My Multicultural Weekend: A Humanist @ World Religions Seminar & Progressive Christian Conference

October 20, 2009

I generally consider myself skeptical about the ultra-tolerance and political correctness run amok that characterizes ideological multiculturalism, especially in Canada where it's practically illegal to criticize another's beliefs.  But I have to admit this past weekend I engaged in productive multicultural dialogue at two conferences I was invited to participate in. 

 The first was hosted by the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity whose leader Gretta Vosper is one of the most remarkable women I've met.  A United Church minister and author of "With or Without God:  Why The Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe", she is attempting to re-interpret Christian mythology as stories and symbols rather than miracles and metaphysics.  She's spoken for the Centre for Inquiry at a number of events.  Returning the favour, she invited me to speak at her conference entitled "Explore the Elements".  

 At this conference, where I spoke on "Aren't You a Freethinker?" to a group of people that make up a spectrum between atheism and liberal Christianity, I made a central point by  borrowing the concept of memetic equilibrium developed by my co-panelist ethics and critical thinking Professor Chris DiCarlo to explain how different ideas upset the established ecology of beliefs.   I argued that while our society has established a rough tolerance for different religions, that tolerance is ultimately illusory.  As new equilibriums generally establish themselves as close as possible to the old one, in this analogy it's only natural that upsetting the Christian establishment would result in the development of the "theist club" in which membership is open to all so long as there is a belief in god. 

 I was pleased that one of the audience members asked the profound question at the end of our workshop, namely is there a new global mythology we can build that will upset the equilibrium enough so it does not require outsiders to exist and might include even non-believers.  My answer was that whatever it is, it must start with the acceptance that no one has epistemic authority over anyone else.  That is not to say that some people don't know more than others, but rather that we all have the same tools at our disposal to establish truth.

Another questioner wondered if even atheists didn't believe in god in some form.  This leads me nicely to the second conference I engaged in this weekend.  I acted as the secular humanist speaker at the Hamilton World Religions Conference sponsored by the Ahmiddayya Muslims on the topic of the "Role, Character and Actions of God."  A bit awkward for me, but I reinterpreted the topic in creative ways, such as:

1.  What is the Role, character & actions of a person in the absence of god"? which allowed me to answer with, and then explain, secular humanism
2.  What is it about the Role, Character and actions of God that make him God.  That make him worth of our worship, which led to an emphasis on the fact that everyone must make secular conscience based ethical choices
3.  The role and character of people's gods as projections of their mentality and values at any given time in history and the ways in which the nature of god evolves in time with the changing secular society, which led to an evolution of religion history lesson, with reference to this video by anthropologist Jared Diamond,
4.  And finally and that which connected nicely to the first conference, "What kind of role could a new conception of god take on that even an atheist would believe in it?"

There's always a tendency at these events for believers to wish that atheists could embrace some new conception of god so as to join the family - perhaps a name they might use to refer to their secular values, to the complexity of the universe, or to the sense of awe and wonder that characterizes it, in much the way Einstein used the term.

And it was a reference to this universal feeling of curiosity and questioning and a desire to obtain truth in the face of the mystery of the universe that the Bahai moderator of the World Religions Conference used to bring all of us together and to close the conference.  It's a neat and tidy picture. But while I admit to a productive multicultural weekend, I've never been one to choose what's pretty over what's true.  I can't help but think that scientific naturalists - but not religious believers - dare to accept and deal with the true mystery of the cosmos, rather than to hide it under a new name.  In any case, what was enlightening about the experiences was that, much as I just described, I didn't need to compromise on the genuine differences between myself as a secular humanist and the other speakers at the conferences in order to engender dialogue and understanding between us.