Freedom of Expression

I’ve been reading the report, Freedom of Thought 2013 published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union:

Freedom of Thought 2013 is the first report to look at the rights and treatment of the non-religious in every country in the world. Specifically, it looks at how non-religious individuals—whether they call themselves atheists, or agnostics, or humanists, or freethinkers or are otherwise just simply not religious—are treated because of their lack of religion or absence of belief in a god. We focus on discrimination by state authorities; that is systemic, legal or official forms of discrimination and restrictions on freedom of thought, belief and expression.

Every country in the world was assigned to one of the following categories: “Free and Equal”, “Mostly Satisfactory”, “Systemic Discrimination”, “Severe Discrimination” or “Grave Violations”. The specific conditions used to define category membership are listed later in this post.

The authors’ conclusions are depressing, but, I suppose, not entirely surprising:

Our results show that the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers. There are laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents. In the worst cases, the state denies the rights of atheists to exist, or seeks total control over their beliefs and actions.

… we also found that religious privilege is not only a form of anti-religious discrimination in and of itself, but that it is also a signifier of more general societal discrimination against atheists.

As I glanced through the results for individual countries, there was the occasional surprise; so I decided to produce a list of the countries in each category, which you will find below.

One of the surprises was the rating of the USA as “mostly satisfactory”. The report explains that there are “strong federal protections” for freedom of thought and speech. However, after the initial explanation there follows several pages describing cases where the “Christian mafia” (my words not theirs) has infringed on the rights of atheists and non-believers, leading the authors to conclude:

In other words: in America, you might have the right to be an atheist, but being public about it can have debilitating consequences for your chances of success in life, especially in certain states. For example, there are several Congress members who refuse to list their religious affiliation, but exactly zero of the 535 members of Congress claim to be non-religious.

The UK’s rating of systemic discrimination is entirely due to the undemocratic influence of the Church of England in politics and the more general influences of religions in education and schools, often with state-funding. The highlighted cases, however, do seem a little feeble: a 2008 case in which a Christian charity, Prospects, told non-Christians they were no longer eligible for promotion. The charity was found guilty of constructive dismissal and discrimination by an Employment Tribunal. In 2012, a pensioner called John Roberts (or Richards according to some other sources) was visited by the police and warned about a sign in his window that read “Religions are fairy stories for adults”.

I did not expect to see Denmark or New Zealand listed under “severe discrimination”. It turns out that the only reason NZ gets the label is because “blasphemous libel” is illegal with a maximum sentence of one year in prison—but “there is no record of a successful prosecution under this law”. It’s a similar situation in Denmark where the criminal code prohibits “public mockery of, or insult to the doctrine or worship of a legally recognised religion”. But:

Attempts to bring cases of alleged blasphemy to court have been dismissed by prosecutors as protected free speech. The law also prohibits hate speech and penalizes public statements that threaten, insult, or degrade individuals on the basis of their religion or belief.

Germany also gets the severe discrimination label because of a blasphemy law. And there is a peculiar agreement between the state of Bavaria and the Holy See that gives Catholic bishops the right to veto nominations to professorships of theology, philosophy, pedagogy and social/political science in the faculties of seven Bavarian universities. As with the UK, the highlighted cases seem a bit feeble dating from 2007 to 2010. The most recent case was the prosecution of a magazine for a front page cartoon of a crucified Jesus getting a blowjob from a Catholic priest—guess what the cartoon was protesting.

The lead author writes:

However, while we may hope the report is a spur to action, it is not intended as a prompt for despair. …many countries have very positive records for their treatment of the non-religious, and that some of the best countries share many of the same circumstances as the worst offenders: … geographical proximity, … cultural and religious background, … levels of poverty and social development. … no country is destined to be intolerant because of its demography, or geography or even its history. We see that rewriting laws, fighting discrimination and deliberately fostering tolerance can change a society from severely abusive to free and equal. Change is possible. Tolerance and equality is always within reach.

… the fight for the rights of the non-religious is inextricable from the fight for the rights of the religious.

I’ll end by posting this link to a series of quotes and images posted on Facebook by the British Humanist Association about why freedom of thought and expression is important.

Annex 1: Definition of Classifications

These are the classification with conditions that determine a country’s inclusion in that class. I have omitted comments on the application of conditions, which can be found in the original report.

Free and Equal

  • Freedom of religion or belief is upheld and there are no known cases of discrimination against non-religious individuals

Mostly Satisfactory

  • Anomalous discrimination by Local or state government or provincial authorities
  • There is a state church but privileges are small or progress toward church-state separation is being made
  • Official symbolic deference to religion
  • State-funded schools offer religious instruction without secular alternatives, but it is optional
  • Religious courts rule directly on some family or ‘moral’ matters resulting in discriminatory treatment
  • Some concerns about political or media freedoms, not specific to the non-religious
  • Concerns that secular or religious authorities interfere in specifically religious freedoms

Systemic Discrimination

  • Expression of core Humanist principles on democracy, freedom and human rights is somewhat restricted
  • There is an established church or state religion
  • Systematic religious privilege/Preferential treatment of religion
  • Legal or constitutional provisions exclude non-religious views under freedom of belief
  • Some religious courts rule in civil or family matters on a socially coercive or discriminatory basis
  • Discriminatory prominence given to religious bodies, traditions or leaders
  • Religious groups control some public or social services
  • State-funding of religious institutions or salaries, or discriminatory tax exemptions
  • State-funding of religious schools
  • Religious schools have powers to discriminate in admissions or employment
  • Religious instruction is mandatory in at least some public schools without secular alternatives
  • Criticism of religion is restricted in law or a de facto ‘blasphemy’ law is in effect
  • There is a religious tax or tithing which discriminates by precluding non-religious groups
  • Coercive tithing or a discriminatory religious tax is compulsory

Severe Discrimination

  • Expression of core Humanist principles on democracy, freedom and human rights is severely restricted
  • The non-religious are barred from some government offices
  • Prohibitive interreligious social control
  • Religious control over family law or legislation on moral matters
  • Systematic religious privilege results in significant social discrimination
  • State legislation is partly derived from religious law or by religious authorities
  • ‘Apostasy’ is outlawed and punishable with a prison sentence
  • ‘Blasphemy’ is outlawed or criticism of religion is restricted and punishable with a prison sentence
  • It is made difficult to register or operate an explicitly Humanist, atheist, secularist or other non-religious NGO or other human rights organization

Grave Violations

  • Expression of core Humanist principles on democracy, freedom and human rights is brutally repressed
  • Complete tyranny precludes all freedoms of thought and expression, religion or belief
  • Quasi-divine veneration of a ruling elite is enforced subject to severe punishment
  • Religious authorities have supreme authority over the state
  • State legislation is largely or entirely derived from religious law or by religious authorities
  • There is a pattern of impunity or collusion in violence by non-state actors against the non-religious
  • ‘Apostasy’ or conversion from a specific religion is outlawed and punishable by death
  • ‘Blasphemy’ or criticism of religion is outlawed and punishable by death
  • The non-religious are barred from government office
  • It is illegal or unrecognised to identify as an atheist or as non-religious
  • Government figures or state agencies openly marginalize, harass, or incite hatred or violence against the non-religious
  • It is illegal to advocate secularism or church-state separation, or such advocacy is suppressed
  • It is illegal to register an explicitly Humanist, atheist, secularist or other non-religious NGO or other human rights organization, or such groups are persecuted by authorities
  • Fundamentalist religious indoctrination is utterly pervasive in schools

Annex 2: Countries by Classification

Free and Equal

São Tomé and Príncipe, Benin, Niger, Sierra Leone, Jamaica, Uruguay, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Kosovo, Belgium, Netherlands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru

Mostly Satisfactory

Mozambique, Burkino Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Brazil, United States of America, Mongolia, Ukraine, Norway, Albania, San Marino, Slovenia, Macedonia, France, Marshall Islands, Micronesia (Federated States of), Palau

Systemic Discrimination

Burundi, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia, Congo, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Cabo Verde, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Togo, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Dominica, Haiti, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela, Canada, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan , Nepal, Cambodia, Philippines, Singapore, Timor Leste, Armenia, Cyprus, Georgia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Moldova (and Transnistria)[1], Romania, Slovakia, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania[1], Sweden, United Kingdom, Andorra, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Austria, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Switzerland, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu

Severe Discrimination

Zimbabwe, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Angola, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Algeria, Tunisia, Guinea, Grenada, El Salvador, Honduras, Guyana, Suriname, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, India, Sri Lanka, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam, Azerbaijan, Israel, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine State of, Turkey, Belarus, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Malta, Germany, New Zealand, Samoa

Grave Violations

Comoros, Eritrea, Somalia, Cameroon, Egypt, Libya, Morocco (including Western Sahara), Sudan, Swaziland, Gambia, Mauritania, Nigeria, China (including Tibet, Macau and Hong Kong) , North Korea (or DPRK), Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives, Pakistan, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Yemen

Annex 3: Geographical Regions

Results in the report are presented in order by region.


Eastern Africa

Burundi, Comoros,Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Middle Africa

Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe

Northern Africa

Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco (including Western Sahara), Sudan, Tunisia

Southern Africa

Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland

Western Africa

Benin, Burkino Faso, Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo


Latin America and the Caribbean

Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago

Central America

Belize, Costa Rica, Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama

South America

Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela

North America

Canada, United States of America


Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Eastern Asia

China (including Tibet, Macau and Hong Kong), North Korea (or DPRK), Japan, Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan

Southern Asia

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka

South-Eastern Asia

Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste, Viet Nam

Western Asia

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Palestine (State of ), Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Yemen


Eastern Europe

Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Moldova (and Transnistria), Romania,Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine

Northern Europe

Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom

Southern Europe

Albania, Andorra, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Kosovo, Malta, Montenegro, Portugal, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Macedonia

Western Europe

Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, Switzerland.


Australia and New Zealand

Australia, New Zealand


Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands


Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia (Federated States of), Nauru, Palau


Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu

  1. Listed as “Some Discrimination” in the report  ↩

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