In a little-noticed act of bipartisanship after the election last year, the Senate passed (by unanimous consent) and the President signed into law an amendment to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, a federal statute.
The amendment expresses a desire to protect atheists. It also highlights one more thing that is wrong with current calls for the government to ban Muslims from travelling to our country.
The original 1998 Act is largely a statement of foreign policy, but also includes encouraging expressions regarding domestic religious-freedom:
- “The right to freedom of religion undergirds the very origin and existence of the United States.”
- “From its birth to this day, the United States has prized this legacy of religious freedom and honored this heritage by standing for religious freedom and offering refuge to those suffering religious persecution.”
The original Act states that it “shall be the policy of the United States … [t]o condemn violations of religious freedom, and to promote, and to assist other governments in the promotion of, the fundamental right to freedom of religion.”
Among what the 2016 amendment adds:
- “The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs and the right not to profess or practice any religion.”
- “[T]he specific targeting of non-theists, humanists, and atheists because of their beliefs … is often particularly widespread … under totalitarian governments ….”
The amendment is groundbreaking with its expressed desire to protect atheists and non-theists. The terms “atheist” and “non-theist” are not found in any other current federal statute.
The amendment’s use of “humanists” between “non-theists” and “atheists” is odd. Some today misappropriate “humanist” to refer only to an atheistic outlook, but a humanist (follower of humanism) traditionally refers to such things as devotion to the humanities, a Renaissance movement that emphasized the revival of classical letters, and concern about peoples’ lives on Earth. Of course, Christians can be humanists—Erasmus, Pius II, and others are often cited—at least under the plain meaning of the term.
The amendment also contradicts today’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The amendment is an encouraging, bipartisan expression of the U.S. government’s desire for protection of not just Christians and not just theists, but instead of all people. It expresses a desire to protect believers in God and believers in the absence of God such that all people, anywhere in the world, have freedom of religious belief and can be free from specific targeting because of such belief.
The amendment’s condemnation of targeting people because of their religious belief stands in stark contrast to recent calls for the U.S. government to target Muslims for exclusion from our country and to bar all refugees from Syria on an indefinite basis.
We should reject such calls and instead honor the traditional U.S. values stated in the original Act: “From its birth to this day, the United States has prized this legacy of religious freedom and honored this heritage by standing for religious freedom and offering refuge to those suffering religious persecution.”
(The picture at the top is one I took in December while walking from the ZSR library to the Divinity School at Wake Forest University.)
An earlier version of this post was published in The Tablet, https://wakedivtablet.com.
https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1150 (you can see the other things added to the Act by the amendment here)