This week a 23-year-old Afghan man became the first person to be granted asylum in this country on the basis of his atheism – which, his lawyers argued, would have made life impossible in his country of birth, where religion permeates every aspect of life.
The Home Office declined to comment, beyond a statement that is both bland and inaccurate by omission: "The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it and we consider every application on a case by case basis." (It should have read "a proud history that we've abandoned …", but never mind.)
Theresa May probably feared an onslaught of xenophobic remarks – "What could be more specious than a belief that is really the absence of belief, a luxury belief for cynics and intellectuals? What next? Asylum for French people who prefer Derrida to Foucault?" – but the critical comment barely came.
Instead, there was a generalised, muted acceptance, which makes perfect sense. If you accept the place of religious belief on the human rights agenda, then you have to allow atheism equal weight. It is as much a traducement of religious people to dismiss atheism as it is a denigration of atheists.
However, there's a lot of shifting sand around this principle – it is telling that this man is the first atheist to be offered asylum here, when he can't be the first ever to face persecution. Australia accepts the principle of atheism as a belief to be protected, while the United States doesn't. It's one of those things nations can cherry-pick from the fruit bowl of international law without feeling that their "civilised" status is compromised. It may be the only belief of that kind right there in the 1951 refugee convention, but with no back-up institution vulgar enough to insist upon it. That is part of our problem, us atheists: we don't organise.
Written By: Zoe Williams
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