On Friday I attended the official opening for the Center for Inquiry‘s new educational centre in London. The new CFI London has taken up residence in Conway Hall which has a long history of humanism having been established by the South Place Ethical Society. The CFI London is a welcome addition to its still very much active humanist community.
The centre opened with a conference on the theme of ‘Secularism in the Multicultural Society: The Civil Limits of Tolerance’. There was a packed program of excellent speakers and the event started off with talks from Chairperson and Founder Paul Kurtz, Vice-President Joseph Hoffman and some welcoming words from Norman Bacrac editor of the Ethical Record. The talks during the day were well-informed and interesting but too numerous to include here so I will just highlight a few.
British Philosopher, Stephen Law, proposed a simple test to see whether a particular decision is secular or whether it privileges religion. For example, if an individual is given the right to wear a religious symbol in violation of work or school regulations, would we be prepared to extend this position to those wearing political symbols? Consider the request of parents that they be allowed to educate children in accordance with their religious principles in faith schools and then consider this request when applied to political affiliations. Indeed, Law made the point that it is sometimes hard to separate religious and political views.
Azar Majedi, Activist for Women’s Rights and Political Rights, rallied the hearts and minds of everyone with her impassioned discussion of Individual Civil Rights and Minority Rights. Forced to flee Iran because of her activism, Majedi was appalled by the proposal of Sharia Law in Canada. Making concessions in secularism for the sake of multi-culturalism, erodes the human and civil rights of individuals and leaves the most vulnerable groups, i.e. women and children, at the mercy of a community authority figure or religious leader. It does not show respect, but compromises individual human rights.
Nigel Warburton, another british philosopher, looked at the No Platform argument and actively encouraged the audience to contribute their thoughts. The No Platform approach is offered as an alternative to censorship but arguing instead for a responsible approach to free speech. For instance, a scientist may not wish to participate in a debate with a Young Earth Creationist because they feel that this may lend some credibility to a belief that has no serious scientific evidence or arguments supporting it. Likewise, inclusion in a serious debate may inadvertently lend a certain credibility to a speaker whose views are considered highly offensive and morally reprehensible e.g. racism. While there are no barriers to individuals using other media, e.g. personal websites, to disseminate their view it may not be necessary for a sense of wholeness to include them in serious discussion when they make no rational or serious contribution to the debate. There remains the question of how does one decide this and is this really fair? Warburton proposed that one possible solution is to consider relevance. As discussed above, a theological view makes no relevant contribution to a scientific discussion.
The event was rounded off in the evening by DJ Grothe, Vice President of Outreach Programs and host of the Point of Inquiry podcast, and an unexpected question and answer session with Professor Richard Dawkins who kindly stood in for a last minute cancellation. There was certainly a lot to think about by the end of the day and I look forward to their future events.