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We all know about the hate crimes religious believers commit against one another, against people of a different faith. It’s headlines news, almost daily. Protestants against Catholics. Sunnis against Shiites. Muslims against Christians. Hindus against Muslims. Buddhists against Muslims. Christians against pagans. Christians against Jews. Muslims against Jews. Cults against anyone and everyone against cults.
Pick a faith and it’s been involved in attacks, intolerance, intimidation, and killing sometime in its history. Even the normally pacifist Buddhists have been.
Religions have been fighting with one another since prehistory: their believers have been killing, burning, rampaging and raping one another since humanoids invented religion back in the Stone Age. And religion in turn invented the hate crime category. Not that all religion is about hate; many good deeds are also done in the name of religion. But it certainly spawns more intolerance and violence than anything else I can think of.
Today’s headlines are filled with the destruction religions inflict on each other and on themselves. Suicide bombers kill themselves and everyone around them for religious fantasy of an afterlife in paradise. Or maybe from sheer hatred of another sect or faith. Most of today’s terrorism is religious, not political (although often religious terrorism is linked to political reasons by conservative, ultra-nationalist and pro-theocratic ideologies).
This week, The Independent has a story about a dark aspect of religious hate crime seldom mentioned: the organized – and increasingly violent – attacks on non-believers. Not against believers of other sects or faiths: these are hate crimes against those who simply don’t believe in any deity. Some of them are atheists. Some are simply non-believers without any particular view or opinion. All of them are increasingly targets of the virulent hatred of non-believers.
Which is ironic, since generally atheists are the least violent people; the least likely to pursue their goals through terrorism; the least of all threats to the state.
Atheists and humanists are being targeted as distinct minorities in “hate campaigns” across the globe, according to The Freedom of Thought report, published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). It reports that religious and political leaders are ratcheting up rhetoric against those who believe there is no God or gods; against those who deny or even question the leader’s preferred deity.*
Atheists have long been a target of religious believers, of course. Secularists, skeptics, free thinkers, humanists and atheists have always been at the top of the target list for religious and political repression. Thought crime – not accepting the ruling class’s or leader’s orthodoxy – has been punished – usually brutally and often fatally – since ancient times. Some periods, however, were more famous for the suppression of thought and ideas.
The Inquisition delighted in torturing people for centuries and invented some remarkably frightening and cruel devices for inflicting pain and damage on the human body in its efforts to cleanse the world of non-believers and heretics, or sometimes simply those who weren’t orthodox enough. The Spanish Inquisition started in 1478 and killed its last person in 1826. It was abolished in 1834, having put roughly 150,000 on trial and executing between 3,000 and 5,000 during its 350-year history of terror.**
Although it had been bandied about in the 17th century by such leading intellectuals as Milton, religious tolerance wasn’t even a serious consideration in modern European states until the late 18th century. Even then, when it was debated openly, it was not widely accepted and often challenged. Even America – which loudly touts itself as a bastion of religious freedom – has little tolerance for religious difference, let alone non-belief. As the Smithsonian notes:
The real story of religion in America’s past is an often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts either paper over or shunt to the side. And much of the recent conversation about America’s ideal of religious freedom has paid lip service to this comforting tableau.
From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”
The Smithsonian lays out a fascinating history of America’s 200-year battle for tolerance that began in 1779 when Virginia’s governor, Thomas Jefferson, drafted a bill that guaranteed legal equality for citizens of all religions—including those of no religion. Yet in 1832, Protestants tarred and feathered Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. There were anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon riots in the US in the 1830s and 40s. It continues today.
So great was American religiosity that the government stamped “In God We Trust” on coins starting during the Civil War. Mounting fear of atheism in the 1950s galvanized Congress to make it the national motto and have it printed on paper money, too.
A Pew Research poll done in mid-2014 found atheists and Muslims neck-and-neck for the least-liked group in the USA. This may be a minuscule upswing from the 2006 University of Minnesota study which found atheists were “the most despised group in America.” A 2010 report titled “Panic Over the Unknown: America Hates Atheists,” noted,
The threat of spiritual alienation is more compelling than anything other than immediate injury… While attitudes toward others who are racially different or religiously different have softened over the past four decades, attitudes towards atheists (the non-religious) have not kept pace. Our willingness to vote for an atheist for President is still below 50%… We don’t like them. They are not like us. They do not share our values, our vision of America, and we don’t want them marrying into our families.
To which, Gad Saad, writing in Psychology Today, sarcastically replied:
Hey, Francis Crick, James Watson, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey, Linus Pauling, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky, Ivan Pavlov, Carl Sagan, Oliver Sacks, Steven Weinberg, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jacque Monod, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Popper, Emile Durkheim, and Herbert Simon: You are all unfit to date my daughter. Yes, you are all great scientists, philosophers, and literary giants. It is indeed true that many of you are Nobel laureates. However, you are eliminated from contention, as you are all godless atheists. Sorry I cannot trust Satan’s helpers with my daughter. I would much prefer an unemployed man who has otherwise accepted the Lord in his heart. Should the classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) be remade, the “shocking” guest will no longer be a highly accomplished, educated, and sophisticated black man (Sidney Poitier) but a highly accomplished, educated, and sophisticated atheist.
The IHEU report predicts, alarmingly,
This year will be marked by a surge in this phenomenon of state officials and political leaders agitating specifically against non-religious people, just because they have no religious beliefs, in terms that would normally be associated with hate speech or social persecution against ethnic or religious minorities.
And the website Politics UK, notes that the report gives chilling examples of political leaders at the front of the attacks:
The Malaysian prime minister described humanism and secularism as “deviant”. Saudi Arabia has passed a new law equating atheism with terrorism. Egypt’s Ministry of Youth has campaigned against the “dangers of atheism” and the “threat” it poses to society, despite the Egyptian government supposedly being secular.
It adds in a separate story:
In spite of the fact that the non-religious are now, at 16%, the third largest global group after Christians and Muslims, the persecution they encounter worldwide is considerable – and growing. In the West, where the non-religious form the majority in many countries, their rights are often undermined in law and by social pressure. Across the Islamic world the situation is much worse, with new cases of repression and punishment documented in countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Malaysia.
While the Independent’s story (and other Western media coverage) focuses on Muslim intolerance, the 564-page report referred to in the story isn’t flattering to any nation. Canada – our gently tolerant, polite nation – is rated as having “systemic discrimination” and notes,
Preferential treatment is given to a religion or religion in general… Legal or constitutional provisions exclude non-religious views from freedom of belief…
This surprises and disappoints me, because the 2011 Canadian census showed that Canadians with no religious affiliation – not necessarily atheists, but they’re included with humanists, secularists and other free thinkers – represent more than 23% of our population (7.85 million), second only to Christians (at 67.3%; 22.1 million). That’s larger than the average worldwide percentage of about 16%.
What surprised me in reading the section is that, despite a rapidly growing non-religious segment of the population, our antiquated laws still make blasphemy a crime:
…section 296(1) of The Criminal Code says that “Blasphemous Libel” is an indictable offence and is punishable with imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years. There has been a de facto moratorium on the use of this law since the 1930s, and would probably be found unconstitutional if challenged. However, it remains on the books, and therefore perpetuates both the potential to chill free expression about religion, and poor international standards.
Clearly not a law being enforced. All you need to hear blasphemy today is watch any popular TV drama. No one has been charged under this law since the 1930s (so why has it not been repealled?). And no Canadians have been tried and sentenced to death for blasphemy as Asia Bibi was in Pakistan this year – for simply touching bowls with her Christian hands that Muslim women drank water from.
Derek From wrote in the HuffPost in 2013:
Most Canadians probably do not know what blasphemy is, let alone that publishing blasphemous materials is a criminal offence. To blaspheme is to insult or show contempt or a lack of reverence for God or other things sacred…. the continued existence of a prohibition on blasphemy places Canada in an awkward and hypocritical position when it criticizes other countries of religious intolerance, and more so now that Canada has an Office of Religious Freedom intended to promote religious tolerance.***
Nor Are most Canadians aware of apostasy laws that are in place around the globe – all so far in Muslim states, where it is illegal in 23 nations. It carries the death penalty in 13 of them, and imprisonment and flogging in most of the rest. Thought crime is considered such a serious threat in Muslim states that it warrants the ultimate punishment. And brutal, theocratic ideologies like ISIS delight in devising excruciating ways for apostates to die – beheading and crucifixion – even torturing and murdering unarmed women who are declared apostate.
Brian Whitaker wrote in an editorial piece in The Guardian in which he outlines the problem with religious intolerance in Muslim states, and it relates to the IHEU report:
Compulsion in religion is the ideological foundation stone of Isis and Islamist movements in general. Believing they have superior knowledge of God’s wishes for mankind, such groups feel entitled – even required – to act on his behalf and punish those who fail to comply with the divine will. In doing so, of course, they do not claim to be seeking power for themselves but merely trying to make the world more holy.
Bombing Isis and banning Islamist movements may suppress such movements for a while but it does nothing to address the ideological problem. Unless the question of compulsion in religion is tackled head-on, and in a serious way, they will resurface later or similar groups will emerge to replace them.
The IHEU report underscores how gar we still have to go in developing a truly civilized culture where non-belief is accorded the same respect as faith.
* I don’t believe, as Dr. Lawrence Krauss suggests, that religion – and thus all the problems it poses – will disappear by simply having atheists teach religion from a critical perspective. Others have presented similar ideas as discussed on Vision.org:
If religion is the cause, many argue, then surely eradicating all forms of belief would remove terror from our world.Neuroscience researcher Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, is one who agrees. He contends that religion propagates myths that are dangerous, and that the world would be far better off without them. In an essay titled “Science Must Destroy Religion,” he claims that only when religion is eradicated “will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.”
I see that as an overly simplistic approach to a far more complex problem. I don’t think it beneficial to simply get rid of all religion – that strikes me as the same sort of intolerant view non-believers accuse the faithful of imposing on them. But certainly teaching tolerance in a more rigorous manner would help.
** The Inquisition was likely spawned by a violent Muslim attack on Otranto, as WND Commentary notes:
…the most likely impetus was that on July 28, three months before Ferdinand’s decision to appoint the two inquisitors, a Turkish fleet led by Gedik Ahmed Pasha attacked the Aragonese city of Otranto. Otranto fell on Aug. 11, and more than half of the city’s 20,000 people were slaughtered during the sack of the city. The archbishop was killed in the cathedral, and the garrison commander was killed by being sawed in half, alive, as was a bishop named Stephen Pendinelli. But the most infamous event was when the captured men of Otranto were given the choice to convert to Islam or die; 800 of them held to their Christian faith and were beheaded en masse at a place now known as the Hill of the Martyrs. The Turkish fleet then went on to attack the cities of Vieste, Lecce, Taranto and Brindisi and destroyed the great library at the Monastero di San Nicholas di Casole before returning to Ottoman territory in November.
Religious intolerance encouraging more religious intolerance; a never-ending cycle.
*** That Office of Religious Freedom, by the way, doesn’t officially defend non-believers, by the way, but its “ambassador,” Dr. Andrew Bennett, believes he has a responsibility towards them, as this CBC story notes. That is encouraging; even so, I think it’s a waste of tax dollars.
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