Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was named the Secularist of the Year 2012 by the National Secular Society this weekend.

Mr Tatchell, who rose to prominence with his gay rights activism and subsequent championing of human rights causes around the world, was presented with the £5,000 Irwin Prize.

The campaigner was quick to acknowledge the work of those living under oppressive regimes.

Commenting on his receipt of the award, he said: “I feel very privileged and honoured to receive the Irwin Prize. However, compared to the heroism of secularists and humanists living under religious fundamentalist regimes, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, my own efforts are quite insignificant. I salute their courageous, inspiring work in defence of rationalism, scientific knowledge, freedom of expression and human rights.

“I pay tribute to my humanist and secularist colleagues in many countries, including Leo Igwe in Nigeria, Kato Mukasa in Uganda and George Thindwa in Malawi.

“Worldwide, organised religion is the single greatest threat to human rights; especially to the rights of women, LGBT people, atheists and minority faiths. Religious-inspired dogmas persecute Christians in Pakistan, Sunni Muslims in Iran, Shia Muslims in Bahrain and Jewish people in much of the Middle East.

“In many countries, atheists and apostates face discrimination, harassment, threats and violence from religious zealots. Some Islamist countries have the death penalty for Muslims who turn away from their faith. Even in the West, the religious right menaces freedom of expression and equality, with its demands for the censorship of the satire that targets religion and with its campaigns in defence of gender and sexual orientation discrimination.

“Secularists support the separation of religion and the state. With no established state religion, there is equality for people of all faiths and none. Secularism is the best guarantor of religious freedom. It is in the interest of people of all faiths, as well as the interests of non-believers. People are entitled to their faith but they are not entitled to insist that their religious values are the law of the land.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, praised Mr Tatchell’s “lifelong commitment to human rights” and said the organisation was pleased to “honour his support for a just and inclusive secular society”.

He added: “He has been active in many progressive campaigns over the past forty or more years, not least on gay rights, and has had to endure much public and press abuse because of it. But he has persevered and now he has made the unprecedented transition from public enemy number one to national treasure.”

Anthony Gajadharsingh, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, said: “We are delighted that our Director, Peter Tatchell, has been given this prestigious award. He has been a voice of human rights and secularism for more than four decades; challenging religious intolerance and defending freedom of belief for people of all faiths and none.

“While opposing special rights and privileges for religious organisations, the Peter Tatchell Foundation will continue to work for the human rights of everyone, believers and non-believers alike.

Last year’s winner of the Secularist of the Year title was Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament.

Vice-president of the Parliament’s LGBT Intergroup, she was the author of an annual report on gender equality this month which called for wider gay and trans equality around the EU, of which she said: “I don’t know what it is about Europe that allows us to recognise bread as bread and cheese as cheese when they go from the Netherlands to Germany, but not love as love.”