A Global Report of Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Nonreligious
The Freedom of Thought Report
is an annual survey on discrimination and persecution against non-religious people in countries around the world. All the latest information is available in our Country Index.
The first report was published in 2012 on International Human Rights Day, 10 December. In his preface to the report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt (in post 2010-2016), said:
“As a universal human right, freedom of religion or belief has a broad application. However, there seems to be little awareness that this right also provides a normative frame of reference for atheists, humanists and freethinkers and their convictions, practices and organizations. I am therefore delighted that for the first time the Humanist community has produced a global report on discrimination against atheists. I hope it will be given careful consideration by everyone concerned with freedom of religion or belief.”
For the 2013 report we asked two victims of anti-atheist persecution to provide the introductory remarks. The cases of Kacem El Ghazzali and Alber Saber, from Morocco and Egypt respectively, also feature in the report. They said:
“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.
We welcome this report. The world cannot fix these problems until they are laid bare.”
In 2014, in their preface, Gulalai Ismail and Agnes Ojera, both working to promote human rights in Pakistan and Uganda respectively, said:
“The rights of the non-religious, and the rights of religious minorities and non-conformists, are a touchstone for the freedoms of thought and expression at large. Discrimination and persecution against the non-religious in particular is very often bound up with political suppression, with fears about progressive values, or with oppression in the name of religion. Humanists and secularists are often among the first to ask questions, and to raise the alarm when human rights are being trampled, when religion is misused or abused, or — even with the best intentions — if religion has become part of the problem. Silence the non-religious, and you silence some of the leading voices of responsible concern in society.”
In 2015, following a series of gruesome murders of non-religious writers, bloggers and human rights activists in Bangladesh, targeted by Islamist militant groups for “insulting Islam”, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, whose husband was the first to be killed in this way that year, said:
“If there are lessons the world must draw from Bangladesh in recent years, they are these: Allowing bigotry and extremism to fester unchallenged will have generational consequences; Demands for prison or death sentences or vigilantism against humanists as such must be met not with appeasement nor by arresting the very bloggers under threat, but with condemnation as the gross violations of freedom of thought and expression that such demands represent; And that once a country silences and intimidates its intellectuals and freethinkers , a vicious cycle of terror and extremism becomes inevitable…”
In 2016, the new UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, wrote the foreword to the 2016 edition. He noted that “The right to freedom of religion or belief is a right that is frequently misunderstood by its conflation with narrowly defined views on religious freedom”, and that by reducing this right to ‘religious freedom’ alone was leaving the non-religious exposed to discrimination and persecution. He concluded:
“I therefore welcome the publication of the 2016 Report of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, documenting the situation of atheists, humanists and free-thinkers all over the world. From Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for alleged “blasphemy”; to Mohamed Cheikh Ould M’kheitir, who is facing the death penalty and incitement to murder in Mauritania for alleged “apostasy”; to Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the mayor of Jakarta who is accused of “blasphemy” amidst an election; to those secular bloggers savagely hacked to death in Bangladesh by vigilante groups; to the scores languishing in prison in Pakistan and Iran and elsewhere for expressing views deemed offensive to religious sentiment; persecution and victimization in the name of religion are both chilling and widespread.
The IHEU report is an important reminder that the right to freedom from religion or belief is as fundamental as the right to freedom of religion, and that the same human right protects freedom of non-religious thought and non-religious belief as well; and that for some humanists, atheists, free-thinkers and the unconcerned the protection of this right can mean the difference between life and death.
Extract and differences between Germany and France:
Constitution and government
The constitution (Grundgesetz, the Basic Law) and other laws and policies both protect and respect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and association. A third of Germany’s population does not belong to any religious community.
Although the Grundgesetz is supposed to ensure state neutrality towards religious institutions, in reality Christian religious institutions are privileged in the social and political spheres. The situation has changed slightly within the last two decades through the inclusion and participation of other religious communities, mainly the Islamic minority, but there have been no groundbreaking changes.
Relevant sections of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Grundgesetz, GG) include:
- “Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, shall be inviolable.” (Art. 4 I GG)
- “The undisturbed practice of religion shall be guaranteed.” (Art. 4 II GG)
- “Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures, and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed. There shall be no censorship.” (Art. 5 I G)
- “Parents and guardians shall have the right to decide whether children shall receive religious instruction.” (Art. 7 II GG)
- “(1) There shall be no state church. (2) The freedom to form religious societies shall be guaranteed. The union of religious societies within the territory of the Reich shall be subject to no restrictions. … (7) Associations whose purpose is to foster a philosophical creed shall have the same status as religious societies. (Art. 137 Weimar const. in conjunction with Art. 140 GG)
Systematic discrimination based on religious identity, affiliation, belief or practice has been reported.
General systemic issues
Although the German constitution says that there shall be no state church, some religious communities and especially the two official churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church in Germany, benefit from a broad range of privileges and advantages.
The Basic Law does not establish a strict separation between state and religion but a model of “partnership” between the State and religious groups with “public law corporation” (PLC) status or groups which are recognized officially in another way, e.g. by special agreements (state treaties).
The German Basic Law and the constitutions of seven out of 16 states do have a preamble saying that these constitutions have been adopted “before god and man”. These words in preambles are usually used to justify religious privileges and to emphasize the role of religion in public life.
In regard to religion, Germany is a much divided society. Especially the population in the states of the former GDR is mostly secular, in a way that lets them be unaware of the presence of religious groups in politics and media and in consequence of the systemic discrimination of non-religious citizens or members of religious minorities through privileges for other religious groups. This unawareness is a result of a wide exclusion of religion and religious groups from public life, media and education during the decades of GDR government.
Establishment of religion
The government provides subsidies (payment of salaries, maintenance and equipment for facilities and tax exemptions) for certain religious or belief groups with PLC status. The funding for the Roman Catholic Church is partly based on concordats and compensation regulations for secularization acts (so-called “historische Staatsleistungen”) at the beginning of the 18th century.
Other religious groups and a few small humanist communities receive state funding based on state-treaties concluded on the principle of equal treatment. The amount of state funding for the different groups varies strongly. The amount of compensation entitled to the two official churches for secularization acts added up to about €480 million in 2013.
The German authorities are responsible for collecting a church tax (membership fees) for the official churches. The church tax is drawn directly from the salary. To make the tax collection by the authorities possible, the denomination of citizens is officially registered, e.g. on the income tax card of an employee. In consequence, citizens have to reveal their religious identity to the authorities and employers.
To leave a church or an officially registered religious group, authorities in almost all states demand citizens to pay an administrative fee between €30 and €60. It is not possible to leave an officially registered religion (and to end the tax duty on the income) by just declaring the rejection of the belief to this religious group.
Education and children’s rights
Religious education (RE) is mandatory in most states and there is no adequate substitute for unaffiliated children.
Though RE is a “mandatory” subject by law, parents can unsubscribe their children from it. Students can opt out themselves when they are 14 years or older. However, school headmasters and teachers often do not give adequate information on the right to unsubscribe from RE. Administrative regulations hinder the possibility to unsubscribe at any time in a school year. In many states there are just small time frames to formally unsubscribe from RE.
In some states there is a subject “ethics” for secondary schools, which often lacks equal equipment in resources and qualification standards. Non-religious life stance subjects as an alternative to religious education in public schools are not allowed in almost all states. Only in the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, where participation in religious education is not mandatory, a non-religious life stance subject (“Humanistische Lebenskunde”) is allowed.
Free religious schools (almost fully state funded) are allowed to reject children and employees of other or without a religious affiliation (based on exemptions in labour and anti-discrimination laws).
In two states, North Rhine Westphalia and Lower-Saxony, there are (public) “denominational schools” run by the state, which are allowed to reject and discriminate employees (based on exemptions in labour and anti-discrimination laws).
Many public universities do have state funded faculties for Christian theology. Catholic bishops in the state of Bavaria have the power of veto in philosophical faculties to prevent an unwanted professor.
In Baden-Wurttemberg, Bavaria, North Rhine Westphalia, Rhineland Palatinate and the Saarland, ‘Fear of God’ is named as a top goal in education. These legal requirements are in clear contrast to the model of an ideologically neutral state. In some schools creationism is taught to this day, especially in religious education classes which are taught from the first class onwards. Despite the fact that the theory of evolution is scientifically uncontested, teaching of evolution is found only in higher level classes and fewer hours are dedicated to it in the timetable.
Family, community and society
About 30 % of Germany’s population has no religious affiliation or is a member of any unrecorded religious group. According to REMID, religious affiliation of the population in 2012 was: 29.2 % Protestant, 30.3 % Catholic, 5 % Muslim (including 500.000 Alevis), 0.1 % Jewish, 0.1 % Hindu, 0.3 % Buddhist, 1.8 % Orthodox.
In a survey published in 2013, about 22 % said to be non-believers/agnostics or atheists.
A majority of citizens with no religious affiliation and non-religious views live in the eastern and northern part of the country.
The recognised groups include the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, EKD) and several other Protestant denominations, Anglicanism, Orthodox churches (Greek and Russian), the Jewish Community in Germany, several Muslim communities, smaller religious groups and, in a few states, secular humanism. Unrecognised groups may worship freely and openly.
Social and cultural services in Germany are built upon the subsidiarity principle. This means that these services are only run by the state if there is no other local organization which is able or willing to provide them, or if there are special reasons that they should only be run by the state. This is the fundament for the existence of a vast range of big and small charitable organizations which are providing the various services. The work of the institutions offering social services is largely state funded, organizations receive 80 – 100 % of the necessary expenditures from the state.
Both official churches are strongly engaged in this field. Their charitable organizations are the biggest employers in the labour market apart from the public service, with about 1.3 million employees. Diakonie, the social welfare organization of Germany’s protestant Churches, and Caritas, the Catholic Church’s welfare organization, employ some 1.05 million people, then there are also interns, apprentices and other employees to take into account. The Catholic and Protestant churches and their respective charitable organizations form the fourth largest employer in Germany after companies in the metal and electronics industries, the civil service and the retail sector. 60 per cent of all job positions in the social sector are with Church-affiliated charitable organizations and, in light of these statistics, it’s clear that these organizations do not only dominate professions in social care, but also that the volume of employment in social welfare for the whole national economy is highly significant. Disadvantages in this sector therefore hit particularly hard. Church employers have a monopoly in the social care sector; this applies to both provision of services and job vacancies. They are most active in hospices and retirement homes, child care and social care.
In some parts of Germany there is a strong presence of Church-affiliated agencies in the healthcare system, so they have built up quasi-monopolies in medical service. Here women in particular experience discrimination in the form of restrictions of their right to sexual self-determination, as they are unable to access services to end pregnancies in Catholic-run institutions. This also applies to emergency cases and rape victims.
Different to the non-denominational organizations, the denominational organizations profit from several exemptions in the law allowing them to exclude the right to strike for their employees and to exclude employees with a different or without a religious affiliation. This results in systemic discrimination against employees of other beliefs and unaffiliated employees, but also non-heterosexual or remarried employees in Catholic institutions.
Public schools and kindergartens in states with higher religious affiliation of its population are holding masses, forcing sometimes even unaffiliated children to participate.
There are Catholic and Protestant chaplains in the German defence forces but no chaplains for unaffiliated soldiers.
Other religious privileges
There are different forms of tax exemptions for religious groups. Officially registered groups profit from the exclusion from administrative fees.
Religious broadcast programmes are fostered through laws and are partly state-funded. There is a broad presence of the official churches in the national public broadcasting programmes and representation on supervisory boards of public television and radio stations.
In some states, crucifixes and Christian crosses are used as official symbols in public schools and courts. In some states, events which include dancing and music are forbidden on certain Christian holidays.
Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values
Freedom of speech and the press is guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected by the government. Internet access is unrestricted. Germans have access to numerous private media outlets. The concentration of newspaper ownership has increased in recent decades, leaving most of the country’s papers in the hands of a few corporations.
The law on “Defamation of religions” is potentially very broad in application and punishable with a prison sentence. 166 of the criminal code still contains a “blasphemy” law which shields particular religious as well as other philosophical views from criticism or defamation:
Defamation of religions, religious and ideological associations
(1) Whosoever publicly or through dissemination of written materials (section 11(3)) defames the religion or ideology of others in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace, shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine.
(2) Whosoever publicly or through dissemination of written materials (section 11(3)) defames a church or other religious or ideological association within Germany, or their institutions or customs in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace, shall incur the same penalty.
Though all cast in terms of “disturbing the public peace”, this is much broader than, for example “incitement to hatred or violence” and is in tension with the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which delineate expressions that are intentionally inciting violence against persons, from expressions which may happen to lead to violence because someone hearing those expressions responds violently. The former is legitimately restricted, but the latter, which could fall under the broad description “capable of disturbing the public peace”, means that the law can be used to suppress merely critical or ridiculing speech acts.
Humanists have been campaigning for the repeal of the “Defamation of religions” law.
Lack of representation
Public remembrance and memorials often include representatives of the official churches, representatives of non-religious people are almost always missing.
Humanist holidays such as 21st June (World Humanist Day), 24th November (Evolution day) and 10th December (Human Rights Day) are not legally recognised in any of the federal states. Only schools in Berlin have acknowledged World Humanist Day as a holiday equal to All Saints’ Day, Yom Kippur and Eid al-Fitr, therefore pupils in Berlin who ascribe to the Humanist belief system can apply for a day off to celebrate their beliefs in the same way Christians, Jews and Muslims celebrate religious holidays.
Anna Ignatius, Doctor of Philosophy and non-religious mother of three from the state of Baden-Württemberg, was denied the right to an ethical education for her sons in their schools. In 2007 she formally asked for the establishment of the school subject “ethics”. She did so on the legal grounds that non-affiliated parents and students (should) have the same right to get an ethical education as religiously affiliated people have the right to get their religious education. In 2014, the Federal Administrative Court of Germany ruled that she has no right to claim the establishment of the wanted school subject for non-religious children. The court explained that the basic law privileges religious education.
In 2013, an administrative court in Berlin ruled that a son of Beate Turner does not have the right to claim equal treatment to a law privileging religious holidays. A year ago, Beater Turner informed the teacher of a school class her son was visiting that he wouldn’t attend school on 21st June, World Humanist Day. She referred to an administrative provision which allows children of several religious groups to be exempted from compulsory schooling on religious holidays. At the end of the year there was a day of unexcused absence marked in her son’s school report.
The head of a nursery run by the Catholic Church, Bernadette Knecht, was dismissed in 2012 after a divorce and moving in withher new partner, although the nursery was 100 % funded by the state.
The nursery-school teacher Isa K. was dismissed after 13 years when it became known in 2012 that she was living in a lesbian relationship.
The practical philosopher Ulla Wessels (teaching at Saarland University) was excluded from candidatures for a professorship at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in 2010. Wessels is non-religious, graduated with a thesis on the abortion laws in Germany and is scientific advisor of an organization known for its critical attitude towards religion. Wessels’ exclusion seems to have been a result of the veto right of the Catholic Church (“right to remember”) in Bavaria. A lawsuit filed against the exclusion has not brought a decision until today because the appointment process for the professorship was cancelled, thus the concrete subject matter of action became obsolete. At the moment, Wessels is waiting for a decision on a constitutional complaint against the decision of the former instance which rejected the lawsuit after the appointment process was cancelled.
In 1994, a musical with the title Das Maria Syndrom, produced by the philosopher and artist Michael Schmidt-Salomon, was censored because it could have violated the criminal code against defamation of religious denominations, §166 StGB.
In 2012, a 25-year old woman was turned away by two Church-run clinics when she sought help after waking up on a park bench in the city, having been drugged. She walked into the first centre on the morning of December 15th 2012 and stated she believed she had been sedated with a date rape drug and sexually assaulted. The doctor she spoke to called St Vincent’s hospital, run by the Catholic Foundation of the Cellites, to arrange a gynaecological examination but doctors at the hospital refused the request. The doctor who treated the patient alleged that the hospital’s ethics committee had decided not to carry out examinations of sexual assault victims following a consultation with the Archbishop of Cologne Joachim Meisner in order to avoid being pressured into issuing the morning-after pill, which is forbidden by the Catholic Church. Another hospital managed by the same organization refused to see the patient. The case was widely reported and caused outrage in Germany, having resulted in the discrimination of a traumatised and vulnerable individual on religious grounds. The organization responsible later labelled the incident as a ‘misunderstanding’.
Constitution and government
The French constitution was adopted in 1958 and declares France a secular state and guarantees religious freedom and equality. Article 1 states, ‘France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic, guaranteeing that all citizens regardless of their origin, race or religion are treated as equals before the law and respecting all religious beliefs.’
The constitution and other laws, including the 1905 “Law on the Separation of the Churches and the State”, ensure state secularism (laїcité) and protect freedom of religion or belief. The constitution also guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and the government respects these rights in practice. The establishment of secularism in the public sphere put all religions into the private sphere. The government does not have a religious preference and aims at the peaceful co-existence of various faiths.
There are some exceptions to the policy of strict secularism. Notably, the law of 1905 does not completely apply to all French regions and territories. Because the regions of Alsace and Lorraine were part of the German Empire during the passage of the 1905 law, members of Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Jewish groups there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Local governments may also provide financial support for building religious edifices.
In addition, there are still blasphemy laws on the book in the regions of Alsace and Lorraine, as Articles 166 and 167 of the local penal code, although no convictions have been registered.
French Guyana, which is governed under the colonial laws of Charles X, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. The French Overseas Departments and Territories, which include island territories in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific, and Indian oceans, are also not subject to the 1905 law and may provide funding for religious groups within their territories.
The French government maintains all the Roman Catholic churches built before 1905, however they are under the ownership of the French government. No other religious buildings are maintained in this way.
Family, community and society
Some religious restrictions, not necessarily unlawful or wrong
France banned the wearing of the face-veil (niqab) in public, along with other face coverings, explained in terms of maintaining social cohesion and disempowering potential terrorists. In July 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it was within the margin of freedom under European human rights legislation. The French government has also prohibited or limited the activities of religious groups considered to be cults, such as Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses.