A recent survey of the Dutch statistical office showed that the number of youth who regard themselves as religious has now declined for the first time to less than 50%. That does not mean, however, that they do not hold a certain, more personal belief. In the Netherlands, like in many other European countries, instead of adhering to the prescriptions of one particular religion, people collect bits and pieces of teachings, beliefs and spiritual experiences. The Member States generally recognise the rights of non-theistic and atheistic believers. You are not forced to believe in God. What remains problematic, are the remainders of religious traditions within public institutions. However, it seems fair to say that, unless you are somehow involved in the activities of religious institutions, there will be few obstacles to expressing your non-religious beliefs.
In this respect, Europe is still rather unique in the world. Even in the USA, religious life is an important part of general social life and if you do not belong to a religious community, you are deprived of part of the social fabric. In various other countries, being a non-religious believer is simply not an option. A famous example is the identity card in some Muslim countries, such as Egypt, which force you to identify yourself as Muslim, Christian or Jew. Non-religious westerners often identify themselves as ‘Christians’ in order not to get into trouble with the immigration authorities. And of course in such countries, with a vast majority of religious believers, social pressures are enormous.
Against this background, you would expect human rights policies as part of the EU’s external relations to focus particularly on the rights of non-religious believers: not only do they represent the majority in a number of EU-Member States, but their position is often dire in highly religious countries outside the EU. Many years ago, the UN Human Rights Committee already declared in one of its ‘General Comments’ that the freedom of religion or belief protects the rights of theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs. Hence, in the context of the freedom of religion or belief, it is perfectly legitimate to concentrate also on the rights of non-religious believers.
The reality is different. Religious beliefs are often best organised and therefore best visible to the outside world. Moreover, most religions are organised internationally and their adherents within the EU ask for the protection of their co-believers abroad. The voice of non-religious believers is a lot weaker: with the exception of the Humanists, they are lacking the organisation of religious believers. This means that although the majority of Dutch youth are non-religious believers, their voice is hardly heard and their call for the protection of non-believers elsewhere in the world is largely absent.
The European Union has so far put most of its energy in the protection of freedom of religion only. That is perfectly logical, given the above imbalanced pressures upon policy-makers. However, in my opinion policy-makers and politicians have the duty to take responsibility for defending the rights of non-religious believers similarly to those of religious believers: they should not act only on the basis of lobbies, but should take into account that within Europe ever more people distance themselves from religious organisations. The fact that they are not as vocal, does not deprive the EU from its moral obligation to be even-handed. This means that it is high time to become creative: we should support the setting up of interest groups for non-religious believers in highly religious third countries and we should not hesitate to take an active stand against any piece of legislation that negatively influences the rights of non-religious believers. One can think of the above-mentioned identity card but also of the imposition of religious matrimonial, inheritance or even criminal law.
Freedom of religion or belief is a precious and comprehensive right. If the EU follows the interpretation of the UN Human Rights Committee, our embassies and delegations abroad will have to spend a lot of time and energy, and especially creativity, in protecting this right to its fullest, i.e. both for religious and for non-religious believers.