For the 2nd year, HAO/CFIO was invited to provide a humanist/atheist perspective as part of the Ottawa Peace Festival, by participating in a panel discussion on the question “How can world religions advocate peace and promote human rights of all people?
The panel comprised speakers representing Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, First Nations Spirituality, Catholic/Hindu mashup, and atheism/humanism. So, why was the atheist the one who got asked the question: “Why do you think you are right and everyone else is wrong?”
Here is the text of my talk:
First, I would like to thank Dr Ghanem for inviting me to represent the non-religious perspective in this panel. When I discussed my participation in this event with other members of the Centre for Inquiry, and the Humanist Association of Ottawa, the reaction has ranged from people who were ecstatic that atheists/humanists were (finally) being recognized and included in discussions like this, to those who were uncomfortable with the idea of humanism, agnosticism, and atheism being considered a “religion”. One way I like to put it into perspective is to say that calling atheism a religion is like saying that “not collecting stamps” is a hobby.
Members of the Centre for Inquiry and the Humanist Association of Ottawa describe ourselves in a variety of different ways – humanists, naturalists, rationalists, free-thinkers, atheists, agnostics – sometimes all of the above. But the key point is that our world view works with a system of values and ethics based on empirical evidence
and human reason. Our ethical approach includes the principals of fairness and justice, but tends not to proscribe any actions or behaviours that are not harmful to others, and is informed by the fact that we believe that we have only one life to live – here, on earth.
Definitions aside, I would like to address the question at hand, as to
how people with differing worldviews, both religious and non-religious, can work together to advocate world peace and promote human rights. As Qais mentioned, I do have a religious background, and in the early years of the internet I was extensively involved in online discussions of religion, mostly related to science and evolution, but also other general discussions of the relations between theists and atheists. I often found myself in a situation where I was trying to explain to my fellow theists that atheists were not all evil baby-eaters, while at the same time explaining to atheist scientists that theists are perfectly capable of using scientific methods and
For all of us who value reason and intelligent discourse, whether we are religious or not, our worldview includes science, and rationalism. For those who are religious, their world view is further informed by metaphysics, and by reliance on authority – generally this would include sacred texts, hierarchy, tradition, and revelation. Of
course, there is general disagreement between religions (and within religions) about how the metaphysics works, and which authorities are valid, yet people of faith all seem to agree on the importance and validity of these concepts. For those who are not religious, however, it starts and ends with science and rationalism. So what can we all agree on?
Well, we have gathered here with the common goal of working towards peace and human rights. I think everyone here would agree that we ought to respect one another, and take care of one another (and I would add that we also need to take care of the planet, since, at least for the moment, it’s the only one we’ve got, at least in the
physical realm). So we intend to work together toward these common goals, while acknowledging that we will continue to have differences of opinion in some areas. Followers of any religion or no religion will need to agree to disagree in the areas of faith, religion metaphysics and authority.
And what can we agree on? I think we should all be able to agree on public secularism. Secularism is not anti-religious, it is just the absence of religion. There will almost certainly never be widespread agreement on matters of religion, but we can all start with a worldview based on empirical inquiry, and rational thought. This is not to suggest that we should restrict, ban, or otherwise control religion in people’s private lives, just that, in public, the only way towards peace and human rights for all is to support a pluralistic society – let’s agree where we can, and agree to disagree on the rest.
The last question from the audience asked if atheism/humanism was going to be able to save the world. My response was that taking a scientific and rationalist approach, acknowledging that we only have one live to live, and one planet to live it on is, in fact, the only hope we have.