Blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir is facing a death sentence in Mauritania this week for allegedly committing apostasy. What is the current state of affairs for the world’s non-religious?
I n January 2014, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir’s life was turned upside down. He posted a blog alleging that Mauritania’s Arab ruling classes used the Prophet Mohamed’s life to justify the nation’s racialised caste system. The post led to his immediate arrest, and charges of “apostasy” and “speaking lightly” of the prophet. On November 8, the Court of Appeals in Nouadhibou started its review of whether daring to criticise religion merits the death penalty.
Mr. Mkhaitir is not alone is his scepticism about religion in public life. The Pew Research Centre estimates that the number of religiously unaffiliated people is set to rise from 1.17 billion in 2015 to 1.2 billion in 2060.
In part, this reflects growing affluence driving a secularisation of public life in Europe and North America. “The process of modernisation is linked to religious decline,” David Voas, a quantitative social scientist specialising in religion at University College London, tells the World Weekly. “People go to therapists rather than priests and pastors. Social security comes from the state rather than religious organisations. Religious organisations are pushed to the margins, losing their central role in life.”
Accordingly, rising personal affluence and the support of the state usurps religion’s old roles. Research in 2012 by the WIN-Gallup International Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism found that those from the poorest income groups were 17% more religious than those in the top income brackets.
However, on a global level, religion seems here to stay. The Pew study projected that the share of the global population that identifies as religiously unaffiliated will fall to 13% by 2060 - down from 16% in 2015. This is in part driven by higher fertility rates in religious adherents and an aging religiously unaffiliated population in the Asia-Pacific region.
Identifying with a religion brings significant advantage in many countries. The International Humanist and Ethical Union’s (IHEU) 2016 Freedom of Thought Report found that “an overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of humanists, atheists and the non-religious.”
Religion enjoys structural elevation in law across the world. Around 94% of state-funded schools in Northern Ireland are religiously-oriented. In the Muslim world, sharia courts control family law, giving it a religious, not a civil, character. Lebanon actively codifies its system of government by differentiating rights based on sectarian quotas. According to the IHEU report, this incentivises religious affiliation, as without it people “will lose all the state privileges that come with belonging to that religion.”
In the US, a significant number of scholars see the First Amendment protection of “free exercise” of religion and ban on “establishment of religion” as a secular façade. The Constitution kept federal, but not state governments out of religion. Christian law-making defined 19th century US state-level governance, a legacy that endures until today. Eight US states retain laws that technically block those who deny the existence of “a supreme being” from holding public office.
Christianity’s resurgence in the Cold War added religious characterisations to symbols of American national identity. References to God were introduced to the pledge of allegiance and US currency. In November, Olga Paule Perrier-Bilbo, a French national residing in the US, filed a federal lawsuit to remove “so help me God” from the Naturalisation Oath of Allegiance to the US as a violation of the First Amendment. Taking the optional modified version was not enough, Ms. Perrier-Bilbo said, as it left her feeling “less than a full new citizen”.
Elevating religion in public life can give it a sacrosanct ideological status. Seventy-four countries around the world have laws that criminalise “criticising a religion”, according to IHEU.
Section 188 of Austria’s Criminal Code criminalises public disparagement against a domestic church that “is likely to attract legitimate offence”. In 2010, Helmut Griese was fined €800 ($927) for yodelling in his back garden, a practice regarded by his Muslim neighbours as looking to “mock and imitate” the Muslim call to prayer.
Tired of a similar hostility to criticism of religion in America, Patrick Horst, board member of the secular Nashville Sunday Assembly, started the 95 Tweets Project on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. He sees it as a way to “celebrate honest dissent, feedback, scepticism, or just engagement with religion.” People should be free to “believe what they want”, Mr. Horst told TWW, but “religion makes certain testable claims, and those claims should always be open for evaluation.”
Violence against the unfaithful
Holding an irreligious identity can, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, put your life in mortal danger. Thirteen countries have capital punishment for being an “apostate” from religion or “blaspheming” religion.
Saudi Arabia institutes violence against unbelievers. In 2014, a series of royal decrees effectively equated atheism with an act of terrorism against the stability of Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative state. The US Department of State reported that no death sentence had been carried out for denigrating religion there since 1992.
Nevertheless, the convicted still face life-threatening penal sentences. Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. His crime was to critique the centrality of religion in Saudi life. He received the first 50 lashes in a public square in Jeddah in 2015. Speaking to the BBC, his wife Ensaf Haidar called his sentence “effectively a slow death”.
Bob Churchill, director of communication for the IHEU, speaks of a “concerning trend” in recent years in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Maldives where “people are being killed essentially for advocating humanistic views, and for criticising some aspect of religion or conservative religious trends.”
Bangladesh has seen 20 of these brutal killings since 2013, largely targeting atheist and secular writers. Nazimmudin Samad was shot dead by unidentified assailants in April 2016. He had vocally criticised religious extremism and identified himself on his Facebook page as “I have no religion.” Similar stories have emerged from India where atheist activist H Farook was killed in April 2017. He ran an atheist WhatsApp group and weeks before posted a photo on Facebook reading “No God, no God, No God.”
Religious bias, societal discrimination, and occasional active violence can ostracise the non-religious from public life. “We feel suffocated and are not being respected on our own terms,” DV Ramakrishna Rao told local media in Mumbai. Interviewees described how the victory of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 general election made threats against vocally non-religious “routine”.
Irreligious people frequently reference the biting social pressures for non-conformity in heavily religious areas. One report from Oklahoma, in the heart of the American ‘Bible Belt,’ describes how atheism is a “dirty word”.
Derek Scarsella kept her atheism from her wider family for fear of further ostracism. “It’s simple as this: family is the one who runs churches and the family is right-wing Christian.” Facing regular social rejection as “an abomination,” Oklahoma’s non-religious want “respect”, said Ms. Scarsella. “I deserve protection under the law just as much as you do.”
Transcendent belief is not monopolised by religion. In 2017, Pew found that 27% of Americans identify as “spiritual but not religious”. For these people, leaving the rigidity of organised religion offered greater personal freedom to define their faith.
Even in countries that oppress the non-religious, rationalism and critical scepticism bring people together. One new member of a quiet atheist gathering in India described a feeling of liberation: “I am pretty glad I came to this meeting today and you won’t call me arrogant for not believing in God.”
For atheists, the temporal world is simply inspiring enough. Atheist writer Emmett F. Fields likens it to “a frame of mind that looks at the world objectively, fearlessly, always trying to understand all things as a part of nature.”