IHEU Freedom of Thought Report 2013

iheu-logo-2013On International Human Rights Day in 2012, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) published their inaugural “Freedom of Thought Report”, which highlighted parts of the world in which being an atheist was at least sometimes inconvenient (thanks to legislation that privileged religion, for example), and often dangerous.  For the 2013 version of the report, coverage has been expanded to include every country on the planet, making this an invaluable resource for those who are seeking data on religious freedom, and in particular the freedom to not be religious.

There are some frightening places to be “found out” as an atheist. The report highlights that

  •  Atheists can face death sentences for apostasy in twelve states
  • In 39 countries the law mandates a prison sentence for blasphemy, including six western countries
  • The non-religious are discriminated against, or outright persecuted, in most countries of the world

For a snapshot view of where things are particularly bad, the IHEU has created an interactive map that offers a quick-read indicator of the situation in each country, but if you want to read how the indicators are justified, you’d need to download and read the full report. For South Africa, the IHEU reports that while we do have significant built-in safeguards for religious freedom, there is nevertheless “systemic discrimination” against the non-religious. As regular readers would know, I’ve often highlighted a lack of respect for the National Policy on Religion in Education (meant to keep public schools secular), as well as other more bizarre instances of religion being afforded too much respect, such as with the South African Police Service’s “Occult” investigative unit,

While there might be room to dispute the interpretations given in particular instances, what is of concern is the extent to which this sort of discrimination can be observed, and also the fact that it can be found in some parts of the world you might not expect. Four western countries earn a rating of “Severe”, thanks to legislation that allows for jailing people for blaspheming or disrespecting religion. To quote from the IHEU’s press release,

Those countries are Iceland (a sentence of jail for up to 3 months), Denmark (up to 4 months), New Zealand (up to a year), Poland (up to two years), Germany (up to three years) and Greece (up to three years). Jail time could be handed to someone who simply “blasphemes God” in the case of Greece, or “insults the content of other’s religious faith” in the case of Germany.

As the editor of the report, Bob Churchill, comments:

It may seem strange to see some of these countries up there with Uzbekistan or Ethiopia (also rated “Severe”) but as Kacem and Alber say in the preface, these laws set a trend.  Failure to abolish them in one place means they’re more likely to stay on the books in another place, where they can be disastrous. And even in the western countries with blasphemy-type laws there is evidence that they chill free expression, and in some countries, like Greece and Germany, people are actually prosecuted and convicted and do jail time under these laws.

I’ve remarked on many occasions that the freedom to blaspheme or to cause offence to those with strongly held religious sentiments is not a good reason for doing so. To have this freedom is important, yes, but we also say something about ourselves when we abuse freedoms such as these to cause gratuitous harm. Not all such harms are gratuitous – there is certainly room for causing religious offence, to remind the most sanctimonious adherents that nobody else is under an obligation to treat their god with any respect.

Yet, if we want to be treated with respect ourselves, these freedoms should be used responsibly. If a point can be made without blasphemy, for example, we should perhaps consider whether including the blasphemy adds enough value to make it worth the risk that you’ll not only be dismissed by your intended audience, but that you’ll also be contributing to bad public relations for atheists in general, but especially in your part of the world.

Blasphemy is only one issue, of course. Arguably of greater importance is the sort of discrimination that goes unnoticed, because it doesn’t attract the same kind of ire, and thus the same attention in the media. It’s evidence of systemic discrimination when your school, or your child’s school, has “a Christian character”, when your university textbook is overly religious, or when your public representatives in government seem more interested in pleasing gods than in doing right by the voters.

The IHEU highlights these and other issues worldwide, and offer us a great resource in this catalogue of discrimination against the non-religious, and something by which to measure progress, year-on-year. For comment from the IHEU, please see the contact details below. South African media are welcome to contact me for a local angle, if you plan on writing something about this.


Bob Churchill

Communications Officer
International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)

Office: +44 207 490 8468 | Mobile: +44 7743 97 1937
Skype: bob.churchill | Twitter: @bobchurchill

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.