6 Outrageous Incidents of Discrimination Against Nonbelievers

Atheists are often seen as crying wolf when they speak about bigotry. But discrimination against atheists around the world is real.

hands on prison bars
“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 African Americans experience, or the systematic enforcement of rigid gender roles women experience. 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.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a world umbrella group bringing together more than a hundred humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, and freethought organizations from 40 countries, has just produced the first ever report focusing on how countries around the world discriminate against non-religious people. Published on December 10 to mark Human Rights Day, the Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious:

…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.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 6 Outrageous Incidents of Discrimination Against Nonbelievers. To find out more about discrimination and human rights violations against atheists around the world — in countries from Indonesia to Poland, Italy to Egypt, Turkey to Tunisia, Zambia to Mauritania, India to Greece — read the rest of the piece. (And yay for me writing for AlterNet again! Feeling closer to being back in the saddle every day.)

6 Outrageous Incidents of Discrimination Against Nonbelievers

4 thoughts on “6 Outrageous Incidents of Discrimination Against Nonbelievers

  1. 1

    Your references to the fifteenth century are very relevant. Now that we have the internet, we can ask the theists, what are you so afraid of? What are you so afraid of that you need to use such brutal methods to silence those who disagree with you? People who have the truth on their side do not resort to such methods, they simply bide their time. Admit it, your religion is demonstrably untrue. That is the reason that you persecute those who have the courage to point out this simple fact.

  2. 2

    Sorry, but as a Dutch atheist I must make clear that the two Dutch examples presented in this report are wrong. In the case of Nekschot’s arrest about whole Dutch parliament criticized the prosecutor Velleman via his boss, the Minister of Security and Justice. The Public Prosecution Service had to cancel prosecution in 2010 – not mentioned.
    As for the prosecution of Wilders, it was based on a law that applies to anyone living in The Netherlands – it protects atheists as much or as little as it protects believers. You may like the law or not, but it’s ridiculous to call this discrimination, because it’s not to the disadvantage of any specific group.
    Finally the law on blasphemy has been dead since 45 years or so; it’s likely to be removed.
    Including these examples equals downplaying countries were atheists actually suffer from discrimination. A much, much better Dutch example would be the so called Special Schools, which have two financial sources – church and state.

  3. 3

    mnb0 @ #2: Not all the examples in the report are meant to be specific examples of discrimination specifically against atheists for being atheists (although most of them are). The report is also, in part, a report on examples of the freedom to criticize religion being curtailed — as it affects atheists, along with everyone else.

  4. 4

    Regarding Israel, you forgot to mention that while we can get married outside Israel, divorces ALWAYS have to go through the religious channels.

    This led to a case when a couple of homosexuals were able to get married in Canada, but years later could not get a divorce.
    This was solved in court, and made it possible to use it in the future as precedent for heterosexual couples.

    Israel is now the only place in the world where rights given to homosexual couples might eventually lead to the same rights for heterosexual couples.


    That being said, Israel is a relatively good place to live if you are an atheist.
    It’s the exact opposite of the US.
    While we have old religious laws that we still need to fight, in the social arena words like secular or atheists are usually taken for granted.

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