Anti-Atheist Terrorism: A New Threat

Anti-atheist terrorism is gaining momentum around the world. While major events like the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and the murders of rationalist bloggers in Bangladesh brought attention to this unfortunate problem, it's far from isolated to those individual incidents. In the last few weeks, several instances of anti-atheist terrorism suggest that these events aren't just the actions of hateful individuals, but are the result of governmental policies which malign and discriminate against atheists.

Russia is a country which not long ago was considered at least a safe haven for atheists, but in the past two decades, it turned toward traditional religion with surprising speed. Now, a Russian citizen, Victor Krasnov, is being prosecuted for what he said about religion on social media. His atheism and his conviction that traditional religions are fairy tales have not just resulted in legal charges, but ironically in psychiatric care: he was placed under evaluation for a month--as if accepting reality is sign that one has had a break from reality.

The struggle for full religious liberty is underway in Malta as well--despite the language in the Constitution of Malta that "all persons in Malta shall have full freedom of conscience and enjoy the free exercise of their respective mode of religious worship." In backlash to a sensible move legislating the removal of blasphemy laws, which are described as "crimes against religious sentiment" in the Maltese Criminal Code, there's now a push to keep such laws in place and expand them to include vilification of atheists. Keeping blasphemy laws of any kind is a mistake, and expanding them is even worse. Freedom of thought and expression should not be curtailed.

Another example comes from Saudi Arabia, which is supposed to be a US ally. According to a recent WIN/Gallup poll, over a million atheists reside within the monarchy. But in Saudi Arabia, blasphemy laws are enforced by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a government entity which is just as scary as it sounds. Last year, the state tried to make an example of an atheist to discourage other citizens from leaving Islam and embracing nontheism. Raif Badawi was sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes for his atheism, but this still wasn't enough for the religious authorities. Just last month, according to the Associated Press, Saudi Arabia sentenced another Saudi nonbeliever, this time to ten years in prison and 2,000 lashes for sending atheist tweets.

In the cases above, we see countries driven by fear and religious oppressiveness to make and enforce rules that remove people's freedom from religion. And without freedom from religion and freedom of religion, religious liberty becomes a theocratic imposition of one religion over an entire population.

The Freedom of Thought Report annually catalogs discrimination against nonreligious people on behalf the International Humanist and Ethical Union. In the foreword to the latest Freedom of Thought Report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief Heiner Bielefeldt writes, "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 have to be vigilant in our efforts to prevent such laws from taking hold, and we ought to use our nation's considerable political clout to pressure others to stop making and enforcing laws that remove the most important and underappreciated component of religious freedom--freedom from religion. If we fail to do this, the anti-atheist terrorism sweeping the world will gain even more momentum, and what's bad for the atheists will be bad for minority religions as well. Today's religious majority could be in the minority in the future, and we'd all be wise to remember Martin Niemoller's warning that there will be no one left to speak for us if we fail to speak for those who need support against tyranny today.