A Kurdish woman removing her headscarf.

This secret movement is trying to save persecuted atheists

When we think of religious persecution, we tend to frame the injustice in terms of a rivalry between faiths. Ever since the dawn of civilisation, when mankind first developed the faculties to comprehend the celestial and everlasting, our competing belief systems have waged dogmatic wars against each other, and brutal conflicts have arisen all throughout history as a result of our ideological Darwinism. You don't have to look hard to find examples of cases where religious intolerance has led to genocide, torture and human rights abuses over the ages. Observe the sectarian violence (which still perpetuates itself today) between Protestants and Roman Catholics, or other Christian sects. Look at the many pogroms which the Jewish people have suffered as a result of antisemitism, or the violence in the middle east between Israelis and Palestinians. It almost seems to be a prerequisite that, for a faith to be legitimate, blood must first be spilt in its name.

For some, disregarding a belief in a deity is not an option. In the comfortable, liberal west, this notion might sound medieval. The idea of someone being threatened, or even killed, because they don't believe in God, conjures up images of the Spanish Inquisition. But in many parts of the world, this is a real phenomenon that bears with it the risk of imprisonment or execution. Violence isn't the only punishment meted out to the godless. Those who stand up to the doctrines of the clergy, and espouse a belief in science, reason and the values of the enlightenment, can often expect to find themselves shamed and ostracised. They become pariahs that are unable to function in society because of their lack of faith.

An Iraqi woman walking down a narrow alley. Credit: Getty

It's an often underrepresented issue: but for those innocents who are suffering, there is a form of escape. Much like how, in the United States, an underground railroad attempted to smuggle slaves into the north where they could win freedom during the civil war, an initiative has now been formed to safeguard persecuted atheists who have found themselves threatened by fundamentalists. Secular Rescue is a non-profit organisation, linked to the American Centre for Inquiry, which aims to protect atheists who have been threatened because of their beliefs. Furthermore, it also aims to promote and encourage scientific empiricism and scepticism in schools and more broadly in mainstream culture. The organisation has been supported by a number of prominent atheists, including writer and evolutionary scientist Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene, among other texts.

The initiative was originally created after the success of the Freethought Emergency Fund, a programme launched in 2015 which aimed at protecting vulnerable atheist writers and activists in Bangladesh. Despite the fact that the Bangladeshi constitution has declared that all citizens are entitled to freedom of religion, and the fact that religious discrimination is considered criminal, atheists and agnostics are reportedly considered to be an underrepresented minority in the Asian nation, and a number of Bangladeshi atheist bloggers have been attacked, and in some cases killed, with impunity by militant Islamists. For example, online activist, Nazimuddin Samad was hacked to death by thugs with machetes, author and atheist Taslima Nasrin was forced to flee to Sweden due to the angry mobs which threatened her, and blogger Washiqur Rahman was butchered by men wielding cleavers not long after.

In response, the FEF raised approximately $50,000 and managed to relocate a number of atheist activists and their families who had received death threats. Because the need for asylum was so urgent worldwide, Secular Rescue was formed to help end the crisis. In response to the initiative's found, Michael De Dora, the CFI’s main representative to the UN, stated: "We have lost too many innocent and peaceful people to militants’ blades. Writers and activists, teachers and students, and colleagues and friends ... The fear engendered by these gruesome murders is incalculable, silencing an untold number of tolerant, rational voices that speak of a better world beyond the confines of extremist dogma."

Paul Fidalgo, a spokesman for Secular Rescue, claims that fighting against government apathy is one of the movement's biggest challenges. “We know there have been, and may still be, hit lists, issued by those who are trying to keep their hands clean, encouraging young radicals to slaughter secularists of their own volition, and one of the worst parts is the callousness of the response from the Bangladeshi government. From the prime minister and other officials, we get several versions of ‘Well, they shouldn’t have been insulting religious beliefs.’”

Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins. Credit: Getty

But Bangladesh isn't the only country where atheists are at risk. According to a report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union there are currently 12 countries globally in which atheism is considered to be a crime punishable by death: Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates all have laws which carry the death sentence for those found guilty of apostasy. In Syria and parts of Iraq, where religious extremists such as ISIS have committed a campaign of genocidal violence against anyone who doesn't submit to their totalitarian moral authority, atheists can expect to suffer harsh penalties. Secular rescue works towards giving these people means of escape, housing them in safe climates, and preventing them from being extradited back to their homeland, or attacked later on.

Of course, there are those who will argue that an organisation which protects the irreligious at the expense of the faithful sets a dangerous precedent and that bigots might use this organisation to shield them when attacking believers. With Islamophobia in particular on the rise in Europe and the United States, it's easy to see why this initiative might worry people. However, its important that those people who are neglected by their own state to be protected, and in that regard atheists are a minority that are just as vulnerable as any other. If you'd like to make a donation to Secular Rescue, or are simply looking for more information regarding the movement, then please don't hesitate to visit their official website here.