“The persecution of atheists is a grave violation of human dignity throughout the world…history has shown time and time again that when one minority group is oppressed with impunity, others soon face the same fate.”
This quote certainly sounds like humanism. It appeals to the concept of a universal human dignity that transcends religion or nationality, and it calls for people to recognize the plight of atheists around the globe. So some readers may be surprised to learn that this statement came from a Catholic bishop, not a humanist.
Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton, chair of the United Kingdom’s Catholic Bishops’ Conference Department of International Affairs, recently called for the Catholic community to stand in solidarity with atheists and humanists in Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia who face extreme persecution and censorship. Reminding Christians that their “compassion must never be limited only to people of faith,” Bishop Lang highlighted the brutal murders of Bangladeshi humanist bloggers Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, and Niloy Chakrabarti (known as Niloy Neel by his blogging community), as well as publisher Faisal Arefin Dipon, as examples of human rights violations inflicted upon nontheists around the world. He also emphasized the horrific punishments inflicted on writers in Saudi Arabia, such as the flogging and eight-year prison sentence enforced on poet Ashraf Fayadh for writing deemed to promote atheism. In urging Catholics to promote the freedoms of speech and expression for humanists, atheists, and other nontheists, Bishop Lang tells Christians that they “will also promote freedom of religion or belief as a universal right to the benefit of all.”
Bishop Lang’s call for Catholics to stand up for the rights of atheists could not come at a more dire moment in time. According to the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s 2015 Freedom of Thought Report (to which the American Humanist Association contributed research), 2015 saw a significant and startling increase in the global persecution of humanists and atheists. The report noted that much of this increased persecution included harsher sentences for those accused of atheism and apostasy in countries that uphold blasphemy laws as well as a rise in “extrajudicial violence”—vigilantes attacking activists advocating for atheism, humanism, and secularism. In addition to the oppression of atheists in Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, the report also includes instances of violence and threats of violence against nontheists and secularists in Egypt, India, and Maldives, among other countries. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) also notes that while atheists and humanists in the United States are not subject to blasphemy laws, they do face considerable social stigma and discrimination, particularly as the religious right in the US attempts to chip away at the separation of church and state.
While humanist groups such as IHEU, the American Humanist Association, the British Humanist Association, and many others are doing everything they can to promote human rights and end the persecution of nontheists worldwide, they cannot do this noble work alone. Liberal and progressive religious organizations and faith groups that recognize the imperative of human rights must also stand up for the rights of humanists, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers across the globe. The movement for tolerance and even acceptance of those who do not believe in gods cannot be successful unless it can also enlist religious allies.
In its work to protect the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the American Humanist Association realizes that it is defending not only humanists and atheists from religious intrusion but also safeguarding the rights of religious individuals, particularly those of minority religions. Humanists and atheists deserve the same care, consideration, and compassion from religious groups. Instead of chastising atheists, more religious leaders should follow the example of Bishop Lang and seek to ally themselves with oppressed nontheists around the world in the name of freedom of speech and expression. Only when we all stand together, both nonreligious and religious communities, can we ensure human rights and dignity for all around the world.