“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Humanists At Risk: Demonising Dissent, Infantilising Society

An international organisation, Humanists International, released a report on 25 June drawing attention to the discrimination and persecution faced by humanists and atheists in eight countries-Colombia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Humanists At Risk: Action Report 2020, a kind of appendix to the Freedom of Thought Report, 2019, records testimony from 76 respondents and seeks to add a qualitative flavour to the earlier report, which examined the problem on a broader canvas.

  The larger report is an annual feature for the past six years. It tries to track the suppression by states of free thought, rationalism and humanism-as well as minority religious beliefs-to defend religious orthodoxy, deploying the blunt weapon of anti-blasphemy laws or equivalent legislative instruments. It also tracks societal and extra-judicial suppression of minority beliefs, especially those that are not tethered to religion and are critical of and antithetical to religious orthodoxy. Such suppressions are clearly in the territory of human-rights abuse. It also ranks all countries by a number of metrics of tolerance and finds that 110 countries still practise discriminatory funding of religion-56%-including Germany, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.  

India fares poorly on two counts. First, the treatment of minorities, and, second, the constraints it imposes on humanists and rationalists. Other reports have shown that discrimination against and attacks on minorities have grown exponentially ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. The fact that it is now engaged in rolling back the constitutional and institutional safeguards for minorities and dismantling the secular state is beyond contradiction.  

The persecution faced by rationalists and humanists, especially those who disavow any religious belief and campaign against the many forms of intolerance, superstition and obscurantism promoted by religion, especially under a regime guided by a fundamentalist theocratic ideology, receives less attention. The murder by well-funded Hindu extremists/terrorists of rationalists who campaigned against obscurantism and the Hindutva project-Narendra Dabholkar (2013), Govind Pansare (2015), MM Kalburgi (2015) and Gauri Lankesh (2017)-and the continuing failure to bring them to book shines a light on the problem. These murders are, however, indicative of larger problems. The Humanists International report notes: "The existence of vigilante violence is not only indicative of the climate of fear and violence in which some people associated with non-belief are forced to live, but it also points to governmental responsibility in creating an atmosphere conducive to civil violence against non-believers."  

The structural problem is that there is no legal recognition of atheism as a legitimate ideological position that underpins distinct individual and social identities and practice. This is underpinned by social hostility. A decade ago, non-believers just could not record themselves as agnostic or atheist, either in the census or for other official purposes. In other words, people had to declare themselves as followers of some religion, whatever their personal convictions. They were officially/legally and societally/sociologically presumed to belong to the religious group into which, so to speak, they were born.  

It was only in the Census 2011 that respondents were allowed to skip religious identification and lumped into an 'Others' category. Just 0.27% of the population refused to identify themselves by religion, though they were not necessarily all atheists. A survey conducted in 2006 had 6.6% respondents saying they had no religion. A WIN-Gallup poll found in 2005 that 4% of respondents were atheists and 87% religious. In 2012, another WIN-Gallup study reported that 81% were religious, 13 were not and 3% were atheists.  

Given that in absolute terms there must be a large number of people who are non-religious, the state's refusal to let them identify in such terms constitutes a breach of fundamental rights. Despite a few petitions reaching the courts, Indians are still sought to be compelled to state their religious affiliation in various official and non-official forms (for job applications, admission to educational institutions, etc.).

  Whether or not a person identifies with a religion, legally, he or she has no option given the way personal laws and legal codes are framed. This is critically true in matters of property ownership and inheritance, though the Special Marriage Act, 1954, allows non-religious marriages, or "civil unions", as well as marriages between members of different religions. Push come to shove, however, the legal system shoehorns people into religious categories.  

Is this a big deal? It could be argued that categorisation is a trivial matter. It is not, however, given that state-sponsored, legal taxonomies create, and often freeze, identities and thus produce social realities, as scholars of colonial India have shown. The refusal to allow people to identify as being without or opposed to religion is simultaneously a testament to pervasive social intolerance and an instrument to perpetrate intolerance of minority voices that are critical of religion. Many believers would agree that there is a lot to be critical about, without being summarily dismissive.

    This brings us to the question of atheism as belief and practice worldwide. Widespread discrimination fuelled in the early years of this millennium a 'New Atheist' movement mainly in West Europe and North America, with Richard Dawkins, the former professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, emerging as one of its most recognisable faces.  

Dawkins and others, including journalist and writer Christopher Hitchens, and philosophers Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, launched a militant movement that was scathingly critical of religion in all its various forms. The high point of this movement was the publication in 2006 of Dawkins's The God Delusion, a searing excoriation of religion and belief. The book was widely criticised, often with good reason, for taking no account for historical development, sociological realities and human psychology and, therefore, utterly lacking nuance.  

This critique while being substantially true ignored the context and objectives of New Atheism. New Atheism began as a reaction against Intelligent Design, the pseudo-scientific theory that attempted to rehabilitate Biblical Creationism as a scientific explanation for the origins of the universe and life. It was especially opposed to attempts by the powerful Christian Right in the United States to mandate the teaching of Intelligent Design as a legitimate scientific alternative to Darwinian natural selection.  

In the Global South, for all its ignorance of philosophy and history, the movement does help highlight the suppression of critiques by religious establishments, especially in countries with a massive religious consensus, a powerful religious establishment and weak institutional protections for individual liberty.  

In India, not only are atheists denied an identity, they are also made vulnerable to prosecution and persecution by legal provisions that function like anti-blasphemy laws, as Humanists International points out. Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, for instance, outlaws the expression of opinions that may "outrage the religious feelings" of any group. The report also notes that in many states India's "cow protection laws" represent de facto blasphemy laws "since people are prevented from eating beef, whatever their faith or lack thereof. There have been multiple reports of people being killed for having allegedly eaten beef." 

  Such provisions have such a wide scope that in their attempt to curb hate speech, they end up censoring the fundamental right to freedom of expression. In the context of religion, this disproportionately affects non-believers' freedoms. In India, where it is ludicrously easy to find people ready to be "outraged", this also amounts to a blanket censoring of precisely the kind of views that promote dissent and debate, the absence of which is infantilising Indian society.  

The author is a freelance journalist and researcher. The views are personal.    


  • The Taj That is India
  • The BJP and Triple Talaq
  • Rohingya: A People Condemned!
  • 9 Key Qs Raised on First Day of Aadhaar Hearing in the Supreme Court
  • A Critical Analysis of Delhi's Human Development Index
  • 3 Army Divisions For 300 Terrorists In JK But No End to Violence: Certainly the Answer Does Not Lie in Force
  • 'It is Not the Left But the Congress That's the B-Team of the BJP'
  • Kasganj: A Story of People's Unity Fractured by Engineered Hate and Violence
  • Invisible Children Of Delhi
  • India 81 in Corruption Index, Amongst the "Worst Offenders"
  • Economists Hit Out Against Move to Privatise Public Sectors Banks
  • Tripura Trades Decency For False Eldorado
  • Syria's Bloody War
  • Pakistan And China Fill Space In Maldives Willfully Vacated By India
  • The Big Private Crop Insurance Scam: Farmers Par Premium of Rs 482, Receive Rs 5 as Insurance!
  • US Attack on Syria Violates International Law, Total Hypocrisy
  • Death Penalty Is Not The Answer To Sexual Violence: Implement Justice Verma Committee Report
  • Walls on Every Side: Trying to Get Data in India
  • The Ascent of Multi-Politics In Malaysia
  • Why the Objections to Marxism are Mistaken
  • The Rise and Fall of the Malaysian Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim
  • BDS Has Placed Israel on Notice
  • Can We Promote Peace in India, Today?
  • Burying The Two-State Solution
  • Corruption And Class Rule
  • Is Ethnic Cleansing Coming to India
  • Our Real Heroes
  • Confronting Journalism's Misogynistic Trolls
  • After 17 Years of War, A Peace Movement Grows in Afghanistan
  • Taking Play Seriously: Time to Make Sports A Fundamental Right!
  • Law Commission Publishes Consultation Paper on Sedition
  • Foreign Policy: Between Folly and Foibles
  • Suu Kyi's Continued Denial And Bangladesh's
  • Economy Crumbles as Fuel Prices Skyrocket, Household Budgets Hit
  • Rupee's New Low: A Dangerous Drift
  • Are We Still Ruled by The British?
  • From Anti-National to Urban Naxal: The Trajectory of Dissent in India
  • Learning the Power of Lies: Facts vs. Falsehoods in the Age of Trump
  • The Indian Economy is in a Tailspin
  • China Walks a Tightrope on The Uighur Muslim Issue
  • Is Ram Mandir a Mere Election Strategy of the BJP?
  • The Harsher Counters of India's Drug Legislations
  • BJP's Election Strategy: Data is the New Opium
  • Geographical Indication - India's Untapped Resource
  • Climate Change to Make Prediction of Furious Storms More Difficult
  • Mountain echoes for India
  • Maldives: Has the Wheel Turned Full Circle?
  • President Sirisena Needs to be Reached Sooner Rather Than Later
  • Plastic Pollution in India
  • Prejudice by Any Name
  • 29 Years After Fall of Berlin Wall, Europe Has 1,000 Km of Walls to Stop Migrants
  • The Leftover Women of Afghanistan
  • Harmony of Music and Politics of Silencing
  • The Economics of Policy: Prohibition and Free Water Supply
  • Threat to Democracy in the Age of Social or Anti-Social Media
  • Intellectual Property- A Vital Discipline
  • What Happened in Britain, and What's Next
  • Assembly Debacle: BJP Got Taken in by Its Own Fake News
  • India: Secular Democracy or Hindu Rashtra
  • Adani is Byword for Government's Climate Inaction as Australia Gears for Elections
  • How The Modi Government is Killing Off MGNREGS
  • The Year of the Gazan
  • Assembly Polls: Ten Crucial Takeaways Ahead of 2019
  • The Real Effects of Fake Propaganda on Migrants
  • Why NGOs in Pakistan Are at The Brink of Extinction
  • Dogged by Brexit
  • In My Own Voice: Citizenship Amendment Bill And You
  • Oil Giant Shell Finally Faces Its Day In Court For Complicity In Rapes And Murders in Nigeria
  • The Geopolitics of Pulwama
  • Shah Faesal Cuts Through Calls for Blood and Lays Out a Roadmap for Kashmir
  • Modi's ABC: Avoiding, Burying, Confusing
  • The Kashmir Question: A 'Made in India' Problem
  • Opposition Must Take a Stand Against the War Politics of Hindutva
  • 'Patriotism' Made Easy in Times of 'WhatsApp Elections'
  • Urban Poor Have Set Agenda for 2019 Elections
  • Will the US End Up Putting Sanctions on Every Country That Doesn't Bend to its Will?
  • Minority and Indigenous Women Human Rights Activists More Prone to Harassment UN Report
  • Tribute to Speaker Rabi Ray (1926-2017)
  • International Participation is Necessary Where State is Part of The Problem
  • Italy Takes Belt and Road to The Heart of Europe
  • The Legacy of Shaheed-e-Azam
  • In My Own Voice: Heroes or Hiroshima
  • The Modi Years
  • Election in Israel: A Race to the Bottom
  • Why Bangladesh Overtook Pakistan
  • Digital Monopoly Platforms, Modi Regime and Threat to Our Democracy
  • Elitism and Development
  • Jawaharlal Nehru and Organised Religion
  • A Brief History of the IUML and Kerla's Muslims
  • The Immunisation of Human Rights
  • How Can India Win The Struggle on Poverty?
  • The RSS's Chanakya Neeti
  • Diversity, Belonging and Multiculturalism
  • The Chinese Ambition
  • The Role City Govts Can Play in the Health of Citizens
  • Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew: Forgotten Warrior of Our Freedom Movement
  • Fighting Climate Change, Building Resilience
  • Mridula Sarabhai(the orignal anti-national)
  • Right to Education: A Dream Half Forgotten
  • Decoding One Nation One Poll
  • Tunisia Heads for Polls Amidst Economic Slowdown, Squsbbling and Crack Down on Islamic Extremist
  • Lynchings, Litchis and No Water: What the International Media is Saying Abount India
  • Blood in the Nile
  • Will the BNP Ever Again be a Major Political Force in Bangladesh?
  • 'Real Estate Brokers' Cannot Dampen The Palestinian Spirit
  • The Indian Liberal's Conundrum
  • Hope For Democracy in Sudan
  • In Depth: Water Crisis Looming Across Tamil Nadu
  • Missing Secularism in New Education Policy
  • Religion, Nationalism And Insurgency in Balochistan
  • Dim Lights, Closed Blinds: History Lessons From a Party in Power
  • Loan Waivers Need Better Designing to Prevent Farmer Suicides
  • Makimg Best Use of Sri Lanka's Strategic Location
  • FDI in Coal: Look Who's Coming to the Party
  • Weapons and the Never Ending Space Race
  • Thirty Years the Berlin Wall Brought Down
  • Reclaiming the Opposition and Political Space in India
  • An Interreligious Conference to Build Bridges in Sri Lanka
  • On 'Correcting' History and Akbar's Invasion of Kashmir
  • The Evolution of the 'Nobel Prize' in Economics
  • Close Coordination Between Turkey and Russia in Syria
  • Sri Lanka's Election Time Promises Costly to Keep
  • The India Economy and The Cobra Effect
  • Fascism: Is Liberal Use "Trivialising" This "Destructive Phenomenon?"
  • Treating the Poor as Development Guinea Pigs
  • A Not sp 'National Education Policy: Analysis Reveals Exclusion in Education Sector
  • University Fee Hikes Pave the Way for Selling Public Assets
  • The Truth About Middle Class 'Revolutions?
  • 50 Years of US Arms Trade: The Lasting Impact on West Asia
  • India Abjures Secularism in Bangladesh's View, Will Regional Cooperation Take a Hit?
  • Amidist Resistance to "De-Tribalisation", A Look at Why Jharkhand Polls are More Critical Than They Appear
  • The Dangerous Game of Citizenship: BJP Creates Divisive Agenda Through NRC
  • Revealed: US Losing Aghan War Due to "Fatally Flawed" War Strategies and Lack of Clear Objetives
  • 'Politics and Prejudice': Can Dalit-Bahujans and left Progressives Join Hands?
  • State Power's Attempts at Rewriting History
  • Afghanista's Tumultous Fourty-Year Journey
  • Nepal: Citizen's Needs Remain Sidelined as Turbulent Game of Politics Continues
  • "Enough is Enough": Secular India Revolts Against a " Majoritarian State"
  • Looking at Cuba's Revolution 61 Years On
  • Soleimani Murder Set to Spiral Out of Control, US Expected to Pressure India Under LEMOA
  • The Rise of Digital Media and The Viral Phenomenon of "Nowledge"
  • Thus Spake JP: Beware the Writing on the Wall
  • Sri Lankan Government Must Pay Attention to Problem-Solving in the North
  • Drowning Nation Clutches at Military Might?
  • India's Neighbourhood First Policy Crumbles
  • A Gobal Assault by the Far-Right
  • Delhi Riots: Historical Patterns, Complicity of Forces Point to Planned Violence
  • Behind The Protests Defending Public Education
  • Putting The Judiciary on Trial
  • "Sanctions Are a Crime": During Coronavirus Pandemic, Sanctions Against Iran, Venezuela Causing Medical Shortages
  • Social Messiahs or Smart Entrepreneurs?
  • Justice Gogoi Joining Rajya Sabha Points to a Constitutional Crisis
  • A Russian "Plays Long Game" Firewall for Venezuela Against US Sanctions
  • RSS and the Question of Morality
  • Establishing COVID-19 Hospitals in Record Time
  • A New "Medical Internationalism" Needed: Cuba At the Pandemic Frontlines Even As Wealthy States Neglect Healthcare
  • Why They Suffer: The Human/Animal Conflict
  • More Books and Snowy Mornings
  • Statesmanship Required to Avert Constitutinal Crisis in Sri Lanka
  • Combating 'Hate Virus': Communal Forces Divide in times of Global Pandemin
  • How Biometric Authentication Has Excluded MAny From The Public Distribution System
  • Lessons From Iraq: Before Trump Sues China, US Must pay for Unjust War on Iraq
  • The American War System And The Global 'War of Error'
  • Demilitarising Patriotism in The Covid Fight
  • Muslims Need a Fair Media
  • Sri-Lanka: Shock of Covid-19 Wanes, Nationalist Sentiments Rise as Elections Approach
  • Covid-19 in Brazil: A 21st Century 'Reenactment' of the 19th Century Yellow Fever?
  • Iran's Fuel Tankers for Venezuela Sail to Safety Under 'Chinese Shield'
  • US Protests Bear Lessons For Sri Lanka
  • India and Nepal in For A Prolonged Standoff?
  • The Fifth Schedule: Tribal Advisory Councils and International Perspectives
  • The Asian American Response to Pandemic-Era Racism Must Be Cross-Racial Solidarity
  • Is Police Brutality Exclusive to the USA?
  • Libya's Future Seema to Rest on Arrangements Between Russia And Turkey
  • China's strategic Mind And Method: "Long-Term Planning" Behind Country's Geo-Political Moves
  • Returning Migrants: A Boon For Rural Industrialisation?
  • Why Refugees in Greece Are Afraid of the Word 'Camp'''
  • Black Lives Matter Movement And Its Lessons For India
  • US Provocations Trigger Tension in Sino-American Relations
  • Inclusive Representation Required In Sri Lanka's Decision-Making Bodies
  • Humanists At Risk: Demonising Dissent, Infantilising Society
  • Putin Anticipates 'Cascading Tension', Hints At Need To Rest World Order
  • Why the Neoliberal Agenda Is a Failure at Failure at Fighting Coronavirus
  • Covid-19 Underscores Importance of Local Planning
  • BRI Drive Post-Covid-19 Global Economic Recovery', Claims China
  • Are We Mainstreaming or Simply Trivialising Biodiversity?
  • Is Iran's Influence in Iraq Waning?
  • Green Economic Recovery: A Firm Commitment Required
  • Ease Of Doing Business VS Human Development
  • Provincial Councils The Best Option For A Peaceful Sri Lanka?