Defending Non-Religious Rights Everywhere

by Bob Churchill, originally published in the 2016 Autumn edition of Humanitie magazine.

As the Director of Communications for the International Humanist and Ethical Union Bob Churchill has been working on issues of international importance to Humanists since 2012. Here he writes about the impact Humanists have in defending the rights of the non-religious.


At the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) we work to promote the values of Humanism, and to grow the Humanist movement worldwide. We are the sole democratic, representative body of the Humanist movement internationally, with Humanist and other secular associations in 50 countries (including Humanist Society Scotland).

Humanists may care about a great many issues. As such the IHEU campaigns internationally on numerous human rights and ethical concerns, including reproductive rights and education, gay rights and sexual equality, rationalism as opposed to superstition; we oppose slavery, racism and “caste” discrimination; we combat “witchcraft” accusation; we uphold free expression, freedom of association, and freedom of thought and belief.

Through our position on various international platforms, including the United Nations in New York and the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the IHEU gives Humanists a voice on the global stage. We are recognised for our consistent, unique, principled contributions in these forums, where often we are one of very few explicitly secular, Humanist voices, counter-balancing a plethora of religious NGOs.

We also put some emphasis on advocating for, and upholding Facebook-EBL-sqthe rights of the non-religious in particular. Humanists, atheists, and the non-religious generally, find themselves discriminated against in a number of ways around the world. Sometimes the non-religious are excluded from certain initiatives, benefits and national rites. Sometimes we are compelled to participate in religious ceremonies, or excluded in virtue of opting out. Some states don’t allow atheists to marry except by pretending to be religious, or will even take children away from a “known atheist” parent. Some states don’t permit secularity on their ID papers. Some states consider the mere expression of atheist views as “blasphemy” or even (e.g. in Saudi Arabia) as “terrorism”. Some states exclude the non-religious from certain government positions. In some states the entire law and structure of a state may be supposedly “derived” from religion in such a way that utterly precludes the participation of secular voices. In thirteen countries you can, in principle, be put to death for being an atheist, under laws against “apostasy” or “blasphemy”.

In recent years many expressly Humanist activists, atheist writers, and other secular voices, have been explicitly maligned by government officials (e.g. Malaysia, Maldives), have been harassed, arrested, jailed or even sentenced to death by state authorities (e.g. Egypt, Saudi Arabia), or have been killed by non-state actors (including terrorist cells and hardline Islamist groups) for alleged crimes such as “blasphemy” or “insulting religion” (e.g. Bangladesh, India).

Bob Churchill

Bob Churchill

The IHEU has monitored the above discrimination and persecution through our flagship publication The Freedom of Thought Report (of which I am Editor). We have also been actively campaigning to raise awareness of these violations, working with groups around the world to lobby their own governments and regional bodies for reform, and demanding that the rights of the non-religious are upheld.

The idea of “religious minorities” is well-established. But the very existence, let alone the legitimacy, of a “non-religious minority” (which is often persecuted as such) is much less understood or accepted around the world. I believe that through our advocacy work, through the Freedom of Thought Report and the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, and by working closely with our member organisations around the world, the IHEU is helping to correct this inequality and to put the non-religious firmly on the human rights agenda.

You are already a part of these efforts. Humanist Society Scotland is working with us on a number of international matters, especially in development of work around persecuted secularists from Bangladesh, and through HSS’s IHEU membership you are already supporting a part of our broader work. But the IHEU remains incredibly lean at the staff level! We already work with many able and generous volunteers, as well as our member organisations, but in a politically dangerous and socially tense world, the Humanist voice is vital. We need to grow.

Bob Churchill will be speaking at our Annual Conference on 24th September. You can find out more and get your tickets here.



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