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UN General Assembly A/62/280

Exerpt from: Interim Report of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief,
Asma Jahangir. 20 August 2007

Elimination of all forms of religious intolerance

III B: Situation of persons with atheistic or non-theistic beliefs

1. Historic overview

64. With regard to the situation of persons with atheistic or non-theistic beliefs, it is important to note that the pertinent international legal standards protect the freedom of “religion or belief”. Article 18 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, states that “[n]o one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”. Furthermore, the title of the 1981 Declaration contains the phrase “religion or belief”. These legal instruments, however, do not provide any definition of those notions.

65. At the beginning of his Study of Discrimination in the Matter of Religious Rights and Practices (1960), Arcot Krishnaswami, the Special Rapporteur of the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, included an explanatory footnote: “In view of the difficulty of defining ‘religion’, the term ‘religion or belief’ is used in this study to include, in addition to various theistic creeds, such other beliefs as agnosticism, free thought, atheism and rationalism.”30 Article I (a) of the draft international convention on the elimination of all forms of religious intolerance provided a similar, albeit shorter, definition whereby the expression “religion or belief” should include “theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs”.31

66. This formulation was then taken up by the Human Rights Committee in its general comment No. 22 (1993) and combined with the additional statement that article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also protects the “right not to profess any religion or belief” (para. 2). During the elaboration of this general comment, the Chairperson-Rapporteur of the working group, Vojin Dimitrijevic, underlined that the concept of belief was very important but also difficult to define and consequently care must be taken to employ suitable wording. Eventually, the general comment stated that the terms “belief” and “religion” are to be broadly construed and that “[a]rticle 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions” (para. 2).

67. This approach was also adopted by the Special Rapporteur, who in several reports (most recently in A/HRC/4/21, para. 46) referred to the formulation of “theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs”. Theism is the belief in the existence of one supernatural being (monotheism) or several divinities (polytheism), whereas a non-theist is someone who does not accept a theistic understanding of deity. Atheism is the critique and denial of metaphysical beliefs in spiritual beings. In order to make the belief aspect of the mandate more apparent, the second mandate holder, Abdelfattah Amor, suggested that the initial title of “Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance” should be changed to “Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief”. In this regard, Mr. Amor explicitly named agnosticism, freethinking, atheism and rationalism as examples of “belief” (see E/CN.4/1998/6, para. 105). By endorsing the suggested change of title, the Commission on Human Rights, in resolution 2000/33,32 confirmed that the mandate encompasses not only religions but also beliefs. The new title, “Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief”, acknowledges the fact that some beliefs explicitly deny the religious approach of theism.

2. Issues of concern for atheists and non-theists

68. In the context of previous country visits, the Special Rapporteur’s interlocutors from atheistic or non-theistic backgrounds raised several issues of concern, for example that some of the taxes paid by atheists or non-theists are used to finance religious activities of the State (see A/55/280/Add.1, para. 16) and that many atheists do not publicly admit their belief because this would be perceived negatively by society (see A/55/280/Add.2, para. 7). On the other hand, religious communities complained about obstacles which hampered their evangelizing activities in atheistic totalitarian regimes, whose leaders are hostile to religion (see E/CN.4/2000/65, para. 150).

69. More recently, atheists and non-theists made the Special Rapporteur aware of the following issues of concern with regard to blasphemy laws, education issues, equality legislation, as well as official consultations held only with religious representatives.

(a) Blasphemy laws and “defamation of religions”

70. Several national laws which prohibit blasphemy afford different levels of protection to different religions. Such domestic blasphemy laws for example protect only the prevailing religion in the State concerned, or they are applied in a discriminatory sense. Some laws against blasphemy are used in practice to repress not only religious minorities or dissenters but also atheists and non-theists. The notion of “belief” is usually absent from such legal instruments and consequently these laws against blasphemy establish a normative hierarchy of theistic and atheistic/non-theistic beliefs.

71. Moreover, groups of atheists and non-theists have recently voiced their deep concerns about the present exercise to combat “defamation of religions” at the international level. These atheist and non-theist groups argue that the very concept of “defamation of religions” is flawed, since it is individuals — both believers and non-believers alike — who have rights, not religions. They furthermore assert that the lack of an objective definition of the term “defamation of religions” makes the whole concept open to abuse. In their view, attempts to protect religions from “defamation” are really seeking to protect religion from critical evaluation and aim to stifle religious dissent.

(b) Education issues

72. Further concerns relate to education in publicly funded schools. Atheist and non-theist groups regard an obligation for pupils to take part in collective religious worship, especially when no adequate rights of withdrawal are provided, as indefensible in terms of human rights. Laws and policies which require education about religions but not about non-religious alternatives are criticized as being discriminatory. Furthermore, they object to the manner in which syllabuses of religious education are drawn up, especially that atheists and non-theists are rarely represented on the relevant committees or advisory bodies. Some countries afford a special status to faith-based schools and allow them to discriminate in their admissions and employment policies. Consequently, teachers with no religious beliefs or with beliefs incompatible with those of the faith-based school are put at a disadvantage in comparison to theistic colleagues.

(c) Equality legislation and faith-based provision of public services

73. In several countries, religious groups enjoy certain exemptions from equality legislation concerning employment or the provision of goods, facilities and services. This is criticized as effectively allowing religious groups to discriminate against other religions and non-religious believers. This problem may increase when public services, for example in the health or social sector, are contracted out to faith-based organizations. Atheists and non-theists are concerned that contractual clauses may not be enough to protect them and religious minorities when seeking services from or employment with public service providers when the service provision has been contracted out to faith-based organizations.

(d) Official consultations only with religious representatives

74. Government bodies which are set up to consult religious groups, for example on policy issues, tend to leave out representatives of non-religious beliefs. In cases where self-styled “faith leaders” with extreme views are given disproportionate influence, there seems to be a risk that those without religious belief or who are dispassionate about religion will be excluded from legitimate debate.

3. Observations

75. On a global level, atheists and non-theists seem not to be as institutionalized and vocal as their theistic counterparts. Apart from historical and cultural reasons, this may partly be attributed to the fact that atheistic or non-theistic beliefs often imply rather personal approaches. Furthermore, there are many different schools of thought of atheistic or non-theistic belief; however, this does not, in essence, distinguish them from theistic beliefs, given the multitude of religions, denominations and individual theistic approaches worldwide. The Special Rapporteur would like to reiterate that the right to freedom of religion or belief applies equally to theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs. Furthermore, the right not to profess any religion or belief is also protected.

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