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Religious Tolerance logo

Freedom of religions and other beliefs:

Should freedom of belief extend
to secular individuals and groups
practicing Agnosticism, Atheism,
Ethical Culture, Free thought,
Rationalism, Secular Humanism, etc?

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Part 1 of two parts

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A quotation:

This was taken from the worldwide "Freedom of Thought Report 2015," compiled by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). It was issued on 2015-DEC. Page 7 of the report contains a short essay by Rafida Bonya Ahmed whose husband was Avijit Roy, a Humanist. They lived in Bangladesh. He had received death threats because of his writings:

"... on topics including the origins of the whole Universe, homosexuality, the evolution of love and everything, including literary criticism, in between."

They were both physically attacked at a book fair in Dhaka during 2015-FEB. She sustained four head wounds and an amputated thumb. He was murdered. She writes:

"Allowing bigotry and extremism to fester unchallenged will have generational consequences; Demands for prison or death sentences or vigilantism against humanists as such must be met not with appeasement, nor by arresting the very bloggers under threat, but with condemnation as the gross violations of freedom of thought and expression that such demands represent. ... Once a country silences and intimidates its intellectuals and freethinkers, a vicious cycle of terror and extremism becomes inevitable. Just as we saw in the earlier mass-killings of the Bengali intellectuals in the 1971 Liberation war, again at the hands of religious extremists, it creates an intellectual vacuum, from which it could take many, many years to revert." 1

During 2015-DEC, the IHEU report rated gave Bangladesh its worse possible rating -- 5: The country was seen to exhibit "grave violations" of freedom of thought.

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About "religion:"

The Internet is full of discussions of "freedom of religion," "religious liberty," etc. This naturally leads to questions like:

  • Exactly what must a system of belief include in order to be considered a religion?

  • Should freedom of religion within a country be extended as a human right:
    • Beyond the official religion of a country, if one exists; and

    • Including people with beliefs about deity, humanity, and the rest of the universe that are different from all of the organized religions in the country?

The title to this essay lists six such group above. There are more, including Apatheism, Deism, Henotheism, Ignosticism, Monism, Monotheism, Kathenontheism, Omnism, Panentheism, Pantheism, Transtheism, and probably others that we have not yet stumbled across.

Some formal definitions of "religion" require the belief in one or more supreme beings. Speaking generally, this can take at least four different forms:

  • Monotheism: belief in a single, indivisible, all powerful creator God or Goddess. Jews, Christians and Muslims consider their religion to be monotheistic. Together, their followers include slightly more than half of all people on Earth.

  • Trinitarianism: Virtually all Christian faith groups and denominations regard their religion as a form of monotheism because they believe in a single Godhead composed of three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Most Muslims and some others regard Christianity as a form of Polytheism -- believing in three different Gods.

  • Bitheism, Ditheism, or Duotheism: 2 Belief in a pair of deities, This has included the belief in:
    • One God and one Goddess -- as in Wicca and many other Neo-Pagan religions.

    • One wholly good and one profoundly evil deity -- as in Zoroastrianism.

  • Pantheons of many Gods and Goddesses, as in Hinduism.

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The definition of religion used on this web site:

We use a very broad definition of "religion."

"Religion is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a philosophy of life, and a world view."

By way of explanation:

  • "Specific system" includes mutually agreed upon beliefs held in common by members of a particular group. Some groups have as few as two rules concerning belief and practice; others document thousands. One key belief promoted by virtually all religions and secular philosophies is the Golden Rule. Jesus is recorded in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31 as describing it to his followers. Paraphrasing the two passages, his message was that whatever you would like others to do to you, you should do the same to them in return. Various wording of this concept are called "Ethics of Reciprocity."

  • "Belief about deity" can involve a belief in the existence of a personal god or goddess, a pantheon of gods or goddesses, or an impersonal creative force, etc. For rationalists and some other people, their beliefs can take many shades of meaning: a firm belief that no supreme being exists, a lack of belief of any deity at all, or honest doubt and uncertainty about the existence of a deity.

  • "Philosophy of life" involves attempts to answer existential questions like: Why am I here?, What is my purpose? What is life all about?, What is the meaning of it all?

  • "World view" is a set of basic, foundational beliefs concerning deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.

Thus we consider the tens of thousands of faith groups found worldwide within Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Native American Spirituality, Wicca and other Neo pagan traditions etc. to be religions. 

We also include Agnosticism, Atheism, Secular Humanism, Ethical Culture etc. as different types of religions because they meet the above definition. They include a "belief about deity." They typically have a philosophy of life and world view. However their beliefs on these topics often differ from person to person within their group. When asked by pollsters what their religion is, they often respond " Agnostic", "Atheist", "Humanist," etc. Others say that they have no religion or that they are not formally affiliated with any organized religion.

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Why do some people refuse to embrace freedom of religion / freedom of thought for everyone -- including "unbelievers."?

Three main reasons come to mind:

  1. Each of the dozen largest religions in the worlds contains many different denominations, faith groups, sects and traditions. Their teachings differ from each other. There are estimates that more than 20,000 different groups exist within Christianity. Although they all use the Bible as their main information source, they differ greatly in their interpretation of the Bible and thus in their teachings. However, the vast majority of individual believers feel that their particular denomination/faith group/sect/tradition within their particular religion has the fullness of truth. They view all other groups, both within their religion and without, as being in error and teaching falsehoods. A belief in Hell raises the stakes immensely, because most believers are certain that their faith group teaches the path towards Heaven. Many are sincerely distressed because they view followers of all of the other groups headed towards Hell after death. Many believers are anxious to have religious freedom for themselves, but are not nearly as keen to extend this right to others. Often this is motivated by a sincere desire to minimize the population of Hell, and to route more people towards Heaven.

  2. Many believers in a deity or deities note that virtually all Agnostics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, etc. lack a specific belief in God, Heaven, and Hell. They further believe that these non-theists will behave immorally, unethically, and perhaps even criminally. Public opinion polls regularly show that Atheists are the most (or second most) hated and mistrusted segment of the population. One indication that this belief is unwarranted are other surveys made of the percentage of the inmates in federal prisons who are Atheists. Such inmates are extremely rare in prisons compared to their incidence in the general population.

  3. Many Christians are aware that the percentage of adults who identify as Christian is dropping in many areas of the world. In the U.S., the decline is about 1 percentage point per year. Meanwhile, the "nones" -- the adults who are not affiliated with any organized religion -- are increasing in number at almost the same rate. Christians may regard unbelievers as a threat.

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This topic continues in Part 2

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Rafida Bonya Ahmed, "Freedom of Thought Report 2015," International Humanist and Ethical Union, 2015-DEC, at:
  2. A Goggle search shows that the three terms are essentially synonyms. It found about 23,200 references to ditheism, 12,500 to duotheism, and 11,800 to bitheism on the Internet.

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Home > Religious Freedom > here

or Home > Important essays > Religious Freedom > here

or Home > Religious information > Religious Freedom > here

or Home > Human rights > Religious Freedom > here

Copyright © 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 2016-DEC-04
Latest updated 2016-DEC-05
Author: Bruce A Robinson
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