Category Archives: Religion

IHEU report on social media and discrimination against the non-religious

The IHEU is today releasing a report on discrimination against non-religious people, with examples drawn from all over the world. It makes for interesting reading, because in addition to all the cases that get widespread media attention, the problem of discrimination against the non-religious is perhaps a larger one than many people realise. The report offers many examples of such discrimination, sometimes in the expected places, but also in jurisdictions where you’d hope for freedom from persecution on grounds of non-belief.


Blasphemy prosecutions rise with social media

New report highlights persecution of atheists

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has produced the first report focusing on how countries around the world discriminate against non-religious people. Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious (pdf) has been published to mark Human Rights Day, Monday 10 December.

Freedom of Thought 2012 covers laws affecting freedom of conscience in 60 countries and lists numerous individual cases where atheists have been prosecuted for their beliefs in 2012. It reports on laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, 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.

The report highlights a sharp increase in arrests for “blasphemy” on social media this year. The previous three years saw just three such cases, but in 2012 more than a dozen people in ten countries have been prosecuted for “blasphemy” on Facebook or Twitter, including:

  • In Indonesia, Alexander Aan was jailed for two-and-a-half years for Facebook posts on atheism.
  • In Tunisia, two young atheists, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, were sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for Facebook postings that were judged blasphemous.
  • In Turkey, pianist and atheist Fazil Say faces jail for “blasphemous” tweets.
  • In Greece, Phillipos Loizos created a Facebook page that poked fun at Greeks’ belief in miracles and is now charged with insulting religion.
  • In Egypt, 17-year-old Gamal Abdou Massoud was sentenced to three years in jail, and Bishoy Kamel was imprisoned for six years, both for posting “blasphemous” cartoons on Facebook.
  • The founder of Egypt’s Facebook Atheists, Alber Saber, faces jail time (he will be sentenced on 12 December).

“When 21st century technology collides with medieval blasphemy laws, it seems to be atheists who are getting hurt, as more of them go to prison for sharing their personal beliefs via social media,” said Matt Cherry, the report’s editor. “Across the world the reactionary impulse to punish new ideas, or in some cases the merest expression of disbelief, recurs again and again. We even have a case in Tunisia of a journalist arrested for daring to criticize a proposed blasphemy law!”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, welcomed the research. In a foreword to the report Bielefeldt notes that there is often “little awareness” that international human rights treaties mean freedom of conscience applies equally to “atheists, humanists and freethinkers and their convictions, practices and organizations. I am therefore delighted that for the first time the Humanist community has produced a global report on discrimination against atheists. I hope it will be given careful consideration by everyone concerned with freedom of religion or belief.”


An advance copy of the Freedom of Thought 2012 report is available from: Freedom of Thought 2012.pdf

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world umbrella group bringing together more than 100 Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, and freethought organizations from 40 countries.

For more information contact:

Bob Churchill, +44 207 636 4797,

Or Matt Cherry, +1 518 632 1040,

The German circumcision ruling

In June this year, a court in the German city of Cologne heard a case involving a four-year-old child from a Muslim family who was admitted to hospital with bleeding following a circumcision. The doctor who performed the circumcision did so at the request of the boy’s parents, and was acquitted of the charge of grievous bodily harm for this reason.

While this particular doctor was acquitted, the court made the general observation that circumcision violated a child’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity”, and that this right outweighed the rights of parents. While leaving room for circumcision to be permissible on medical grounds, the court, in other words, ruled that ritual circumcision amounts to impermissible bodily harm and also constituted a violation of the rights of children.

Contrary to the predictable cries of anti-Semitism that have resulted (and how convenient it is for critics that a German court made the ruling), this is a victory for freedom of religion. Yes, one element of one ritual is outlawed, namely that parents can no longer choose to cut flesh from the penis of their non-consenting child. But why should they ever have had that “right”?

Read more at the Daily Maverick.

Staring into the abyss of special privileges

Take a vast chasm, a tightrope, pea-soup mists and swirling, vicious gusts of wind – then a person steps onto that rope, destination unseen. Such are the ingredients for the kind of ‘recipe for disaster’ if a country embarks on creating charter upon charter of special privileges for one or more interest groups – no matter how profound the interest.

Read more on the proposed South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms in the Daily Maverick.

Religion at South African universities

It appears that not only South African schools are willing to ignore the National Policy on Religion and Education (pdf). As previously observed, certain schools routinely violate the requirement that religious instruction needs to focus on religion in general – allowing for freedom of belief by not requiring that students are exposed to only one religion, nor requiring them to accept one religion’s view regarding morality to take precedence over others.

Students enrolled for the B.Ed (Early Childhood Development and Foundation Phase) at the University of Pretoria are prescribed a textbook titled Addressing barriers to learning – a South African perspective, edited by Emmerentia Landsberg and published by Van Schaik (2nd edition, 2011). In the chapter entitled ‘Socio-economic barriers to learning in contemporary society’ by Erna Prinsloo, we read the following (pp. 36-37):

Normative development is initiated and established within the family context. Parents/caregivers are responsible for guiding children towards acceptance of religion and religious principles. Only in a personal relationship with a higher Being do children truly learn that there are lasting consequences for their actions. In the collective and mutual relationships with parents and God, children can be supported to experience love and safety and to accept responsibility for the way in which they live and learn. In the absence of such relationships and religious principles it becomes extremely difficult to teach children the value of discipline, self-discipline and consideration of the self and others. Where parents and caregivers abandon religion and religious principles and live a life of self-gratification with meeting one’s own needs as only principle, children and youth’s development towards a positive value system and eventual self-actualisation will be severely impeded.

Besides the contradiction entailed by “only in a personal relationship with a higher Being” and “in the absence of such … religious principles it becomes extremely difficult“, neither of these claims are true – and both of them present the viewpoint that without religion, your child is basically doomed to psychopathy of one form or another. While most of the University of Pretoria’s policies are hidden on a password-protected Intranet, we can read the following on the section of their website devoted to “Education Principles” (emphasis added):

  • Nurturing complexity and critical thinking (deep knowledge): Teaching should promote the use of higher-order thinking skills, e.g. the ability to engage actively and critically with ideas and current debates, synthesize, reflect on learning and apply principles to new problems and situations (the transfer of learning). It should develop analytical problem-solving skills; encourage students to think creatively and holistically; develop intellectual and cultural curiosity; encourage students to challenge assumptions, existing knowledge and beliefs, and to embrace new thinking.
  • Respecting diversity: Teaching acknowledges and actively engages diverse values, beliefs, talents, backgrounds, thinking and learning preferences, needs (including special needs), goals and educational experiences.
If we take them at their word, it seems entirely inappropriate – on UP’s own standards, regardless of the National Policy – that a textbook which teaches that God is necessary for self-actualisation, compassion and so forth be prescribed to students. Furthermore, the home page of the Department of Biblical & Religious Studies seems aware of their responsibilities in terms of the Policy, as we can read there that:

In accordance with the requirements of the new National Curriculum Policy on Education for religious education to focus on the general phenomenon of religion and not on a specific religion only, the name of the subject Biblical and Religious Studies changed to Religion Studies (code: REL) in 2006. Contents of the course now focus not only on the Bible, but also on various other world religions, without alienating our traditional students from the subject.

This doesn’t go quite far enough, of course, in that Religious Studies should also address worldviews that reject religion, or are free of religion. It would however be understandable if UP’s target market included few who might be interested in those topics, and the Religious Studies Department has at least (apparently) ceased to offer instruction which privileges the Christian religion. The Faculty of Education has no such excuses available to it. Even though the CAPS (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement) don’t go far enough in eliminating religious bias from primary education (what these UP students are presumably learning towards offering), they at least don’t privilege a monotheistic – probably Christian – “God” as this textbook does.

We can only hope that this is merely an oversight, and that this textbook will either be revised for next year, or not prescribed at all. Anyone who is involved with any public education institution in South Africa should read and pass the Policy on, and hold your institutions to account when they violate its principles. The policy itself makes clear that “the spirit of the policy, which is to embrace the religious diversity of South Africa, must also be applied at other levels of the education system” – even though it’s applied inconsistently in schools, it’s not only for schools but also for universities. Including the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Education.

P.S. If you have children at a South African school and can read Afrikaans, Hans Pietersen’s book Die Vrese van Ons Vaders deals explicitly, and critically, with religion education in South African (Afrikaans) schools.

Atheists and the politics of productive engagement

Prominent spokespersons for divisive views can make their arguments in more or less divisive ways. And while we shouldn’t confuse whatever offence is caused by antagonistic expressions of a viewpoint with the legitimacy of that viewpoint, we also shouldn’t ignore the fact that persuasion becomes more difficult when your audience is pissed off. Read more at Synapses.

Sam Harris, ‘new atheism’ and alleged Islamophobia

André Gide remarked that “everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again”. So it is with the recent article by Mandy de Waal, who took Sam Harris (and the ‘new atheists’ in general) to task for ‘hate speech’, ‘bigotry’ and encouraging so-called Islamophobia. It’s difficult to know just where to begin in responding, as I find the content of de Waal’s piece disagreeable in almost every aspect. Read more at Synapses.

Breivik, terror and Islamophibia

Of course it is unfortunate, and prejudiced, for many commentators to have assumed that Breivik was a Muslim – and for those who assumed this, the bias is clear in how they concocted quite torturous narratives to explain why a Muslim would target kids at a Labour Party camp. It made little sense that he would (from those motives), yet the perceived equivalence between terrorism and Islam were too strong for some to resist. Read more at Synapses.

The war on woo

Two recent posts that should be of interest to FSI members – on astrology, and on PowerBalance (both via Synapses). In both of these cases, the actual “product” often does little harm (although in the case of astrology, it certainly can do so). However, material harms (whether physical or financial) are perhaps not the only sort of relevant harm. These examples of pseudoscience and quackery contribute to a climate of unreason, and thereby may make us more susceptible to believing in more dangerous forms of woo.

Leo Igwe arrested (again)

As reported on here, the harassment and intimidation of Leo Igwe continues. Despite the stated commitment of Awka Ibom State Governor Goodswill Akpabio to rooting out the exploitation of children for the Pentecostal witch industry, people like Leo – who are allies in that cause – are frequently arrested and subjected to other rights violations. Any who have contacts in the Nigerian government, or any other form of influence there, should be aware of this and exert what pressure they can to bring a halt to these attempts to limit Leo in his campaigning for basic human rights in Nigeria.

For some background on Leo’s troubles:

South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms

The South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms was publicly endorsed in October this year, at a ceremony attended by Constitutional Court Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. Fortunately, it is not (yet) law – merely an expression of what all the major religious groupings would like to see enacted in law.

Clause 6.4 expresses the view that

Every person has the right to religious dignity, which includes not to be victimised, ridiculed or slandered on the ground of their faith, religion, convictions or religious activities. No person may advocate hatred that is based on religion, and that constitutes incitement to violence or to cause physical harm.

This clause is one of many that should be of concern to all who are committed to South Africa’s Constitutional values, particularly those endorsing and defending freedom of speech. While limitations on free speech can be justified – and are currently provided for – in the case of hate-speech, words like “victimised” and “ridiculed” are absurdly broad, and could be used to justify limitations on any speech act that is offensive to believers. As we know, the bar for offense in these areas is set very low.

Download/read the Charter