We hear a great deal about religious bigotry these days. Islamophobia so concerns the federal government that it recently appointed an anti-Islamophobia representative—Amira Elghawaby. (Ms. Elghawaby immediately got into hot water herself and had to apologize to Quebeckers for uncharitable remarks she had made about the good people of that province.) Anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head. Other religions seem less affected by bigotry than these two, at least in this country.

Internationally, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, the religion harassed in the most countries was, surprisingly perhaps, Christianity (155 countries). Muslims were harassed in 145 countries and Jews in 94. I would have thought Jews might top the list; nonetheless 94 countries is still a lot of persecution for a group who make up only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population.

The two groups that showed the most significant increase in the number of countries where they were harassed were the Jews and the non-religious, the “nones” as Pew refers to them—atheists, agnostics and people who don’t identify with any religion. The “nones” were harassed in relatively few countries (27) however, which is some consolation.

The Pew study looked at both government harassment and social harassment, that committed by private individuals and groups. It included harassment from verbal abuse to physical violence and killings as well as cases where individuals or groups felt unable to express their religious beliefs (or non-beliefs).

The religious unaffiliated make up a fair slice of the global population, 16 percent compared to the largest and second largest groups, Christians at 31 percent and Muslims at 25 percent. In most of the countries where the “nones” face harassment, a religious group makes up at least 80 percent of the population. Twelve of these countries were majority Muslim and six majority Christian. Diversity, as we might expect, seems to reduce bigotry.

The fact that most were majority Muslim is no surprise. If Muslims are not too fond of atheists, they positively despise apostates. Another Pew study showed that across 37 Muslim countries a median of 28 percent thought apostates should be subject to the death penalty. In Egypt it was 88 percent.

Saudi Arabia takes intolerance to the limit. Non-Muslims must practice their religion in private, and foreigners attempting to acquire Saudi Arabian nationality must convert to Islam. And, yes, apostasy is punishable by death.

The survey suggests that intolerance around the globe is on the increase. From 2012 to 2020, the number of countries and territories where religious groups had experienced harassment increased from 166 to 189—pretty much everywhere.

My own non-religion is atheism. Fortunately I live in a country that’s quite tolerant of “nones” of all varieties, largely no doubt because we have a minimal number of religious zealots. And that is a very good thing.

One thought on “What about the atheists?”
  1. Coming from a country where two Christian denominations kill each other, I read this column with great interest. I had to look up apostate, though, to find out that I am one, I think.

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