The rights of non-religious people

Your right to hold and express non-religious views is enshrined under international law.

Too many countries fail to uphold their human rights obligations regarding non-religious people. Yet the international human rights framework is very clear that such rights exist.

At Humanists International, we track the situation for non-religious people in our Freedom of Thought Report and through our advocacy and campaigns work we frequently highlight violations against the non-religious and defend non-religious rights. In all this work we – and the individual activists, rights-holders and civil society organizations that we work with or defend – rely on rights and norms established in international law and the human rights framework, protecting our rights to hold and express a humanist worldview or other non-religious ideas.

On this page we explain how the human rights of non-religious people with respect to their non-religious ideas are enshrined in international law.

What are my rights?

Protests follow the murder of ‘atheist blogger’ Ananta Bijoy Das in Bangladesh, 2015. Numerous writers and publishers on freethought and secularism have been killed in Bangladesh in recent years. The government was criticized for threatening to prosecute bloggers for “hurting religious sentiments” even as they were facing a campaign of violence from extremists

Your rights to hold and express non-religious beliefs are protected by international law. This includes:

  • the right to hold positive beliefs, ideas or convictions which are humanist, atheist, agnostic or otherwise non-religious (for example, to hold a humanist worldview, or to positively assert that religion or some particular belief is false)
  • the right to non-belief, or to not believe or assent to particular beliefs (for example to say: “I don’t believe in that”)
  • declining to state a belief (for example, to not identify with any particular religion or belief position)
  • the right to manifest or express all such positions, with certain limitations (for example, you cannot violate the rights of others)

A note on the word “belief”: It can seem strange to talk about non-religious “beliefs”, because the word belief sometimes indicates that the position is held on faith or without much evidence, whereas a non-religious person might have rejected the very idea of holding faith-based beliefs. Also some non-religious positions might more easily be described as a “disbelief”. However, when we talk about “belief” in the context of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, we mean the more commonplace sense of a position that someone holds, regardless of why it is held. And this includes positions of disbelief. Having a “belief” in this sense includes holding views like “Paris is the capital of France”, “There are no gods”, or general beliefs in favour of democracy or human rights, and so on.

How are these rights protected in law?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) enshrines your right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18):

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

It also enshrines your right to freedom of opinion and expression (Article 19):

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Both rights were given the force of international law through Articles 18 and 19 in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Al-Sharq newspaper’s report on the arrest of Ahmad Al Shamri on charges of apostasy and blasphemy in Saudi Arabia, 2014. Laws against supposed “apostasy” and “blasphemy” violate the rights to freedom of thought and freedom of expression

It is important to recognize that all these rights are universal. They are not rights that are specific to religious people, or specific to non-religious people, or specific to any other group. They are rights that apply to everyone equally.

Your right to hold beliefs and ideas under freedom of thought, conscience and religion is considered absolute and should always be protected unconditionally. As clarified by the General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Committee and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, this right applies to a broad variety of beliefs, including humanism, atheism or agnostic beliefs. This right includes that you are free to change your religion or to reject any religion or belief and to identify as humanist or non-religious:

“1. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) in article 18.1 is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief, whether manifested individually or in community with others…

“2. Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ are to be broadly construed. Article 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.”

You also have the right to manifest your belief or non-religious conviction, both in private and in public through expression, teaching and practice, though the right to manifest beliefs may be lawfully limited if for example the manifestation of a belief directly discriminates against or violates the rights of others.

Ruslan Sokolovsky was arrested in Russia for playing a Pokemon video game in church. His act was itself intended to highlight new laws against “insulting religion”

Your right to freedom of opinion and expression includes the right to produce and share information and ideas through any mean of communication. Just as the profession of religion is protected, so is the practice of criticizing religion, or the positive assertion of liberal values, progressive ideas, scientific theories, and so on.

You have the right to express your thoughts through private discussion or public and social media. This includes that you are entitled to seek to persuade others of the merits of your beliefs, or the flaws of theirs. You also have the right to ridicule or insult religion. Religions do not have rights, only people do.

Your right of freedom of expression can only be limited if you spread hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence against (a group of) people.

For all these reasons, laws against “blasphemy” and “apostasy” necessarily violate international human rights norms.

International law also protects your right to get together with others that share your convictions and to express them together, at meetings, public assemblies or demonstrations (Article 20, UDHR):

“(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
“(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.”

States have no right to discriminate against any religion or belief group, including humanists, atheists or other non-religious people. Any state practices where religious registration or confession is mandatory, for example to attain a passport or ID, or to be appointed to certain positions or to receive entitlements under certain laws, is a violation of your human rights. States are not allowed to demand to know your religion or to compel you to to reveal your thoughts or identification with any religion or belief

More on this topic

As the global representative body for humanist organizations, Humanists International makes it a priority to promote the rights of the non-religious and defend groups and individuals against attack.

Some of our news on events and activism related to freedom of thought and belief and freedom and victims of persecution follows below.

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