By: Justin Trottier
While it’s always enjoyable to interact with fellow freethinkers and skeptics, there’s no better test of the validity of your point of view or the quickness of your wits than to be surrounded by an audience not already committed to your worldview.
This week I had the pleasure of joining a group in Toronto called Theology Pub. As you might have guessed, this is a gathering of religious believers who come together to eat, drink and chat all about the divine. It’s basically what we do at Skeptics in the Pub, except while we’re skeptical of God, they’re skeptical of skeptics. It would be neat to setup some sort of an exchange program.
I was there to discuss free speech and why atheists and Christians – and ultimately anyone seeking to put forward perspectives others might deem provocative – should come together to support the fundamental right of freedom of expression.
Theology Pub’s previous guests have included National Post religion editor Charlie Lewis and Drew Marshall, host of the Drew Marshall Show, Canada’s largest spirituality radio show. Having interacted with both on several occasions, (I appeared on Marshall’s show to discuss the Office of Religious Freedom the day before my Theology Pub appearance), I was relieved because Lewis and Marshall are not very hard core in their religiosity. On the other hand, following my presentation, the Pub’s next guest was to be an Intelligent Design proponent discussing Michael Behe. A bit of a mixed bag.
There were about 35 people in attendance, all Christian Protestants, some of whom were church leaders and most of whom were actively involved as volunteers in their religious community. Although several different denominations were represented, including Anglicans, Evangelicals and Presbyterians, the largest number seemed to Baptists.
I used the opportunity to learn a little about the governance (or lack thereof) of Baptist churches. Apparently, so long as a Church agrees to some basic principles, they are free to adopt the “Baptist” name, and there is little if any oversight from a central authority. In that context, I asked about the Westboro Baptist Church, the notoriously anti-gay “God hates fags” church composed essentially of Fred Phelps and his family. The response was “we have to suffer with them.”
The experience was overwhelmingly positive. Before I shared my remarks, my host and a few of his colleagues engaged with me in a very amicable and freewheeling discussion. They were very curious about my experiences as an advocate for skepticism and atheism, how the Centre for Inquiry was established in Canada, and they asked me a lot of questions about my personal motivations and aspirations.
The mechanics of the presentation itself were a little awkward, since I was to speak from my seat near the centre of a long table in the middle of a crowded and loud restaurant. To keep everyone’s focus, I was pivoting my head back and forth constantly for 20 minutes, the calisthenics almost giving me whiplash, my prepared remarks mostly sitting useless in my lap.
Following the talk, there were many questions about both free speech and my views in many other areas. The tone was of genuine curiosity and openness. We discussed how free speech and secularism in Canada compared to the United States, the UK and elsewhere, what, if any, limitations should be on freedom of speech, and what the main counter-arguments might be to my remarks (a great question we should all be asked more often).
Perhaps I should have expected a few curve-balls, likely in the form of moral foundation queries or evolution-related critiques, given the audience. But it did come as a surprise when asked to describe the framework for my sense of right and wrong, given that evolution’s “survival of the fittest” required us to ignore the plight of the weak and vulnerable. The argument was easily dispatched when I quickly responded that while evolution’s ethical implications seemed very important to the questioner, I would never base my moral principles on the simple and direct reading of evolutionary science. Those were the facts of nature, and while ethics must obviously keep those facts in mind, they do not dictate what we ought to do. He was trying to build an argument based on a flawed initial assumption. And before he could put the roof on top, down came his hastily constructed house of cards.
Another highlight of the discussion period was the sense of persecution from one gentleman who insisted Christians were subject to more censorship than were other groups. While I’m rarely moved by Christian protestations of rights violations, sensing a confusion of rights and privileges often at the core, especially in church-state cases, it is hard to argue that Christians aren’t more often brought before Human Rights Commissions for offensive or hateful speech, at least compared to members of other faiths who might also be guilty of such actions. There may be explanations for the discrepancy, but it’s not clear to me that they are good ones.
Free speech in Canada is always an urgently important topic. Two days after Theology Pub, the Supreme Court announced a ruling related to the constitutionality of human rights hate speech laws.
Participating in Theology Pub was quite a positive and even exhilarating experience with more than enough grilling to keep it interesting.