Global survey of freedom of thought

By | 10 Dec 2013
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Media Release – 10 December 2013

The first ever report on the rights and treatment of atheists and the non-religious in every country of the world

Tuesday 10th December 2013 is World Human Rights Day. A new report launching today examines every country in the world for legal discrimination and human rights violations which specifically affect atheists, humanists and the non-religious.

  • Atheists can face death sentences for apostasy in twelve states.
  • In 39 countries the law mandates a prison sentence for blasphemy, including six western countries.
  • The non-religious are discriminated against, or outright persecuted, in most countries of the world.

The Freedom of Thought Report 2013 by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) found widespread discrimination by governments in every region. (An inaugural edition in 2012 contained 60 countries; the 2013 edition has been expanded to cover every country.)

Issues from children forced to pray in school classrooms to the most “Grave Violations” are considered in the report’s comprehensive rating system. IHEU hopes that the report will drive change on the worst violations and will shed light on how lesser but systemic discrimination in most countries privileges religion.

Death for unbelievers

Twelve countries in Africa, 9 in Asia and 10 in the Middle East were given the worst rating for committing “Grave Violations”. Some of these governments were found to openly incite hatred against atheists, or have authorities that systematically fail to prosecute violent crimes against atheists. Furthermore, in 12 of the worst-offending states, religious authorities can put atheists to death for the crime of “apostasy” (i.e. leaving one’s religion; in all cases the religion was Islam).


Around the world, the Report found 55 countries with “blasphemy” laws on the books, or other laws forbidding criticism or “insult” to religion. In 39 such countries the law mandates a prison sentence for blasphemers.

Three states, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, can execute “blasphemers”. In another three states, militant Islamists acting as religious authorities in some areas are also dealing out Sharia punishment including death for “offences” to religion: namely Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram and other Islamists in Nigeria, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Victims speak out

The President of the IHEU, Sonja Eggerickx, said, “The opening words in last year’s edition of the report, came from the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. This year we thought we would flip it around: we asked the victims to introduce our work.”

The report’s opening remarks come from two atheists accused of apostasy and blasphemy and now living in exile or in hiding. (The cases of both Alber Saber and Kacem El Ghazzali are featured in the report). Kacem and Alber write: “Freedom of thought and belief must not be compromised. When regimes violently attack people for their ideas and beliefs, all human rights suffer …  In spite of international treaties and conventions, many states discriminate in subtler but important ways. And this has a global impact. Laws against ‘insulting’ religion in relatively secure, relatively secular countries, for example, are not only analogues of the most vicious blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, but help to sustain the global norm under which thought is policed and punished.”

Blasphemy in western countries

In line with their words, several possibly unexpected nations come out rather badly on the scale of five classifications. Six western countries are rated “Severe” because they can jail people for breaking laws prohibiting “blasphemy” and other free speech on religion.

Those countries are Iceland (a sentence of jail for up to 3 months), Denmark (up to 4 months), New Zealand (up to a year), Poland (up to two years), Germany (up to three years) and Greece (up to three years). Jail time could be handed to someone who simply “blasphemes God” in the case of Greece, or “insults the content of other’s religious faith” in the case of Germany.

The Report’s editor Bob Churchill commented, “It may seem strange to see some of these countries up there with Uzbekistan or Ethiopia (also rated “Severe”) but as Kacem and Alber say in the preface, these laws set a trend.  Failure to abolish them in one place means they’re more likely to stay on the books in another place, where they can be disastrous. And even in the western countries with blasphemy-type laws there is evidence that they chill free expression, and in some countries, like Greece and Germany, people are actually prosecuted and convicted and do jail time under these laws.

“All those six western states outlawing blasphemy only got a Severe rating because of that law. They might not have a completely clean slate, but they wouldn’t have a Severe rating if they abolished that law.

“Abolition of blasphemy is what the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief are pushing for, it’s what the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief wants: a global repeal of blasphemy to protect everyone’s right to convert.  If these six countries can’t do it, what hope is there for countries that punish insults to religion with death?”

Contact Stephen Stuart, President, Humanist Society of Victoria at