Thank you. Good afternoon everyone.
Can I start by thanking Mairead and Jan Figel, first of all for having us here today. I think you should know that it’s very important to us, and that we value the chance to come here and speak to you about these important issues. And as Jan Figel said we value the partnership with the European Union very closely, and we’re grateful to him and his team for the cooperation that we’ve had on these important issues. And it’s also very good to know that someone reads our report as well.
On these issues, to frame this let me explain who I am, I am the Chief Executive of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which is a global umbrella body for atheist, humanist and non-religious organisations. We have over 150 national organisations in over 60 countries around the world. And what we do is we try to represent the viewpoint, the diverse viewpoint, of our members at the United Nations, the African Commission at the various different international and regional bodies around the world. And of course with along with our partners in the European Humanist Federation, to represent and engage with the European Institutions.
I’m grateful, as I said, for the chance to come and speak at this event, I’ll try to keep my remarks quite short so we have some chance to discuss. And I also I just want to preface this by saying the sense of partnership we feel for the European Union is very strong, but we don’t often get the chance to come and speak to such important people as this, so if my comments sound critical they’re the comments of a critical friend, and meant to be constructive, and like I say that’s the position that we come at this from.
The sense that I get when I do have the chance to speak to international delegates, members of parliament and so on, is there there’s some how a controversy, or there’s an anxiety about recognising the rights of atheists and humanists. Somehow that the rights of religious people; minorities and majority religious believers is considered completely within the confines of normal discourse and human rights discourse, but when it comes to the issue of atheists, apostates, liberal reformers of religions, there’s somehow an anxiety there that this is a taboo subject that we have to be careful about, and has to be moderated very closely. I don’t think this is justified, I don’t think we need to have this anxiety, and I hope to convince you in the next few minutes to agree with me.
So, let me first of all give you a broad overview of where we see the position in terms of the rights for atheists and humanists around the world. As Jan Figel mentioned we release this report annually, which is the Freedom of Thought Report, we launched this in December at the [European] Parliament here. And this report covers every single country in the world and it gives an assessment of the legal and policy framework, in terms of how atheists and humanists are treated in terms of human rights.
What we identified in 2017 is a trend, we highlighted 7 countries in particular, those countries are many of the ones that Jan Figel has mentioned, such as: Pakistan, India, The Maldives, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Mauritania. Where in these 7 countries there was an active persecution of atheists and humanists, and in many cases this was either condoned or was simply… there was impunity from the governments of those countries.
There is a total of 85 countries which we categorise as showing ‘severe’ discrimination against non-religious individuals. And again the number of colleagues that we saw murdered in 2017 was again quite disturbing. I’m sure I don’t explain to everybody in this room the tides of populism and nationalism that we are seeing grow in different parts of the world, and Jan Figel mentioned India. I was moved to go to India this year in January to visit some colleagues – India, just as an aside, is one of the most active countries in the world in terms of humanist, atheist, rationalist non-religious organisations, India was one of the founding members of IHEU, we have about 20% of our members are based in India, so it’s a very important country for us. But if you listened to the discourse coming from Indian politicians, and the Prime Minister, you would imagine that India is a completely Hindu country and that the rich historical diversity of non-religious freethought simply doesn’t exist there. And I guess that the message that we try to get out with these reports is that there is a different India that lurks beneath the surface, there’s people like our colleagues, who are doing things like anti-caste discrimination, trying to promote women’s and children’s rights, and they exist. The problem that… and just as an aside, when I was there I had the rather onerous duty of unveiling a portrait of 6 of my colleagues who had been murdered in the last few years. So these issues are real, and they’re happening today.
So, the situation that we have is that atheists, humanists and our colleagues suffer from what we call invisibility. In many countries, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan to mention a few, there is simply no category for our colleagues to exist, they are not able to register themselves, to identify themselves in line with their philosophical belief commitments. There is also a second level of invisibility, and this is the situation we have when we have the Bangladeshi bloggers, not only in many countries is it impossible for you technically legally exist, or you face the death penalty if you are open about your beliefs. Secondly there is the invisibility caused by thugs and gangs and, in many cases, state-sponsored harassment if you were to simply identify yourself as an atheist or a humanist. So there is two forces at work here which cause the invisibility of our friends and colleagues in these countries. And that is what makes this a very important, but also difficult subject to talk about because in many countries around the world we simply don’t know how many atheists and humanists there are, and it’s caused by this problem of invisibility. And again, it feeds back in a vicious feedback cycle into this anxiety and confusion, or controversy that people have to talk about the issue, and I hope that this meeting and the good work of Jan Figel and the External Action Service, is a beginning of the process to de-stigmatise conversation about non-religious people.
And it’s important as well, the language matters. I not that Mairead and Jan used the very important term ‘freedom of religion or belief’, and they made an explicit point to mention the ‘B’; the belief part. And it’s really important, I think, that people know that this means a lot to those of us who are engaged in this process. Freedom of religion or belief is a complicated right, it’s been further explained by the United Nations and so on, and it’s a qualified right, of course. You know we don’t have a right to simply expose our views in any way that comes to mind, we have to be mindful of the rights and duties of others, but we have to ensure that freedom of religion or belief does not simply come down to the common denominator of religious freedom. It has to include the right to dissent, the right to reform, the right to object, the right to criticise, and also – something we should say – the right to have no opinion at all, the right for a large group in society who are not inclined one way or the other about this important debate, and that’s their right.
So, those are some of the issues. What do I think the European Commission, the External Action Service, all of you important people, can do more? Jan Figel mentioned blasphemy laws, and the impact that they have in many countries around the world.
Do you know that there are about 10 countries in the European Union who still have blasphemy laws? One of them Greece actually still applies and prosecutes people for blasphemy… [laughs] and yes, I don’t have to mention to Mairead of course (Ireland is one of the EU members with a blasphemy law). And also in my country of Scotland, we still have a blasphemy law. Obviously there is not a grave situation facing atheists and humanists in Europe, as has been said. And the blasphemy laws, where they’re still there, they are mostly dead-letter laws, they are not able to be applied. But, let me say this.
Why don’t we, or all of you important people, make a commitment to call upon European governments to repeal their blasphemy laws?
Not because we’re trying to pretend that humanists in Europe are going to be locked up, let’s not pretend that, but to show moral leadership for the rest of the world.
That we stand with atheists and humanists who are being murdered, who are being censured, who are being put in jail. Why don’t we say that? Why don’t we call upon European governments to repeal these laws? There’s one suggestion.
Also, to Jan and his team, and to other people from the European Commission, when you meet delegates from other countries, some of the countries we’ve mentioned, ask them about atheists, ask them about humanists, and remember in many cases these people are invisible, lurking beneath the surface, unable to identify themselves. Make sure that you don’t, because of some idea of controversy or because you want to be sensitive, make sure you don’t simply turn a blind eye to this. Because my colleagues are there, they are real, they are at threat and they need your help. So those are some things that we can do.
I think I’ll leave it there for now, but again, thank you for the invitation.