Last year, when I was writing about the 2013 Freedom of Thought report, my plan was to do a thorough analysis of the data in the report. That didn’t happen, mostly because Canadian Atheist was shut down by hackers at the time. It got better, but for various reasons I never did get around to finishing the in-depth analysis, and ended up posting a half-assed job. This year I wanted to make up for that.
For those who missed the original post about the 2014 Freedom of Thought report, it is an annual report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) on the rights, legal status, and discrimination against humanists, atheists, and the nonreligious worldwide, focusing specifically on systemic discrimination by governments and their agents.
The general methodology in the 2014 report is to use a checklist of criteria in five “strands”. The strands are:
- General systemic issues
- Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; Establishment of religion
- Family, community, religious courts and tribunals
- Expression, advocacy of humanist values
Each criteria is assigned a severity level. The five levels, from the least to most severe are:
- Free and Equal
- Nonbelievers and believers have all the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities, according to the law and official practice.
- Mostly Satisfactory
- Religion or religious belief is treated with special deference and privilege, but nonbelievers are generally not legally or officially restricted any more than believers. It is possible to be a nonbeliever without restriction, but you will not get the same respect or recognition as a believer.
- Systemic Discrimination
- Nonbelievers are discriminated against but only in limited situations or degrees. It is only problematic to be a nonbeliever in certain situations.
- Severe Discrimination
- Nonbelievers are discriminated against in general. Simply being a nonbeliever may result in legal trouble.
- Grave Violations
- Being a nonbeliever may cost you your life, figuratively or literally.
The overall rating for a country is determined by the worst rating of all the criteria it satisfies.
My methodology for analyzing the data was to convert it into machine-readable format, then run a bunch of analyses on it. Some more detailed information about what I did can be found on my blog.
The 2014 report covered 196 countries – two more than the 2013 report: the Dominican Republic and Vanuatu are new additions.
This is what the world looked like, according to the 2013 report:
That’s not a very uplifting image for nonbelievers. Sadly, 2014 is worse:
Much more information was put together for the 2014 report, which unfortunately had an overall effect of dropping the score of many of the countries that got away with really good ratings last year. The big chunks of yellow (“Mostly Satisfactory”) that were Brazil and Mongolia went orange (“Systemic Discrimination”). Worse, just about all of the visible green (“Free and Equal”) has disappeared from the map. The big chunks in Africa that were Niger and Benin went orange. In Asia, Japan went orange and South Korea went yellow. All of the green in the western hemisphere – Uruguay and Jamaica – went orange.
The only remaining visible green (“Free and Equal”) countries are Sierra Leone in Africa, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Estonia in Europe, and – if you squint – Taiwan in Asia and Fiji in the Pacific.
That’s horrifying. The report’s methodology is actually fairly lenient – it is possible, so long as you’re not obviously discriminatory toward nonbelievers – to score “Free and Equal” even if you don’t really deserve it. When there’s a lack of information, countries are simply given the benefit of the doubt. The 2014 report even includes information about where its data is incomplete, which – if I put that on the map, gives us this:
Two-thirds of the countries that scored “Free and Equal” only did so because of incomplete data. Even on the map that includes countries with incomplete data you still can’t see barely any green – on the map that shows countries with incomplete data, you can’t see any green at all except for the Netherlands, Belgium, and Estonia… which is literally every “Free and Equal” country with complete data in the world, so it’s not even like there are smaller countries there that you can’t make out.
Of those 196 countries in the report, only 9 scored “Free and Equal”. 6 of them – Sierra Leone, Taiwan, Kosovo, Fiji, Kiribati, and Nauru – have incomplete data. That leaves only the Netherlands, Belgium, and Estonia as the only countries on Earth in 2014 that scored “Free and Equal”.
If you allow “Mostly Satisfactory” as “good enough”, the news is still depressing. “Free and Equal” and “Mostly Satisfactory” countries combined make up only less than 15% of the countries in the world. If you include only those countries where the data is actually complete (to eliminate the countries that don’t actually deserve those ratings), then it’s less than 5%.
The global average score was 3.40, which is decidedly “Systemic Discrimination” (3) and almost half of the way toward “Severe Discrimination” (4). In other words, if you pick any random person on Earth, chances are that person is living in a country that systematically discriminates against nonbelievers, possibly severely.
Oh, it’s about to get worse. At least in the pie charts above you can see a sliver of green.
The questions I asked myself were: Rather than simply counting countries, how much of the world’s population actually lives in “Free and Equal” countries? And how much of the world’s living space is “Free and Equal” for nonbelievers?
You can probably guess that this won’t end well. Given that heavyweights like China, Russia, Canada, Brazil, Australia, and India all score “Systemic Discrimination” or worse, and that a full third of the “Free and Equal” countries are Fiji, Kiribati, and Nauru, you probably expect that this kind of analysis won’t end up making unbelievers happy.
Let’s start with land area.
Adding up the total land area for each of the countries in each category gives:
Yes, “Free and Equal” is on those pie charts. You just can’t see it because the sliver is so small. The total land area in the world that is “Free and Equal” for unbelievers is…. 0.2%. And if you exclude the countries with incomplete data… 0.1%.
Adding “Mostly Satisfactory” – or hell, why bother adding; it will make no meaningful difference whether I include “Free and Equal” countries at all – gives a grand total of 10.2%. If you count countries with complete data only: 8.4%. ~70% of that is just the United States.
In other words, even if an unbeliever got it into zes head to leave the country that is discriminating against zem, there is pretty much nowhere in the world that they can go where they will be treated completely fairly and equally. Seriously, 0.1% is as close as you can get to zero with a precision of a single decimal place. If our hypothetical nonbeliever decided ze would settle for a country that is only “mostly satisfactory”, they have more options… but they pretty much all boil down to “the US“.
The global average rating, weighted by land area, is 3.63, meaning that if you went to a random non-oceanic, non-(ant)arctic place on Earth, you can expect the official treatment of nonbelievers to be systemic discrimination, more than halfway toward severe discrimination. (Considering only complete data, the result is 3.54… still bad.)
Alright, enough about geographic area; let’s consider actual people. What about looking at it from the perspective of population?
Getting hard numbers on the amount of nonbelievers in the world is notoriously difficult. The definition of “nonbeliever” is slippery, there are lot of people who call themselves “nones” and say they “follow no religion”, but are nevertheless extremely religious – these are the people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” or who insist that their religion is not really a religion, because it doesn’t have a structured hierarchy or organization. I would have liked to tally up how many actual nonbelievers live in each rating, but that turned out to be impractical.
The best estimate for the number of actual of nonbelievers who will actually identify as such on a survey is around 10–13%. It is very likely much, much higher, because many nonbelievers still identify with a particular religion, either out of ignorance, habit, or social pressure. I’ve seen estimates as high as 25–33% for the actual number of nonbelievers.
So how much of the world’s population actually lives free and equal, with respect to the treatment of nonbelievers?
I always endeavour to say something positive so… at least you can see a bit of green?
It turns out that 0.9% of the world’s population lives in “Free and Equal” countries – 0.4% if you include only countries with complete data. Greater than 99% of the world’s population lives under the thumb of discrimination against nonbelievers.
The picture gets a little brighter if you include “Mostly Satisfactory” countries. 10.0% of the world’s population lives in countries that are “Mostly Satisfactory” or better – 7.8% if you count only countries with complete data.
Of course, once again, the US makes up the most sizable contribution to that. The top five populations that live in “Mostly Satisfactory” or “Free and Equal” countries are:
|Country||Proportion of “Mostly Satisfactory” and “Free and Equal” population||Country rating|
|United States||44.9%||Mostly Satisfactory|
Note that not a single one of them is “Free and Equal” (though if I continued the list, the next entry would be a tie between Côte d’Ivoire and Taiwan at 3.3%, and Taiwan is “Free and Equal”).
If I recalculate the global average weighting it by population, the result is 3.99… that’s almost freaking 4, or “Severe Discrimination”. That means, considering persons (and not countries), the average person in the world lives in a country that is (almost) severely discriminating against nonbelievers. If I only include countries with complete data it’s a little better: 3.68.
There are 52 criteria in the 2014 report, spanning the 5 strands, plus 5 “Free and Equal” criteria, and 10 “incomplete data” criteria (2 per strand because one is simply “unknown” while the other is “no conditions hold”).
The most popular criteria were:
|Criteria||Strand||Rating||Number of times applied|
|State-funding of religious institutions or salaries, or discriminatory tax exemptions.||General systemic issues||Systemic Discrimination||76|
|Official symbolic deference to religion.||Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; Establishment of religion||Mostly Satisfactory||70|
|Discriminatory prominence is given to religious bodies, traditions or leaders||General systemic issues||Systemic Discrimination||68|
|Preferential treatment is given to a religion or religion in general||General systemic issues||Systemic Discrimination||66|
|There is state funding of at least some religious schools||Education||Systemic Discrimination||62|
Also worth mentioning, “insufficient data” in the “Family, community, religious courts and tribunals” strand was used 89 times. This reflects the fact that this strand was not really covered in previous reports.
Interestingly, all of the top five criteria were “Systemic Discrimination” except for one: “Official symbolic deference to religion”, which is only a “Mostly Satisfactory” criterion.
Of the remaining 4, two are specifically about financial benefits given to religion – it pays to be religious, it seems, never mind the rhetoric about money being the root of all evil. The other two are in the same category as “Official symbolic deference to religion” – preferential discrimination in favour of religion in general, or a specific religion.
Are we making progress?
The naïve way to answer this question would be to simply compare the scores between the 2013 and 2014 reports. The problem with that is that a score change between reports is more often than not due to the IHEU getting more and better information, not due to any actual change in the country. Happily, the report now includes a tag for countries that improved, worsened, or were “in flux” in 2014, so we can use that to get information about progress. I did both types of analysis. Let’s start with the naïve comparison of ratings between 2013 and 2014.
Of the 194 countries in both reports – the Dominican Republic and Vanuatu were new in 2014 – 167 had the same score in both. This should not be surprising; one shouldn’t expect large numbers of countries to change noticeably in any given year. The interesting information is: of the 27 countries that did change, how many improved and how many worsened?
The answer will not make you happy:
The only 5 countries whose score improved were Cameroon, the Congo, Cabo Verde, Grenada (which you can’t even make out on the map), and Estonia. Estonia is the only country that improved by two points, from 3 (“Systemic Discrimination”) to 1. Note that Grenada and Cabo Verde still have incomplete information, so only three countries actually improved for certain.
Meanwhile 22 countries’ scores went down – 5 of them by two points: Benin, Niger, Jamaica, Uruguay, and South Korea. All of them had scored 1 (“Free and Equal”) in 2013, because of lack of data (South Korea still lacks data), benefiting from the generous methodology of the report that grants “Free and Equal” status by default unless there are known problems. That free ride is over for those countries.
Here is a change map for the ratings:
As I mentioned, this isn’t really a good way to measure progress (unless you’re measuring progress in compiling data for the report). However, the 2014 report tags countries that experienced notable changes in the rights and freedoms of nonbelievers. 20 countries were tagged either “improving”, “worsening”, or “in flux”.
Only 2 countries were marked as “improving”: Uruguay and Somalia. These may or may not surprise you, depending on what you know about their situations.
Uruguay is the most non-religious country in the western hemisphere, with an out atheist president and estimates putting the number of atheists – not “nones”, atheists – at ~50%. The country’s rating is “Systemic Discrimination” due to discriminatory tax laws and privileges in favour of religious groups, but these are arguably vestigial. President José Mujica only took power in 2010, but in his 5-year term he legalized abortion, same-sex marriage, and pot. He is forced to step down next year – presidents are not allowed consecutive terms in Uruguay – and his predecessor, Tabaré Vázquez, will return to power. Now Vázquez notoriously opposed abortion rights, and it cost him dearly – he started with a 77% approval rating, but it dropped to 44% when he vetoed women’s health bills because they included abortion (yeah, that actually happened – isn’t Uruguay awesome?), though he did bounce back by the end of his term. It will be interesting to see what happens now that Mujica has actually made it totally legal – will Vázquez just buck up and accept it and move on? We shall see.
Somalia is famously a lawless, Muslim-dominated hell-hole, but that is changing. Unfortunately, the only part of that that is actually changing is the “lawless” part. They actually got a constitution in 2012, and a government formed, but it’s an explicitly Islamist state, and we know how well those work out for general human rights, never mind rights of nonbelievers. Still, the most terrifying problems in Somalia are now mostly relegated to the areas still controlled by al-Shabaab, so there is technically improvement, even if it’s only from “fucking horrible” to “horrible”.
So only 2 countries were marked as “improving”, but one of them is merely improving from “deadly shit-hole” to “shit-hole”, while the other’s period of improvement may be coming to an end (unless we can hope that Vázquez will continue the progress Mujica was making, despite his previous track record). Not great.
Meanwhile, 14 countries were marked as “worsening”:
I think most of these should come as no surprise to people who have been following world events over the past year. Other than Japan and Ukraine, they’re all countries with “Severe Discrimination” or “Grave Violations”, and pretty much all news out of those countries this past year has been awful for nonbelievers.
Japan might be surprising – especially given that they were “Free and Equal” last year – but the concern there is a specific law that criminalizes whistle-blowing… even when you’re blowing the whistle on something horrifying like human rights violations or straight-up crime. When freedom of expression is eroded, atheism is usually one of the first victims, because it thrives on – maybe even requires – the free and open exchange of ideas that powerful institutions would rather see silenced. Theoretically, if the Diet ditches that shitty law, they’ll bounce back to “Free and Equal” right away.
Ukraine was also marked as worsening, but the report notes that the cause of this is the Russian invasion. It explicitly points the finger at Russian militants, especially in Crimea, for causing the problems of concern. It seems that whether or not Ukraine gets better or worse depends on whether it can fight off Russia’s aggression and join the Eurozone, or fall further under Putin’s angry thumb.
4 countries were noted as being “in flux”: South Sudan, Libya, Indonesia, and… the United Kingdom. Libya should come as no surprise – the whole conflict there, really, is between a more-or-less secular (though evil) regime and (totally evil) Islamist militants. South Sudan should also come as no surprise – since its secession from Sudan, Sudan more or less went Islam-crazy while South Sudan is trying to go the other way, but it ain’t easy in that region. Indonesia has just always been a hodgepodge of good and bad, when it comes to human and religious (or non-religious) rights.
However, the UK should raise some eyebrows. I would argue that the flux there is actually a good thing, as it is the result of vigorous work by humanist and atheist organizations to fight against centuries of entrenched religious privilege. There have been victories and setbacks, and that is the cause of the “flux”. But the fact that they’re having a noticeable effect is a good thing.
Overall, 2014 was a very bad year for nonbeliever rights and equality – much worse than 2012 or 2013.
The main theme of the 2012 report was the explosion in “blasphemy” charges brought against people for publicly speaking atheist ideas, usually on the Internet (in fact, the cover featured Alexander Aan in handcuffs). In 2013, it was the surge in violent attacks against atheist and humanist activists, such as the murders of Ahmed Rajib Haider in Bangladesh and Narendra Dabholkar in India.
The big trend in 2014 is governments or political leaders coming out and explicitly naming atheism as evil in some way or another. That’s something fairly new, actually. In the past, when bigots spoke out against atheism, they usually framed in the sense of “turning their backs on my religion”. In other words “atheism” was not really a thing unto itself in their eyes – mentions of atheism and the “problems” it causes were framed using the sense that the nonbelievers were actually members of the faith who were just behaving badly and not following the rules. You can see artifacts of that mindset in the laws against “blasphemy” and “apostasy”, both of which are technically only crimes when done by members of the religion – you can’t be an “apostate” from a religion you were never a member of, and you can’t “blaspheme” against something you don’t see as sacred.
The shift is that now bigots are talking about unbelief as a phenomenon unto itself. Atheism is no longer framed as “it’s bad because it hurts the feelings of my religion”, but rather as “it’s bad because it does objective harm to society” – never mind that that “objective harm” exists only in the fevered, deranged imaginations of the bigots.
The report’s editorial preamble actually mentions several examples of this:
- Saudi Arabia passed a new set of legislation to combat terrorism in January. That’s a good thing, right? Wrong. A lot of the things it actually criminalized were already illegal anyway, but one of the new additions – indeed, the very first thing mentioned – was:
Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.Mmhm, that’s right, fellow atheists… we are now “terrorists” in Saudi Arabia.
- Egypt in particular is terrified of atheists – which seems a little out of proportion given that they believe there are just 866 atheists among the country’s population of 88 million, and even that number might be a little high given how Egyptian authorities are apparently hallucinating atheists in places where there are none. But the “atheist problem” is serious enough that Muslim and Christian leadership has joined forces – which never leads to good things – to come up with solutions to saving their wayward youth.
- Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was actually singled out by name for referring to
humanism and secularism as well as liberalism– not to mention LGBT rights movements – as
deviant. He seems to have coined the word
human-rightsism, which he considers to be a threat to Islam. I’m inclined to agree, but if one of those two things has to go, I think he and I have very different ideas on which.
The report tries to put a somewhat positive spin on this trend, by pointing that by using terms like “atheism”, “secularism”, and “humanism” correctly, the bigots are indicating that they finally recognize these things in and of themselves, rather than simply distorted interpretations of their own religious beliefs. In other words, atheists are actually becoming recognized as a population in their own right, rather than simply as “lapsed religionists”.
Furthermore, the ire we’re drawing suggests that we’re making progress at getting recognition and influence. The nasty responses we got in 2014 are simply the inevitable backlash that arises as we move from having no impact on society to having some impact.
I’m not sure I agree with that assessment in its entirety. I agree that it is true that there is a slow trend toward recognizing us as a distinct population (though there is still yet very little information on exactly what type of population we are, as research into the demographics of atheism is in its infancy), but I believe that the backlash we’re seeing now is due to more than just that we’re being recognized more. I would suggest that the backlash we’re seeing is also a response to two major global upheavals.
The first is the Arab Spring, which saw a surge in modern humanist and secular sentiment across the Arab World. Back in 2011 and 2012, we were all holding out hope that this would lead to lasting change in the region. Well, the Arab Spring has been followed by the Islamist Winter. I would argue that the surge of interest in humanistic ideas unnerved the entrenched religious power structures, and what we are seeing is their frightened and angry attempt to reconsolidate their authority.
The second is the continuing decline of the US‘s authority in the world – both legitimate authority and moral authority, especially given the recent torture revelations. There have always been pugnacious regimes determined to make a name for themselves by flouting the global order and getting belligerent with their neighbours. But the recent authoritarian posturing by Russia is on a scale we haven’t seen since the dawn of “New Atheism” (Which I would date to around 2006). ISIL and the numerous other militant Islamist groups that have sprung up in the last few years are also emboldened by the weakening of the US, real or imagined. All of these bring with them decidedly anti-humanist worldviews, and they’ve had tremendous impact in their respective arenas.
I do agree that at least some of the backlash we’re facing is due to the growing recognition and influence we have. I suppose that’s good news, though it is concerning that it is the most vulnerable atheists in these backward countries who will have to bear the brunt of the backlash. I’m also quite troubled by the near-complete lack of interest the mainstream media has taken in any of this. Bob Churchill, one of the report’s editors, makes a salient point:
… imagine the developments above, applied to other groups: The Jews are “deviant.” The Muslims are a kind of “new religion” that will bring down the state. Or, Christian thought is a form of “terrorism.”
This language is all too familiar. It goes far beyond merely dissenting or disagreeing with a point of view. It is, as we would readily recognize with other groups, intolerant — the stuff on which mass hatred and tragedy are made.
One thing I was surprised by, in compiling this analysis, is just how vital the US is to nonbelief worldwide. Trust me, as a Canadian it grates on my nerves to admit that, and even without the national pride factor, I’ve never been a fan of American exceptionalism or their self-righteous swagger when it comes to their foreign policy. I’m usually among the first to point out the enormous damage they wreak on the world.
However, the fact remains that when it comes to atheism and humanism, the United States is an extremely important player – the most important player, in fact. It turns out that if you are running from discrimination and looking for somewhere safe to go, you have only 0.2% of the world to choose from if you want someplace “Free and Equal”. But if you’re willing to settle for “Mostly Satisfactory”, that number increases to 10.0%… almost all of which is the United States. Put another way, if you’re looking for a “Mostly Satisfactory” or better places to escape to, 70% of where you can go is part of the US.
The US also dominates in the population count. 44.9% of the people who live in “Free and Equal” or “Mostly Satisfactory” places are Americans. If secularism faltered in the US it would be an enormous tragedy for nonbelievers worldwide.
Don’t get me wrong: this state of affairs does not make me happy. But until we can get Wynne, Prentice, and Wall to pull their heads out of her asses – not to mention the Harper itself – and do something about separate schools and the other discriminatory laws, we can’t really hold Canada up as the example of a good example of a secular nation. It really is rather depressing that the US is the most important ally of nonbelievers, and the beacon of atheism worldwide, but… that’s where it stands. We Canadians should support our American friends wholeheartedly in their constant battles against the theocratic religious right, on top of fighting our own battles at home.
Actually, that segues quite nicely into what I think is the most important point Churchill makes, and the point I’d like to close on.:
Atheists and humanists should not be afraid of recognizing they are a persecuted minority. This language does not come easily. For some it may just sound ridiculous, because it’s such an unreality in the lives of relatively comfortable, secular, liberal countries. For other atheists, the idea of being a group is antithetical. Many came to atheism as individuals and may have left religion in part because of what we saw as the perils of groupthink. Nevertheless, we are a group in the eyes of intolerant societies. We must recognize this, even embrace it. We must show solidarity to people living in parts of the world where advocating humanism or even lobbying for secularism or liberalism can be dangerous.
I don’t think I can overstate how much I agree with this. There are atheists for whom it is fashionable to thumb their nose at atheist activism – you’ll even find some of them here. I do appreciate that there is something distasteful about being part of a herd. And I understand, and know personally, that engaging in activism can be a draining, frustrating experience. And when atheist activists expand their interests to cover other groups that you don’t identify with, it can feel like the movement is moving away from you, or that the movement is suffering from “mission drift”.
But here’s the thing. All of those concerns are selfish concerns – they’re all about you. There are atheists and unbelievers suffering – and even dying – right now, for no other reason that simply being atheists and unbelievers. I know this can be hard to believe in Canada, but facts are facts, and the evidence to support that claim is overwhelming.
Whether or not you want to acknowledge the atheist movement, it’s happening. And whether or not you want to accept that it’s bigger than a mere philosophical question of deity ontology, it is. And whether or not you want to be counted along with all the other atheists, all with their own issues of interest, the rest of the world just sees us all as “atheists”. We can either accept that and use that power to make positive change, or we can deny it and just put up with same crap we’ve always had to put up with. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the “bury your head in the sand” approach.
It is not mere coincidence that wherever atheism is free and equal, human rights and equality in general are respected, and vice versa. When we fight for our own rights and freedoms to disbelieve, we’re part of a larger movement that is fighting for the rights and freedoms to be different in general. I think that’s a wonderful thing, and I am quite proud to know that I am on the right side of history.
If there’s one takeaway from the 2014 Freedom of Thought report, it is this: We do live in a world that is very hostile to atheists – and nonbelief and humanist ideas in general. You may be lucky enough that you don’t have to face that hostility directly, but others do face hate, suffer from it, and sometimes even die because of it. Pretending it’s not your problem is not selfish, lazy, and cowardly. We really do need to stand together, and there really are people who are counting on us to be their voices, because it’s too dangerous for them to speak for themselves. Others struggled for our rights and freedoms, it seems only fair and fitting that we take on the responsibility to struggle for the rights and freedoms of people just like us, in places where they need it the most.
This is not an unbelievers’ world. But if we stand up for our rights and for equality, and for each other, we can change that.