‘God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist.’ Atheism is synonymous to disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of god(s). According to sociologists Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera’s review of numerous global studies on atheism, there are only 7% atheists and agnostics worldwide, with highest percent residing in China. There is a big taboo of atheism which exists today and discrimination against atheists is not something uncommon to the eyes or ears, however, I’ll firstly like to introduce to you a few things, that atheists are not allowed to do:
Live: Atheists in 13 countries face execution under the law if they openly express their beliefs or reject the official state religion, Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia and Pakistan being a few. While this ultimate punishment may be rare, certain other harsh punishments are quite often practiced, for example revoking citizenship or denying marriage.
Take up leadership positions: Political discrimination against atheists is pervasive across the US. Despite constitutional restrictions on having religious tests for holding public office, six states have laws barring non-believers. It is such a volatile political issue that holding any kind of ties with atheists can land you up in a brutal defamation case. A study by the university of British Columbia and University of Oregon found out that people are likely to distrust atheists as much as they do rapists.
Employment: In a survey, researchers found that respondents significantly preferred religious candidates for jobs that were considered high trust, while they marginally preferred non-believers for low-trust jobs like servers. Atheists, have also faced discrimination after being hired. For example: in 2010, a Math teacher was fired from a Catholic school, after the fact of her joining an atheist website from her personal computer and making Facebook comments about not believing in the idea of God became public.
Get custody of their children: If atheists are considered trustable job-holders, then they surely can’t be considered as a responsible parent. There have been many documented cases, of judges either denying custody because of the apparent disinterest of the parent in religion, or otherwise, the parent is advised to attend church so that their children can undergo “systematic spiritual training”.
From the inclusion of the word ‘God’ in various mandatory pledges, and on the face of US currency, to compulsory religious based sessions that atheists have been unconstitutionally forced to take part in, atheists are time and again forced to be part of something which they clearly do not believe in. For example: In Arizona, Republicans proposed a bill to require high school students to recite a pledge before receiving their diplomas, which included words “so help me God”.
Start an organization: In 2011, at the university of Notre Dame, a group of “Atheist, Agnostic and Questioning students” was denied official club status because their beliefs weren’t consistent with the University’s mission.
Becoming a boy scout: Atheists are prohibited from joining its ranks. Scouts have to pledge to do their duty to God. In 2009, Eagle Scout Neil was fired from his job as an Aquatics director at a Boy Scouts camp, after it was suspected that he was involved with a secular student group.
Now let’s discuss about how the taboo of atheism is practiced in different countries specifically.
As far as the taboo of atheism in Egypt is concerned, an Egyptian citizen may confess membership for one of the three monotheistic religions- Islam, Christianity and Judaism, but they are not allowed to get their disbeliefs legally recognized. Therefore, all people have to compulsorily register themselves as the believers of one of these religions, which poses a systematic obstacle to diversity.
Egypt’s political and religious state had recently launched a ‘war on atheism’. Discriminatory discourse against atheists is commonplace in Egypt. Al-Azhar mosque and the Coptic Church both go to great lengths to provoke such discrimination. Since 2014, these institutions have been cooperating in the fight against atheism, in order to ‘save the Egyptian society’. In the same year, the government also launched a campaign, to combat the spread of atheism amongst young people, with the help of psychologists, sociologists and political scientists.
Nemat satti, a chairman of the Central Office of parliamentary and civic education at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, told Shorouk News in 2014, that the phenomenon of atheism had become as noticeable and widespread as that of harassment, rape and extremism. The comparison makes it pretty clear, how this disbelief is treated in Egypt.
Egyptian media has always remained in the frontline, in portraying atheists as people having mental disorders, who need treatment so that they can let go their false illusions. For instance, in 2015, the ‘Morning in the Capital’ live show on an Egyptian channel, ‘Capital TV’, an Egyptian journalist threw an atheist guest out of the studio, for his idea that there is lack of historical evidence concerning the existence of the figure known as Prophet Muhammad.
There have been many instances where Egyptians have been penalized for their disbelief in God. For example, in 2014 Karim Ashraf was jailed for 3 years for simply declaring that he was an atheist on Facebook. In 2013, Egyptian clerics including Al-Azhar professor Mahmoud Shaabaan issued an Islamic ruling against Hamed Abdel-Samad for writing a book on Islamic fascism. Atheism in Egypt remains a taboo and there is considerable evidence of systematic discrimination against atheists.
Now talking about the taboo of atheism in India, it is said, ‘Practicing religion being guaranteed, obviously means practicing no religion is automatically guaranteed’. This is however not true, a few instances are:
Until the 2011 Census, citizens were not allowed to state ‘No religion’ on the Census response. Birth certificates in India do not allow a parent to register their faith as ‘None’ or simply leave it blank. FIR’s in India start with a statement of the complainant’s identity, mandatorily including his or her religion. ‘no religion’ is not acceptable at the local police station. Government school admission forms have a mandatory religion box, having ‘No Religion’ option. Facebook pages which propagate various religions, are not blocked by the Indian government. Atheist pages are.
At least 4 well known rationalists, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, Professor M.M.Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh- have been murdered in the recent past by Hindu militant groups. There is official discrimination against atheists , including the blocking of atheist website and other resources.
For the taboo of atheism in Iran, non-believers are not given a legal status in Iran. Declaration of faith in Islam, Christianity, Judaism is required to avail certain rights, such as applying for a university, or becoming a lawyer, with the position of judge reserved for Muslims only. The Penal Code of Iran is also based on religious affiliation of the victim and the perpetrator, with the punishment often more severe on Non-Muslims.
Atheism is strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia, and can come with a death penalty. In March 2014, the country defined terrorism as ‘calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion, on which this country is based’.
Despite all this, we should not leave hope. In 2016, Barack Obama introduced a new legislation, under which all atheists would be protected under US law, for the purpose of promoting religious freedom. It said, “the freedom of thought and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion”. Scholars had also praised the ‘expansive’ view of the amendment. An Ambassador-at-Large for religious freedom also reports to the Secretary of State, and include findings on people imprisoned for their religious beliefs, religiously motivated censorship and the persecution of religious freedom campaigners.
Also on March 29, 2019 Portland Law prohibited discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation on the basis of non-religion. If such progressive laws continue to be in the making, non-discriminatory discourse for the atheists shall soon be on the way!