Friday, 26 July 2013

Atheists and Agnostics - the Trials of Unbelief

I'd like to begin this post with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
That is an admirable statement, and is meant to be implemented by all the UN member states. If strictly applied, it guarantees all of humanity the right to worship, or not worship, as they choose. Living in Britain, we take this right for granted, and admit to having been somewhat complacent about it myself. Only when I was researching my last but one blog item did I realise, with a massive jolt, that Article 18 is more honoured in the breach than the observance worldwide. I found that Christians face persecution today that, in some places, rivals that which they suffered under the Roman Empire. My research begged a question - if believers persecute other sets of believers, how do they treat UNbelievers?
I expected to find the answer - "not too bad, really". After all, atheists and agnostics do not proselytyse, observe unique festivals, dress in distinctive clothing or engage in rituals that others could find offensive. But I was wrong.
Firstly, it needs to be said that atheism, as a coherent world-view, is a comparatively new phenomenon. It also needs to be said that the freedom to be an atheist or agnostic in Britain is even newer. The poet, Shelley, wrote a pamphlet called "The Necessity of Atheism", for which he was expelled from Oxford University and denied the custody of his two children. Then there was the case of Charles Bradlaugh, Britain's first atheist member of parliament, who was elected to Parliament in 1880, but not allowed to take his seat until 1886, because he refused to swear the Oath of Office until finally being allowed to affirm the oath. As Christopher Hitchens (in "God is Not Great") observed:
"As late as the 18th and 19th centuries, in relatively free societies such as Britain and the United States, unbelievers as secure and prosperous as James Mill and Benjamin Franklin felt it advisable to keep their opinions private".
It hardly needs to said, that if it was difficult for Mill and Franklin, it was far tougher for ordinary people who held atheist or agnostic views. They remained silent - as do many today in many countries. In the UK, happily, things have changed. Britain's most prominent atheist is the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and atheists have full rights and protection under the law. Some estimates put the percentage of unbelievers in the UK to be as high as 44% - although not all of these people declare themselves to be atheists. Celebrity British atheists include Richard Dawkins, Richard Branson, Daniel Radcliffe and Ricky Gervais.
To my surprise, I found that the only Western country where unbelievers face discrimination is the USA. Seven US states - Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas - have constitutions which forbid unbelievers from holding public office. Atheists even complain of persecution by Christians, in some states. This is a shock, because, as the atheist writer, Gore Vidal, used to love pointing out, the Founding Fathers of the USA were men of the Enlightenment, not religious believers. To be fair, this discrimination only occurs in a minority of states, and unbelievers have their rights protected by the US Constitution. Nevertheless, the highest figure for the percentage of atheists and agnostics in the USA is only 9%, as opposed to 54% in France and (according to some estimates) 85% in Sweden. This gives US believers (mostly Christians) something of a numerical advantage over their unbelieving fellow citizens. Some academic research appears to show that atheists are among the most distrusted people in North America.
Unsurprisingly, the harshest treatment of atheists happens in Islamic countries. For example,there are no figures for atheists and/or agnostics in Iran. Doubtless, the Iranian regime would say that they have none. The real reason is that unbelievers have no legal standing in Iran (and many other Islamic countries) - you are either Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Zoroastrian - or you have no rights at all.
The other factor making it awkward for atheists to declare their lack of religious faith in Muslim states is the fact that to do so is to make oneself an apostate to Islam, for which the penalty is death. In practice, though, it has to be said that the treatment of atheists in Muslim states varies from country to country.
I think that the United Nations should reopen the discussion on human rights - especially the right to freedom of worship. It would then be incumbent on some member states to explain why they show such contempt for Article 18.

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