Humanists, despite their rejection of traditional religious belief, are firmly committed to the principle of religious tolerance. A cornerstone of this stance is retaining a “wall” separating religion and government as the best means of ensuring religious liberty for all. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are opposite sides of one coin — neither can exist without the other, for one person’s belief is the next person’s heresy.
Several international agreements obligate nations to respect freedom of religion or belief. Although the vast majority of the world’s governments seek to protect this right, some countries have failed to uphold these protections in practice. At the extreme end are those nations subject to totalitarian or authoritarian rule whose leaders are determined to control religious belief and practice. Those of minority beliefs, or those not practicing officially sanctioned religions, are often subject to discrimination, persecution, and hostility. Some of these governments are overtly theocratic, installing, for example, Shari’a (fundamentalist Islamic) law in preference to a secular, tolerant form of government.
Even within democratic governments, there are instances where legislation or policies have been adopted that give preference to one religion over all others. Still others, while professing tolerance, arbitrarily designate certain denominations or religions as undesirable, characterizing them as either “sects” or “cults” and denying liberties afforded other, “mainstream” religions. In predominantly Catholic countries, such as those of South and Central America, the influence of the Catholic church over the ostensibly secular government can be significant, resulting in curtailed civil liberties, particularly as they pertain to reproductive freedoms.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency advising the Administration and Congress, periodically determines which nations have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of freedom of religion or belief. By virtue of these determinations, the U.S. government is obliged to oppose these egregious and systematic violations of religious liberty. Recently, this Commission designated Myanmar, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam as “countries of particular concern.” In addition, the Commission named countries that had committed lesser, although still grave, violations of freedom of religion or belief. These nations included Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Uzbekistan.
The forms of religious intolerance vary in these countries, and range from active campaigns of repression against particular religions (including executions, unjustified imprisonment, and torture), to government tolerance of, or complicity in, violent acts against practitioners of minority belief systems, to prohibiting all unsanctioned forms of public religious expression.
Monitoring international abuses of the freedom of religion or belief also fall within the auspices of the United Nations. The U.N. has appointed a Special Rapporteur whose work is aimed at preventing intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief, in accordance with the U.N.’s Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The Special Rapporteur works to ensure that states meet their obligations under this declaration, and hears complaints concerning any matters that fall within the mandate for this office. Importantly, the Special Rapporteur accepts written complaints from individuals and organizations who have observed specific cases of intolerance or discrimination based on religion or belief; thus, humanist activists who have identified a situation warranting the attention of the United Nations are encouraged to submit a written report to this office, including a clear statement of the relevant facts and such evidence as may be available in support of the claim.
Further information about the Special Rapporteur and how to submit a complaint can be found at http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/manual/en/rri_m.htm.
The international humanist community recently took up the cause of a fellow humanist, Dr. Younis Shaikh, who was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s archaic blasphemy statutes. Dr. Shaikh, founder of “Enlightenment,” a Pakistan-based organization that is a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, is alleged to have defamed the prophet Mohammad during a medical school lecture; he supposedly stated the obvious fact that because Mohammad did not receive his first message from God until the age of 40 and did not propose Islam until his parents had already died, his parents could not be considered Muslim. The accusation, which has not been substantiated, led to an absurd application of an unjust law.
The facts of this particular case notwithstanding, the humanist community opposes blasphemy statutes and other laws that restrict free religious expression, even when such expression offends. Such laws, still in place in several countries with Islamic governments, are an affront to the more enlightened principles of religious tolerance.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has played a significant role in advocating for freedom of religion or belief worldwide. In fact, IHEU representatives to the United Nations contributed to the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Organizations of an international scope, such as IHEU, continue to raise important issues of religious tolerance and freedom, both at the United Nations and with individual governments. In some instances, this advocacy involves working on behalf of specific religious or philosophical dissenters who are subject to persecution. In others, it means promoting the separation of religious doctrine and civil law.
Humanist activism on behalf of religious tolerance need not be international in scope. Local activists can testify before state and local legislative bodies on issues of local concern, urge their governments to address abuses overseas, and educate the public about the importance of ensuring religious liberties to all people.