Conversation on Discrimination Against Non-Believers with Bob Churchill — Session 1

Bob Churchill is the Communications Director for the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Editor of the Freedom of Thought Report. Bob Churchill is also a trustee of the Conway Hall Ethical Society and of the Karen Woo Foundation. Here we talk about discrimination against non-believers.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You are the best person I can think of to be in a position to know the ways and types of discrimination against non-believers in the world. Why? We did an interview before, on the relevant topic matter. I wanted to do an educational series on non-believers’ experienced discrimination by the numbers. You agreed. Here we are, so here we go: what is the most common discrimination non-believers across the world share? The standard prejudice against them.

Bob Churchill: This is very difficult to actually measure, but I would say the most prevalent problem (i.e. it affects the most people most often) is social discrimination. By this I mean the day-to-day suppression committed by other people: it might be friends who bristle if you say the wrong thing, teachers who might explicitly threaten you to keep you ‘belonging’ to a religion, parents who let you know how disappointed they’d be if you failed to conform to their beliefs and traditions. They might even let you know in no uncertain terms that they’d ostracise you.

I think in more liberal, secular countries it may be easy to forget or not to think about this social discrimination for the mainstream broadly secular population — though not if you’re raised in a ‘conservative’ religious community of course! But across huge parts of the world, criticism of religious beliefs, practices or institutions may be viewed as deeply suspicious, or even as malevolent. To actually assert boldly “I do not believe in this God or his prophet” could mean being thrown out of your own family, losing friends, losing your support network. To supposedly ‘insult’ religion can get you lynched.

And this is a very real threat. Just recently Mashal Khan, a student in a Pakistani university who called himself “the humanist” on Facebook, was accused of blasphemy and murdered by a crowd of fellow students (the incident was filmed on mobile phones).

Maybe it’s worth adding that in ‘the west’ you get some church leaders and religious commentators who say they feel like they can’t talk about or preach their Christianity anymore because of anti-Christian “persecution”. And superficially there’s a similarity there, but I don’t think it holds up: I don’t think the situation of Christians in secular Europe for example is at all symmetrical with the very real persecution of the non-religious in predominantly Islamic countries. Yes, in some countries in Europe, religion no longer has the cultural heft it once had, but it is often still privileged by the state. Yes it’s no longer the dominant worldview, but it was for centuries, and its doctrines have been heard ad nauseam, and it has simply lost most of the arguments. Yes we’re often suspicious of preaching, but it is permitted and protected. Yes churches are dying out, but they still dot the landscape, and they’re not being forcibly shut down they’re just closing as people leave them. So while obviously there are places where Christians really are persecuted, just like the non-religious, I would strongly resist the idea that that’s generally the case in Europe or ‘the west’, and really when someone makes that claim it is either being made strategically, or it just reveals their ignorance to the realities of actual persecution.

Jacobsen: What is the most unique form of discrimination you have ever come across through research into the bigotry and prejudice against non-believers?

Churchill: Well, I would say that the more remarkable feature of problems faced by the non-religious is how similar they often are from place to place. At the legal level, it’s often the same religious supremacist or traditionalist arguments that are used to privilege religion or discriminate against atheists in law. In Islamic states in particular the same lines of so-called Islamic jurisprudence or religious law appear from place to place to justify very similar laws against ‘blasphemy’, ‘apostasy’, constraints on marriage and family law according to religion, restricting the freedom of thought and expression, and so on.

Another very common recurring theme with ‘blasphemy’-type cases in particular is how often it’s all about texts, Facebook posts, Whatsapp groups and so on. Sometimes it’s still about books or physical protests, or in the Ashraf Fayadh case it was about “atheistic poetry”! But the medium is usually online now. And this isn’t something to be just shrugged off by saying “well, that’s where people speak in public now”, because a really worrying trend just in the past year or two is that we’ve seen more and more cases where the person being prosecuted is being prosecuted for posting in private conversations, in Facebook groups that people have elected to join, and even in more-or-less private Whatsapp groups. So as we’ve developed these ways of using the internet in smaller, more selective channels, even those are being broken into and subjected to the same kind of restrictions as if you were standing on a street corner.

In terms of social problems too, I’d say it’s the similarity risks and concerns from place to place that stand out for me: the threat of being ostracized from family and friends, in extremis the threat of being publicly named, attacked or lynched. The fear of being cut off from support networks recurs a lot from atheists in the most hostile countries, and — this has come up when I’ve been talking to people a few times — if someone is very isolated then it’s not just about losing their existing family but about damaging their chances of starting one. If you live in a more conservative society and marriage traditionally depends on the support and approval of families and so on, and if you’ve lost all that because you’ve been thrown out of your family, then finding a wife or husband might have gone out of the window too.

None of this isn’t to say that every nation has its peculiarities of course, I don’t want to make the whole world sound homogenous. But it’s more the patterns of similarity that strike me that uniqueness.

I can mention a few details that have stood out though; things which are not really unique but are certainly very indicative. The Alexander Aan case in Indonesia a few years ago had a horrible ironic kicker to it. He was charged with ‘blasphemy’ and ‘calling for others to embrace atheism’ for posting on Facebook — so far so horribly predictable. But also, Indonesia made it a requirement to state your religious affiliation on identity papers, and they were only allowing six choices: you can be a Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Confucian, Buddhist, or Hindu. You can’t put “atheist”. So in addition to being put on trial for spreading atheism he was also accused of lying on official documents by putting “Muslim”.

One of the less commented-on aspects of the Pussy Riot trial a few years ago was that the judge said in her summing up that they were found guilty of “religious hatred” because their protest was feminist, and the Russian Orthodox religion was incompatible with feminism, therefore the band was obviously promoting their own beliefs in a supremacist way over that of the church! Quite incredible.

Ashraf Fayadh who I mentioned before, in his trial in Saudi Arabia the court was reportedly shown pictures of him, selfies maybe, with female friends at art shows, and also his long hair. This was all used against him, basically to show he was too liberal. Imagine being on trial facing a possible death sentence for “apostasy” — and he was actually sentenced to death on the back of this, although that’s since been commuted to a long prison sentence — but imagine that your life is on the line, you might be executed for leaving your presumed religion, and some prosecution lawyer starts banging on about the length of your hair! Utter mockery of justice.

Jacobsen: To give an idea of the range, what country is the worst for respecting human rights of non-believers? What country is the best? Why (for each)?

Churchill: In the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report we assess each country according to a global ratings system. There are four thematic areas we consider, and five levels of severity across all four thematic areas, so you might say that the worst countries are the ones rated most severely across all four thematic areas. That’s true of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan. And a very close second, with the worst ratings in three out of four strands and the second-worst rating in the remaining strand, there’s another six countries: Brunei, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

But there’s a lot of ways of chopping the data up, and that’s just looking at where the country is performing consistently badly across our themes, so you could look at it another way. For example, you might very well say that any country in which there’s a possible death sentence for being an atheist, under ‘blasphemy’ or ‘apostasy’ laws, then that has got to belong in your absolute “worst” category! And there are thirteen countries in that camp (many the same as above of course): Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen. And recently we’ve seen extrajudicial or militant killings of humanists (or people accused of atheism) in India, Maldives, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. And in each case there appears to be near complete impunity for the attackers.

Meanwhile, we’ve applied the best rating across all four thematic strands in just three countries: Belgium, the Netherlands and Taiwan. This isn’t to say there’s never any problem in these places, of course! There may still be some battles to fight along secular lines.

And of course anyone in a conservative religious community in any country may find themselves discriminated against. But legally speaking and in terms of the social indicators we could detect, these three countries succeed in having none of our negative boundary conditions applied to them.

Every country has its own dedicated web page via and all the summary data is available via I’d urge people to read the Report and we’re always looking for volunteers to help maintain and update the information — there are details about how you can join the volunteer researcher pool at

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, my friend.

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Image Credit: Bob Churchill.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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