Persons labeled as atheists have been targeted since Roman times. In fact, early Christians and Muslims were targeted for legal persecution as atheists because they did not believe in the correct deity of the times.

Nevertheless, the suppression has failed. Although it is difficult to quantify the number of brights1 in the world, a broad figure estimates the number at over 1 billion. A survey in 1998 reported that only seven percent of the members of the National Academy of Science believe in a personal god. “Leading Scientists Still Reject God.” Nature, Vol. 394, No. 6691 (1998).

Brights in Islamic countries face brutal repression. Denying Islam (becoming an apostate) is traditionally punished by death for men and by life imprisonment for women. Inhumane treatment for brights has been documented in Iran, EgyptPakistan,SomaliaUnited Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Yemen.

Despite this horrid treatment, foreign nationals may not know they can obtain protection (and eventually a green card) in the United States on account of their beliefs. One of my recent asylum victories involved a university student from

1 The Brights movement seeks to coin the term “bright” to describe persons whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The noun developed as a more positive and cheerful term, imitating the use of the term gay in place of homosexual. This group includes secular humanists, naturalists, agnostics, and deists.

The Brights movement seeks to coin the term “bright” to describe persons whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The noun developed as a more positive and cheerful term, imitating the use of the term gay in place of homosexual. This group includes secular humanists, naturalists, agnostics, and deists.

Iran who feared her toddler daughter would be taken from her if she were forced to return to her homeland. At the initial consultation, she focused on the domestic violence. In arguing her eligibility for asylum, I emphasized how the courts and the police refused to help her because she rejected Islam.

The Process. The attorney should gather information keeping the three theories of eligibility in mind. Because atheism is difficult to define as a religion, it is best to maintain that the client deserves asylum based on all three protected grounds: religion, political opinion and membership in a particular social group. Next, go to the internet.

After gathering information about the client’s personal circumstances, the first source that a practitioner should turn to when determining whether to represent a bright is the annual Department of State International Freedom Report. This country condition report tracks how governments treat persons based on their beliefs. For example, last year in West Sumatra, a man was arrested for creating a Facebook page titled Minang Atheist.

Second, review the country’s legal system. Many laws are blatantly religious. Sharia, or Islamic law, is the primary source of legislation in Egypt, for example. In such countries, the government forbids Muslims from converting to another religion.

Finally, review the web sites of organizations such as the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Its annual “Freedom of Thought” report details laws and practices that punish or restrict atheism. For example, the 2012 report tracked the seven countries where the state executes persons for being a bright. The credibility of the organization is such that the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion accepted the report, according to a news story by The Washington Post.

Atheism as a Religion. Atheism is distinguished from theism in that the former denies the existence of supernatural deities and the latter recognizes them.

According to the UNHCR Handbook, persecution on account of religion may assume various forms including the prohibition of membership in a religious community, of worship in private or in public, of religious instruction, or serious discriminatory measures imposed on persons because they practice their religion or belong to a particular religious community. Countries that demand a bright register as a member of an officially-endorsed religion in order to obtain a required national identification card, I would argue, persecute on behalf of religion.

The Guidelines on International Protection: Religion-Based Refugee Claims (UNHCR, Geneva, April 2004) define religion so as to include non-theistic and atheistic beliefs. “Beliefs may take the form of convictions or values about the divine or ultimate reality or the spiritual destiny of humankind. Claimants may also be considered heretics, apostates, schismatic, pagans or superstitious, even by other adherents of their religious tradition and be persecuted for that reason.” Part II, Section A, paragraph 6.

Unfortunately, in order to win an asylum case in the United States on account of religion, applicants must demonstrate that they ascribe to “both beliefs and practices” of a certain group. See Canas-Segovia v. INS, 970 F.2d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1992.) That may be the greatest obstacle. It is impossible to identify one ideology or set of behaviors which all brights obey. Simply stated, there is no Sanctuary of Skeptics.

Atheism as a Political Opinion. In addition, granting asylum to a bright based on religion is rationally contradictory. The comedian Bill Maher has said that atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sexual position. The better argument would be for brights to seek protection on account of their political opinion. After all, the suffering occurs because harmful government policies are permitted due to the religious beliefs of the majority. Brights oppose both.

An example of such a case was Matter of S–A–, 22 I&N Dec. 1328, 1335 (BIA 2000.) A young woman from Morocco opposed not only her father’s orthodox Muslim beliefs, but also the regime that allowed the torture of women in that society based on those beliefs. In Morocco, her father burned her for wearing short skirts as opposed to the burqa, beat her for speaking with a man, and forbade her to attend school. He was able to abuse her because the police in Morocco — following Muslim law — give a father unfettered power over the life of his daughter.
The government practices of several countries limit freedom of religion. For example, in Pakistan, speech is repressed if it is not in the “interest of the glory of Islam.” International Religious Freedom Report for 2011, Executive Summary. There, brights are arrested for blasphemy.
Persecution on account of political opinion means “persecution on account of the victim’s political opinion, not the persecutor’s.” INS v. Elias-Zacarias, 502 U.S. 478, 482 (1992) (emphasis in original). To meet this burden, applicants must show, through direct or circumstantial evidence, that there is a causal connection between the harm suffered (or feared) and their political opinion.
Individuals may also be persecuted for political opinions that they are erroneously believed to hold. This is particularly important when representing brights who often are harmed because they do not conform to those of the majority. Their statements should indicate how often others noticed that the applicant failed to follow sermons or attend ceremonies.
Atheists as Members of a Particular Social Group. Persons who have been harmed on account of their membership in a specific community would have the strongest case for asylum. In a case that received national media attention, an Immigration Judge granted asylum to a German woman based on her membership in the Church of Scientology. See D. Frantz, “U.S. Immigration Court Grants Asylum to German Scientologist,” New York Times, Nov. 8, 1997.
Historically speaking, however, Scientology is not a religion. It is an association that developed from a self-help belief system introduced by L. Ron Hubbard. Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom do not give Scientology the comparable religious status that it has in the United States.
The Board of Immigration Appeals interpreted the phrase “persecution on account of membership in a particular social group” to mean:

“persecution that is directed toward an individual who is a member of a group of persons all of whom share a common, immutable characteristic. The shared characteristic might be an innate one such as sex, color, or kinship ties, or in some circumstances it might be a shared past experience such as former military leadership or land ownership. The particular kind of group characteristic that will qualify under this construction remains to be determined on a case-by-case basis. However, whatever the common characteristic that defines the group, it must be one that the members of the group either cannot change, or should not be required to change because it is fundamental to their individual identities or consciences.”

See Matter of Acosta, 19 I&N Dec. 211, 233 (BIA 1985), modified on other grounds by Matter of Mogharrabi, 19 I&N 439 (BIA 1987).
In conclusion, religion can only hold a sacred (pun intended) place in our lives when we cherish the right to decline it. Our forefathers, having fled religious intolerance in England, prudently drafted the First Amendment of the Constitution to forbid the making of a law establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Persecution can happen anywhere that the belief system is mandated by the government or imposed by those with the power to abuse. As explained in this article, atheism is protected by international human rights law and practitioners should explore their clients’ belief systems thoroughly. By so doing, they will consider all possible alternative grounds for asylum when representing clients.
So, seek and ye shall find.