The annual “freedom of thought” report from the International Humanist and Ethical Union, an advocacy umbrella group that represents and seeks to protect non-religious people, details laws and practices around the world that punish or restrict atheism. The group presented the report to the United Nations today.
The report tracks, among other things, which countries have laws explicitly targeting atheists. There are not many, but the states that forbid non-religiousness – typically as part of “anti-blasphemy” legislation – include seven nations where atheism is punishable by death. All seven establish Islam as the state religion. Though that list includes some dictatorships, the country that appears to most frequently condemn atheists to death for their beliefs is actually a democracy, if a frail one: Pakistan. Others include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, the West African state of Mauritania, and the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. These countries are colored red on the above map.
Earlier this year, a 23-year-old Saudi man named Hamza Kashgari tweeted in commemoration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday that, while he found the Islamic holy man inspirational, he did not believe in his divinity. When Kashgari was accused of blasphemy, he attempted to flee the country for his life, it turns out rightly. He was arrested while changing flights in Malaysia, deported back to Saudi Arabia, and is now awaiting charges that could include his execution for blasphemy and atheism.
Though atheists are rarely handed death sentences in these countries, the threat of punishment can stifle religious freedom. As this interview with an atheist in Saudi Arabia showed, the laws have a chilling effect, enforcing cultural taboos against atheism and pushing non-religious citizens to keep their beliefs secret out of fear of retaliation.
Some countries, according to the report, also codify possible prison sentences for atheists (these countries are indicated in orange on the map). These laws, however, can be difficult to distinguish from restrictions against “religious incitement,” which are common in much of the world, including in atheist-friendly Western Europe. But the report indicates that, in countries such as Egypt or Indonesia, the laws appear to be used to specifically target citizens who, for example, publicly profess their own atheism.
Other countries, colored yellow on the map, restrict rights for atheists, for example by limiting marriage rights or public service.
The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt accepted the report, according to Reuters, noting that there is little global awareness that atheism is protected by international human rights law.