New report shows global discrimination against humanists, atheists and the non-religious

10 December, 2012

A report published today by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) to coincide with the UN Human Rights Day is the first to systematically highlight the limitations on freedom of thought for the non-religious in over 60 countries across the world. The report ‘Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious’ focuses on current laws in a range of nations that discriminate against people on the basis of their atheism, humanism or other non-religious beliefs and limit their freedom of expression. It also documents recent cases that show the impact of these laws on specific individuals. The British Humanist Association (BHA), which contributed to the document, has welcomed the landmark report, as has the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief.

The report shows that many countries criminalise manifestations of atheist and humanist convictions or skeptical thoughts. In prosecuting these ‘crimes’ it is not always necessary to accuse a person of atheism and many states prosecute people who express religious doubts or dissent regardless of whether those dissenters identify as atheist or humanist.

More commonly, non-religious people experience discrimination when they manifest their beliefs by acting against the dictates of the religion of their family, community or country. In some societies, allegations of religious dissent are manufactured for use against minority belief communities, or vulnerable individuals, or to settle personal vendettas. In addition the report shows that there are several forms of legal measures found across many countries that either criminalise the expression of atheist and humanist beliefs or result in systematic discrimination against atheists, humanists and those who reject religion.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefedt, has welcomed the research and noted that there is often ‘little awareness’ that international human rights treaties mean freedom of conscience applies equally to ‘atheists, humanists and freethinkers and their convictions, practices and organizations’.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA and First Vice-President of IHEU, said ‘We stand for freedom of belief for all people but today we are highlighting in particular human rights violations against those with humanist and other non-religious convictions. Such people are often in even greater difficulty in nations that disrespect freedom of conscience than those of minority religions as they are by definition less organised, and less able to draw on community and international support. This report gives the first picture of the worldwide legal discrimination against atheists, humanists and the non-religious and we will be pressing the UK government to be sure that they include the non-religious in their own priority work on freedom of religion and belief.

‘At IHEU we work closely with partners in many countries across the world and are very aware of how the rights of the non-religious are regularly violated. Today’s report is intended to be a “living document” as we learn more and more about cases being brought against them. In two days’ time the founder of Egypt’s Facebook Atheists Alber Saber will receive a prison sentence; the President of the Indian Rationalists Sanal Edamaruku is still in Europe, unable to go home because of the threat of arrest; and the Bangladeshi humanist Taslima Nasrin has lived in exile for nearly twenty years. We need to bring cases such as theirs,  which are increasingly in number all the time, to the attention of international bodies and call upon them to take action.’


For further comment or information contact BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson on 07534 248596 or at

The report is available to read at

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world umbrella group bringing together more than 100 Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, and freethought organizations from 40 countries.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.