The cost of unbelief – The Economist

Interesting:

ACROSS the world, people who reject all religious belief or profess secular humanism are facing ever worse discrimination and persecution, but the existence and legitimacy of such ideas is becoming more widely known and accepted. That is the rather subtle conclusion of the latest report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, an umbrella body for secularist groups in 40 countries, which in 2012 began making annual surveys of how freedom of thought and conscience are faring worldwide.

In common with lots of other reports on the subject, it noted that many countries still prescribe draconian penalties for religious dissent, through laws that bar blasphemy against the prevailing religions or “apostasy” from Islam. Some 19 countries punish their citizens for apostasy, and in 12 of those countries it is punishable by death. In Pakistan, the death sentence can be imposed for blasphemy, for which the threshold is very low. In all, 55 countries (including several Western ones) had laws against blasphemy; the perceived offence could lead to prison terms in 39 countries and execution in six.

Aside from all that ghastliness, the report detected a new trend, a “marked increase” in the specific targeting of atheists and humanists, which was a kind of back-handed acknowledgement of the reality that such beliefs existed and were spreading. Saudi Arabia had enacted a new law equating atheism with terrorism. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak had branded “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” as deviant. And in Egypt, the youth ministry had launched an organised campaign against non-belief among the young, designed to spread awareness of the “dangers of atheism” and the “threat to society” that it posed. Dreadful as it was, this trend could be a negative side-effect of a “different, positive, parallel trend”—the fact that atheism and humanism were being recognised as cohesive world-views.

I asked one of the best-known professed atheists to have emerged from the Muslim world, the exiled Egyptian blogger Mikael Nabil Sanad, what he thought of the report’s conclusions. And Mr Nabil, who was not involved in the report, offered a very similar point about his native country. On the one hand, despite the overthrow last year of an Islamist regime, repression of all minorities, including atheists, is as bad as ever. But, he says, acceptance by society of atheism as a tenable position is growing. Mr Nabil, who recently moved to Washington, DC, told me that in 2008, when he renounced his Coptic Christian background and declared himself an atheist, “it was completely shocking to society”. Now, he says, “society accepts it” as a possibility. For example, there have been television debates between Christians, Muslims and atheists. Last year, a group of Egyptian atheists made some proposals to a committee that was reviewing the constitution; the very fact that such proposals could be aired and reported marked progress in a country where officialdom generally assumed that everybody was Muslim, Christian or Jewish.

Having spent much of 2011 in prison, where he was tortured and went on hunger strike, and then studied for two years in Germany, Mr Nabil says it is unsafe for him to return to Egypt because blasphemy charges have been laid against him. He now hoped to write a book about his experiences and campaign for change in his homeland, where despite the authorities’ best efforts, social media and private communications were still buzzing with discordant and dissident opinions, including atheist ones. There is a broader point there. The fact that dissident religious and anti-religious ideas are being persecuted ever more severely does not mean that the persecutors will prevail.

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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