A US law meant to safeguard religious minorities abroad now covers atheists, too

Safe in disbelief.
Safe in disbelief.
Image: Reuters/ Andrew Winning
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By updating an 18-year-old religious freedom law, the US Congress has for the first time taken steps to explicitly protect people who identify as atheists.

Passed in 1998, the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act—named for a retired Virginia congressman and champion of religious freedom—established the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal government watchdog that tracked violations to religious freedom and the abuse of minorities abroad. The law placed freedom of religion at the center of American foreign policy, and provided a way for the US to denounce countries that persecuted people on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The new amendment to the act passed the House and Senate unanimously, and was signed into law by president Barack Obama on Dec. 16. “The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and nontheistic beliefs and the right not to profess or practice any religion,” it reads.

On Wednesday, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, praised the update. “This is an important development, as believers, atheists and non-believers must all be equally protected,” he said. “Many humanists and non-believers are still widely stigmatized and persecuted around the world.”

Indeed, a 2016 report from the Commission on International Religion Freedom noted attacks against atheists in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Bangladesh.

Atheism is on the rise in the US. According a survey by Pew Research, the percentage of adults who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” jumped over 6 points, to 22.8% in 2014 from 16.1% in 2007. Atheists in America are more likely to male, young, white, and highly educated. They are also more likely to be liberal: About 69% of atheists identify as Democrats, or lean in that direction.