International Religious Freedom Summit 2024 Reflections

On January 30th and 31st, the American Humanist Association’s (AHA) policy team attended the fourth-annual International Religious Freedom Summit, convened by the IRF Secretariat. A plethora of belief systems were represented as exhibitors and representatives were eager to help participants learn about their personal experiences, hardships, records of persecution, beliefs, and more. We were moved and honored to witness the stories and testimonies of several persecuted minority religious and thought groups over the two-day summit, including from the Baha’i community in Iran, Muslims in India, Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia, and the Uyghur people of China.

The Summit was convened to spur motivation and passion for international religious freedom by bringing the world together in one forum. The event covered a vast range of trials and tribulations that religious minorities face in countries around the globe, including holding in-depth panel discussions and accounts of blasphemy and apostasy laws, deadly violence, genocide, the abuse of state surveillance, occupation, imprisonment, forced sterilization, theocratic repression, and many more. It was powerful that, despite being confronted with the heaviness of all of such suffering, presenters and participants spoke of grassroots advocacy, community, collaboration, legislative action, victories, and hope.

Religious freedom is an issue of core importance to the AHA and the greater humanist movement. Summit attendees and organizers largely understood the importance of religious freedom as a human right inherent to the wellbeing of not just the individuals which the principle protects, but of the societies themselves. We at the AHA strongly believe that without freedom to exercise your deeply-held personal religious beliefs—or lack thereof—then subsequent freedoms, including speech and assembly, are next in line to be stricken down.

Moreover, the successful function of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) goes hand-in-hand with pluralism and equity. Let’s be forthright: ‘religious freedom’ is not synonymous with special privileges over other beliefs or faiths, nor does it bestow a right to discrimination in the name of religion. The tenet or decree of one belief cannot be forced upon another. The founding principles of the strongest democracies have all established that democracy flourishes when religion and government are separate.

We are crystal clear—and our partners agree—that humanists must fight alongside religious people of all faiths to ensure that our governments are protecting true religious freedom at-home and abroad. As such, although we were inspired by many of the exhibitions, panels, and panelists, we were disappointed that the Summit’s organizers and co-chairs did not appear to meaningfully include humanists, freethinkers, and nontheists as part of the collective fight for religious freedom, nor was the persecution of these people named as a facet of the consequences of religious freedom violations. Despite numerous documented instances of prisoners of conscience being held around the world for holding nontheistic views, including Mubarak Bala of Nigeria, these types of violations were not addressed.

Furthermore, we were dismayed that “VIP guests” at the summit included former Vice President Mike Pence, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and House Speaker Mike Johnson. It is unfortunate that a summit on religious freedom would spotlight individuals with such strong ties to Christian nationalism, a political movement which advocates for eroding the secular fiber of the U.S. government in favor of a form of Christian theocracy. Christian nationalism directly threatens religious freedom by attacking the very idea of pluralism in favor of a government which elevates the rights of one religion over all others, to the detriment of people of any other faith or no faith at all. In fact, just last month, Representative Jared Huffman (CA-2), on behalf of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, organized a White Paper briefing on House Speaker Johnson’s ties to Christian nationalism. The White Paper provides comprehensive evidence of the Speaker’s extremist Christian supremacist views, and can be reviewed here.

One panelist in “Religious Freedom Violations in Western Democracies”—a panel comprised of mostly religious Christians and staff from right wing groups, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Family Research Council (FRC), and Advancing American Freedom—made an incredible claim that secular government should not be seen as neutral, but rather as attached to an anti-Christian agenda. The logic there begs the question: If having no state religion is an agenda that allegedly harms Christians, do panelists believe the remedy is for Christian states to be established in the West?

Panelists went on to smear the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals to live as equals in society as attacks on the religious beliefs of Christians and alleged violations of religious freedom. Not only was this offensive to LGBTQIA individuals, of whom many are Christian, it was also offensive to all Christians who oppose the embedding of religion within the government and progressive Christians who disagree with that interpretation of scripture. Elevating such speech does not serve the fight for international religious freedom.

While we had hoped that the Summit would be more reflective of the pluralistic and inclusive goals of the fight for religious freedom, we were strongly encouraged that a high-level representative of the State Department specifically mentioned nonbelievers as a group that experiences persecution on the plenary stage. We are appreciative of the fact that the importance of including humanists, nonbelievers, and freethinkers in conversations around religious freedom is understood by important segments of the U.S. government, and as humanists, we will continue to push for a pluralistic society under a strong secular democracy.

Although we will always be proud to show up as a voice for humanism and secularism everywhere, we hope that future summits will welcome space for a greater variety of voices who are involved in the fight for global religious freedom to speak and share their thoughts and experiences. This will help foster a stronger coalition in the fight for religious freedom, promote interfaith dialogue, and provide a clearer understanding of what the term’s pursuits are actually meant to embody.