The Human Right to be Atheist and Secular

There is an established internationally recognised human right to be atheist, agnostic, secular, humanist, or in any other way free from religion. This human right is part of the fundamental right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. It applies equally to all persons, including persons with non-theistic and atheistic beliefs and supporters of secularism.

In international human rights law, this right is linked to several other rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, equality before the law, non-discrimination, and private and family law. Together this package protects all persons, regardless of their religious or nonreligious beliefs.

In 2019 the International Commission of Jurists, composed of 60 judges and lawyers from all regions of the world, published a Primer on International Human Rights Law and Standards on the Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion or Belief. Its opening paragraph unambiguously states that this is a wide-ranging right:

“encompassing the right to freedom of thought and personal convictions in all matters, and protecting the profession and practice of different kinds of beliefs, whether theistic, non-theistic or atheistic, and the freedom not to disclose one’s religion or belief. International law also guarantees and protects the right not to have a religious confession.”

Authoritarian theocrats frequently breach this right in practice. Islamist States enforce religious dogma and persecute atheists, dissident Muslims, and religious minorities. The Vatican claims to be a State when it suits, then evades human rights obligations by switching chameleon-like to claim to be a religion with its own rules.

These theocrats also falsely deny that this human right exists. They try to trump human rights law with Catholic Canon Law or the Sharia-based Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. But the primacy of universal rights is enshrined in the key international human rights Treaties and associated Court judgments.

In order to protect and enforce the human right to be atheist and secular, we must counter any attempts to deny or undermine its existence. This article provides some information to do this, including about:

1. International Bodies that Atheist Ireland interacts with
2. The United Nations and its Treaties and Bodies
3. Council of Europe, European Court, and Venice Commission
4. The European Union and the Charter of Fundamental Rights
5. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe

1. International Bodies that Atheist Ireland interacts with

Atheist Ireland interacts regularly with international oversight bodies that help us to lobby to protect and enforce this human right. These include the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This work is a core part of our ongoing campaign for ethical secularism.

For the 157 States of the United Nations, this human right is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, General Comment Number 22 on Article 18 of this Treaty, and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

For the 47 States of the Council of Europe, this human right is enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg. The Venice Commission is a body within the Council of Europe that advises States on constitutional issues including human rights.

For the 27 States of the European Union, this human right is enshrined in Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief.

For the 57 States of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which span Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and North America, this human right is monitored by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

These Treaties and oversight bodies are the strongest mechanisms that we have to shape and regulate human rights at an international level. In practice, States can and do resist implementing their outcomes. But they provide an important framework for activists to campaign to protect and enforce the right to be atheist and secular at national level.

2. The United Nations and its Treaties and Bodies

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948 as a common international standard for achieving human rights. As a Declaration it is not legally binding, but it forms the basis for subsequent Treaties that are legally binding. Article 18 states:

“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.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was adopted in 1966, and came into force in 1976. The ICCPR is one of the legally binding Treaties that builds on the UDHR. Article 18 states:

“18.1 Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) is a body of independent legal experts which oversees the ICCPR. It interprets the Treaty by publishing General Comments, and it examines how each State is complying with its obligations under the Treaty. Its General Comment Number 22 interprets Article 18 of the Treaty. It includes:

“1. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thoughts on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief…

The freedom of thought and the freedom of conscience are protected equally with the freedom of religion and belief… this provision cannot be derogated from, even in time of public emergency.

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… The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reasons…

5. The Committee observes that the freedom to “have or to adopt” a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including, inter alia, the right to replace one’s current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views, as well as the right to retain one’s religion or belief…

Article 18(2) bars coercions that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, including the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs and congregations, to recant their religion or belief or to convert…

Policies or practices having the same intention or effect, such as for example those restricting access to education, medical care, employment or the rights guaranteed by article 25 and other provisions of the Covenant are similarly inconsistent with article 18(2). The same protection is enjoyed by holders of all beliefs of a non-religious nature.

8. The freedom from coercion to have or to adopt a religion or belief and the liberty of the parents and guardians to ensure religious and moral education cannot be restricted…

The concept of morals derives from many social, philosophical and religious traditions; consequently, limitations on the freedom to manifest a religion or belief for the purpose of protecting morals must be based on principles not deriving exclusively from a single tradition…

9. The fact that a religion is recognised as a State religion or that it is established as official or traditional or that its followers comprise the majority of the population, shall not result in any impairment of the enjoyment of any of the rights under the Covenant, including articles 18 and 27, nor in any discrimination against adherents of other religions or non-believers…”

In Leirvåg and others v Norway in 2004, the United Nations Human Rights Committee considered a complaint under the ICCPR from parents with a non-religious humanist life stance. The parents did not wish to see their daughter participate in CKREE classes, where textbooks are in conflict with their life stance. The Human Rights Committee concluded:

“14.2 The main issue before the Committee is whether the compulsory instruction of the CKREE subject in Norwegian schools, with only limited possibility of exemption, violates the authors’ right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion under article 18 and more specifically the right of parents to secure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions, pursuant to article 18, paragraph 4. The scope of article 18 covers not only protection of traditional religions, but also philosophies of life, such as those held by the authors.

15. The Human Rights Committee, acting under article 5, paragraph 4, of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is of the view that the facts before it disclose a violation of article 18, paragraph 4, of the Covenant.

16. In accordance with article 2, paragraph 3 (a), of the Covenant, the State party is under an obligation to provide the authors with an effective and appropriate remedy that will respect the right of the authors as parents to ensure and as pupils to receive an education that is in conformity with their own convictions. The State party is under an obligation to avoid similar violations in the future.”

The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief was proclaimed by the General Assembly in 1981. It includes:

“1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of his choice

2.1 No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons, or person on the grounds of religion or belief

3. Discrimination between human beings on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes an affront to human dignity and a disavowal of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and shall be condemned as a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enunciated in detail in the International Covenants on Human Rights, and as an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations between nations.

4.1 All States shall take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the recognition, exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all fields of civil, economic, political, social and cultural life.”

3. Council of Europe, European Court, and Venice Commission

The European Convention on Human Rights came into force in 1953. It was the first instrument to give effect to certain of the rights stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and make them legally binding. Article 9 states:

“9.1 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 worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the Covenant states:

“No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

The European Court of Human Rights enforces the European Convention on Human Rights. Its Guide on Article 9 includes the following:

“10. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion as enshrined in Article 9 of the Convention represents one of the foundations of a “democratic society” within the meaning of the Convention. It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it. That freedom entails, inter alia, freedom to hold or not to hold religious beliefs and to practise or not to practise a religion (Kokkinakis v. Greece, § 31; Buscarini and Others v. San Marino [GC], § 34).

25. Article 9.1 of the Convention contains two strands, one on the right to hold a belief and the other on the right to manifest that belief: the right to deeply hold any belief (whether religious or not) and to change one’s religion or beliefs. This right is absolute and unconditional; the State cannot interfere with it, for instance by dictating what a person believes or taking coercive steps to make him change his beliefs (Ivanova v. Bulgaria, § 79; Mockutė v. Lithuania, § 119).

54. Freedom of religion also involves negative rights, that is to say the freedom not to belong to a religion and not to practice it (Alexandridis v. Greece, § 32). That means that the State cannot require a person to conduct an act which might reasonably be seen as swearing allegiance to a given religion. For instance, the Court found that there had been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention as a result of a legal requirement on the applicants to take the oath on the Gospels on pain of forfeiting their parliamentary seats (Buscarini and Others v. San Marino [GC], §§ 34 and 39).

55. The negative aspect of freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs also means that individuals cannot be required to reveal their religious affiliation or beliefs; nor can they be forced to adopt behaviour from which it might be inferred that they hold – or do not hold – such beliefs. State authorities are not free to interfere in individuals’ freedom of conscience by asking them about their religious beliefs or forcing them to express those beliefs (Alexandridis v. Greece, § 38; Dimitras and Others v. Greece, § 78); Stavropoulos and Others v. Greece, § 44).”

In the case Lautsi versus Italy in 2011 the European Court stated:

“58. Secondly, the Court emphasises that the supporters of secularism are able to lay claim to views attaining the “level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” required for them to be considered “convictions” within the meaning of Articles 9 of the Convention and 2 of Protocol No. 1 (see Campbell and Cosans v. the United Kingdom, 25 February 1982, § 36, Series A no. 48). More precisely, their views must be regarded as “philosophical convictions”, within the meaning of the second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, given that they are worthy of “respect ‘in a democratic society’”, are not incompatible with human dignity and do not conflict with the fundamental right of the child to education (ibid.)”

The Venice Commission is a body within the Council of Europe. Its full title is the European Commission for Democracy through Law. Together with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, it has published Guidelines for Review on Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief. This includes:

“A3. Religion or belief. International standards do not speak of religion in an isolated sense, but of “religion or belief.” The “belief” aspect typically pertains to deeply held conscientious beliefs that are fundamental about the human condition and the world. Thus, atheism and agnosticism, for example, are generally held to be entitled to the same protection as religious beliefs. It is very common for legislation not to protect adequately (or to not refer at all to) rights of non-believers. Although not all beliefs are entitled to equal protection, legislation should be reviewed for discrimination against non-believers.

B2. The UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 22 (48) on Article 18 states that “freedom to ‘have or to adopt’ a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to… adopt atheistic views… In any event, the right to “change” or “to have or adopt” a religion or belief appears to fall within the domain of the absolute internal-freedom right, and legislative provisions that impose limitations in this domain are inconsistent with internal-freedom requirements.”

4. The European Union and the Charter of Fundamental Rights

The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights came into force in 2009 along with the Treaty of Lisbon. It is legally binding on EU States, is interpreted by the Court of Justice of the European Union, and is promoted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. It includes:

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

21.1 Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.”

The European Union Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief were adopted by the Council of the European Union in 2013. It includes:

“2. Persons who change or leave their religion or belief, as well as persons holding non-theistic or atheistic beliefs should be equally protected, as well as people who do not profess any religion or belief.

6. With these Guidelines, the EU reaffirms its determination to promote, in its external human rights policy, freedom of religion or belief as a right to be exercised by everyone everywhere, based on the principles of equality, non-discrimination and universality.

7. In doing so, the EU focuses on the right of individuals, to believe or not to believe, and, alone or in community with others, to freely manifest their beliefs. The EU does not consider the merits of the different religions or beliefs, or the lack thereof, but ensures that the right to believe or not to believe is upheld.

11. Theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief are protected under article 18 ICCPR… States should not restrict the freedom to hold any religion or belief. Coercion to change, recant or reveal one’s religion or belief is equally prohibited.

12. Holding or not holding a religion or belief is an absolute right and may not be limited under any circumstances.

16. Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief applies to all persons equally. It is a universal human right that needs to be protected everywhere and for everyone, regardless of who they are, where they live, and what they believe or do not believe in.

18. Freedom of religion or belief protects every human being’s right to believe or to hold an atheistic or non-theistic belief, and to change religion or belief. It does not protect a religion or belief as such.

22. States have a primary duty to protect all individuals living in their territory and subject to their jurisdiction, including persons holding non-theistic or atheistic beliefs… States must treat all individuals equally without discrimination on the basis of their religion or belief

25. Expression of a religious or non-religious belief, or of an opinion concerning a religion or belief, is also protected by the right to freedom of opinion and expression enshrined in Article 19 of the ICCPR.

30(d) The EU will protest when state officials or influential non-state actors spread inflammatory messages about the holders of certain religious or other beliefs, including theistic, non-theistic or atheistic persuasions, especially when they openly call for, or justify, violence against them.

58. The EU will ensure that freedom of religion or belief remains prominently on the UN agenda, featuring a strong human rights approach, and that the UN continues to provide a strong response to violations of freedom of religion or belief and acts of intolerance and violence based on religion or belief.”

5. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe includes 57 States from Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and North America. Its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights monitors the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

The OSCE has published a Report on Laws Affecting the Structure of Religious Communities which endorses the United Nations Human Rights Committee General Comment Number 22 that:

“Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.

The Report also endorses the European Court of Human Rights judgment that:

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion as enshrined in Article 9 of the Convention represents one of the foundations of a “democratic society” within the meaning of the Convention. It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned.”

Together with the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, the OSCE has published the Guidelines for Review on Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief referred to earlier in this article. This includes:

“A3. Religion or belief. International standards do not speak of religion in an isolated sense, but of “religion or belief.” The “belief” aspect typically pertains to deeply held conscientious beliefs that are fundamental about the human condition and the world. Thus, atheism and agnosticism, for example, are generally held to be entitled to the same protection as religious beliefs. It is very common for legislation not to protect adequately (or to not refer at all to) rights of non-believers. Although not all beliefs are entitled to equal protection, legislation should be reviewed for discrimination against non-believers.

B2. The UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 22 (48) on Article 18 states that “freedom to ‘have or to adopt’ a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to… adopt atheistic views… In any event, the right to “change” or “to have or adopt” a religion or belief appears to fall within the domain of the absolute internal-freedom right, and legislative provisions that impose limitations in this domain are inconsistent with internal-freedom requirements.”

6. Conclusion

This is merely an overview of the many unambiguous acknowledgments that there is an established human right to be atheist, agnostic, secular, humanist, or in any other way free from religion. The right is elaborated further in specific Court judgments, concluding observations of various oversight bodies, and analyses by Special Rapporteurs.

Authoritarian theocrats frequently breach this right in practice. They try to trump human rights law with Catholic Canon Law or the Sharia-based Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. But the primacy of universal rights is enshrined in the key international human rights treaties. In order to enforce the right to be atheist and secular, we must counter any attempts to deny or undermine its existence.

Atheist Ireland

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