Symposium reframes dialogue on secular society, religion, and the common good

4 April 2015

VANCOUVER — Leading Canadian scholars, public servants, and civil society actors gathered here for a symposium at the University of British Columbia from 22 to 24 March to explore the meaning of building a "whole society" and the constructive role of religion in the secular, public sphere.

Organized by a national committee representing a cross-section of civil society organizations in Canada, including the Public Affairs Office of the Canadian Baha'i Community, the conference, titled "Our Whole Society: Bridging the Religious-Secular Divide", involved some 140 participants.

Speakers included: Andrew Bennett, Canada's Ambassador for Religious Freedom; Marie Wilson, a commissioner with Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Doug White, Director of the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation at the University of Vancouver Island; and Gerald Filson, Director of Public Affairs of the Baha'i Community of Canada and Chair of the Canadian Interfaith Conversation, among others.

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  • A panel discussion at "Our Whole Society: Bridging the Religious-Secular Divide" conference, held 22-24 March 2015 at the University of British Columbia in… »

  • Professor Paul Marshall comments in one of the sessions at the conference.

  • Audience members listen intently at the conference.

  • Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom. File Photo/(c) DFATD

  • Professor John Stackhouse of Regent College (left) and Rabbi Lisa Grushcow (right) in a panel discussion at the conference.

  • Participants listen intently during a panel discussion at the conference.

  • Geoffrey Cameron (left), Principal Researcher with the Baha'i Community of Canada; Reverend Karen Hamilton (center), General Secretary of the Canadian Council of… »

Dr. Filson gave the following perspective on the insights gleaned from the conference: "Many spoke about the importance of giving greater space in society to the positive influence which the concepts and principles of religious thinking can provide, that freedom to believe is a necessary condition in secular societies even as we safeguard the gains in social harmony and the richness of culture which pluralism brings to modern societies."

"In the final analysis it is the love and fellowship and an attitude that others matter to each of us which will create the foundations of a society in which all members of the human family will be able to participate in the discourses that shape society," continued Dr. Filson.

This year's conference followed a similar event held in May 2013 at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Geoffrey Cameron, Principal Researcher for the Baha'i Community of Canada, and member of the conference's steering committee explained: "We began this initiative about four years ago, when a small group of people came together out of a shared concern to articulate more clearly the positive role of religion in Canada's public discourse."

"We held one conference and continued working with each other and a network of others," continued Mr. Cameron. He elaborated that their dialogue sought to generate greater understanding about how society could "reconcile religion, secularism and the common good".

The conference featured plenary sessions addressing several overarching themes: the proper role of religion in the public sphere; the merits and limits of secularism; the process of reconciliation between diverse peoples; how to define the common good in the context of religious pluralism; the scope and limits of religious freedom; and the role of youth in society.

Interspersed between these presentations were workshops where practitioners shared insights from experience.

"We need to move beyond the binary of religious versus secular, public versus private, faith versus reason, and concentrate instead on working together for the good of our whole society," stated the Reverend Karen Hamilton, the General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, in the opening presentation.

Discussions on occasion explored the tension in secular societies between two aspects of religion's place in public life: on the one hand, secularism provides an approach to governance that includes basic rights to religious liberty for the individual; on the other, when taken too far, it can restrict the role of religious perspectives in public discourse.

Professor Paul Bramadat, one of Canada's leading scholars of religion, cautioned, "it is important to keep religious tools and concepts alive in public discourse and not lose their meaning through secular 'translation'."

However, Alia Hogben, director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, made the case that society needs criteria to assess the role of religion in public life: "Does this religion contribute to the common good? Does it serve the well-being of all? If so, then it should be admitted into public discourse" she said.

Professor John Stackhouse, a theologian at Regent College, posited that the diversity of religions in Canada requires every religion to re-examine its teachings in order to "excavate the grounds on which to live with others who are different".

Prof Stackhouse also highlighted the importance of religion's place in the web of social institutions.

"Part of building a whole society," he said, "is investing in 'intermediate organizations' between the individual and the state – such as religious groups and civil society." Religions, he explained, face pressures in the secular world because they present obstacles to consumerism.

One of the highlights of the event was a session with Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada's Ambassador for Religious Freedom. Bennett described the relationship between the defence of religious freedom and the promotion of human dignity, which are essential to define a common life together.

"It is important for institutions in society to have the competence to engage with diverse religions," he said. "Religious literacy informs peoples' actions in society, and it is through open conversations with each other that we improve this literacy."

The conference also looked at the role that young people play in constructive social transformation. Speaking during a workshop on youth and the spirit of social change, Christine Boyle, Director of the NGO Spirited Social Change, noted that "many social movements led by youth reflect a spiritual longing to create a better world through selfless service."

Another speaker, Eric Farr from the Baha'i community, echoed these thoughts, stating that "many youth aspire for a vision of spiritual change – that is, a vision of a more unified and just society...We need to trust in the capacity of all and the longing of all to contribute to the well-being of the whole."

The closing address of the conference was given by Doug White, in a session titled "Recognizing our oneness: Reconciliation as the challenge of our time". Addressing this theme, Mr. White, a former Chief of Snuneymuxw First Nation, said that dialogue would need to move beyond many of the adversarial relationships which currently characterize Canadian society.

"Pitting yourselves against each other is not a pathway to reconciliation" he said. "We need an active and full discourse about the social change necessary to realize reconciliation in society. This can come either from great suffering or reaching out and seeking understanding between different people in society."

"[Reconciliation] demands a new mindset and orientation to ourselves, each other and with those around us. This is a spiritual, moral, and ethical challenge..."

Reflecting on the event, Mr. Cameron said, "We were very pleased with the quality of conversation at the conference, and the genuine excitement expressed at the ideas shared by other participants."

He explained that the conference is part of an ongoing "process of collective inquiry".

"It is collective because it is growing and expanding to include more people. And it is an inquiry because we are motivated and unified by the questions we ask, not the presumption that we have the correct answers."

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