exerpted from Gary McLelland’s remarks at the launch event for the 2023 Freedom of Thought Report from Humanists International. The event was held on Capitol Hill in December 2023 and hosted by the American Humanist Association. You can access the full report at

The Freedom of Thought Report, released annually by Humanists International, assesses every country in the world on the basis of human rights and the legal status with regard to humanists, atheists, and the non-religious. It is a unique, worldwide survey of persecution and discrimination against humanists, atheists, the nonreligious, and religious minorities.

I AM DEEPLY HONORED to be joined by individuals dedicated to the cause of freedom of thought. Lily Bolourian of the American Humanist Association, Greek human rights advocate Panayote Dimitras, US Representatives Jared Huffman and Jamie Raskin, Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain, and Commissioner Mohamid Magid of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

As we gather today to launch the 2023 edition of the Freedom of Thought Report, let us delve into the sobering yet critical analysis it presents. The report, now in its 12th year, scrutinizes the legal and human rights landscape for humanists, atheists, and the non-religious across the globe. Its findings compel us to reflect on the challenges at hand and, more importantly, to consider actionable steps that we can take, together, towards positive change.

Before we unpack the insightful analysis of the 2023 Freedom of Thought Report, allow me a moment to briefly outline the broader mission of Humanists International.

For over seven decades, Humanists International has been at the forefront of championing human rights, secularism, and freedom of religion or belief for all on a global scale. With an unwavering commitment to defending the rights of humanists, atheists, and the non-religious, Humanists International has served as a powerful force for change. Through extensive research, advocacy, and collaborative efforts with like-minded organizations, we strive to create a world where individuals can express their beliefs freely and without fear of discrimination or persecution. The Freedom of Thought Report stands as a testament to our ongoing commitment to shedding light on the challenges faced by non-religious individuals worldwide and mobilizing collective action for a more inclusive and tolerant future.

Our examination reveals a disturbing reality where humanists face discrimination in 186 countries. This discrimination takes various forms, ranging from overt marginalization and violence to legal prohibitions against identifying as atheist or non-religious. It is crucial to dissect the nuanced aspects of this discrimination to craft effective strategies for progress.

In eleven countries, government figures or state agencies openly marginalize, harass, or incite violence against the non-religious. In fifteen countries, it is illegal or unrecognized to identify as an atheist or non-religious person, infringing upon the fundamental right to express one’s beliefs. The report uncovers instances where a state religion limits the rights of those who do not adhere to the prescribed belief system. In twenty-three countries, non-religious individuals are barred from holding certain offices, impeding their full participation in civic life. Moreover, blasphemy remains a punishable offense in at least eighty-seven countries, perpetuating outdated and repressive norms.

Religious courts influencing family or moral matters in forty-eight countries raise concerns about the separation of religion and state. Discriminatory funding of religion in eighty-five countries exacerbates inequality, while thirty-two countries make it difficult or illegal to run overtly humanist organizations.

Mandatory religious instruction in state-funded schools without a secular or humanist alternative exists in thirty-three countries, highlighting the need for inclusive educational environments.

The Key Countries edition of the report underscores the global nature of this challenge, examining countries with different systems of governance, from democracies to absolute monarchies and theocracies. The inclusion of countries like Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Canada, the Czech Republic, Iran, North Macedonia, Russia, Slovakia, and Zambia reveals the widespread nature of these issues.

So, what actionable steps can we take to address this global challenge? I am going to address some of my points to Ambassador Hussain and the US Government, since this event is being held in the United States, but these actions, and this call for collaboration is an open call to any and all individuals and organizations who support our mission.

1. Diplomatic Advocacy: The U.S. government should leverage diplomatic channels to engage with countries where freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief is under threat. We must prioritize this issue in international forums to encourage dialogue and cooperation on human rights.

2. Foreign Aid Conditions: Consider conditioning foreign aid on the improvement of human rights, specifically the protection of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. Encourage recipient countries to enact legislative changes that safeguard the rights of the non-religious.

3. International Partnerships: Strengthen collaboration with international organizations working on freedom of thought issues that take an intersectional approach to human rights. Pool resources, share best practices, and coordinate efforts to amplify the impact of advocacy.

4. Support for At-Risk Individuals: Recognize and support individuals like Panayote Dimitras, facing persecution for defending human rights. Advocate for their protection and raise awareness of their plight on the international stage.

5. Promotion of Secular Governance: Encourage countries to adopt secular governance principles, separating religion from state affairs. Share success stories of nations that have successfully protected freedom of religion or belief through the adherence to secular values.

6. Education Initiatives: Support initiatives promoting secular education globally. Advocate for inclusive curricula that respect diverse belief systems and encourage critical thinking.

And so, in conclusion, as we stand at the intersection of challenge and opportunity, let us draw inspiration from the rich tapestry of human resilience and the enduring memory of those who have dared to question dogmas. The Freedom of Thought Report not only serves as a mirror reflecting the injustices faced by many but also beckons us to be the architects of change. Now, more than ever, we must renew our focus on the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief. It is a rallying cry for governments, civil society, and individuals to unite in a shared commitment to dismantle the barriers that stifle freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. Let us forge new partnerships and strengthen existing alliances. Together, as partners and allies, we can break the chains that bind hearts and minds, ushering in an era where the flame of free thought burns brightly for all.