Speech on Freedom of Belief by Michael Nugent, Days of Atheism 2017

Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Belief and Expression are among the most fundamental human rights. Without these rights being respected, we cannot effectively exercise other human, civil and political rights.

Most religious people already recognise this when it is applied to their own beliefs. They want to protect their own right to freedom of religious belief, but they often do not recognise that this right also protects atheistic beliefs.

Article 18 of the United Nations Covenant on Civil & Political Rights guarantees the right to freedom of conscience. The UN has what they call General Comments which explain in detail specific human rights. General Comment 22 covers Article 18 of this Covenant. It says:

“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. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason…”

This is a very important principle. Atheist advocacy groups should always highlight it when we are combating religious discrimination and prejudice against us, especially when our own Governments are discriminating against us.

By highlighting this principle, we are not saying that atheism is a religion, or that atheistic beliefs are similar to religious beliefs.

Atheistic beliefs are typically based on what we experience in the real world in which we actually live, while religious beliefs are typically based on imagined revelations from an imaginary supernatural world.

What we are saying is that the right to hold any fundamental world view, whether it is based on atheistic or religious principles, is equally protected under international human rights law.

And States that sign up to the United Nations Human Rights Treaties are obliged to protect equally the right to hold any of these world views, without being discriminated against, as long as you are not infringing on anybody else’s rights.

We in Atheist Ireland always take part when international bodies such as the United Nations, Council of Europe and OSCE are examining Ireland’s human rights record. We make written  submissions, we attend the sessions, and we lobby members of the human rights committees.

We encourage all atheist advocacy groups to do the same when the UN Human Rights Committee is questioning your country, and we will be happy to assist any groups in understanding the process for doing so.

Atheistic beliefs are more reliable than religious beliefs

There are good reasons to believe that atheistic beliefs are more reliable than religious beliefs.

Faith and personal experience are the worst and least reliable ways of identifying what is true. They result in different people coming to different beliefs about the same reality.

Applying reason to evidence is the most reliable way. Because it can more reliably result in different people coming to the same beliefs about the same reality.

When we apply reason to evidence, we notice that the idea of a God seems to be implausible, that reality and morality seem as we would expect them to be if there was no God, and that there is a relentless pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural explanations.

Theists typically believe that their God is a pure mind without a body. But this is an invented convenience, because we have no evidence that a mind can exist without a body or a brain or a source of energy.

Theists typically believe this God created the universe out of nothing in order to have a special relationship with human beings on planet Earth. But instead we see a vast universe based on scientific laws, with a hundred billion galaxies, each with a hundred billion stars like our sun.

Theists typically believe this God is the source of our morality. But instead we see morality evolving in the brains of social animals, including humans, and we see that humans have been able to refine our morality because of our ability to reason.

Protecting equally the right to atheistic and religious beliefs

So there are good reasons to believe that atheistic beliefs are more reliable than religious beliefs. However, that is not the reason why we should insist that our right to hold our atheistic beliefs should be protected.

Indeed, we should also protect the right of religious people to hold their religious beliefs, as long as they are not infringing on the rights of other people.

There are two reasons for this.

One, we should be willing to constantly test our beliefs rationally, and we should always be open to changing our beliefs if we get new evidence.

And two, if the rights to Thought, Conscience, Belief and Expression are indeed fundamental rights, then we should protect equally the rights of those with whom we disagree.

Again, with the important proviso, that the right to freedom of belief does not extend to carrying out actions that infringe on the rights of others.

The right to believe in a God does not grant you the right to indoctrinate other people into your beliefs, or to prevent people from criticising or ridiculing your beliefs, or to treat women as second class citizens, or to prevent people from consensually exercising their sexuality, or to have any other privileges over other citizens.

The right to freedom of belief belongs to you, not to your beliefs. We can respect your right to hold your belief, without respecting the content of the belief.

And if your belief causes you to infringe on the rights of others, then you have moved beyond the right to freedom of belief and into forbidden territory.

Separation of Church and State

The key to protecting equally the Rights to Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Belief and Expression is to campaign for the Separation of Church and State. And on this issue, we can form alliances with religious people who also support Separation of Church and State.

For example, in Ireland, on the issue of secular schools, Atheist Ireland works alongside the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland, to seek an end to all religious discrimination and religious privilege in schools.

We are three groups with very different world views, and we disagree with each other about the truth of our world views, but we all agree that the State should remain neutral on religious questions, and should not be funding the Catholic Church to run 90% of our State-funded primary schools.

The Ahmadiyya Muslims in particular face a double discrimination. Sunni Muslims persecute them around the world, saying they are not proper Muslims, and many Western societies assume that all Muslims are the same, and blame Ahmadis for the religious fundamentalism of Sunnis.

Pakistan at the United Nations

Our three groups are also preparing a joint submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, for when it is questioning Pakistan later this year.

We will be able to raise, together, the scandal of religious persecution of atheists, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan. We can give voice to members of our respective communities, who are living in Pakistan, but who cannot speak out themselves because of fear of further persecution.

One of the most high profile cases is that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman facing execution by hanging for a dispute among neighbours that was transformed into a blasphemy allegation. Two politicians spoke out in her favour (the Governor of Punjab and the Minority Minister in the Government). Both were murdered, one by his own bodyguard.

Also in Pakistan, mobs have attacked and destroyed Ahmadiyya Muslim mosques, and the Government has used its Counter Terrorism Department to raid offices and printing presses of the Ahmadiyya Community.

Atheists and apostates in Pakistan face similar persecution. Three weeks ago, a High Court Judge said that “blasphemers are terrorists” during a case aimed at blocking social media pages that are critical of Islam.

And we work in Ireland and internationally, to protect ex Muslims who face persecution from Pakistan and other Governments. One such case at the moment is that of Muhammad Rehan, who is seeking asylum in Palau and facing deportation to Pakistan in a few weeks time.


So Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland, are working together to promote Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Belief and Expression, both in Ireland and internationally, despite our very different world views on religious and atheistic issues.

That type of cooperation, on the specific issue of Separation of Church and State, is the most promising route to having all of our fundamental human rights respected.


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