I had to laugh when I read the following line in this wonderful piece by Andrew Copson in The Guardian: “There are still places where it is illegal to declare yourself as non-religious on your identity papers or official records”.
Yes unfortunately there are still such places, and at least one of them is Indonesia, that mainly Muslim country which US President Barack Obama recently lauded as a model of tolerance and pluralism. In Indonesia it is impossible to have a legal identity if you are an atheist – you must state your adherence to one of six “religions”. I put that word in commas because the rules bizarrely rank Catholicism and Protestantism as separate religions. The others are Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism (a religion?) and Hinduism. Any alternative beliefs, including the various other branches of Christianity, are invalid and followers of those beliefs are ineligible for ID documents.
I laughed because Indonesia is so desperate to be seen as a powerful, moderate and modern country, yet in fact on so many levels it ranks as one of those unmentionable places that still has such backward laws on its books.
Of course, Indonesia isn’t the only place in the world where religion reigns mightily over reason. Witness the madness being committed in the name of religion in Afghanistan now, with the killings of innocent people in response to a US pastor’s provocative and stupid burning of a copy of the Koran in far-away Florida. In this foul, depressing atmosphere it’s so nice to read a piece of free-thinking such as Copson’s article.
Copson points out that 2011 is the 200th anniversary of Oxford university’s expulsion of the poet Shelley for his publication of a tract arguing the “Necessity of Atheism”.
Today in Britain, non-religious people are not thrown out of universities because they don’t believe in God, but in other parts of the world many suffer this fate – and worse. There are still places where it is illegal to declare yourself as non-religious on your identity papers or official records.
One of the most upsetting stories I was ever told was by a young humanist from Saudi Arabia who grew up so frightened of what would happen if he spoke out loud about his beliefs to another person that the only outlet for his thoughts was to go on long walks away from all people, and speak his mind only to the air. In fact, he never spoke to another human being about his most fundamental beliefs until coming to Britain in his late 20s, and experiencing then for the first time what those of us who live in freedom take for granted: the joyful dynamic of testing and developing our own ideas in conversation and dialogue with others.
In this country the blasphemy laws have been abolished, but elsewhere our fellow men and women face death for speaking and thinking freely.
Indonesia has not yet made blasphemy a capital crime, but some fear it is heading down that road. And anyway Indonesians “face death for speaking and thinking freely”, either at the hands of fanatics for their religious views or at the hands of the security forces for their political ones.