Humanists At Risk: Demonising Dissent, Infantilising Society
Suhit K Sen
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%
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
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.