This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
Atheists are often seen as crying wolf when they speak about bigotry. But discrimination against atheists around the world is real — and in some cases, it’s severe.
“Oh, you atheists are always whining about how put-upon you are. You don’t experience real discrimination: not like African-Americans, or gays, or women, or immigrants. So knock it off with the pity party.”
You may have heard this refrain. You may have even sung it yourself. So let’s look at this question for a moment: Are atheists subjected to real discrimination?
It’s certainly true that, in the United States, while atheists do experience real discrimination, it’s typically not as severe as, say, racism or misogyny. Or rather, since I don’t think comparing discriminations is usually all that useful: Anti-atheist discrimination takes different forms. It’s not like the systematic economic apartheid experienced by African-Americans, or the systematic enforcement of rigid gender roles experienced by women. It takes other forms: such as social ostracism; bullying in schools; public schools denying atheist students the right to form clubs; religious proselytizing promoted by the government; widespread perceptions of atheists as untrustworthy; businesses denying equal access to atheists and atheist organizations; government promotion of religion in social service programs; government promotion of religion in the military. And it’s true that atheists have significant legal protection in the United States: people sometimes break those laws, and those laws aren’t always enforced, but we do have these laws, and they do help.
But the United States isn’t the whole world.
…covers laws affecting freedom of conscience in 60 countries and lists numerous individual cases where atheists have been prosecuted for their beliefs in 2012. It reports on laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.
And the results are appalling.
There are two big take-home messages from this report. One: This is a world-wide issue. Examples of anti-atheist discrimination have been reported in 60 countries, from Algeria to Zambia; including the Bahamas, Brazil, Bahrain, and Belize; Italy, India, Israel, Iceland; the United Kingdom and the United States. It’s been reported in brutal theocracies notorious for their human rights violations, like Pakistan and Iran — and it’s been reported in supposed secular paradises, like Sweden and France. It’s worse in some countries than others, obviously… but this is a global problem.
Two: In some countries, this anti-atheist discrimination is severe. It doesn’t take the form of government proselytizing or being denied the right to organize clubs. It takes the form of being arrested. It takes the form of being imprisoned, for years. It takes the form of being targeted by a mob screaming for your blood… and when the police who should be there to protect you show up, instead they throw you in jail. Where another mob forms up, screaming for your blood.
Don’t believe me? Here are six outrageous examples of discrimination against non-believers.
I would just like to point out: This is 2012. It is not 1633 during Galileo’s conviction for heresy; it is not 1692 during the Salem witch trials. It is 2012. And people in the world today, in 2012, are being arrested, charged, convicted, and imprisoned — for blasphemy. They are being arrested, charged, convicted, and imprisoned — not to mention attacked by mobs and assaulted in prison — for the crime of not believing in God, and for saying so out loud.
On June 14, Aan was sentenced. He is now serving two and a half years in prison.
Are we noticing a pattern here, by the way? Atheist gets attacked by a mob: police make arrest, not of the mob, but of the victim.
Overzealous police officer? Maybe. But then why was Loizos not immediately released, with pleading, tear-stained apologies and a groveling request not to sue? Why, as of the release of the IHEU report on December 10, is he still being charged?
Greece. In case anyone in the Western world is reading this and thinking, “Oh, this is something those other people do over there, in those bad parts of the world far far away,” I will say once again: Greece. This happened in Greece. This is still happening in Greece: this year, right now. As of this writing, the case is still pending.
…No, wait, That’s not what happened at all. In April of 2012, a group called The Association of Concerned Catholics filed a complaint against Edamaruku with the Mumbai police under Section 295 of the country’s penal code… a complaint that the Catholic Church didn’t officially support but also didn’t speak out against or try to stop in any way. The police, recognizing this complaint for the blatant absurdity that it was, laughed them out of the room…
…No, wait. That’s not what happened at all. The Mumbai police actually took this seriously. They issued an arrest, charging Edamaruku with “hurting the religious sentiments of a particular community.” The police haven’t dropped it, either: they have since gone to Edamaruku’s home in Delhi to serve the arrest warrant, and to demand information on his whereabouts. What’s more, they are denying him “anticipatory bail,” so if he submitted to the arrest he could do months of jail time before his trial. Edamaruku, unwilling to do months of jail time for first degree debunking of fraudulent miracles, has fled the country, and is currently in hiding in Finland. (More information at the Friendly Atheist blog.)
Please note here that — as in the Greek case — it is not Islamic theocrats or would-be theocrats trying to get atheists locked up for making them look bad. It is Christian ones. So in case you were going in that whole “this is just a problem of Muslim extremists” direction… yeah, don’t go there.
He’s not the only one. Say’s arrest is just one of a series of recent legal actions in Turkey, targeting artists, writers, and intellectuals for making less than entirely laudatory statements about religion and Turkish national identity. And if you’re thinking, “Oh, dear, another of those terrible Middle Eastern theocracies” — think again. The Turkish Constitution protects freedom of religious belief, guarantees equal protection under the law regardless of religion, and lists secularism as one of the Turkish republic’s fundamental characteristics.
Yeah. I know. My head is spinning, too. I keep thinking of Inigo Montoya: You keep saying “secularism and freedom of religious belief.” I do not think it means what you think it means.
Seven and a half years. Think, for a moment, about how long seven and a half years is. In seven and a half years, a kindergarten child would almost be in junior high. In seven and a half years, an elm tree would grow from a sapling to over twice your height. In seven and a half years, the Beatles went from releasing “Love Me Do” to releasing “Hey Jude.” Now, think about spending seven and a half years in prison.
Seven and a half years. For posting cartoons about religion that the government didn’t like.
If you’ve noticed how many of these incidents involve social media — non-believers being arrested and imprisoned for using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to discuss atheism and criticize religion — you’re not alone. The IHEU noticed that, too. As IHEU pointed out when they announced the report: “The report highlights a sharp increase in arrests for ‘blasphemy’ on social media this year. The previous three years saw just three such cases, but in 2012 more than a dozen people in ten countries have been prosecuted for ‘blasphemy’ on Facebook or Twitter.” There seems to be something about atheism on the Internet — the possibility of anonymity, the speed at which ideas can spread, the ability to organize at the touch of a finger, the impossibility of keeping a movement invisible — that makes oppressive theocrats piss themselves in panic, and desperately try to shut it down.
Please note, also, that every single one of these incidents happened this year. These incidents are not outdated relics of the Dark Ages, or even of a century ago. They happened in 2012. They are still happening right now: as of this writing, every single one of these people is under arrest, awaiting trial, awaiting sentencing, in prison, or in hiding.
And these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg, a handful of the more egregious examples. They don’t include Mauritania, where leaving Islam means losing citizenship; Pakistan, where the government blocked all access to Twitter because of “blasphemous content”; Italy, where Minister for Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini called on Christians, Muslims, and Jews to join together in the fight against the “threat” of atheism; Zambia, where the government requires Christian instruction in public schools; Poland, where pop musician Doda was fined $1,450 for saying that the Bible is full of “unbelievable tales”; Israel, where atheists or anyone else wanting a secular marriage have to leave the country to get married; the United States, where attendance at evangelical Christian events in the military is often mandatory; Sudan, where leaving Islam is punishable by death.
I wish I knew what to do about all this. I usually like to end my “alerts about outrages” pieces with a call to action: here’s who to donate money to, here’s where you can sign a petition, here are the elected officials you can call or email. But this is bigger than just a one-shot call to action.
Who can you give money to? Atheist organizations around the world; international atheist organizations; human rights organizations that recognize human rights violations against atheists as a real thing. Where can you sign a petition? Get on the mailing lists of a couple/few atheist organizations, especially international ones, and they’ll alert you when petitions are happening. (The International Humanist and Ethical Union would probably be a good start.) Who can you call or email? Your elected officials, especially on the national level, to demand that they treat human rights violations against atheists as seriously as they do any other kind. (Not that that’s such a high bar…) What else can you do? Speak out. Spread the word. Like I said, there’s a reason theocrats and would-be theocrats are scared to pieces of Facebook and Twitter…
But the first step, before you can do any of that, is this: Don’t pretend that this isn’t real. This is real. This is happening, around the world, at the hands of every major religion.
Don’t dismiss it.