Editorial Introduction to the 2016 edition

By Bob Churchill

Bob Churchill is Director of Communications at the IHEU, and Editor of the Freedom of Thought Report

Bob ChurchillThis report records discrimination against the non-religious, from the relatively minor to the most serious. At that most serious end of the scale, we record how numerous states continue to systematically exclude or persecute non-religious people, or suppress a range of views that include humanist values, political secularism, and critical discussion of religion. These violations affect many millions of people who are directly discriminated against by the state, are marginalized or outright persecuted socially, or very often are intimidated into silence because even to say the words “I do not believe in this” might result in ostracism by family and friends. In extreme but all too common cases, to publicly dissent from religion may result in violence or criminal charges of “apostasy”.

In this Editorial Introduction we will focus on one current, transnational phenomenon, which perhaps represents the most-changing current trend relevant to the remit of this report in the past year. That trend is rising nationalistic populism.

Populism and nationalism are far broader issues than their effect on the rights and status of the non-religious, of course. However, it is worth considering their impact and how they relate to our topic in this report. ‘Populism’ is a buzzword in political commentary in many parts of the world, but the term identifies a real global trend toward a certain kind of politics.

What is populism?

Few political parties self-identify with the label ‘populist’, unless they are simply trying to indicate popular support. The term is usually a criticism, because ‘populist’ amalgamates several negative political attitudes and strategies, which often occur more or less together:

  • Demagoguery – appealing to people’s emotions, rather than their reasons or to evidence. Sometimes it is outright antagonistic to factual analysis and expertise, which are dismissed as ‘elitist’ and has given rise in English-speaking countries to the term ‘post-truth’. This manipulative approach often appeals to base tribalistic instincts and prejudices; it also often appeals to positive emotions around patriotism, togetherness, or nationhood, but defined in opposition to some class or group (whether foreign or domestic) who are alienated. It frequently promotes ‘direct democracy’ in a form that comes at the expense of considered or expert opinion.
  • Anti-elitism – rejecting ‘the elite’, ‘the establishment’ or ‘political classes’ is often a central feature of populist movements. There is nothing illegitimate about criticising authorities, and it is indeed admirable and necessary to expose genuine corruption and to hold lawmakers and officials to account. However, populist movements paint diverse groups as a homogenous ‘elite’ and uniformly blame these for an array of social and political ills. The vision for how things might be different if all the ‘elites’ were ‘overthrown’ is usually a vague or undetailed plan, or naively presumes that once ‘the people’ are in charge everything will be fine. It cites popularity and sovereignty alone as constitutive of democracy, a kind of ‘majority rule’, and rejects pluralism and minority rights.
  • Nationalism, nativism and traditionalism – a narrow and myopic focus on national self-interest, or the interest of a selectively or hypocritically defined “indigenous” people, often with a promise of return to a golden age. Whether it is the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece drawing a false equivalence of Hitler’s National Socialism with the values of classical Greece and ‘spirituality’1A Golden Dawn spokesperson wrote, “What would the future of Europe and the whole modern world be like if World War II hadn’t stopped the renewing route of National Socialism? Certainly, fundamental values which mainly derive from ancient Greek culture, would be dominant in every state and would define the fate of peoples. Romanticism as a spiritual movement and classicism would prevail against the decadent subculture that corroded the white man. Extreme materialism would have been discarded, giving its place to spiritual exaltation”. <tvxs.gr/news/ellada/o-kasidiaris-eksymnei-ton-xitler>, or the pseudo-scientific revisionist history of India associated with Hindutva nationalism that has returned under Prime Minister Narendra Modi (and has been advocated by him)2<dnaindia.com/india/report-historians-appeal-to-pm-narendra-modi-against-attempts-to-rewrite-history-2048454>; or the United States president-elect Donald Trump’s simplistic call to “Make America great again” — a warped or idealised image of the past (whether recent or ancient) is evoked as a banner for the future.

All of these trends are anathema to a broadly humanist view of the world, which respectively tends to favour:

  • considered, evidence-based political thinking by informed citizens, which should of course not preclude actual experts
  • recognition that business leaders, politicians and civil servants are citizens and human beings too (and are therefore fallible, or may even be corrupt, but then should be held accountable not demonized)
  • progressive values, tolerance, and also internationalism (not in the sense of homogenous or neoliberal globalization, but at least in the sense of preferring ever-greater cooperation between different parts of the world)

Not all populist movements are conservative-traditionalist. (For example, Italy’s Five Star movement – while it is accused of lacking detail in how the greatly reduced state it envisages would work, and while some of its claims against opponents are dubious – appears to be secular, and positively progressive in some policy positions such as calling for same-sex marriage).

However, that third element of populism (nationalism, nativism, traditionalism) seems all too often to encompass a retrograde vision of the future.

Traditionalist and religious authoritarianism

Sometimes, nationalistic populism not only voices opposition to humanist values (which is a perfectly legitimate activity) but demonizes those values and the people who hold them. Often, nationalistic populism it is not skeptical (promoting rational reservations about truth-claims) but rather outright denialist about empirical theories that it regards as disagreeable. And far too often nationalistic populism asserts not only a right to freedom of belief (which we can all share) but promotes a kind of traditionalist or religious authoritarianism.

On this last point, the populist’s use of ‘golden age’ rhetoric or religious identity are often viewed from the outside as transparent attempts to win the support of naive groups who are keen to return to an illusory national youth, or to promote their particular faith. This is a view which may have some considerable truth to it. Nevertheless, the rhetorical commitment to such values, even when it is Machiavellian, frequently results in the legal entrenchment of those values and in the subjecting of those who do not share them to nevertheless share in the same constraints. It results in the demonization of those who do not share those values, and the suppression of the alternative values they hold.

The non-religious are not the only people affected by such manoeuvres, of course: various shades of liberal, progressive, reform and non-conformist religious individuals will also find their rights and liberties curtailed under the traditionalist or religious authoritarianisms that are promoted by new and upcoming populist governments, just as they already do under longer-established theocratic regimes.

Europe is where populist candidates and parties appear to be rising most densely. It would appear this is a response to economic downturn, the ‘migration crisis’, and to fears (both real and imagined) about Islam, Islamism, and Jihadist terror.

Populism linked to traditionalist and religious authoritarianism

In November 2016, presidential elections in Bulgaria, Moldova, and the United States all saw candidates and parties widely recognised as populist or nationalist elected to power.

Bulgaria’s president-elect, Rumen Radev, a former Air Force commander with no political experience, is pro-Russian and anti-immigration. He won the apparent support of the Orthodox Church, which itself said that the government should “in no way allow more refugees into our country” on the basis that it wanted to preserve Bulgaria as a God-given country for Orthodox Christians3The church asked, “what spiritual environment will the Orthodox Bulgarian people live in if this influx [of refugees] continues to the extent that it shifts the existing ethnic balance in the territory of our Fatherland Bulgaria that God determined for our Orthodox people to inhabit.” novinite.com/articles/170996/Bulgaria+Should+Not+Let+More+Migrants+In,+Orthodox+Church+Says. Though standing as an independent, Radev also won the support of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the demographic base of which leans strongly towards the institutions of the army and the Orthodox Church.

In Moldova, Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon, also known as a strong admirer of Russian president Vladimir Putin, won the presidential election (though narrowly, and with some reported irregularities) over pro-European candidate Maia Sandu. Dodon had received glowing support from the Moldovan Orthodox Church (in effect a branch of the Moscow Patriarchate). The Orthodox Bishop Marchel openly supported Dodon, calling him a “Christian and patriot”, and contrasting him favourably with his opponent, Ms Sandu, who was disparaged for being unmarried and for not having children. Others “accused” Sandu of being a lesbian on those same grounds. Dodon and the Bishop Marchel both cited the support of gay people for Ms Sandu as a reason not to vote for her4<bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-37948154>.  On claiming victory, Dodon promptly invited Patriarch Kirill to visit Moldova, adding: “I would like to assure you that the Moldovan people are forever faithful to the Orthodox Church.”5<interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=13426> Dodon overtly compares himself to the Russian president, saying “I will run Moldova just the same way Putin runs Russia, I assure you… In the current anarchy that we see around, Moldova immediately needs an iron fist, a strong vertical of power.”6<thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/10/29/igor-dodon-is-vladimir-putin-s-moldovan-mini-me.html> Having promised everything to anyone who would listen during the campaign, he could also be compared to Donald Trump.

US president-elect Trump courted and won the support of conservative Christian leaders7,washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/06/20/how-can-trump-win-the-many-undecided-evangelicals-we-asked-them/.. Some commentators have noted that since claiming victory, Trump has rowed back on some of the pledges made during the campaign, but policy pledges around conservative religious and nationalist values are being upheld in his post-election statements and appointments. He has said that his promise to appoint pro-gun, pro-life Supreme Court judges would be kept, and responding to the prospect of women finding it harder to obtain an abortion he said: “Yeah, well, they’ll perhaps have to go, they’ll have to go to another state.”8<patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2016/11/14/donald-trump-women-may-have-to-go-to-another-state-to-obtain-abortions-under-his-supreme-court/> He offered the job of Education Secretary to prominent creationist Jerry Falwell9<bigstory.ap.org/article/df9a14336c64485cabb5fdc81ded5981/falwell-says-trump-offered-him-education-secretary-job> but in the end went with billionaire Republican party donor Betsy DeVos, a Christian campaigner against marriage equality and ardently in favour of the school vouchers system. The National Education Association criticised her appointment saying: “her efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers — which take away funding and local control from our public schools — to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense.”10<nea.org/home/69329.htm> The voucher system effectively channels taxpayers’ money to religious schools in particular, which do not have to serve families of all religions or beliefs equally. Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, commented: “Americans are always free to send their children to private schools and religious schools, but raiding the public treasury to subsidize private businesses and religious organizations runs against the public trust and the Constitution” and that the move suggests that Trump “has little regard for… the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”11<washingtonpost.com/local/education/trump-picks-billionaire-betsy-devos-school-voucher-advocate-as-education-secretary/2016/11/23/c3d66b94-af96-11e6-840f-e3ebab6bcdd3_story.html> Trump had previously pledged to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which would return to tax-exempt churches the right to campaign in party politics.12<americanhumanist.org/featured/humanist-group-demands-protection-church-state-separation-falwell-trump-meeting/> Along with his running mate, Mike Pence, there are various threats to LGBTI rights13<pinknews.co.uk/2016/11/09/here-is-what-president-trump-means-for-lgbt-rights/>. Trump has also said he would like to criminalize the burning of the American flag with prison terms or the revocation of citizenship, a policy widely-denounced as contrary to free expression14<centerforinquiry.net/newsroom/center_for_inquiry_condemns_trumps_call_to_criminalize_flag_burning/>, as well as being a violation of the human right to citizenship. Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, Roy Speckhardt, comments: “No matter how thin Trump’s veneer of religiosity may be, make no mistake that the Religious Right has just assumed a mantle of power that exceeds their fondest hopes and humanists’ worst nightmares.”15<huffingtonpost.com/entry/ignorance-won-can-we-return-to-reason_us_58233104e4b0334571e0a3a0>

There are elements of illiberalism or outright autocracy in the policy platforms of all these president-elects, and in addition to the purported pro-Russian links, there are elements of playing up to conservative nationalist identities, often including religious norms or promoting a particular religious identity.

It is worth looking at where other recent governments with similar profiles have gone in recent years.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who returned to power in 2010 at the helm of the ruling Fidesz party, has said that “liberal democracy” has failed to solve all the country’s problems and announced the end of “the era of liberal democracy”. His Hungary would be an “illiberal” or “non-liberal” state he said, adding: “while of course respecting the values of Christianity, freedom and human rights”16<kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/the-prime-minister-s-speeches/prime-minister-viktor-orban-s-speech-at-the-25th-balvanyos-summer-free-university-and-student-camp>.

In fact Orban has also tightened his grip over the media17<nytimes.com/2016/10/12/world/europe/hungary-newspaper-nepszabadsag.html>. Over his political life, Orban has moved away from his early-career advocacy of a secularist position, where he actually demanded church-state separation, gradually adopting more and more religious rhetoric18<hetek.hu/belfold/200702/orban_hite>. As detailed in this report there has been a significant Christianization of the state, with beneficial tax advantages for certain groups, increased church funding, discriminatory funding of religious schools, and a significant increase in the proportion of schools that are religious.

In Poland, the nationalistic, anti-EU Law and Justice Party (PiS), led by Jarosław Kaczyński, came to power in October 2015. The government immediately set about stacking the high court with judges sympathetic to their conservative agenda, curtailed judicial oversight of new legislation, and took tighter control of state-owned media. The long-standing enforcement of various Catholic beliefs by the state was also accelerated. Over the summer of 2016, a proposal to ban abortion in almost all circumstances looked set to pass through the Polish parliament. (PiS had not initiated the proposals, but had run with them – both PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and the prime minister Beata Szydło had earlier supported the ban, and PiS MPs voted unanimously in favour of proceeding the bill to parliamentary committee stage.) The proposed ban was derailed in response to a nationwide outcry in favour of retaining already restrictive abortion rights. Huge protests culminated in early October 2016 with strike action predominantly by women, which appeared to shift public opinion and force the government into a climbdown. At the time, one government minister who had supported the ban said the protests “caused us to think and taught us humility.” However, less than two months later at a ceremony in Krakow attended by the president, Jesus Christ was “officially” declared the reigning King of Poland. Just a few years ago the church had dismissed right-wing calls to enthrone Christ as the monarch, but in 2016 under a new, more autocratic and less liberal government, the Conference of Polish Bishops felt empowered to say that this coronation was “not the culmination, but the beginning of the work of enthronement of Jesus Christ in Poland and the Polish nation”.19< christiantoday.com/article/jesus.christ.has.officially.been.declared.the.king.of.poland/101673.htm>

In Turkey, India and Egypt, while not quite conforming to the outsiders-against-the-elites element of populism, do all share the ‘strongman’ leader demagoguery and regressivism, and both have actively suppressed atheist groups or individuals and bolstered certain conservative religious norms.

It is worth restating that the link between populism and increased religious conservativism does not always hold. The President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has paid very little lip-service to Catholicism in the predominantly Catholic country. In fact he has expressed staunch criticism of the Catholic Church (which campaigned against him). “I have this deep, abiding faith in God but that does not mean that you have to have a religion,” he said in May 201620<christiantoday.com/article/duterte.slams.catholic.church.says.he.doesnt.need.religion.to.show.his.deep.christian.faith/86681.htm>. Since taking office he has encouraged a wave of vigilantism against suspected drug addicts and criminals, a murder spree which was a central plank of his campaign.

Not all populists use traditionalism and religion, or promote such beliefs. But where they do, they represent a serious additional threat to the rights and liberties of those who do not share in ‘conservative’ values.

A less liberal future?

It is important to note that this is not simply a matter of pitting broadly conservative religious values against broadly liberal humanist values. It is also not the case that this report merely documents instances where religious values are promoted over non-religious, nor is there any objection to individuals practicing religion in their own ways. Rather, the concern here is that in some countries populist movements linked to conservative religious values are attempting to (and in some cases are already succeeding) re-establish or entrench privileges for religion in the public sphere, or attempting to restrict the rights and liberties of all in the name of religious values.

Many positive feelings may drive some people to populism: there is nothing wrong with seeing genuine injustices or inequalities and wanting to see changes that are radical. But if your policies are really aimed at genuine radical beneficial change, then those policies must also be sound, workable, and not themselves represent massive violations of human rights and dignity.

There are various reasons to fear and resist nationalistic populism: the degradation of rights of refugees when it is anti-immigrant, the threat to the principles of open democracy when it trades in prejudice and disinformation, the risk to peace and stability when it is mindlessly radical, and indeed the threat to religious minorities when it tends toward the establishment or supremacy of a single religion. The aim here has been to show that we should also be concerned about the very real risk in some countries that under nationalistic populism the rights of the liberal religious and the non-religious to manifest certain humanist values may be degraded or even lost.


1 A Golden Dawn spokesperson wrote, “What would the future of Europe and the whole modern world be like if World War II hadn’t stopped the renewing route of National Socialism? Certainly, fundamental values which mainly derive from ancient Greek culture, would be dominant in every state and would define the fate of peoples. Romanticism as a spiritual movement and classicism would prevail against the decadent subculture that corroded the white man. Extreme materialism would have been discarded, giving its place to spiritual exaltation”. <tvxs.gr/news/ellada/o-kasidiaris-eksymnei-ton-xitler>
2 <dnaindia.com/india/report-historians-appeal-to-pm-narendra-modi-against-attempts-to-rewrite-history-2048454>
3 The church asked, “what spiritual environment will the Orthodox Bulgarian people live in if this influx [of refugees] continues to the extent that it shifts the existing ethnic balance in the territory of our Fatherland Bulgaria that God determined for our Orthodox people to inhabit.” novinite.com/articles/170996/Bulgaria+Should+Not+Let+More+Migrants+In,+Orthodox+Church+Says
4 <bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-37948154>
5 <interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=13426>
6 <thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/10/29/igor-dodon-is-vladimir-putin-s-moldovan-mini-me.html>
7 ,washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/06/20/how-can-trump-win-the-many-undecided-evangelicals-we-asked-them/.
8 <patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2016/11/14/donald-trump-women-may-have-to-go-to-another-state-to-obtain-abortions-under-his-supreme-court/>
9 <bigstory.ap.org/article/df9a14336c64485cabb5fdc81ded5981/falwell-says-trump-offered-him-education-secretary-job>
10 <nea.org/home/69329.htm>
11 <washingtonpost.com/local/education/trump-picks-billionaire-betsy-devos-school-voucher-advocate-as-education-secretary/2016/11/23/c3d66b94-af96-11e6-840f-e3ebab6bcdd3_story.html>
12 <americanhumanist.org/featured/humanist-group-demands-protection-church-state-separation-falwell-trump-meeting/>
13 <pinknews.co.uk/2016/11/09/here-is-what-president-trump-means-for-lgbt-rights/>
14 <centerforinquiry.net/newsroom/center_for_inquiry_condemns_trumps_call_to_criminalize_flag_burning/>
15 <huffingtonpost.com/entry/ignorance-won-can-we-return-to-reason_us_58233104e4b0334571e0a3a0>
16 <kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/the-prime-minister-s-speeches/prime-minister-viktor-orban-s-speech-at-the-25th-balvanyos-summer-free-university-and-student-camp>
17 <nytimes.com/2016/10/12/world/europe/hungary-newspaper-nepszabadsag.html>
18 <hetek.hu/belfold/200702/orban_hite>
19 < christiantoday.com/article/jesus.christ.has.officially.been.declared.the.king.of.poland/101673.htm>
20 <christiantoday.com/article/duterte.slams.catholic.church.says.he.doesnt.need.religion.to.show.his.deep.christian.faith/86681.htm>

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