These are bad times for outspoken sceptics in countries where religion is brutally enforced, either by governments or fanatics with a self-appointed mission. Last week the atheist blogger Avijit Roy, who was of Bangladeshi origin but lived in the United States, was hacked to death at a book fair in Dhaka. It has been reported in Saudi Arabia that a young man in his twenties has been sentenced to death after he posted a video of himself ripping up a copy of the Koran.
In the far more comfortable environment of the United States, meanwhile, religious believers and sceptics denounce one another as though they were the greatest banes of one another’s lives. Atheists claim, perhaps correctly, that they face huge societal pressure not to declare their position, especially if they have any hopes of running for public office. Some religious believers say they face a liberal-humanist conspiracy to deny them the freedom to act out their beliefs, whether as employers, employees or in places of education.
But a physically courageous atheist from a Muslim-majority land says that a few months in America have reinforced his belief that believers and sceptics can and should deal courteously with one another and work together for freedom in places where it is dreadfully violated. Maikel Nabil Sanad, a young Egyptian blogger and protest leader, spent nearly a year in prison, enduring physical abuse and a hunger strike, before his release in January 2012.