Covid-19 has led to global humanist crackdown

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to many countries cracking down on humanists’ freedom of thought and expression, with some countries blaming the non-religious for the pandemic, while the restrictions imposed by many others have left closeted humanists trapped with their hostile families. Those are the findings of this year’s Freedom of Thought Report, published today by Humanists International. Humanists UK is writing to the UK Government to alert them to the findings, and to ask them to help.

In many countries it is impossible to be openly non-religious, even in normal times. 13 maintain the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy, with 42 more jailing people for the offence. In many countries, societal pressure also makes it very difficult or impossible to be openly humanist, with humanists being murdered in some parts of the world, even where blasphemy doesn’t come with the death penalty.

Under the pandemic, the situation has only got worse. Some countries, like Kenya and Zimbabwe, have scapegoated the non-religious as the cause; others still have used it as an excuse to persecute minorities who often happen to be humanist – for example, Kuwait, Hungary, and Poland; while others, like Azerbaijan, have introduced very broad restrictions on freedom of assembly. In Nigeria, superstition has proved a huge problem, with snake oil salesmen exploiting the pandemic for gain, while accusations of witchcraft have increased.

And in many countries that haven’t seen specific problems, the simple fact that non-religious people are trapped with their religious families can itself put them in serious danger. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka recently told Humanists International, ‘Most members are stressed, especially those of us that are now forced to do the five daily Islamic prayers together with their family members… At this moment, we can’t do anything as an organization since most of us ex-Muslims are in the closet, and we strictly follow the guidelines set by the government.’

Humanists International President Andrew Copson, who is also the Chief Executive of Humanists UK, commented:

‘Today our world is in the grip of a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen for a century. Governments and authorities around the world have introduced various policies of “distancing” to reduce the risk of spreading the infection. These restrictions, while completely necessary, have also had the secondary effect of undermining and destabilising the lives of those who are most vulnerable.

‘Everyone around the world has had to bear a burden, from the loss of financial security, the loss of contact with our family and friends, and the loss of certainty in a world we didn’t expect. We know that the lockdown restrictions have put some humanists who were already at risk, in a much more serious situation. We are working with many individuals who found themselves stranded in the process of fleeing harm, unable to access consular or other support services.’

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed commented:

‘Humanists are the invisible people of the present 21st century. While almost everybody is persecuted when they are in a minority, the attacks on humanists are particularly violent. They are exposed to harm in the communities where they live, and of course, for many of them, the family is not a safe place. The pandemic therefore intensifies that.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Explore this year’s Freedom of Thought Report.

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Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.