This text is exerpted from Lily Bolourian’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 fot.humanists.international.
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 WANT TO SPEAK in my remarks today about some of the threats we face here in the U.S. related to Christian nationalism, but I’d first like to share where I come from and why this work is so personal to me.
I am the proud daughter of two Iranians who traveled to the United States in their early 20s for an education; two people filled with hopes and dreams, with the full intention of returning to Iran. Instead, my parents became asylees overnight as the nation that they grew up in devolved into an unrecognizable theocracy. My parents made the impossible choice that so many other asylum seekers and refugees have to make every day: leave everyone and everything you know behind, or raise your future family under authoritarianism and gender apartheid. For me and for my sister, they chose the former.
Iran, under the regime that currently occupies it illegitimately, is perhaps the best example of what happens when we allow religious fundamentalists with anti-pluralistic agendas to embed themselves within governments. We do not need to conceive of the fictional land of Gilead to imagine a dystopian theocracy, we only need to look at how women and religious and ethnic minorities are treated under the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation that has very much earned its dark red, “grave violations” rating from Humanists International in the 2023 Freedom of Thought Report when it comes to freedom of religion, thought, and belief.
I know all of you saw, and many of you even rose with us, when Iranians took to the streets in September of 2022 demanding regime change after the murder of Jhina Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year old Kurdish Iranian woman, by the morality police in Iran for allegedly improperly wearing the state-mandated hijab. The protests, led largely by young women, had a simple message: Woman, Life, Freedom. Zan. Zendegi. Azadi.
But these peaceful protests were responded to brutally by the regime, with ethnic and religious minorities being disproportionately targeted. Hundreds of protesters were killed, including many children and teens, there were over ten-thousand arrested and imprisoned, many sentenced to death, and eight innocent men have officially been executed on false charges after being tortured.
Within Iranian prisons are many, many prisoners of conscience, including 2023 Nobel Laureate Narges Mohammadi who was given the award “for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and to promote human rights and freedom for all” but was unable to travel to receive it because she remains a political prisoner in Iran.
While the government of Iran is certainly unique in many ways, it is incumbent upon all of us who live in countries with the ostensible right to freedom of speech and expression to remain vigilant of the ways in which similar forces are working to turn our nations into their own flavor of theocracy. Please remember that Iran or Persia is an ancient civilization with thousands of years of invaluable contributions to the world’s understanding of math, poetry, art, and human rights. The horrors we see today from that nation came after a largely liberal society slipped very quickly into theocracy in 1979 during the chaos of revolution, and look at what has happened to its people over the last nearly five decades.
We must understand that the U.S. is not immune to the types of repression we see highlighted in the Freedom of Thought Report. We must stop allowing ourselves to believe American exceptionalism will protect church-state separation or stop Christian nationalism from decimating the shared values we all hold so dear.
There is no legitimate question about whether or not the United States is and was intended to be a secular nation because our Constitution alone makes it extremely clear that separation of church and state is a critical right. Indeed, the very first line of the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The United States has always claimed to be a bastion of freedom and civil liberties, an example to the world, a city upon a hill. Because of our outsize role in global affairs, the United States also has a solemn responsibility to ensure our secular and pluralistic principles remain strongly protected.
But these very principles that make the U.S. great, are in danger.
Indeed, in the United States, we are watching as Christian nationalism is fighting to take hold of our institutions and redefine American democracy. From the courts, to Congress, to public schools, and more—the attacks on the secular fiber of our democracy are increasing, and coordinated. Just two years ago, a violent Christian nationalist insurrection took place in the U.S. Capitol building, with the intent of thwarting our secular democracy by any means necessary.
At the American Humanist Association, we work diligently every day to monitor and respond to these threats to ensure that the United States adheres to its secular ideals and champions true religious freedom across the world.
Our work is cut out for us and it will take all of our collective efforts to thwart threats to secular democracy and our goal of a truly equitable society. We each have a critical role in ensuring that freedom of religion and belief is more than just an aspirational goal, but a daily lived reality in all of our communities. There is so much on the line if we let Christian nationalists win: from access to abortion and contraception, to LGBTQIA rights and liberation, to the ability of non-white, non-Christian people to immigrate or seek asylum in the US, to the future of the sustainability of our planet.
As humanists, we are of the “radical” belief that a better, more equitable, more ethical, more just world is possible. We believe in truth, reason, and progress, and are committed to creating a pluralistic society where nonbelievers and believers of all faiths are protected, uplifted, and able to freely exercise and express their beliefs without fear of repression.
Together, we have the power to hold that critical line that separates religion from government. It’s an honor to build with all of you towards a brighter future. I believe that we will win, and I am grateful for your time. Thank you.