They may be the fastest-growing faith group in the world. But they also are victims of intense legal, political and sometimes lethal physical discrimination in a majority of countries.
They are the non-religious, a group comprising more than a third of all humans. And the first major worldwide study of their status, released on Monday by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, shows that they are often forced to live in hiding, and are increasingly prone to imprisonment and legal censure.
This is acutely the case in the post-revolution Arab states, where dictators such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Syria's Bashar al-Assad had appropriated the word "secular" to describe their own regimes, leading to an environment where post-revolution governments, Islamist or otherwise, prosecute the non-religious as both apostates and traitors.
But Christian and Hindu countries as well, the report notes, discriminate against the non-religious, often banning them from marrying believers, adopting children, holding elected office or having custody of children.
And yet people who place their faith in the human rather than the spiritual may be growing faster in number than any other belief community. The non-religious currently make up 36 per cent of the world population, according to a 2012 survey, and their number appear to be growing: A report from Gallup shows that religious belief dropped by 9 per cent worldwide between 2005 and 2012, and self-declared atheism rose by 3 per cent.
That study found that "religion declines in proportion to the rise in education and personal income," and, since both are on the rise in the developing world, this is "a trend that looks set to continue."
Indeed, there have been dramatic jumps in non-religion. On Tuesday, Britain released its decennial full-scale census, which revealed that the proportion of people in the U.K. with no religious beliefs rose dramatically, from 15 per cent of the population in 2001 to 25 per cent in 2011.
The worldwide numbers, in fact, may be even larger: because non-believers are subject to punishment, discrimination and even death in many countries (especially those that adhere to Islamic law), it may be that a far larger number of people have abandoned religious faith but are unable or unwilling to admit so in public.
Indeed, the report, titled "Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Nonreligious," notes that the majority of criminal charges for blasphemy around the world in 2012 involved "social media or other user-generated content platforms like YouTube." This year has seen more than a dozen blasphemy prosecutions for social-media statements, up from only three over the previous five years.
Canada earns censure in the report for its practice of providing public funding to religious schools, even where such schools discriminate against the non-religious. "Around 16 per cent of the Canadian population claims no religious affiliation," it notes, "yet in the vast low-population expanses of Canada, the religious school may well be the only public school within a reasonable distance for many non-religious Canadians."
Ontario is singled out for providing 100 per cent state funding for Roman Catholic separate schools, which, the report notes, "discriminate against non-Catholics in hiring staff" and "can also exclude non-Catholic children."