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As blasphemy laws claim more victims, petition gains support from celebrities

As stories about brutalized victims of religious fanaticism continue to circulate in the media, a petition by the organization Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists ("HRAAS") to end oppressive blasphemy laws has been garnering attention and support from celebrities in a variety of fields.

Logo for the HRAAS organization
Logo for the HRAAS organization
Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists logo:
A mourner weeps for Minority Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, assassined on March 2, 2011, in Islamabad, Pakistan, speaking out against blasphemy laws in that country.
Photo by Warrick Page/Getty Images

The petition to the United Nations Human Rights Commission seeks to amend Articles of the U.N. Charter to include protection from religious oppression, including archaic and barbaric blasphemy laws. So far, over 10 thousand people have signed and shared the petition, including atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists and "nones," as well as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Wiccans.

These signers include noted scientists and scholars such as Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers and Sam Harris; comedians Ricky Gervais, Roseanne Barr and Pat Condell; Jewish and Christian scholars, rabbis, ministers and politicians; members of the Muslim Canadian Congress; Indian freethinkers; and apostates from Islam as well as other religions.


HRAAS founder Michael Sherlock, Atheist Ireland chairperson Michael Nugent and I also recorded with Australian radio host Adam Reakes and Indian blasphemy-law victim Sanal Edamaruku a significant radio program outlining the dangers of antiquated and human-abusing blasphemy laws and their offshoots.

Another important radio program features the two Michaels and me for the same purpose of exposing blasphemy injustices and perils, hosted by "Godless Spellchecker."

Dangerous 'Hate Speech' Legislation

Blasphemy law offshoots include censorship efforts disguised as "hate speech" legislation that essentially protects religions from "insult." The flawed reasoning is that if we criticize an ideology, we are attacking the people who follow it. This illogical misapprehension has allowed for outspoken individuals exposing facts and truth about ideologies to be arrested and tried for "hate speech" and "inciting racial hatred," among other fallacious and indecent charges.

One such charge within this hate-speech genre concerns "denigration of religion," a perilous and nebulous notion, especially in consideration of the fact that many repugnant ideas have been included under the rubric of "religion," including rape, torture, murder, genocide and cannibalism. This capricious type of legislation has ensnared people like Austrian Islam critic Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff.

In this regard, our petition is designed to protect nonbelievers and religious minorities alike from both blasphemy laws and religiously based hate-speech legislation. We are asking all people of conscience, whether believers or unbelievers, to sign and share our petition.

Blasphemy Legislation Can Be Found Globally

Although not widely known, blasphemy and hate-speech legislation can be found throughout the world. Blasphemy laws that include the death penalty are on the books in the following countries:

Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates

Some form of blasphemy and hate-speech laws exists in the following countries, including many Westernized nations:

Czech Republic
New Zealand
Russian Federation
South Africa
United Kingdom

Thus, religious oppression and suppression of basic human rights affect hundreds of millions globally and are not just localized to a particular area of the world.


Below is the letter sent by Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists to the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay. Sending this letter is just the beginning of our efforts, as we are all dedicated volunteers in for the long haul, also having established - thanks in large part to petition creator Michael Sherlock - a Facebook page and website, which can be reached at the convenient link

To: The Honorable Navanethem Pillay
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights
Palais des Nations, CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Re: Freedoms and Rights for Nonreligious and Secular People Worldwide

Dear Ms. Pillay:

We the signers humbly ask you to consider both a human rights petition and concern shared by a growing number of people persecuted for non-belief in religious dogma, including millions of atheists, agnostics and secularists around the world. Both the petition and the concern regard the enactment and enforcement of so-called blasphemy laws and their offshoots, such as defamation of religion and religious-insult “hate speech” legislation, in member states. The reality is that these blasphemy laws and “hate speech” legislation violate the cornerstone rights of freedom of expression, thought and conscience, tenuously upheld by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), Articles 18 and 19 in particular.

Advocates of blasphemy legislation and its offshoots argue that these laws protect the harmony of pluralistic societies. However, as demonstrated by a number of conclusive studies (available upon request) the enforcement of blasphemy laws actually deepens divisions among religious and secular groups, creating unnecessary civil unrest.

Discrimination and Dictatorship

In practice, blasphemy laws are used to infringe upon basic human rights, often utilized in a discriminatory and dictatorial manner, as they bestow upon inhumane leaders the legal means by which these rulers can persecute both religious minorities and non-religious groups alike.

Such legislation frequently leads to arbitrary arrest; detention; poor treatment in custody, including torture and death; dubious legal procedures; and poor application of justice. Additionally, the definition of an alleged blasphemy offense often lies in the hands of police and judicial authorities, again wielded arbitrarily and dictatorially.

Abuses of blasphemy legislation include the following:

  • Governments have used blasphemy laws to silence political opponents.
  • Religious authorities employ blasphemy legislation to impose doctrinal orthodoxy on members of religious groups, often with the sanction of the state.
  • Religious extremists utilize blasphemy laws to attack other sects, critics and nonbelievers, frequently fatally.
  • Unscrupulous individuals have fabricated blasphemy charges against others in local, communal disputes.
  • Vigilante mobs have committed violence against innocent and/or defenseless individuals accused of blasphemy, whether or not truthfully.

Moreover, blasphemy and “religious insult” legislation often is discriminatory based on social class and status, since it creates provisions whereby a skilled and educated defendant stands far less chance of prosecution than a less educated and privileged individual.

Suppression of Basic Freedoms and Other Objections

Even in relatively democratic regions, blasphemy and religious-insult “hate speech” laws have a universal “chilling effect” upon normal freedom of expression, including and especially free speech and the right to dissent.

Blasphemy legislation is a species of libel with no real rules of evidence or proof.

Blasphemy laws are either exclusive, favoring one religion over others, or else try to be inclusive, in which case they may be inadequate for protecting religious beliefs in conflict with one another.

Moreover, the legal criteria for recognition as an authorized or accepted religious group—where laws do not protect a specific, established religion—can be problematic and often are defined poorly.

Petition by Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists

To oppose arbitrary and barbaric blasphemy legislation, our organization Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists has created a petition, attached below, appealing to the United Nations to amend Articles 1.3, 13.1 (b), 55 (c) & 76 (c) of the Charter of the United Nations and the Statute of the International Court of Justice to include the non-religious and secular as an expressly protected group.

In so amending, the United Nations would be sending a clear message to its member states that imprisoning, torturing, executing and otherwise molesting secularists and nonbelievers such as atheists and agnostics is incompatible with basic human rights. As it presently stands, there are 13 countries around the world that can execute secularists and nonbelievers, along with many others that prescribe imprisonment and/or issue fines to those who do not share the majority religious view of the state or who are accused of “religious insult” or “hate speech.”

The primary aim of this limb of our petition—which has the support of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ricky Gervais, Roseanne Barr and other secular, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu signatories—is to bind member states that have refused to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976). Our petition also aims to implore the United Nations to amend the ICCPR by narrowing and tempering the restrictions on freedom of expression enunciated in Articles 18.3 and 19.3 (a) and (b), as well as Article 20.2.

In this regard, our petition is in line with the proclamation made in 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which declared that “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the [ICCPR].” (See; Human Rights Committee, “General comment no. 34, Article 19: Freedoms of opinion and expression,” UN Doc. CCPR/C/GC/34, para. 48; 2011.)

We thank you for your time and hope that you give this matter the attention that it deserves, on behalf of millions of human beings globally.


Michael Sherlock
Founder and Co-Chairperson, Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists

D.M. Murdock
Co-Chairperson, Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists

Michael Nugent
Chairperson of Atheist Ireland

Please join our growing movement by signing and sharing our petition, as well as by visiting and circulating the links below. Please also consider donating to the cause so we can garner more publicity, including via press releases and media packages. Thank you!

Further Reading

Petition to Abolish Blasphemy Laws

Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists (website)

Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists (Facebook)

Petition to the UN to protect freedom from religion and barbaric blasphemy laws (blog)

Blasphemy petition radio program (Adam Reakes)

Blasphemy petition radio program (Godless Spellchecker)

Blasphemy laws around the world

"Nones" on the Rise

Laws Penalizing Blasphemy, Apostasy and Defamation of Religion are Widespread

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