Humanist Delegation at the United Nations: Raising Awareness of Atheist Discrimination

By Matt Cherry

Discrimination against atheists around the world is getting more attention from the United Nations. On October 26 a humanist delegation met with the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief to push for better protection of freethinkers persecuted for their beliefs. 

The UN Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the UN to monitor, investigate, and report on the right to freedom of religion or belief. It is the highest UN position devoted solely to defending the human right to freedom of religion or belief. The post is currently held by Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, a German philosopher.

In October, Professor Bielefeldt visited the UN headquarters in New York to present his annual report to the UN General Assembly (read my account of the UN discussion of his report) He was only in the U.S. for three days, but during that time he held two meetings with the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which I chair. He also held an hour-long private meeting with a humanist delegation—the first such meeting ever held. The humanist representatives were Michael DeDora from the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and Margaretha Jones and myself representing the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

Anti-Atheist Discrimination

International law makes it clear that the right to freedom of religion or belief protects the nonreligious equally with the religious. To quote the UN Human Rights Committee, the right to freedom of conscience “protects theistic, non-theistic 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.”

Nevertheless, the humanist and atheist community has a lot of work to do to make sure that our rights are understood and protected. We need to educate governments and communities about the equal protection of non-theistic beliefs. We need to highlight laws that discriminate against the non-religious. And we need to raise the alarm when freethinkers are persecuted because of their beliefs.

We began the meeting by submitting our own global report on anti-atheist discrimination. The report was created by the American Humanist Association in conjunction with IHEU, CFI, the Secular Coalition for America, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation. The report shows that atheists, humanists and other freethinkers are discriminated against by governments across the world.

The Special Rapporteur was extremely pleased to receive our report. He was not aware of any other report focusing on discrimination against atheists around the world.

Legal Discrimination

We then explored how laws regulating religious belief and behavior routinely discriminate against those who reject religious belief. For example, non-religious people suffer discrimination and persecution laws because of laws on: apostasy and religious conversion; blasphemy and religious criticism;

compulsory religious registration, usually with a list of permitted religions; religious requirements on government ID cards and passports; religious tests for citizenship or participation in civic life; religious control of family law; and religious control of public education.

In many cases these laws intersect with each other, compounding the legal discrimination experienced by freethinkers. For instance, citizens may be required to state their religion on a government ID card and yet are forbidden from identifying as atheist, humanist or “no religion.” If non-religious citizens register with a permitted religion, such as the faith they were raised in, they may be prosecuted for making a false statement. Even if they successfully hide their unbelief, they may face other negative consequences, such as being forced to submit to their registered religion in cases of family law, or required to send their children to schools run by that religion.

The Case of Pussy Riot

We discussed an emerging trend of freethinkers being prosecuted for “offending Islam” via social media. We brought up individual cases in Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

Next, we raised the case of Pussy Riot in Russia. Pussy Riot is a feminist group that spreads its freethinking message through punk rock and performance art. Earlier this year, three of the band’s members shot a music video called “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Putin and the Orthodox Church did not appreciate Pussy Riot’s performance: the three women were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years hard labor. We argued that their treatment violated their freedom of belief.

Finally, we voiced our concern that atheists seeking asylum because of religious oppression do not receive the same respect as religious believers fleeing persecution. The Special Rapporteur had not previously thought of the unique problems faced by atheists seeking asylum for violation of their right to freedom of belief. He said this was an important concern that he will seek to address.

Widespread Abuse

The Special Rapporteur emphasized that when he raises a case with a state he must keep his communications private until the government has had time to respond. Nevertheless, he was able to reassure us that he was familiar with most of the cases we brought up and that he shared our concerns.

Professor Bielefeldt concluded the meeting by focusing on freedom of conscience as a right for every human being. He pledged that he would continue to emphasize that humanists and non-religious people are protected by international agreements on freedom of conscience. He added that it was important that atheist and religious groups realize that this human right protects individuals not religions, and that it protects non-religious individuals equally with religious ones.

We agreed that we should all emphasize that non-theistic people are protected by international agreements on freedom of religion or belief. We hope that publishing an annual report on worldwide persecution of freethinkers will highlight our right to freedom of thought as well as the widespread abuse of that right.

Matt Cherry is the International Representative for IHEU and the president of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief.