Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics, and Secularists

Christopher Hitchens once said, “human rights exist, whether religion recognizes them or not,”[1] and no other statement on the matter has come as close to the truth as that one. But what are human rights and why should a small-time atheist author like myself, form an organization (Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists) and start a petition to lobby the UN to ensure protection of the human rights of atheists agnostics and secularists around the world?  Non-believers are being persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and in some cases, executed, for freely expressing their non-belief in countries that are member states of the United Nations, even by countries that have signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an issue to which I shall return shortly.

When I first hatched the rather ambitious idea to start a petition and form an organization to protect the human rights of atheists, agnostics and secularists I had no idea what kind of support I would be able to garner.  Within a matter of days I had Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Pat Condell, Acharya S and other well-known personalities signing and spreading the word, as well as 1300 signatures.  Realizing that my initial ambitions may indeed come to fruition or at least sow the seeds of change, I became even more determined. I downloaded the UN Charter, the ICCPR, along with articles and studies on blasphemy laws. With two young children tugging at my feet and pleading for something called “food,” and a wife studying for her masters, I began wading through a pool of studies, horrifying accounts, reports and mind-numbing international laws. It’s been around a decade since my days at law school and my marks for international law, whilst sufficient to allow me to pass the course, weren’t anything to write home about.  So, with a foggy memory of international law, children that I do actually feed and an unrelenting zeal to protect the freedom of expression in the face of religious insanity, I set about a task for which I see no imminent end.

Human Rights Vs the Protection of Imaginary Friends

According to both the preamble of the ICCPR and the definition provided by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), human rights are:

...inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.[2]

Both Articles 18 and 19 of the ICCPR expressly protect the freedom of thought and the inalienable right to express such thought, as being indivisible to the concept of human rights.[3]  Yet and still, standing in opposition to this cornerstone principle of human rights, many countries still have standing anti-blasphemy laws.[4] In most countries, blasphemy laws are mere relics of a more uncivilized past and lay dormant among a loftier code of laws, but the potential for their eruption is still a real possibility and as such, blasphemy laws should be removed, for the same reason that a doctor would be wise to remove a benign tumour.  In other countries, however, blasphemy laws are enthusiastically enforced and the result is nothing short of a fundamental breach of human rights.

According to a report released in 2013 by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, there are thirteen countries around the world which administer the death penalty for expressing atheism and many others that imprison and torture atheists and agnostics.[5] I will not draw from the worst examples, like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, but instead, I will briefly discuss a case in Indonesia, a country that imprisons atheists and agnostics.

Indonesia – Atheists Wanted

In 2012, 30 year old Alexander Aan, an ex-Muslim atheist, was imprisoned for posting humorous pictures of the “Prophet” Mohammad on Facebook and posing the question; “If god exists, why do bad things happen?” The Indonesian Council of Ulema (Top Muslim Clerical Body) stumbled upon his Facebook page, possibly whilst perusing some Halal pornography and subsequently reported Alexander to the police for blasphemy.  This led to his molestation by an angry mob of delusional religionists (infidelophobes) and eventually, his incarceration.  He was charged with “disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility” (Article 28 (2) Electronic Information and Transaction Law), “religious blasphemy” (Article 156a(a) Indonesian Criminal Code), and “calling for others to embrace atheism”(156a(b) Indonesian Criminal Code). Alexander was sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment on the 15th of June 2012, but was released early (27th of January 2014), possibly due to international pressure, coupled with his forced public re-conversion to Islam. [6]

It may surprise you to learn that the UN has a special council of 47 member states that are periodically elected (for 3 year terms) to monitor and “enforce” human rights and ironically, Indonesia has been serving on the UN Human Rights Council since its formation in 2006 [7].  So, how can Indonesia, a party to the ICCPR, imprison people and breach human rights in this manner?  Well, as absurd as the situation happens to be, the enforcement of anti-blasphemy laws are not technically considered a breach of human rights.  Allow me to explain.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976)

As mentioned above, Articles 18 and 19 of this covenant “protect” the freedom of thought and expression and although it is not compulsory for all member states to sign the ICCPR, and notwithstanding that its primary function is definitive, rather than binding in nature, it also contains some very broad restrictions on the freedom of expression, restrictions that in my opinion, render it virtually meaningless.

Article 18 (1) reads:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

This clearly extends freedom to atheists, agnostics and members of all religions.  As a side note, I find it amusing that this paragraph is phrased, “thought, conscience AND religion,” nevertheless, to quote the esteemed Ali G, “I digest” (digress).   The only deficiency with this paragraph in terms of protecting atheists and agnostics is that it only protects belief, and technically speaking, both atheism and agnosticism are not beliefs, but an absence of a specific belief, i.e., the belief in gods and the supernatural, but perhaps I am nit-picking.  Anyway, as impressive as this paragraph appears to be, it is muted by paragraph (3), which reads:

Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

This caveat is seized upon by member nations like Indonesia and others, who wish to drag us all back into the dark ages by locking people up and torturing them for thinking rather than believing.

Further, Article 19 protects the right to hold and express opinions, and paragraphs one and two read:

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

Yet, as with Article 18, this one also carries broad restrictions on the freedom of expression.  Paragraph (3), specifically, sub-paragraphs (a) and (b) state:

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; 

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

Nations who advocate the enforcement of blasphemy laws commonly argue that public order is protected and maintained by this specious law and its various offshoots (“religious insult,” “defamation of religion,” etc..), by ensuring a kind of coerced harmony, but studies have shown that the opposite is true and that when blasphemy laws are enforced, deep divisions within pluralistic societies emerge and public order is dramatically undermined. [8]

Moreover, these blasphemy laws are often so vaguely worded that they place into the hands of decision makers, who are prone to hearing voices in their heads and looking to the sky for answers to earthly problems, immense discretion, which is commonly employed to discriminate against both religious minorities and non-believers. [9]

I will forgo a discussion on the “morality clause,” for such a discussion is an article in and of itself, but needless to say, morality is a very broad and subjective concept, at least with regards to its practical and legal application and this restriction is also commonly invoked by religious nations, who see it as immoral to think and question the false certitudes of ancient and ignorant religious doctrines and dogmas; doctrines and dogmas that make women second class citizens, that promote religious sanctioned paedophilia and that outlaw same sex marriage.

Article 20 (2) is also abused by advocates of blasphemy laws to place irrational restrictions upon the freedom of expression under the guise of a noble intention to protect religious freedom.  It reads:

Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

Article 20 was drafted in the aftermath of World War II and thus, the context of this restriction must be understood in light of its intended construction.  Article 20 (1) dictates its context in the following words:

Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.

Despite the obvious intent of this Article, the vague and ambiguous wording of paragraph two has been successfully utilized to prevent freedom of expression and has subsequently been an instrument exploited to further persecute atheists and agnostics.

Blasphemy laws are not about maintaining harmony, protecting people from hate crimes and they are certainly not about freedom and human rights.  They are an outdated Orwellian thought-policing species of law that force people into psychological submission by making it a crime to question, criticise and exercise basic human rights.

They are the rotten fruits of theocratic legislative bodies, whose lust for faith and submission outweigh their desire for evidence and freedom, and whose unquenching thirst for conformity suffocates and obliterates fundamental human rights and in so suffocating, results in the persecution of atheists and agnostics, who choose the freedom of pure thought and inquiry over the inanity of religious insanity.

Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics, and Secularists

My organization is appealing to the UN to revise the toothless ICCPR, as well as amend that actual UN Charter; specifically, Articles 13 (b), 55 (c) & 76 (c).  Although these Articles serve different functions, they all carry the same phraseology and it reads as follows:

Article 13 (b) promoting international cooperation in the economic, social, cultural, educational, and health fields, and assisting in the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

We propose that the wording should be altered or an addendum added to protect non-religious human beings as well.  One example might be to have the Articles read:

… without distinction as to race, sex, language, religion, or lack thereof.

Another suggestion would be to expressly mention atheists and agnostics as a category following the word ‘religion.’

The reason we wish to appeal to the UN to amend the Charter is due to the fact that all member states are bound by this Charter, unlike the ICCPR and thus, it would not only pressure countries like Indonesia, Ireland, Germany, Greece, but also other more severely oppressive member states, like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, whose treatment of atheists and agnostics has been barbaric, appalling and an affront to human rights.

Please support us by signing and sharing the petition to abolish these insane blasphemy laws.


Thanks for reading.

Michael Sherlock




  1. Christopher Hitchens – On CNN discussing U.N. Anti-Blasphemy Resolution 2009.
  2. United Nations – Human Rights
  3. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - Adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) of 16 December 1966, entry into force 23 March 1976, in accordance with Article 49; Articles 18-19.
  4. Matt Cherry (author) & Bob Churchill (Editor). Freedom of Thought 2013: A Global Report on the Rights, Legal Status, and Discrimination against Humanists, Atheists, and the Non-Religious. International Humanist and Ethical Union (2013).
  5. Ibid. p. 16.
  6. The Jakarta Post. 31 January 2014.
  7. B. Kunto Wibisono (21 May 2011). “Indonesia Terpilih Kembali Sebagai Anggota Dewan HAM PBB.” Antara News.
  8. Jo-anne prud’homme, Courtney C. Radsch, Tyler Roylance. Policing Belief – The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights. Freedom House. (2010). pp. 6, 37, 45, 54-55, 60…
  9. Ibid. pp. 1, 3, 8, 34 & 94.

If you like our posts, subscribe to the Atheist Republic newsletter to get exclusive content delivered weekly to your inbox. Also, get the book "Why There is No God" for free.

Click Here to Subscribe

Donating = Loving

Heart Icon

Bringing you atheist articles and building active godless communities takes hundreds of hours and resources each month. If you find any joy or stimulation at Atheist Republic, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

Or make a one-time donation in any amount.