war and peace

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
rational thought.

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.

Yesterday, the organization called Wikileaks released what they are calling the War diaries. It is leaked American military reports the were filed on the ground in Afghanistan.

The collection is massive. It contains 90,000 short reports of incidents that have occurred in the war between 2004-2009. The reports can be a bit cryptic to read since they are written in “military speak”. If you decide to take a look at them, you may want to peek at this tutorial first.

Inconsistencies Exposed:

When looking at these reports, we obviously have to be skeptical. These reports have been leaked, but there is no way to verify them, and the various governments involved are already refuting their legitimacy. This is a situation that skeptics are used to, whether it be conspiracy theories, UFO reports, testimony of divine intervention,etc.

These records are extremely thorough however, and many of the records match up perfectly with well known events. This makes them a little harder than usual to dismiss outright.  Some of these records are even shedding light on inconsistencies that are causing people to ask hard questions.

Consider the following news report in which 4 Canadian troops were killed and 6 were injured in an insurgent attack near kandahar on Sept 3 2006 at 4:30 AM (12:30PM our time):


This event is listed in the records, and unfortunately, it sheds completely different light on the incident:


It is listed as a “Friendly Fire” event. The Ottawa Citizen pointed out this inconsistency in this article last night. This is a big problem, if there is truth to be found in these reports. It would show that we are not getting the full story over here on our end.

PZ Myers posted a reflection on the problem that most media outlets are focused on the question of whether or not it was a good idea to release the reports, rather than asking questions about what is inside of them. I am interested to see which way the momentum swings on this story. Will it be an all out attack on Wikileaks’s legitimacy, or will questions like the above mentioned Canadian soldiers killed continue to pop out?

So who runs this Wikileaks site? How legitimately should we take them?

Well, here’s an interview with Julian Assange who is the person that heads this project. He sits down with Chris Anderson at TED to talk about what he is doing with the project.

Following is a press release from Ottawa’s Third Wall Theatre:

Local theatre to present dramatic reading of Henry Beissel’s ACROSS THE SUN’S WARP

OTTAWA June 17th, 2010: Third Wall Theatre Company is commemorating the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th with a dramatic reading of acclaimed Canadian writer Henry Beissel’s epic poem Across The Sun’s Warp. The reading will feature the voices of the poet, of Third Wall Artistic Director James Richardson and, fresh from studying in Europe, of actor Kristina Watt.

Across The Sun’s Warp is the sixth poem in a cycle which represents a quest for an understanding of the point humanity has reached today in its turbulent development as the dominating species on the planet. The entire cycle is divided into four groups representing the seasons and is entitled Seasons of Blood. It explores the human condition from three perspectives: those of Nature, of Science, and of Politics. Harold Rhenisch, in a review of Across the Sun’s Warp, wrote: “Genghis Khan, the creation of Kyoto by the Samurai, ‘The eight-armed Buddha with a lotus flower,’ Truman’s glee at calling for the bombs to fall, the process of nuclear fission in the sun, are all given voice, woven into the story of light which is the story of this poem.”

Henry Beissel is a poet, playwright, translator and editor. His versatility as a writer is evident in even a partial list of the over 30 acclaimed publications to his credit: 16 volumes of poetry, 6 books of plays, translations from the works of Ibsen and Mrozek, to name just two. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. His most successful play, Inuk and the Sun, which premiered in Stratford, has been and is still being performed in many parts of the world.

A man of the world, he currently lives in Ottawa where he masterfully adapted Ibsen’s epic play Peer Gynt for Third Wall Theatre and he will also be adapting Sophocles’ Antigone for the company’s upcoming season. Henry’s voice will be one of the distinct voices of three prominent artists within Ottawa’s theatre community.

The presentation will take place at 8 p.m. on August 6th at the Glebe St. James United Church, 650 Lyon Street South. There is no admission charge, but donations will be accepted on behalf of the United Church of Canada’s peace initiatives.


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