Non-Believers’ Rights are Human Rights


Leo Igwe, the invaluable Nigerian skeptic and member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has an article about the need for stronger protection for the rights of religious skeptics and atheists around the world. He argues that such rights should be explicitly spelled out in national and international law:

I have heard it proclaimed at the UN that the rights of women are human rights. I have also heard it proclaimed that the rights of gay people are human rights. These proclamations changed the way human rights are perceived around the globe. Personally I have yet to hear it proclaimed at UN, or at our regional and national human rights bodies that the rights of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers are human rights. I do not want these rights to be implied or assumed as currently the case in most countries. I want them to be expressly declared as universal human rights.

In spite of the progress the world has made in terms of upholding human rights and liberties, and getting states to honour their obligations under various instruments and mechanisms, equal rights have yet to be extended to religious non-believers in most parts of the world particularly in Africa.

I still do not know any African country where one can openly and truly say that the government recognizes the full human rights of non-believers including their right to life, freedom of expression, freedom from torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, freedom of association, freedom of conscience etc. There is no country in the region with an effective mechanism to protect the rights of those who profess no religion; those who change their religion or those who are critical of religious and theistic ideas. Religious non-believers are treated as if they are not human beings, as if they do not exist or do not have the right to exist.

There are no guarantees for the rights and dignity of infidels, apostates and blasphemers as freethinkers are often called. Many governments have caved in to pressures from religious fanatics, from theocrats, jihadists and terrorists. So nonbelievers are denied their basic rights with impunity, sometimes as a matter of state policy or for the sake of ‘public order, peace or ‘morality’. The situation is worse in countries that have an official religion or official religions. Unbelievers are targets of forced conversion, oppression, discrimination, persecution and murder, sometimes by states. Many governments pay lip service to freedom of religion or belief. Freedom of religion is often understood as freedom to profess a religion-the religion sanctioned by the state, by one’s family or community- not freedom to change one’s religion or freedom not to profess any religion at all as contained in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I have spoken to atheists in many countries over the last few weeks — Iran, Iraq, Egypt — who have told me that they have to hide their beliefs for fear of legal and even vigilante reprisals. I agree with Igwe that we need to make a serious push for explicit protection for non-believers around the world, as we should for all religious minorities who are subject to coercion and punishment for not being part of the dominant faith in their own countries. No one should be subjected to that, regardless of their views on religion.

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