World Religions Conference

Posted on: October 10, 2019

During the afternoon and evening of September 22nd, the 39th World Religions Conference was held at Hagey Hall. This is an annual event organized by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, where scholars of different faiths gather to discuss a specific topic. In addition to some of the major world religions, the beliefs of indigenous peoples are also represented by an “Indigenous” speaker. Atheists and agnostics are represented by a “Secular Humanist” speaker. This year, the topic was “How to Establish a Just Society.”

This is not the first time this conference has been held in Waterloo. It is actually held in the Kitchener-Waterloo area quite often. Two years ago, the 37th World Religions Conference was also held in Hagey Hall, and the Iron Warrior archives has an article about it. In comparison to the 37th conference, the 39th conference had more forays into multimedia, but also skirted closer to controversial topics. Much like the 37th conference, the 39th conference attracted people outside the usual age ranges for campus events: there were many elderly people and a number of small children as well.
You can watch all the official speeches of the conference in a five-hour video on the “World Religions Conference” YouTube channel. What follows here is a summary of the event, some timestamps of key points of the video (in the format [H:MM:SS]), and some of the aspects of the conference not included in the video.
The moderator of the event was Angela Vieth, Councillor of the City of Waterloo and the owner of “Your KW Host”, a local tour company. She started the proceedings by encouraging members of the audience to greet each other with a “sign of peace”, or perhaps “a friendly smile”. There were some slip ups when introducing the panelists, and everyone was asked to stand when an official event plaque was revealed. We were all told to continue standing while a very talented high schooler sang the national anthem. The singing was actually really good, it started a bit after [0:29:30].
There was a Quran scripture reading, some introductory “teaser” remarks from each panelist, and statements from a number of visiting dignitaries. Finally, the official presentations from the panelists began.
Swami Chaitanya Jyoti represented Hinduism, starting around [1:36:50]. With the assistance of a slide show, she explained the concept of “Ram Rajya”. Ram Rajya, which the swami asserted was a historical truth rather than a myth, was essentially the perfect society. The catch is that maintaining a society that lives up to this standard requires the active cooperation of every single human being. Swami Jyoti also explained the 5 Yamas of Yoga, and clarified some of their less obvious meanings. For instance, “Ahimsa” is a principle of non-violence, but not just non-violence towards others. It also requires non-violence towards the environment and the self. Similarly, “Asteya” is a principle of non-stealing that does not simply encompass respect for property law, but also requires not stealing the time and energy of others. The most shocking moment was a diagram that compared different classes of society to different body parts: Swami Jyoti later clarified in the Q&A session that this was NOT advocacy for a caste system, but simply an explanation that different jobs in society had to be done.
Since Swami Jyoti was the first speaker, she sometimes was subject to slip ups in the conference procedure that other speakers didn’t have problems with. For one thing, whoever was in charge of changing Jyoti’s slides was a bit trigger-happy, often flipping slides for no reason. Swami Jyoti also went over time: she was actually only supposed to take 13 minutes. After her talk, 4 girls sang a bit of Hindu scripture.
The next panelist was Reverend Dr. Preston Parsons, representing Christianity in a talk starting at [2:06:10]. His talk, titled “Jesus Christ and Drug Consumption”, did not lay out a universal Christian justice system. Instead, it was something of a case study of how a specific bit of scripture was connected to some fair, but unexpected behavior from the reverend’s church. In “Part 1: Jesus Christ”, the reverend explained that Christians had the task of sharing life and encouraging human thriving.
After smiling briefly at the audience and correctly suggesting that this was a bit abstract, Parsons considered a concrete case. “Part 2: Drug Consumption” was about why a church in Kitchener was supporting supervised drug consumption. The opiod epidemic is hitting the community hard, indeed the reverend said that “some are calling it an apocalypse of death and devastation.” Some people have suggested allowing addicts to consume drugs in the presence of medical supervision, so that if they overdose they can be attended to immediately. One such site was across the street from a church which supported the idea: because even though doing drugs is wrong, this course of action is better than letting people simply die of overdose. The reverend noted that the church is tasked with encouraging human thriving, not with simply being a “morality police.” After Parsons concluded, two women chanted a Psalm.
Dr. Micheal Grand, representing Judaism, started his talk around [2:23:48]. He started by joking that “you can’t ask an academic to speak for 13 minutes, that’s cruel and unusual punishment!” Then he talked about the necessity for justice to be specific to context, rather than being “cold”, “impartial” or “universal”. He briefly mentioned some analysis of the creation story common among the Abrahamic religions. He did not expect most of the audience to consider Adam and Eve to be a factual account of history: he was just considering the principles behind the story. Grand also brought the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who claimed that people must be assisted in a way that preserves their dignity, rather than humiliating them. He concluded by reminding everyone that when it comes to justice, it’s not enough to talk the talk, we must also walk the walk. This was followed by one person singing a bit of Jewish scripture.
Next was Professor Malcolm Saulis, representing the Indigenous people of Canada in a talk starting at [2:40:10]. He is a Wolostoquk person of the Tobique First Nation. In addition to mentioning this, he brought up many other things about his upbringing and origins to affirm his indigenous identity, which segued into a discussion of indignity in general. Indigenous scholar Stan Wilson described indignity as “The way we were before the others came.” Saulis also stated that a just society is “an essence of our being”: a part of every one of us.
Saulis started an interesting anecdote about collecting business cards in Ottawa, which then segued into a distinction between the concepts of “God” and “Creator”. The professor said that in his language, there was no word for “God”: “God came with a boat. And God came with a book. And God came with a building. And God came with black robes.” However, there was a word for “Creator”, and as it turns out the Creator was one of the 3 great entities involved in the indigenous conception of a just society. The other two entities were the universe and the ancestors. After a very simple, perhaps even casual demonstration of what a conversation with the Creator is like, everyone was asked to stand up. One of Saulis’ students chanted a song about “the eagle” while drumming, starting at around [2:53:48].
After everyone sat down again, it was time for Imam Imtiaz Ahmed to begin his talk and represent Islam, right around [2:57:57]. He dramatically proclaimed that “the world is plagued with double standards and hypocrisy.” He pointed out that every person (and nation) in the world wanted peace and justice for themselves, but rather fewer were concerned about the well-being of others. Because of conflicts of interest, creating a just society is far easier in theory than in practice. The imam stressed the necessity of moving beyond justice, to “true and loving kindness”. After his talk, some children sang about justice (and lack thereof) in both Arabic and English. It was very cute.
Doug Thomas represented Secular Humanists, including most atheists and agnostics, in a talk starting around [3:17:10]. He included a slide show explaining the 4 principles of secular humanism, while lamenting that “we do not have a democracy in this country any more, we have a lobbyocracy.” A fifth, extra principle of secular humanism is the requirement to settle injustice in this life: unlike most of the other belief systems represented in the conference, secular humanism has no concept of an afterlife. Thomas continued with a discussion of Section 319 of the Criminal Code of Canada: the laws surrounding hate speech. Thomas pointed out that Section 319, article (3)b actually allows the publication of hate speech if the comments are based on a religious text. After pointing out that a religious text doesn’t even necessarily have to be a holy book, he rhetorically asked if laws such as these could be the foundation of a just society. He concluded by reiterating the 4 main principles of secular humanism in a single sentence: “To establish a just society, we must use reason as our process, ethics as our template, dignity as our goal, and equality as our touchstone.” Following his talk was a song about being “Good Without a God.” The song had accompanying images.
The final speaker was Navdeep Singh, representing Sikhism right after [3:35:40]. Like several prior speakers, he had a slide show. He started with the story of a guru with 2 followers, who the guru called brothers. This confused the followers, one of whom was from a Hindu family, and the other of whom was from a Muslim family. The guru remarked that “Whenever we sit together, we become brothers”. After that little anecdote, Singh explained that from the Sikh perspective, people live 4 different lives: economic, social, political and religious. It is necessary to pursue justice in all 4 lives, and the Sikhs have considered problems and solutions in all these areas. Singh then moved on to discuss Sikhs in history who have fought for justice: either through acts of charity, or by literally fighting in wars. One notable figure mentioned was Bhai Kanhaiya Ji, who provided water to everyone, friend or foe, who was wounded on a battlefield. Bhai Kanhaiya Ji apparently later remarked that “I saw no Sikh or non-Sikh on the battlefield. I saw only human beings, having the same God’s spirit.” After some discussion of present-day Sikh humanitarian efforts, there was a recitation of the words of the 10th Sikh guru.
There was a break at this point, and at many previous points during the conference. During the breaks, attendees would hang out in the newer part of Hagey Hall and chat with each other. There were snacks galore: timbits and samosas. There was both fruit and cake, but fortunately no fruit cake. Many stalls were set up with people promoting various organizations. These stalls included, but were not limited to, the First Spiritualist Church of Galt, the Society of Freethinkers, and a stall offering Quran translations. One nonreligious organization with a stall was the business owned by moderator and Councillor Angela Vieth: Your KW Host.
Throughout the conference, the organizers had been collecting questions online and on paper question forms. In the final stage of the conference, starting around [4:29:00], was the question and answer session. Each speaker would have 90 seconds to answer each question addressed to them. Each speaker would be provided with 2 questions from the audience, then all of them would have to answer a common question from Angela Vieth, the moderator. Some of the questions were clearly meant to set people up: for example, Micheal Grand was asked whether there was any justice in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Grand pointed out that no honest answer to that question could fit in 90 seconds. Other questions were intended to clear up ideas from the presentations.
The common question, asked at [5:02:55], was about the panelists’ thoughts on Quebec’s Bill 21. This bill aims to prevent public workers from wearing religious symbols at work, among other things. The bill was condemned by pretty much all the speakers. Reverend Parsons mentioned that there are many different concepts of what secularity means: it can be a “police force”, but it might be better for it to be a “fair referee.” Dr. Grand demanded that the federal government take a stronger stand. Swami Jyoti pointed out that there are some limits to how much people’s beliefs can be accommodated by the government. Professor Saulis mentioned some speculation about the “the end”, which is coming “quickly”.
Imam Ahmed made something of a callback to the 37th conference, which had the topic of Canadian values. He mentioned that he approved strongly with Canadian values, including freedom of religion. It was a shame that instead of these values spreading across the world, they are being removed from Canada from within. He also pointed out that the bill was a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Doug Thomas gave a miniature speech about this question starting at [5:13:18]. He admitted that some secular humanists were in favor of the law, as it was sort of the reverse of the historical situation where atheists have religion forced upon them. However Thomas himself was strongly against the law, warning that it would not the enforced fairly, would give “power to fanatics” who hated particular religions, and that the Quebecois were doing themselves harm with laws such as these.
Navdeep Singh admitted that it was hard to be last in an environment like this. In his view, people have 4 lives and one of them is religious: Bill 21 was essentially taking away one of the lives.
After some concluding ceremony, and a random draw to determine the order of speakers for the next conference, it was time for pizza. Unlike during the 37th conference, the 39th conference provided both chicken and cheese pizzas.
There was a strong Scientology presence in the 39th conference, unlike the 37th. One of the visiting dignitaries was from the Church of Scientology, there were several Scientology booths in the waiting area, and Scientology “Volunteer Ministers” were very visible in the audience.
Compared to the 37th conference, there was a much more diverse use of media: this enabled easier to follow presentations, but also more technological blunders. For instance, the camera jumped around too much near the beginning. During the 37th conference only one attendee used a slide show, but this time there were 3 slide shows, some of which were a bit unsightly. At least one slide show actually used Comic Sans. There was a lot more singing, which was a welcome change.

Overall, a very fascinating conference for anyone with an interest in religion and interfaith dialogue.

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