Discrimination against atheists  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Discrimination against atheists, both at present and historically, includes the persecution of those identifying themselves or labeled by others as atheists, as well as the discrimination against them. Discrimination against atheists may also refer to and comprise the negative attitudes towards, prejudice, hostility, hatred, fear, and/or intolerance towards atheists and/or atheism. Because atheism can be defined in various ways, those discriminated against or persecuted on the grounds of being atheists might not have been considered atheists in a different time or place. As of 2015, 19 countries punish their citizens for apostasy, and in 13 of those countries it is punishable by death.

In some Islamic countries, atheists face persecution and severe penalties such as the withdrawal of legal status or, in the case of apostasy, capital punishment.

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Ancient times

Scholars have argued that some small underdeveloped glimpses of atheism existed in the ancient world, though not in a modern sense because people had not developed a language for nonbelief; theistic beliefs in 5th Century BC Greece were not very active in public life the way they are in the modern world, and polytheism made it difficult to centralize the beliefs of any region or culture. Lucien Febvre has referred to the "unthinkability" of atheism in its strongest sense before the sixteenth century, because of the "deep religiosity" of that era. Karen Armstrong has concurred, writing "from birth and baptism to death and burial in the churchyard, religion dominated the life of every single man and woman. Every activity of the day, which was punctuated by church bells summoning the faithful to prayer, was saturated with religious beliefs and institutions: they dominated professional and public life—even the guilds and the universities were religious organizations. ... Even if an exceptional man could have achieved the objectivity necessary to question the nature of religion and the existence of God, he would have found no support in either the philosophy or the science of his time." 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.

Early modern period and Reformation

Atheism in the Age of Enlightenment

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 those who had committed suicide, immoral or self-indulgent people, and even opponents of the belief in witchcraft. 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. 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.

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, 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.

Modern era

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

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.

Nazi Germany

Irreligion in 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". However, the regime strongly opposed "godless communism", and all 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. During the negotiations leading up to the Nazi-Vatican Concordat of April 26, 1933 Hitler stated that "Secular schools can never be tolerated" because of their irreligious tendencies. 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.

In a speech made later in 1933, Hitler claimed to have "stamped out" the atheistic movement. The word Hitler used in this speech, "Gottlosenbewegung", means "Godless Movement" in German, and it refers to the communist freethought movement, though it 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 the belief in god, often described as predominently based on creationist and deistic views) 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". Heinrich Himmler, who was fascinated with Germanic paganism, 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".

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." 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.

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 provide 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. However, prejudice against atheists does exist in Western countries. A University of British Columbia study conducted in the United States found that believers distrusted atheists as much they did rapists. The study also showed that atheists had lower employment prospects.

Europe

Irreligion in Europe

In most of Europe, atheists are elected to office at high levels in many governments without controversy. 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, and sermons being organized by the Swedish parliament. Ireland requires religious training from Christian colleges in order to work as a teacher in government-funded schools. In the UK one-third of state-funded schools are faith-based. However, there are no restrictions on atheists holding public office – the former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Nick Clegg, is an atheist. According to a 2012 poll, 25% of the Turks in Germany believe atheists are inferior human beings. Portugal has elected two presidents, Mário Soares, who was also elected Prime-Minister, and Jorge Sampaio, who have openly expressed their irreligion, as well as two agnostic Prime-Ministers, José Sócrates and António Costa. 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". 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."

See also




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