In the United States we hear a lot about religious freedom. Religious conservatives in government at the state and federal level have tried to use their own definition of religious freedom to guarantee special rights for theists or to protect theists from lawsuits after acting in a discriminatory manner. We’ve seen a variety of state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts introduced to do just that, and in the process the rights of vulnerable minority communities like the LGBTQ community are being jeopardized.
But true religious freedom, which most people define as the right to hold whatever religious beliefs you choose without interference from the government, is under threat around the world. We’ve seen numerous atheist bloggers murdered for their views in places like Bangladesh and other countries that maintain blasphemy laws. For example, most of us in the humanist community remember murdered blogger Dr. Avijit Roy, an American citizen and proud member of the American nontheistic movement.
Unfortunately, things are not improving for nontheists around the world. Saudi Arabia, which was already in the news last year for arresting Saudi atheist Raif Badawi and sentencing him to both a jail sentence and public floggings, recently arrested another atheist for expressing his views online. The man, a twenty-eight year old accused of posting social media messages related to atheist views, has already been sentenced to ten years in prison and 2,000 lashes that will almost certainly kill him if carried out in full.
The Middle East isn’t the only region of the world in which the rights of atheists and nontheists are threatened. Enforcing a blasphemy law in Germany, officials punished an atheist last month for putting bumper stickers on his car that carried anti-Christian slogans. The man has been harassed and fined the equivalent of nearly $600 US dollars for this offense, despite expressing his views in a nonviolent manner.
And just last week the Guardian reported on a Russian man who may face a year in jail for posting online that God doesn’t exist. (The charge: insulting the feelings of religious believers.)
These are just some of the many cases that continue to worry the international humanist and nontheist movements and threaten the religious rights of all communities. By criminalizing public atheistic thought, the governments named above are saying to their citizens that there are certain religious views which are acceptable and certain views which are not.
Governments have no role in picking winners and losers when it comes to religious beliefs and must maintain religious neutrality if they wish to be considered modern states that respect the rights of all citizens. Theocratic monarchies like Saudi Arabia may not care about being seen as a modern state, but post-industrialized western democracies such as Germany ostensibly do care about these sorts of things and should want to be seen as a protector of religious freedom. Regardless of each respective government’s policies on religious freedom, the United States has a responsibility to ensure that all of our allies, be they in Europe or the Middle East, respect the religious rights of their citizens, lest we end up supporting regimes that routinely clash with our own values.