I feel caught up in a whirlwind. The last 2 days in Halifax has involved tons of presentations, interviews and meetings – and little by way of sleep.
Arriving in the city as Tuesday was dawning, I immediately headed for my hotel to put some finishing touches on (alright, to get started on) my remarks for the Silent Rally for Free Speech that was planned for noon outside city hall.
Before making it to the rally Derek Rodgers (Halifax spokesperson and organizer with the Dalhousie Atheist Community) and I had a rather long (and equally annoying) appearance on Maritime Morning with Andrew Krystal. This was without a doubt the most surreal radio experience I’ve had. Derek and I were put through an intense defense of the campaign by Mr. Krystal, but after an hour of that I still can’t pinpoint where he stands on the issue. Clearly he thinks it’s odd we’d be promoting our atheistic position. He mentioned more then a few times that if you believe in no God, you would have no reason to be an activist. And he was convinced that Christians – not atheists – were marginalized in this country (I think he must be a devotee of Michael Coren).
But more then anything else, it would appear his show simply thrives on controversy and yelling matches and that is what he wanted to spark. He was quite happy to be able to get one supportive caller and one angry caller to square off against each other. Great radio, if not terribly conducive to a productive dialogue. This was the first time I was on a radio show to which a significant majority of callers offered strong criticism of our campaign, reaffirming for me how important the choice of Halifax was. Some were just insulting, calling Derek and I “young men” who must be in our “early thirties.” I won’t divulge any ages but let’s just say that’s still some way off for me and significantly off for Derek.
One woman called in to defend a previous caller, insisting we had been rude to her. When we defended ourselves she said, “well you’re irritating me” and promptly hung up on us. Towards the end I recall being asked what my parents thought of this campaign and whether they were offended by what we were doing. That one threw both Derek and I off at first. But it was indicative of the general tone, which fluctuated between criticism of our disrespect and disrespect for our criticism. Here’s the full audio for your enjoyment/irritation.
Although Metro Transit in Halifax banned the ads on buses, the Rally itself was unopposed and went very smoothly, despite being so close to the offices of some very strong politicians and detractors.
The event was covered by 16 media outlets (at least that’s how many microphones were shoved in my face). In fact, the ratio of media to protesters was 1:1. As we were preparing, one reporter called me over to inquire, referring to the bible, as to whether we had purposefully planned to have precisely 12 individuals holding posters. Thankfully, a few more people promptly showed up. The modest turn out was unavoidable given the tight timeline we had to work within and the weather of the day. Nevertheless, we were able to get every protester – with the exception of Derek and I – behind a big banner bearing our slogan, with their mouths taped shut. A placard was held up behind the slogan:
This is What Metro Transit is Protecting You From
Not more then five hours later, the story was already reported on CBC.ca – Protesters Cry Censorship in Atheist Bus Ad. Other media soon followed, including a front page story in The Chronicle Herald with a large picture at the top with our banner. Some other reports included: Athiests bring duct-taped disappointment to city hall (which mispelled Atheists but managed to get my name right) and Rally for atheist bus ads
Long desiring a Free Speech Rally, ever since the inauguration of the Centre for Inquiry’s Campaign for Free Expression, this was one of the proudest moments of my life.
I had very little time to soak it all in though, as I was rushed back to my hotel to prepare for the evening’s talk. This was a short speech building on the situation with the ad campaign but going much further and discussing censorship and attacks on free expression at local, national and international levels in many areas. A transcript of the full speech – Local, National and International Threats to our Fundamental Freedom – is available here. The talk rolled nicely into an organizing meeting for the Dalhousie Atheist Community. I would encourage any on or off campus supporters to get in touch with this very well run and ambitious organization. They have some great activities planned. Sylvia Browne beware.
Back at my hotel that evening, I quickly got to work to prepare for my debate – Can We Be Good Without God, hosted by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs – scheduled for Wednesday evening. I emerged from my hotel room only once over the course of the next 20 hours. That was a pre-debate debate at the CBC (just down the road from where I was staying) and an excellent opportunity to plug the evening’s event as well as for I and my fellow debater Eric Beresford, President of Atlantic School of Theology to meet and learn a little about each other.
The exchange was quite productive and amicable and it set me at ease that the evening would be the same. One question for which I really had no good answer was, to paraphrase, what yardstick to you use to judge right actions? Busy reading everything on philosophy and science that touched on ethics, I wasn’t ready for this practical question regarding my own personal decision making. Thankfully both Dr. Beresford and I quickly agreed the question was just not amenable to an easy answer. After all, most philosophers if they agree on anything in ethics, it’s that there is no such a thing as an objective all purpose yardstick for such judgments on individual actions.
It was a real pleasure engaging with Dr. Beresford, who was kind enough to take me on a short tour of downtown Halifax, pointing out some locations he recommended I visit while in town. His organization – the Atlantic School of Theology – had submitted an Editorial supporting the atheist bus campaign. Another religious ally.
The debate that evening was composed and measured. I fear it may have been too low key for our organizers, who understandably were hoping for more disagreement. There were of course a few key areas where we had some seemingly fundamental dispute.
One example is whether individualism or community identity was supreme. We each insisted on the importance of both, but my argument was that any ethical system ought to be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members and if group rights were protected at the expense of those within the group – and here I’m referring mostly to children – who have little choice and opportunity to leave, then that is problematic. An emphasis on individual and universal human rights must reign supreme.
We also argued but then came to a consensus of sorts on the universality of science to approach questions outside its usual sphere, such as love and ethics. The last point I made to that issue was that while science might be the best method we’ve developed to understand really anything and everything, love and ethics (through its evolutionary underpinnings) included, that to implement that knowledge, such as in building loving relationships and building actual ethical systems, that here science is not appropriate.
A defense of the scientific method was also given. Carl Sagan was invoked to explain science’s built in tension between acceptance for consideration of all new ideas and, paradoxically, great skepticism of novelty. By lying between those extremes, it is hard to conceive of anything like fundamentalist science.
Hard to believe I’ve only been in Halifax for 2 days. Today time will finally be dedicated to visiting the city itself which until now has been but a backdrop on all these activities. But a city that has given rise to such controversy and in which I’ve met such interesting individuals – supportive or otherwise – is one I’m happy to have some time to explore.
One question to leave you with. Can anyone tell me why Halifax citizens refer to themselves as Haligonians? No one here seems to know.