Op-Ed: Religious Freedom Office Must Protect Non-believers Too

Last week Stephen Harper announced his much-hyped “Office of Religious Freedom”. While much effort was made to portray this as an inclusive effort involving all beliefs, one group that is frequently persecuted for their beliefs (or lack thereof) was left out: the non-religious.

No humanist, atheist or agnostic groups were invited to the announcement of the Office or consulted about its creation. In his announcement of the new office, Prime Minister Harper took great pains to mention a long list of persecuted religious minorities worldwide, but failed to mention non-believers.

While the new “religious freedom” ambassador insists the Office will protect non-believers too, there is reason to have doubts. For a largely symbolic and political office to leave an important constituency out of consultations suggests at best an oversight and at worst a deliberate attempt to exclude.

The government’s record on this isn’t strong. In September 2012, foreign affairs minister John Baird gave a speech at an event at the United Nations in which he stated “We don’t see agnosticism or atheism as being in need of defense in the same way persecuted religious minorities are.”

This statement suggests Baird doesn’t realize that atheists are persecuted in many countries, or doesn’t think their problems are a matter of religious freedom. But persecution of atheists often goes hand-in-hand with persecution and discrimination against religious minorities, motivated by the same (usually religious) concerns and enacted by the same mechanisms. A 2012 report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union surveys some of the many rights violations non-believers face worldwide.

As the report notes, persecution of non-believers is often raised as an issue of freedom of expression. There are many examples of blasphemy laws being used to target atheists. Alber Saber, an Egyptian blogger, was convicted of blasphemy in December 2012 for criticizing fundamentalist Islam and professing his atheism. He has since left his country. Indonesian atheist Alexander Aan was jailed for posting “God doesn’t exist” on Facebook. While the principal charge was blasphemy, he was also accused of lying on a government document because he was registered as a Muslim. Indonesia requires government job applicants to identify as one of six religions – needless to say, “atheist” is not one of them.

However, atheism cannot be understood merely as a matter of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience (the broader right that includes freedom of religion) are interrelated – and non-believers experience violations of both. Freedom of expression is necessary to allow an individual to share their beliefs. Freedom of conscience protects them from being forced to act contrary to their beliefs.

Non-believers are often forced to submit to religious family courts, send their children to schools that provide religious instruction with no secular alternative, or to identify as a member of a religion they don’t believe in to obtain government documents or run for public office. They may be prosecuted for apostasy if they leave the religion of their birth, or even lose their citizenship. These are primarily freedom of conscience issues.

Atheists also face violence and discrimination in many countries. Ahmed Rajib Haider, a blogger critical of fundamentalist Islam, was brutally murdered near his home in Bangladesh less than two weeks ago. In the aftermath, riots broke out with protesters demanding the death penalty for atheist bloggers.

Many of these problems impact religious minorities as well. Yet in some countries atheists are uniquely disadvantaged, by laws that grant official recognition to several minority religions (but not atheism), or provide no secular marriage regime, requiring non-believers to leave their country to marry outside a religious system.

Only time will show what portion of its $5 million budget the Office dedicates to protecting the rights of atheists and other non-religious persons – a growing group that now comprises 36% of the world’s population.

Funding projects that promote secularism will not only benefit non-believers, but also the religious. A state that is premised on religion often seeks to impose that religion on those who don’t share it. Official recognition and privileges granted to religion, even multiple religions, simply emphasize religious difference and inevitably leave out some groups. Secularism can be difficult to achieve, but when done right – by respecting the freedom to practice religion but also providing neutral, non-religious institutions open to everyone – it can defuse religious intolerance and result in greater freedom for all.

I don’t think freedom of religion should be promoted separately and distinctly from other human rights. But if we are going to have an Office of Religious Freedom, secular groups should be full partners in it.

For more information:

Report on global discrimination against the non-religious by the International Humanist and Ethical Union

CBC News

Press release from Centre for Inquiry Canada and Humanist Canada, two groups that could have been consulted about this project