DESPITE the UK’s reputation for tolerance and religious diversity, it comes just above the bottom quarter in a worldwide league table of levels of discrimination against atheists, humanists, and the non-religious.
Out of the world’s 196 nations, Britain ranks 133rd, the Freedom of Thought Report, published this week by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), suggests. Most European countries fared better, although Germany was placed 147th.
In joint-top position are Belgium, the Netherlands, and Taiwan; the bottom three are Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
The report’s editor, Bob Churchill, said: “One of the things our report considers is the situation of secularism in a country: Is the state neutral with regard to religion or belief? Are people with different beliefs really treated equally?
“There are many European countries with extant issues of religious privilege. The UK is one such country.
“It is obviously a relatively secular nation: social research suggests the majority are non-religious now. Yet formally speaking the state lags behind the nation.
“There are publicly funded faith schools with compulsory worship, which can discriminate in admissions and employment; there are clerics of one branch of one religion sitting as of a right in the upper house of Parliament; there’s still technically ‘blasphemy’ law on the books in Scotland and Northern Ireland; and religious groups have privileges — such as being able to perform legally binding marriages, which are denied to non-religious groups such as humanists in England and Wales.
“It’s a picture of accumulated messy compromises and inertia which triggers several of our boundary conditions and that’s why the UK gets a relatively bad rating among European states.”
The researchers graded the countries under four categories: Constitution and Government; Education and Children’s Rights; Society and Community; and Freedom of Expression. They were rated over five levels: Grave Violations; Severe Discrimination; Systemic Discrimination; Mostly Satisfactory, and Free and Equal. In the first three categories, the UK was rated to show Systemic Discrimination, but was Mostly Satisfactory on Freedom of Expression.
The best-performing states, Belgium and Netherlands, had both taken “a pluralist approach to secularism, with the state adopting a neutral attitude toward religion or belief”, Mr Churchill said, whereas the worst-performing countries had a conservative vision of Islam “deeply embedded” in their legal framework. Factors in placing Saudia Arabia in the last position included a 2014 law defining the “promotion of atheist thought in any form” as terrorism. Pakistan achieved 192nd place for its “anti-blasphemy crackdown” that included the arrest and alleged torture of bloggers accused of posts that were “insulting” to religion.
The President of the IHEU, Andrew Copson, said: “This report paints a dark picture, with significant discrimination faced by our non-religious friends and colleagues around the world. At a time of growing nationalism, we continue to see those who are brave enough to criticise and critique conservative religious leaders demonised as ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘subversive’.”
A spokesperson at Church House, Westminster, said: “The Church of England believes that a viable pluralism is the best context for human flourishing, whether for religious people or people with no faith. We are not persuaded that this study — at least as presented here — tells us anything useful about freedom of religion and belief.”