According to a report issued on December 3 by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, some governments are increasing their efforts to portray atheists and secularists as terrorists and a danger to society. The study pointed to "hate campaigns" launched by public figures against citizens who renounce the Muslim religion in nations like Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Freedom of Thought report said that "the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers," and adding that 13 countries, all of them Muslim, had made apostasy or blasphemy against religion a capital offense.
The Freedom of Thought report claims that this "hate speech" does not come strictly from radical or reactionary religious leaders, but more and more from political leaders, including heads of state.
The report specifically mentions a few specific national figures. It calls out Najib Razak, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who has called "humanism and secularism as well as liberalism" a "deviant" threat to Islam and the state. In a speech to the Quran Recital Assembly, Razak said, "We will not tolerate any demands or right to apostasy by Muslims."
"They call it human rightism," Najib said. "Where the core beliefs are based on humanism and secularism as well as liberalism. It's deviationist in that it glorifies the desires of man alone and rejects any value system that encompasses religious norms and etiquettes. They do this on the premise of championing human rights. We will not tolerate any demands or right to apostasy by Muslims."
The Freedom of Thought report also singles out the secular critics of Egypt's president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, through what it calls "an organized backlash against young atheists."
Since the 2011 ousting of Hosni Mubarak, many young Egyptians have begun openly proclaiming their atheist convictions, which has frightened the nation's religious institutions.
Nuamat Sati, of Egypt's Ministry of Youth, announced a campaign to raise awareness of "the dangers of atheism" and its "threat to society", so that young atheists would be given "a chance to reconsider their decisions and go back to their religion."
"The campaign," he said, "has two goals. The first is to spread awareness concerning the dangers of atheism and how it creates a threat to society, as well as the controversial issues that might push the youth to atheism. The second is to treat this phenomenon by having a dialogue with atheists and giving them a chance to reconsider their decisions and go back to their religion."
Egyptian authorities have arrested young atheists who have appeared on television and YouTube videos talking about their atheist views.
Ahmed al-Tayeb, Egypt's Grand Imam and leader of the Al-Azhar has said, "The atheist trend is new to the Arab world and Egypt. It is regretful that some young people now openly brag about being atheists."
In November, Christian churches in Egypt said they are joining forces with Al-Azhar, a center of Sunni Muslim learning, to combat the spread of atheism in the country. The Freedom of Thought report found this especially disturbing.
In Saudi Arabia, a growing number of young people have declared themselves atheist privately. Doing so openly can bring severe consequences. A Saudi law on terror enacted in January banned "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion."
Raef Badawi, a man in his early 30s, was accused of being atheist because he called for freedom to discuss other forms of Islam besides Wahhabism on the website "Free Saudi Liberals." Badawi was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in July 2013.
In Russia, where communist ideology has been replaced by the Orthodox Christianity that was dominant before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, any public expression of atheism can be seen as blasphemy and criminalized.
Even is some Western countries, governments have strengthened the privileged position of religion in society. In England, for example, the Ministry of Education has dropped atheism and humanism from religious studies in state schools.
In Scotland, the government came under criticism for the religiously privileged position of three "religious representatives" who are required by law to be appointed to all 32 local authority education committees. These positions require one Roman Catholic and one Church of Scotland representative, but non-religious people are excluded.
The Freedom of Thought report also highlighted the disparity of sex and relationships education, and religious education between Roman Catholic faith schools and others in Scotland.
Douglas McClellan, Chief Executive of the Humanist Society Scotland said, "This report is a timely reminder that humanists and atheists are all too often the victims of violence and intimidation by states around the world, and even in many Western European countries humanists and atheists face discrimination. Many commentators in Scotland still seem unable to mention humanists or atheists without adding the term 'militant' or 'aggressive'. I hope this report will make them reflect on how hurtful that is to the many millions of Scots who wish to lead an ethical and fulfilling life without reference to religion."
The International Humanist and Ethical Union said global polling over the past two years showed that 13 percent of the world's population was firmly atheist, while a further 23 percent was "not religious."
Photo Credits: Free Thought Report