Preface

Preface to the 2019 edition

andrew-copson-biggish-colorBy Andrew Copson

Andrew Copson is President of Humanists International

Laws against ‘apostasy’ and ‘blasphemy’ always violate the human rights to freedom of thought and freedom of expression. They also remain one of the most egregious forms of legal discrimination against the non-religious, as well as other religion or belief minorities, in that they are used most often against members of religion or belief groups outside the mainstream of a country.

The ‘blasphemy’ cases that most often hit the headlines include artists and writers, protesters and activists, who through their creative or social work cause ‘offence’ to a mainstream religion. Sometimes the offence as such is somewhat intentional, as when a novelist plays with the bounds of faith, or an artist depicts some aspect of faith or criticism in a novel, or satirical mode. Other times, ‘blasphemy’ laws and taboos are used to intimidate or prosecute people who express dissent against some aspect of mainstream religion, whether from ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the tradition. This can mean that criticism of particular belies, practices, leaders or institutions is made taboo, even when there is a clear moral case for debate, criticism, reform or justice.

“Every society contains people who in the exercise of their own judgement arrive at conclusions about the broadly philosophical questions to which different religions purport to offer answers.”

Every society contains people who in the exercise of their own judgement arrive at conclusions about the broadly philosophical questions to which different religions purport to offer answers. In so doing, they may be turning away from particular beliefs; beliefs that were presumed of them, or impressed upon them by family or society. Just for seeking their own answers, or for expressing their own ideas, especially but not limited to when these ideas contradict a majority religion, then laws against ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ cast such people as heretics, infidels or dissidents.

Sometimes they are told the very expression of their change (or supposed change) in beliefs is a crime because it contradicts a religious prohibition against ‘apostasy’, which of course is a peculiar circular logic and not something that should have any moral let alone legal hold over a non-sharer of those beliefs. Or they are told that the expression of their ‘apostasy’ is a form of betrayal against consanguinity, treason against culture or country, which of course an overreaction in the extreme. Or they told that their ideas “shake the faith” of others, as if the fact of one’s own beliefs giving another a pause for thought or a moment’s doubt is some great crime, and belying also the fragility of any beliefs that need such coddling protection from the mere fact of disagreement, or that any of these things is so grave that the mere expression of thoughts must be punishable by imprisonment or even death.

There is no trade-off here: it is not the case that we need ‘blasphemy’ or ‘apostasy’ laws despite the huge downsides. Laws against ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ do not achieve some good, or protect persons from harm. Rather they prevent open discussion of ideas. And in particular, these laws usually actualize a particular interpretation and ‘respect for’ conservatively-held beliefs, which of course are never shared by every single person in society, but are broadly shared among all the most radical or extremist believers. And yet ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ laws compel upon all members of society conformity with those beliefs.

“There is no trade-off here: it is not the case that we need ‘blasphemy’ or ‘apostasy’ laws despite the huge downsides. Laws against ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ do not achieve some good, or protect persons from harm. Rather they prevent open discussion of ideas.”

Defenders of ‘apostasy’ laws tend to rely most heavily on a specifically religious defence and a circular bit of logic (the religion says that apostates must be shunned, punished or killed, therefore the law must enact this, and if people ‘belong to’ the religion then they must obey its strictures, including the stricture that they must not abandon it!). This is such a bad and slippery argument that there’s almost no way of grasping it, suffice it to say that it flies in the face of all human psychological experience, and undermines its own premiss: the very existence of the law itself presupposes that obviously people’s minds do change and that given freedom of enquiry people will reach different conclusions about the various metaphysical, moral and historical questions that religions hope to address.

Defenders of ‘blasphemy’ laws may also make a narrowly religious case, such as that ‘blasphemy’ is an “offence against God”; though they often produce a more secular argument around the deleterious effects on ‘society’ upon hearing criticism, ridicule, or insult to beliefs that many members of society hold dear. This argument at least deserves attention, though it is also easily dismissed. We all have a right to express ourselves, criticism is a legitimate part of speech, more than that it is often morally necessary, while there is no right not to hear general criticism, and while rights protect people from discrimination and persecution by other people and institutions, they don’t protect ideas from other ideas.

One can always construct scenarios in which a particular expression both fits the general description of being ‘blasphemous’ and is employed in some manner that is actually hateful or discriminatory (for example, a criticism of a religious institution may be legitimate and protected when written in a book, but if shouted in the face of an arbitrary adherent it may well become harassment, intimidation, or incitement). But to the extent that it is necessary and desirable to curb behaviour that is genuinely hateful, laws can target incitement to hatred and violence per se, and are the stronger for doing so without employing the incommensurable, ambiguous, religious concept of ‘blasphemy’. ‘Blasphemy’ laws always overreach the legitimate purposes that can be satisfied by laws against incitement to hatred or violence.

Given that the legal and human rights case against ‘apostasy’ and ‘blasphemy’ laws is strong, it’s also worth considering the extrajudicial impact of such laws. It is sometimes argued that such laws help to combat social ‘disharmony’ or extremism. However, as will be clear in the country chapters in this report, countries with the most severe and widely-enforced ‘blasphemy’ laws are usually those with the most religious tension and extremism.

“…countries with the most severe and widely-enforced ‘blasphemy’ laws are usually those with the most religious tension and extremism.”

One could argue about cause and effect here: maybe these social problems necessitate such laws and that is why they correlate? But the pattern we have seen again and again, certainly over the past eight years this Report has run, is that the demands and impact of extremist voices, religious social tension, and ‘blasphemy’ laws in particular, are self-reinforcing. Extremists demand compliance through mechanisms such as ‘blasphemy’ laws, and when states accede by creating, hardening or enforcing these laws as a kowtow to extremist voices and conservative voters, the demands are not considered met; rather it leads to prosecutions, to further pressure on pro-democratic, secular, liberal and human rights advocates, and this is followed by further demands, in a cycle of increasing demands and the religionification and hardening of laws.

As such, ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ laws not only violate the rights of the individual, it is not even true that ‘society’ as a whole somehow benefits. On the contrary, time and time again, it is clear that where there are cultural taboos against sacrilege, non-belief, or religious conversion, to codify those taboos in law only increases the confidence of religious radicals, diminishes the space for both personal freedoms and civil society, and propagates ever more extreme beliefs, extreme taboos, and the primacy of religious beliefs, particularly conservative religious beliefs, over the welfare of everyone in society.

Preface to the 2018 edition

By Andrew Copson

Andrew Copson is President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)

One of the underlying messages of this report, a fact which flows from its findings, is that there are billions of people living in countries with compromised freedom of thought, expression and association.

In particular, it shows that even on the most conservative estimates, there are untold millions of de facto humanists, atheists and otherwise religiously unaffiliated people living in countries where they face discrimination or outright persecution, both in society and at the hands of the state.

In the most extreme cases, the non-religious are told that to espouse atheistic thought is an act of terrorism; that to promote humanist values (such as reason, open-mindedness, human rights, equality, social tolerance) is a kind of criminal attack on culture; that to leave the religion presumed of them at birth is a moral crime worthy of death; that they cannot marry who they choose or unless they pay lip-service to a sanctioned religion; that their children could be taken away because of their ‘apostasy’; that simply to question the culture which surrounds them may be construed as ‘blasphemy’ and they could be locked up or executed for it.

Even in countries with less severe discrimination, the non-religious face uphill battles against religious privilege and inequalities which are sometimes subtle, sometimes abundantly clear.

Humanists may hold strong convictions about the world, about the right way to live or at least how they want to live, about human nature, knowledge, love and freedom. These philosophical convictions may be no less serious, no less meaningful, no less inseparable from the person and their human dignity, than religious convictions can be. Of course, not all humanists or non-religious people generally hold particularly well-formed convictions, or identify closely with these terms (in the same way that many nominally religious people are actually non-practicing, or perhaps don’t care to think all that deeply or all that often about big questions or underlying beliefs). But your own level of interest is irrelevant. All of us — humanist, freethinker or disinterested; religious, spiritual or apathetic — we all share the exact same rights to freedom of thought, expression, association, love, life and happiness.

Yet that basic equality in the human condition still eludes many lawmakers and is denied to millions of people.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For seven decades now the world has known international human rights law which recognises the need to treat people with equality and respect, and which explicitly upholds not only freedom of religion, but freedom of thought and belief more generally, and under this framework we can assert with authority that the human right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief “applies to theistic, non-theistic, and atheistic beliefs” just as it does to religious beliefs and political convictions.[1]

We hope that this Report contributes to the recognition of injustices perpetrated against humanists and the non-religious around the world. We hope it shines a light on the discrimination and persecution that is often inherent in the law. We hope that lawmakers will be moved to reform. We hope also that humanists, and non-religious people generally, especially those who suffer most under a blanket of denial and taboo and accusation, will know that there are others who care, who understand, who recognize their marginalization and persecution, and who want to see them free to be and express who they are.

[1] http://www.refworld.org/docid/453883fb22.html ; https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/freedomreligion/pages/istandardsi1.aspx


Preface to the 2017 edition

By Andrew Copson

Andrew Copson is President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)

The Freedom of Thought Report is a unique source of information on the discrimination and persecution against the non-religious globally. We approach this issue, as we do much of our advocacy and campaigns work, through the framework of international human rights.

This framework emerged from various traditions, rising from the ashes of world wars, with broad global consent. And yet, the very concept of universal human rights seems to be increasingly misunderstood today; maligned and degraded by politicians in many countries. The arguments differ from place to place, but often they dispute some of the key characteristics of human rights as such: that they are individual, that they are indivisible, and that they are universal.

Whole groups of people may have their rights violated at once, for example by a single law, or by one act of hatred. There may also be a place for ‘environmental rights’ and ‘economic rights’, even ‘people’s rights’ – yet the basic unit and driver of any right comes back to the individual rights-holder. Collective concerns for our environment, economic justice and the concerns of whole peoples are derived from our individual humanity. It must be this way, because trying to implement ‘group rights’ as such always subverts and violates the autonomy of some individual (whether inside or outside that group). So, for example, the idea that someone must be imprisoned for ostensibly ‘insulting’ the belief of a group of people puts an imagined, non-existent right of a group not to be offended, before the right of the individual to speak his or her mind. This is why human rights must, at base, be individual.

As we can see from this year’s report, human rights also tend to stand or fall together. When the non-religious are being persecuted, it’s usually the case that specific religious minorities are too. This is not a coincidence. It is part of how human rights work. If you violate one right, then not only are you likely to be violating others, you will also be degrading the social good, and making other rights harder to achieve. This is why human rights are interconnected and indivisible.

Human rights must apply to everyone equally. This may seem an obvious point, and yet the continued existence of “apostasy” laws demonstrates how inconsistent a state can be in applying something as fundamental as the right to freedom of thought to all citizens. Everyone’s rights are not always respected in practice, but we do all deserve them, not just because it says so on a piece of paper, but because they follow, more or less, from the nature of our humanity. This is why rights are said to be universal.

The remit the Freedom of Thought report is discrimination and persecution against the non-religious specifically, but we are proud that all our work seeks to defend the view of individual, interconnected, universal human rights for everyone. The post-war human rights consensus seems under more pressure than ever. However, this is precisely when we need to stand up and defend these basic minimum standards.

The Freedom of Thought Report champions the human rights of an often neglected section of society, the atheists, humanists and other non-religious people. We are proud of this work, and I commend this report to you.[/wptab]


Preface to the 2016 edition

By Andrew Copson

Andrew Copson is President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)

Published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the Freedom of Thought Report is now in its fifth annual edition.

In 2012, our first edition was an expanded version of a submission by several of the IHEU’s US Member Organizations to the US State Department Office for International Religious Freedom, and covered around 60 countries. In 2013 the report was expanded to include every country in the world. It was produced in-house with content by then-International Representative of the IHEU Matt Cherry, while Bob Churchill, now our Director of Communications, developed the format, ratings system and publicity. Since then, under Bob Churchill’s editorship the Report has continued to evolve. Bob has coordinated a network of volunteers and IHEU Member Organization representatives to maintain and update the content, incrementally develop our unique country ratings system, and to champion the Report internally and to wider audiences.

For this five-year anniversary edition, the IHEU decided to convert the Freedom of Thought Report in a new online format. There is webpage for every country. The ratings system is now implemented with bespoke code as an integral part of the freethoughtreport.com website, and the way that we report the ratings for each country has become more nuanced. The Report is searchable by region, by the boundary conditions applied to each country, and by arbitrary search terms. We believe that the new Online Edition will make the report more user-friendly, more visible and more accessible than ever before, and crucially we’ll be able to keep the information up to date and available all year round.

This is a tremendous development for the Report, and it comes at a crucial juncture in world affairs. As the Editorial Introduction to this edition explains, the rights and equality of the non-religious are under threat and there is an upsurge in the suppression of humanist values more broadly. Serious damage is being done to the brand of democracy, to secularism, and there are new threats to all our liberties. It is impossible to look at discrimination and persecution against the non-religious without also considering how human rights and democratic principles are upheld for everyone, and at the wider social and political contexts in which competing norms and values are clashing. The Freedom of Thought Report is now in a better position than ever before to achieve this overview and I commend it to you.

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