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Atheism and Human Rights Abuses in Africa

Today around the globe too many atrocities are being committed with impunity in the name of god, allah and other constructs, which have over the ages, been identified or associated with the so called supreme being. The dream of a secular peaceful world where people of all faiths and none can coexist in harmony - continues to elude many across the region. Millions of people- theists and atheists- continue to suffer and are abused due to superstition, religious fundamentalism and supernaturalism. In this piece I will focus on two of such areas.

The rights of non-believers. I have heard it proclaimed at the UN that the rights of women are human rights. I have also heard it proclaimed that the rights of gay people are human rights. These proclamations changed the way human rights are perceived around the globe. Personally I have yet to hear it proclaimed at UN, or at our regional and national human rights bodies that the rights of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers are human rights. I do not want these rights to be implied or assumed as currently the case in most countries. I want them to be expressly declared as universal human rights.

In spite of the progress the world has made in terms of upholding human rights and liberties, and getting states to honour their obligations under various instruments and mechanisms, equal rights have yet to be extended to religious non-believers in most parts of the world particularly in Africa.

I still do not know any African country where one can openly and truly say that the government recognizes the full human rights of non-believers including their right to life, freedom of expression, freedom from torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, freedom of association, freedom of conscience etc. There is no country in the region with an effective mechanism to protect the rights of those who profess no religion; those who change their religion or those who are critical of religious and theistic ideas. Religious non-believers are treated as if they are not human beings, as if they do not exist or do not have the right to exist.

There are no guarantees for the rights and dignity of infidels, apostates and blasphemers as freethinkers are often called. Many governments have caved in to pressures from religious fanatics, from theocrats, jihadists and terrorists. So nonbelievers are denied their basic rights with impunity, sometimes as a matter of state policy or for the sake of ‘public order, peace or ‘morality’. The situation is worse in countries that have an official religion or official religions. Unbelievers are targets of forced conversion, oppression, discrimination, persecution and murder, sometimes by states. Many governments pay lip service to freedom of religion or belief. Freedom of religion is often understood as freedom to profess a religion-the religion sanctioned by the state, by one’s family or community- not freedom to change one’s religion or freedom not to profess any religion at all as contained in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So most people who do not profess any religion or belief in god are compelled to live or remain in the closets or to pretend to be religious, paying lip service to religions they do not truly profess, to religious dogmas that mean nothing to them or to a god they do not actually believe in. Non-believers live in constant fear of their lives because going open with one’s religious unbelief often comes at a price, at a very heavy price. In Africa, by going open and public as a freethinker, one risks being ostracized by families and communities, being persecuted by state and non-state agents, being expelled from schools. As an atheist, one can be sacked from jobs, domestically abused, disqualified from posts, demonized by faith groups, taunted as a person without morality or portrayed as the enemy of the state or society. Atheism is a freethinking position that still dares not mention its name in most parts of the continent.

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