Discrimination against atheists, both at present and historically,
includes the persecution of those identifying themselves or
labelled by others as atheists, as well as the discrimination
against them. As atheism can be defined in various ways,
those discriminated against on the grounds of being atheists
might not have been considered as such in a different time or
place. As of 2015, 19 countries punish their citizens for
apostasy, and in 13 of those countries it is punishable by death.
Legal discrimination against atheists is uncommon in
constitutional democracies, although some atheists and atheist
groups, particularly in the United States, have protested against
laws, regulations, and institutions that they view as
discriminatory. In some Islamic countries, atheists face
discrimination and severe penalties such as the withdrawal of
legal status or, in the case of apostasy , capital punishment.
Some historians, such as Lucien Febvre, have postulated that
atheism in its modern sense did not exist before the end of the
seventeenth century. However, as governmental authority
rested on the notion of divine right , it was threatened by those
who denied the existence of the local god. Those labelled as
atheist, including early Christians and Muslims, were as a result
targeted for legal persecution.
During the early modern period, the term "atheist" was used as
an insult and applied to a broad range of people, including
those who held opposing theological beliefs, as well as suicides,
immoral or self-indulgent people, and even opponents of the
belief in witchcraft. Atheistic beliefs were seen as threatening to
order and society by philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas.
Lawyer and scholar Thomas More said that religious tolerance
should be extended to all except those who did not believe in a
deity or the immortality of the soul. John Locke, a founder of modern notions of religious
liberty, argued that atheists (as well as Catholics and Muslims) should not be granted full
During the Inquisition , several of those accused of atheism or blasphemy, or both, were
tortured or executed. These included the priest Giulio Cesare Vanini who was strangled
and burned in 1619 and the Polish nobleman Kazimierz Łyszczyński who was executed in
Warsaw, as well as Etienne Dolet, a Frenchman executed in 1546. Though heralded as
atheist martyr during the nineteenth century, recent scholars hold that the beliefs espoused
by Dolet and Vanini are not atheistic in modern terms.
During the nineteenth century, British atheists, though few in number, were subject to
discriminatory practices. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford and denied custody of his two children after publishing a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism . Those unwilling to swear Christian oaths during judicial proceedings were unable to give evidence in court to obtain justice until this requirement was repealed by Acts passed in 1869 and 1870.
Atheist Charles Bradlaugh was elected as a Member of the British Parliament in 1880. He was denied the right to affirm rather than swear his oath of office, and was then denied the ability to swear the oath as other Members objected that he
had himself said it would be meaningless. Bradlaugh was re-elected three times before he was finally able to take his seat in 1886 when the Speaker of the House permitted him to take the oath.
In Germany during the Nazi era, a 1933 decree stated that "No National Socialist may suffer
detriment... on the ground that he does not make any religious profession at all". However,
the regime strongly opposed " godless communism ", and most of Germany's atheist and
largely left-wing free thought organisations were banned the same year; some right-wing
groups were tolerated by the Nazis until the mid-1930s. During negotiations leading to the
Nazi-Vatican Concordat of April 26, 1933 Hitler stated that "Secular schools can never be
tolerated" because of their irreligious tendencies. Hitler routinely disregarded this undertaking,
and the Reich concordat as a whole and by 1939, all Catholic denominational schools had
been disbanded or converted to public facilities.
In a speech made later in 1933, Hitler claimed to have "stamped out" the Gottlosenbewegung
atheistic movement. The word Hitler used, " Gottlosenbewegung ", means "Godless
Movement" in German, and refers to the communist free thought movement, though might
not refer to atheism in general. The historian Richard J. Evans wrote that, by 1939, 95% of Germans still called themselves Protestant or Catholic, while 3.5% were so called "gottgläubig" (lit. "believers in god", a non-denominational nazified outlook on god beliefs, often described as predominately based on creationist and deistic views) and 1.5% atheist. According to Evans, those members of the affiliation gottgläubig "were convinced Nazis who had left their Church at the behest of the Party, which had been trying since the mid 1930s to reduce the influence of Christianity in society". Heinrich Himmler, who was fascinated with Germanic paganism, was a strong promoter of the gottgläubig movement and didn't allow atheists into the SS, arguing that their "refusal to acknowledge higher powers" would be a "potential source of indiscipline". The majority of the three million Nazi Party members continued to pay their church taxes and register as either Roman Catholic or Evangelical Protestant Christians.
"TITTER YE NOT"
Four nuns are standing
in line at the gates of
heaven. Peter asks the
first if she has ever
"Well, once I looked at a man's penis," she said.
"Put some of this holy
water on your eyes and you may enter heaven," Peter told her.
He then asked the
second nun if she had
"Well, once I held a man's penis," she
"Put your hand in this holy water and you may enter heaven," he said.
Just then the fourth nun pushed ahead of the third nun.
"Why did you push
ahead in line?" asked Peter.
"Because I want to gargle before she sits in it!" replied the nun.
Mother Superior calls all the nuns together and says to them.
"I must tell you all something. We have a case of gonorrhoea
in the convent."
"Thank God," says an
elderly nun at the back of the room, "I'm so tired of Chardonnay."
Jesus walks into a motel, throws a bag of nails on the counter and says,
"Can you put me up for the night?"
A 2009 survey showed that atheists are the most hated
demographic group in Brazil, among several other minorities
polled, being almost on par with drug addicts. According to the
research, 17% of the interviewees stated they feel either hate or
repulsion for atheists , while 25% feel antipathy and 29% are
Canadian secular humanist groups have worked to end the
recitation of prayers during government proceedings, viewing them
as discriminatory. Scouts Canada states that while a belief in God
or affiliation with organized religion is not a requirement to join,
members must have " a basic spiritual belief " and one of the core
values is "Duty to God:
Defined as, the responsibility to adhere to
spiritual principles, and thus to the religion that expresses them,
and to accept the duties there from."
Discrimination against atheists in the United State occurs in legal, personal, social, and professional contexts. Some
American atheists compare their situation to the discrimination faced bye ethnic minorities, LGBT communities, and women. "Americans still feel it's acceptable to discriminate against atheists in ways considered beyond the pale for other groups," asserted Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association.
However, other atheists reject these comparisons, arguing that
while atheists may face disapproval, they have not faced
significant oppression or discrimination.
In the United States, seven state constitutions include religious
tests that would effectively prevent atheists from holding public
office, and in some cases being a juror/witness, though these
have not generally been enforced since the early twentieth
century. The U.S. Constitution allows for an affirmation instead
of an oath in order to accommodate atheists and others in court
or seeking to hold public office. In 1961, the United States
Supreme Court explicitly overturned the Maryland provision in
the Torcaso v Watkins decision, holding that laws requiring
"a belief in the existence of God" in order to hold public office
violated freedom of religion provided for by the
decision is generally understood to also apply to witness oaths.
Several American atheists have used court challenges to assert discrimination against atheists. Michael Newdow challenged inclusion of the phrase "under God" in the United States Pledge of Allegiance on behalf of his daughter, claiming that the phrase was discriminatory against non-theists. He won the case at an initial stage, but the Supreme Court dismissed his claim, ruling that Newdow did not have standing to bring his case, thus disposing of the case without ruling on the constitutionality of the pledge.
Respondents to a survey were less likely to support a kidney transplant for hypothetical atheists and agnostics needing it, than for Christian patients with similar medical needs. As the Boy Scouts of America does not allow atheists as members, atheist families and the ACLU from the 1990s onwards have launched a series of court cases arguing discrimination
against atheists. In response to ACLU lawsuits, the Pentagon in 2004 ended sponsorship of Scouting units, and in 2005 the BSA agreed to transfer all Scouting units out of government entities such as public schools.
Few politicians have been willing to identify as non-theists, since such revelations have been
considered "political suicide". In a landmark move, California Representative Pete Stark
came out in 2007 as the first openly nontheistic member of Congress. In 2009, City Council
man Cecil Bothwell of Asheville, North Carolina was called "unworthy of his seat" because of
his open atheism. Several polls have shown that about 50 percent of Americans would not
vote for a qualified atheist for president. A 2006 study found that 40% of respondents
characterized atheists as a group that did "not at all agree with my vision of American
society", and that 48% would not want their child to marry an atheist. In both studies,
percentages of disapproval of atheists were above those for Muslims, African-Americans and
homosexuals. Many of the respondents associated atheism with immorality, including criminal
behaviour, extreme materialism, and elitism. Atheists and atheist organizations have alleged
discrimination against atheists in the military, and recently, with the development of the
Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, atheists have alleged institutionalized
discrimination . In several child custody court rulings, atheist parents have been discriminated against, either directly or indirectly. As child custody laws in the United States are often based on the "best interests of the child" principle, they leave family court judges ample room to consider a parent's ideology when settling a custody case. Atheism, lack of religious observation and regular church attendance, and the inability to prove one's willingness and capacity to attend to religion with one's children, have been used to deny custody to non-religious parents.
Prominent atheists and atheist groups have said that discrimination against atheists is illustrated by a statement reportedly made by George H. W. Bush during a public press conference just after announcing his candidacy for the presidency in 1987. When asked by journalist Robert Sherman about the equal citizenship and patriotism of American atheists , Sherman reported that Bush answered, "No, I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God." However, Sherman did not tape the exchange and no other journalist reported on it at the time. George H. W. Bush's son, George W. Bush, acknowledged those who do not worship during a November 3, 2004 press conference when he said "I will be your president regardless of your faith... And if they choose not to worship, they're just as patriotic as your neighbour."
GOD IS MY DJ
Atheists, and those accused of defection from the official
religion, may be subject to discrimination and persecution in
many Islamic countries. According to the International Humanist and Ethical Union, compared to other nations, "unbelievers... in Islamic countries face the most severe – sometimes brutal – treatment". Atheists and religious sceptics can be executed in these twelve nations:
Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
According to popular interpretations of Islam, Muslims are not
free to change religion or become an atheist:
denying Islam and thus becoming an apostate is traditionally punished by death for men and by life imprisonment for women. The death penalty for apostasy is apparent in a range of Islamic states.
Although there have been no recently reported executions in
Saudi Arabia, a judge in Saudi Arabia has recently
recommended that imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi go before
a high court on a charge of apostasy, which would carry the
death penalty upon conviction. While a death sentence is rare,
it is common for atheists to be charged with blasphemy or
New "Arab Spring" regimes in Tunisia and Egypt have
jailed several outspoken atheists.
Since an apostate can be considered a Muslim whose
beliefs cast doubt on the Divine, and or Koran, claims
of atheism and apostasy have been made against
Muslim scholars and political opponents throughout
history Both fundamentalists and moderates agree that
"blasphemers will not be forgiven" although they
disagree on the severity of an appropriate punishment.
In north western Syria in 2013 during the Syrian Civil
War, jihadists beheaded and defaced a sculpture of
Al-Maʿarri (973–1058 CE) , one of several outspoken
Arab and Persian atheist intellectuals who lived and
taught during the Islamic Golden Age.
Jordan requires atheists to associate themselves with a
recognised religion for official identification purposes. In
Egypt, intellectuals suspected of holding atheistic
beliefs have been prosecuted by judicial and religious
authorities. Novelist Alaa Hamad was convicted of
publishing a book that contained atheistic ideas and
apostasy that were considered to threaten national
unity and social peace.
Several Bangladeshi atheists have been assassinated,
and a "hit list" exists issued by the Bangladesh iIslamic
organization, the Ansarullah Bangla Team . Activist
atheist bloggers are leaving Bangladesh under threat
Atheists in Indonesia experience official discrimination in the context of registration of births and marriages, and the issuance of identity cards. In 2012, Atheist Alexander Aan was beaten by a mob, lost his job as a civil servant and was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for expressing his views online.
In Iran, atheism is not recognised as a belief in a legal sense. The law specifies that
all citizens must declare themselves as Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Zoroastrian , with adherents of the latter three religions counted as religious minorities. The four recognised religions provide rights such as applying for entrance to university, or becoming a lawyer, with the position of judge reserved for Muslims only.
The Penal Code is also based upon the religious affiliation of the victim and perpetrator, with the punishment often more times severe on non-Muslims. Numerous writers, thinkers and philanthropists, have been accused of apostasy and sentenced to death for questioning the prevailing interpretation of Islam in Iran. The Iranian Atheists Association was established in 2013 to form a platform for Iranian atheists to start debates and to question the current Islamic regime's attitude towards atheists, apostasy, and human rights.
In March 2014, the Saudi interior ministry issued a royal decree branding all atheists as terrorists, which defines terrorism as "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based".
Compulsory religious instruction in Turkish schools is also considered discriminatory
towards atheists. The United Church Of Bacon