Persecution against the non-religious is rising

December 10, 2015

    Persecution of the non-religious around the world has escalated in the past year, according to a new report which also ranks Scotland, and the United Kingdom, as having ‘systematic discrimination’ against non-religious people.

    Internationally there has been a rise in extrajudicial violence at the same time as several states introduce harsher judicial sentences for crimes such as “blasphemy” and “apostasy” (leaving religion).

    The Freedom of Thought Report 2015, produced by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) of which Humanist Society Scotland is a member, records discrimination and persecution against Humanists, atheists, and the non-religious, with a country-by-country assessment.

    The 2015 study draws attention to a string of murders in Bangladesh: four humanist bloggers and one secular publisher were hacked to death in machete assassinations. The victims were Avijit Roy, Washqiur Rahman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niladri Chatterjee, and most recently the publisher Faisal Arefin Dipon.

    While these deaths have been relatively well-reported in international media, as has the plight of Saudi secularist Raif Badawi who was lashed 50 times earlier in the year on the charge of “insulting religion”, the report also highlights far less well-known cases, such as Egyptian student Sherif Gaber. In February this year, Gaber was sentenced to a year’s hard labour for “contempt of religion” (he had declared his atheism on Facebook) and for promoting “debauchery” (he had challenged a lecturer who said that homosexuals should be “killed in the streets”). Gaber went into hiding following the sentence this year. Another Egyptian student, Karim al-Banna, was arrested at an atheist cafe last November, and was this year handed a three-year jail term for “insulting religion”.

    In the Maldives, the administrators of atheist Facebook pages were publicly identified, kidnapped by a 40-strong gang, compelled to “recant” their atheism and hand over passwords to their accounts. Anti-atheist Facebook pages have forced many secular Maldivians offline throughout 2015.

    Scotland comes under criticism for the religiously privileged position afford to three ‘religious representatives’ who are required by law to be appointed to all 32 local authority education committees. These positions require at least one Roman Catholic and one Church of Scotland representative, but non-religious people are excluded. This is despite, as the report highlights (pp.457) that almost one-in-two people in Scotland are non-religious.

    In September, Humanist Society Scotland published a prelude chapter to a larger piece of research into the position of religion in Scots Law. The prelude chapter deals with education, and shows the many ways in which religious privilege is embedded into the Scottish education system.

    Speaking at the launch of the report in the European Parliament in Brussels, HSS Chief Executive Gordon MacRae said:

    “We welcome the publication of this report by IHEU today. The report highlights the discrimination that Humanists and atheists face here in Scotland and the UK. Whether it be discrimination in employment against non-religious teachers, the fact that unelected religious clerics sit on local school committees, or indeed the huge social stigma and isolation that can face ex-Muslims here in Scotland.

    “That is as nothing, though, compared to the what our Humanist and atheist colleagues face abroad. Last year’s Freedom of Thought Report highlighted the targeting of ‘liberals’, over the course of the last year we’ve seen that deeply divisive rhetoric manifest itself in repeated acts of organised violence against Humanists and atheists.

    “Humanist Society Scotland will continue to work with partner agencies to remove religious privilege and discrimination from Scotland. We will continue to advocate for the removal of undemocratic ‘religious representatives’ which are an affront to those who value democracy.”

    “Despite this clear evidence of systematic discrimination against Humanists and non-religious people here in Scotland and the UK, and the much more troubling targeted persecution of our colleagues abroad, we will no doubt hear the usual tired tropes about ‘militant atheists’ and ‘aggressive secularists’. I hope this report gives our detractors pause for thought, and shows the need for a renewed commitment to protecting international human rights laws, in particular the rights to freedom of thought and expression.”


    For further information and comment, please contact Gary McLelland, Head of Communications and Public Affairs on 07813060713 or

    Broadcast-quality audio of HSS Chief Executive Gordon MacRae’s comments can be found here (download link):

    About HSS:
    Humanist Society Scotland seeks to represent the views of people in Scotland who wish to lead ethical and fulfilling lives guided by reason, empathy and compassion. We provide a range of non-religious ceremonies and campaign for a secular state. HSS has over 14,000 members across Scotland.

    About IHEU:
    IHEU is the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the global representative body of the humanist movement, comprising the diversity of non-religious organisations and individuals. IHEU has recognised NGO status at the United Nations. Humanist Society Scotland is a member.

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