Discrimination against atheists

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Countries in which, as of 2015, atheism is punishable by death. Currently, this occurs only in Islamic nations.[1]

Discrimination against atheists, both at present and historically, includes the persecution of those identifying themselves or labeled by others as atheists, as well as 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. In some countries, it is illegal to be, or to identify as, an atheist. Many other countries, while not outlawing people of different religions, or no religion, forbid leaving the state religion. And in these countries the punishment for apostasy (leaving the faith) is often death. As of 2015, 19 countries punish their citizens for apostasy, and in 12 of those countries it is punishable by death. Pakistan doesn't have a death sentence for apostasy but it does for blasphemy, and the threshold for 'blasphemy' can be very low; so in effect one can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries.[2]

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.

Ancient times

Some historians, such as Lucien Febvre, have postulated that atheism in its modern sense did not exist before the end of the seventeenth century.[3][4][5] 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 labeled as atheist, including early Christians and Muslims, were as a result targeted for legal persecution.[6][7]

Early modern period and Reformation

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.[3][4][8] 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.[6] John Locke, a founder of modern notions of religious liberty, argued that atheists (as well as Catholics and Muslims) should not be granted full citizenship rights.[6]

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,[3][9][10] as well as Etienne Dolet, a Frenchman executed in 1546. Though heralded as atheist martyrs during the nineteenth century, recent scholars hold that the beliefs espoused by Dolet and Vanini are not atheistic in modern terms.[5][11][12]

Modern era

During the nineteenth century, British atheists, though few in number, were subject to discriminatory practices.[13] Those unwilling to swear Christian oaths during judicial proceedings were unable to give evidence in court to obtain justice until the requirement was repealed by Acts passed in 1869 and 1870.[13] In addition, 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.[14]

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.[14]

Nazi Germany

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".[15] However, the regime strongly opposed "godless communism",[16][17] and most of Germany's atheist and largely left-wing freethought organizations were banned the same year; some right-wing groups were tolerated by the Nazis until the mid-1930s.[18][19] 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.[20] 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.[21]

In a speech made later in 1933, Hitler claimed to have "stamped out" the Gottlosenbewegung atheistic movement.[15] The word Hitler used, "Gottlosenbewegung", means "Godless Movement" in German, and refers to the communist freethought 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[22]) 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".[23] Heinrich Himmler, who was fascinated with Germanic paganism,[citation needed] 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".[24] 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.[25]

Contemporary era

Human Rights

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is designed to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. In 1993, the UN's human rights committee declared that article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights "protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief."[26] The committee further stated that "the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views." Signatories to the convention are barred from "the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers" to recant their beliefs or convert. Despite this, minority religions still are persecuted in many parts of the world.[27][28]

Western countries

Modern theories of constitutional democracy assume that citizens are intellectually and spiritually autonomous and that governments should leave matters of religious belief to individuals and not coerce religious beliefs using sanctions or benefits. The constitutions, human rights conventions and the religious liberty jurisprudence of most constitutional democracies provides legal protection of atheists and agnostics. In addition, freedom of expression provisions and legislation separating church from state also serve to protect the rights of atheists. As a result, open legal discrimination against atheists is not common in most Western countries.[6] However, prejudice against atheists does exist in Western countries. A University of British Columbia study conducted in the United States found that believers distrust atheists as much as they distrust rapists. The study also showed that atheists have lower employment prospects.[29]


In most of Europe, atheists are elected to office at high levels in many governments without controversy.[30] Some atheist organizations in Europe have expressed concerns regarding issues of separation of church and state, such as administrative fees for leaving the Church charged in Germany,[31] and sermons being organized by the Swedish parliament.[32] Ireland requires religious training from Christian colleges in order to work as a teacher in government-funded schools.[33] In the UK one-third of state-funded schools are faith-based.[34] However, there are no restrictions on atheists holding public office – the former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Nick Clegg, is an atheist.[35] According to a 2012 poll, 25% of the Turks in Germany believe atheists are inferior human beings.[36][37] Portugal has elected two presidents, Mário Soares and Jorge Sampaio who have openly expressed their irreligion. On the contrary, in Greece, the right-wing New Democracy government stated that "the Greek people have a right to know whether Mr. Tsipras is an atheist", citing their political opponent's irreligiosity as a reason he should not be elected, even though they granted that "it is his right".[38] In the Elder Pastitsios case, a 27-year-old was sentenced to imprisonment for satirizing a popular apocalyptically-minded Greek Orthodox monk, while several metropolitans of the Greek Orthodox Church (which is not separated from the state) have also urged their flock "not to vote unbelievers into office", even going so far as to warn Greek Orthodox laymen that they would be "sinning if they voted atheists into public office."[39][40]


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 indifferent.[41]


Canadian secular humanist groups have worked to end the recitation of prayers during government proceedings, viewing them as discriminatory.[42][43] Scouts Canada states that while a belief in God or affliation with organized religion is not a requirement to join, members must have "a basic spiritual belief"[44] 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 therefrom."[45]

United States

File:Why Do Atheists Hate America billboard.jpg
Anti-atheist propaganda billboard posted in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in February 2008

Discrimination against atheists in the United States occurs in legal, personal, social, and professional contexts. Some American atheists compare their situation to the discrimination faced by ethnic minorities, LGBT communities, and women.[46][47][48][49] "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.[50]

However, other atheists reject these comparisons, arguing that while atheists may face disapproval, they have not faced significant oppression or discrimination.[51][52]

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.[53][54][55] 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.[53][56] 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 First Amendment to the United States Constitution.[53][57][58] This decision is generally understood to also apply to witness oaths.[59]

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.[60] 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.[61][62] 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.[63] 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,[64][65] and in 2005 the BSA agreed to transfer all Scouting units out of government entities such as public schools.[66][67]

Few politicians have been willing to identify as non-theists, since such revelations have been considered "political suicide".[68][69] In a landmark move, California Representative Pete Stark came out in 2007 as the first openly nontheistic member of Congress.[50] In 2009, City Councilman Cecil Bothwell of Asheville, North Carolina was called "unworthy of his seat" because of his open atheism.[70] Several polls have shown that about 50 percent of Americans would not vote for a qualified atheist for president.[71][72] 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.[73] Many of the respondents associated atheism with immorality, including criminal behaviour, extreme materialism, and elitism.[74] Atheists and atheist organizations have alleged discrimination against atheists in the military,[75][76][77][78][79][80] and recently, with the development of the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, atheists have alleged institutionalized discrimination.[81][82] 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.[83][84]

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.[46][85][86][87] 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."[46][87][88][89] However, Sherman did not tape the exchange and no other journalist reported on it at the time.[46] 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 neighbor."[90]

The constitutions of these seven "Bible Belt" US states ban atheists from holding public office:

Article 19, Section 1
"No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court."[91]
Article 37
"That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution."[92]
Article 14, Section 265
"No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state."[93]
North Carolina:
Article 6, Section 8
"The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God."[94]
South Carolina:
Article 17, Section 4
"No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution."[95]
Article 9, Section 2
"No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."[96]
Article 1, Section 4
"No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being."[97]

An eighth state constitution affords special protection to theists.

Article 1, Section 4
"No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth."[98]

Islamic countries

Atheists, or those accused of holding atheistic beliefs, may be subject to discrimination and persecution in many Islamic countries.[99] According to the International Humanist and Ethical Union, compared to other nations, "unbelievers... in Islamic countries face the most severe – sometimes brutal – treatment".[100] Atheists and other religious skeptics can be executed in at least thirteen nations: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia[citation needed], Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.[1][dubious ]

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 including: Iran,[101][102] Egypt,[103] Pakistan,[103] Somalia,[104] United Arab Emirates,[105] Qatar,[106] Yemen[106] and Saudi Arabia.[103] Although there have been no recently reported executions in Saudi Arabia,[107] 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.[108] While a death sentence is rare, it is common for atheists to be charged with blasphemy or inciting hatred.[109] New "Arab Spring" regimes in Tunisia and Egypt have jailed several outspoken atheists.[109]

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.[110][111][112] Both fundamentalists and moderates agree that "blasphemers will not be forgiven" although they disagree on the severity of an appropriate punishment.[109] In northwestern 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.[113][114]

Jordan requires atheists to associate themselves with a recognized religion for official identification purposes.[115] 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.[116][117]


The study of Islam is a requirement in public and private schools for every Algerian child, irrespective of his/her religion.

Atheist or agnostic men are prohibited from marrying Muslim women (Algerian Family Code I.II.31).[118] A marriage is legally nullified by the apostasy of the husband (presumably from Islam, although this is not specified; Family Code I.III.33). Atheists and agnostics cannot inherit (Family Code III.I.138.).


Several Bangladeshi atheists have been assassinated, and a "hit list" exists issued by the Bangladeshi Islamic organization, the Ansarullah Bangla Team. Activist atheist bloggers are leaving Bangladesh under threat of assassination.[119]


Atheists in Indonesia experience official discrimination in the context of registration of births and marriages, and the issuance of identity cards.[120] In 2012, Indonesian 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.[121][122]


According to the Article 115 of the Iranian constitution, president must be a believer (Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Zoroastrian),[123] thus making irreligious people excluded. The legislation of Islamic Republic of Iran has not determined a punishment for the offense of apostasy (irtidad) in any articles or notes, and has been silent. Mainstream Twelver jurists have been tolerant to apostates and punishment has been set aside.[124]

Saudi Arabia

Atheism is prohibited in Saudi Arabia and can come with a death penalty if practiced.[clarification needed]

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".[125]


Compulsory religious instruction in Turkish schools is also considered discriminatory towards atheists.[126]

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