Today around the globe too many atrocities are being committed with impunity in the name of god, allah and other constructs, which have over the ages, been identified or associated with the so called supreme being. The dream of a secular peaceful world where people of all faiths and none can coexist in harmony - continues to elude many across the region. Millions of people- theists and atheists- continue to suffer and are abused due to superstition, religious fundamentalism and supernaturalism. In this piece I will focus on two of such areas.
The rights of non-believers. I have heard it proclaimed at the UN that the rights of women are human rights. I have also heard it proclaimed that the rights of gay people are human rights. These proclamations changed the way human rights are perceived around the globe. Personally I have yet to hear it proclaimed at UN, or at our regional and national human rights bodies that the rights of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers are human rights. I do not want these rights to be implied or assumed as currently the case in most countries. I want them to be expressly declared as universal human rights.
In spite of the progress the world has made in terms of upholding human rights and liberties, and getting states to honour their obligations under various instruments and mechanisms, equal rights have yet to be extended to religious non-believers in most parts of the world particularly in Africa.
I still do not know any African country where one can openly and truly say that the government recognizes the full human rights of non-believers including their right to life, freedom of expression, freedom from torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, freedom of association, freedom of conscience etc. There is no country in the region with an effective mechanism to protect the rights of those who profess no religion; those who change their religion or those who are critical of religious and theistic ideas. Religious non-believers are treated as if they are not human beings, as if they do not exist or do not have the right to exist.
There are no guarantees for the rights and dignity of infidels, apostates and blasphemers as freethinkers are often called. Many governments have caved in to pressures from religious fanatics, from theocrats, jihadists and terrorists. So nonbelievers are denied their basic rights with impunity, sometimes as a matter of state policy or for the sake of ‘public order, peace or ‘morality’. The situation is worse in countries that have an official religion or official religions. Unbelievers are targets of forced conversion, oppression, discrimination, persecution and murder, sometimes by states. Many governments pay lip service to freedom of religion or belief. Freedom of religion is often understood as freedom to profess a religion-the religion sanctioned by the state, by one’s family or community- not freedom to change one’s religion or freedom not to profess any religion at all as contained in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
So most people who do not profess any religion or belief in god are compelled to live or remain in the closets or to pretend to be religious, paying lip service to religions they do not truly profess, to religious dogmas that mean nothing to them or to a god they do not actually believe in. Non-believers live in constant fear of their lives because going open with one’s religious unbelief often comes at a price, at a very heavy price. In Africa, by going open and public as a freethinker, one risks being ostracized by families and communities, being persecuted by state and non-state agents, being expelled from schools. As an atheist, one can be sacked from jobs, domestically abused, disqualified from posts, demonized by faith groups, taunted as a person without morality or portrayed as the enemy of the state or society. Atheism is a freethinking position that still dares not mention its name in most parts of the continent.
In many African states, apostasy and blasphemy are crimes punishable by death and imprisonment. Expressions of freethinkers are often taken to be blasphemies. Hence freethinkers are legally denied freedom of expression. Freethinkers are treated as criminals, not citizens; as undeserving of human rights protection.
But we all know that the term, non-believer, does not always refer to someone who does not profess a religion or who does not believe in god. In multi religious societies, the term ‘non-believers’ often refers to those who profess other religions, or to religious minorities.
So, protecting the rights of non-believers is critical to upholding the equal rights of all individuals to freedom of conscience. I urge anyone to show me a country where the rights of non-believers are not protected and I will show you another country where the right to freedom of religion or belief, or the rights of religious minorities, in fact, universal human rights are not respected.
So now we need to get the world to break the ‘criminal’ silence over the violations of human rights of non-believers. At the UN, Commonwealth, AU etc, we must strive to get states to recognize and to take measures to protect the rights of atheists, freethinkers, skeptics, religious dissenters and infidels. We must ensure that states that violate the human rights of non-believers or governments that fail to protect the rights of non-believers are held accountable and responsible.
Also we need to focus on human rights abuses that are perpetrated against people of faith in the name of religion by state and non state agents.
As I noted above, it is not only non theists or non religious believers whose rights are violated in the name of religion, so many theists and religious believers across the world suffer abuses in the name of their own faith or the faith of others. Unfortunately, these abuses are so many and have been going on for so long. Due to fear of offending religious sensibilities, many states and human rights institutions have failed to rise up to the challenge of addressing these abuses. Many people are afraid of shining the light on faith related human rights violations because of fear of being attacked or killed by fanatics.
Highlighting the abuses is often deemed to be offensive or a form of provocation and our governments do not want to offend or be seen to be offending the religious ‘sensibilities’ of fanatics even when if it means condoning grave human rights abuses, hence these violations persist.
What we have in many parts of Africa and the world is a situation where the victims, not the perpetrators, are blamed for the abuses or a situation where harmful traditional practices are encouraged or condoned because doing otherwise would offend the religious or cultural sentiments of the people. Religious doctrines, traditions and sensibilities are cited to justify child marriage, the death penalty, corporal punishment, female genital mutilation, the denial of reproductive rights, homophobia, witch hunt, the subordination of women, etc. Even where there are enabling laws, governments lack the political will to enforce these laws.
We must not only stand up for the rights of atheists and freethinkers around the globe but also the human rights of people of all faiths who are oppressed in the name of religion or god. For there are many, far too many, around the world who are victims of religious tyranny, violence and exploitation. They could be writers or artists whose works offend fanatics. They could be women, children and elderly persons who are persecuted in the name of witchcraft in Africa. They could be muslim women who are subordinated in the name of sharia. They could be christians and muslims who are shot and killed by extremist groups in Nigeria.
They could also be albinos, people with hunch back and other disabled persons being hunted down and killed for ritual purposes in many parts of Africa.
In conclusion, I know there are risks involved in speaking out against faith based human rights abuses. But I think we run a greater risk as a society, country and continent by not doing so. We are worse off by keeping silence in the face of religious tyranny and oppression. So, let’s muster courage and serve as the voice of hope, freedom and change. Let’s strive to herald this new dawn for Africa and for humanity. Let’s work to realize a new civilization and enlightenment with a global dimension.
Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.
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