Imagine 7: A Secular Retreat – A Report from the Field, Part One

by Matt Sheedy

For part two, see here.

The very popular Imagine No Religion conference/convention and gathering for atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and non-believers of all stripes is being held this year in Toronto, the first time the yearly event has journeyed from its British Columbia origins seven years ago, said organizers and creators Bill Ligertwood and Kathy Cruickshank.

The above lines open the Convention News flyer that participants of this year’s Imagine 7: A Secular Retreat conference received in their tote bags, which I recently attended in Toronto from June 2-4. The flyer also features descriptions of the line-up of speakers, with keynotes from famed atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss.

In this first post, I will offer brief descriptions of the presenters and their talks from day one, followed by a description of the 6 speakers from day two (including Dawkins keynote address), and, finally a brief description of concession literature, sponsors, and some theoretical analysis in part three. My aim here is to provide a first hand account of the various ideas, ideologies, interests, and organizations coming out of this event, which I hope can serve as both a resource for those interested in studies in/on/about secularism, humanism, secular movements, non-religion, and atheism, as well as an example of the wider phenomenon of social formation.

* I will save the Dawkins keynote for part two for the sake of length constrains … and as a little teaser to entice y’all to come back for more!

In his opening address, organizer and co-creator Bill Ligertwood informed the audience that they had changed the name of the conference from Imagine No Religion to Imagine 7: A Secular Retreat in order to move away from the more antagonistic or “religion bashing” tones of the past, though “Imagine No Religion” or INR was still in use in various forms. This is reflective of larger trends within atheist/secularist communities in moving toward a (slightly) ‘bigger tent’ mentality, especially in light of initiatives by popular atheists like Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali to bring what they call “moderate Muslims” into dialogue with atheists on the basis of a shared concern with “Islamism” or “radical Islam” and a shared grounding in liberal democratic values.

The Starting Line-up …

Rob Penczak is a physician, writer, and secular activist, who was the executive director of the Atheist Alliance of America and host of the Ustream TV show Road to Reason: A Skeptics Guide to the 21st Century. In his opening talk, “Setting a New Precedent for U.S. President,” which he renamed “Saved by Science,” Penczak began with a nod to two of his heroes in the audience, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, and described his ideology as in line with that of Star Trek—no religion, with world peace as a guiding framework. Penczak then pointed to lies of the Republican Party, as embodied by Karl Rove during the George W. Bush era and Trump himself today, as an existential threat (e.g., climate change). Bernie Sanders, by contrast, was upheld as a politician that holds humanist values, including egalitarian principles (e.g., the idea that “we’re all in this together”) that he claimed went down well with many atheists. Concerns over the fate of the planet were highlighted with scientific charts dealing with global warming, the Doomsday Clock (Minutes till midnight), the Democracy Index (where the U.S. has slipped from a full to a partial democracy), along with a strong condemnation of the corporate media as not being representative of the people. As an anecdote to America’s “slide toward fascism,” Penczak encouraged a greater coming together of what he termed the “reality based community,” which he highlighted with the acronym SS-ASH (A-med) (see the slide to the right). He argued that a truly democratic media was key to this end, as well as running a president with humanist values, at which point he gave a playful nudge to participants Lawrence Krauss and Jerry Coyne to throw their hats in the ring.

Aruna Papp is a writer and public speaker that also works as a therapist with families dealing with violence. In her talk, “The Day I Stopped Negotiating with God,” Papp recounts her youth in India, where she experienced honour-based violence at the hands of her family, her lack of education in India, and her father’s role as a leader in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Moving to Toronto at the age of 21, Papp discussed her move away from the Church, from the patriarchy of her family, and towards becoming an activist for women’s rights. She represented Canada at the UN in 2012, with a focus on the difference between domestic and honour-based violence, and led the push for Bill S7-Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices. A central theme in her talk was the fear she perceived on the left of being called racist or Islamophpbic for speaking out against such practices, ending with an ironic flourish: “Let’s all become racist and say honour-based violence in not acceptable.”

Henry Beissel is a poet, playwright, essayist, former editor of Humanist Perspectives, and Distinguished Emeritus Professor at Concordia University in Montreal. In his talk, “The Function of Poetry in the Age of Science,” Beissel opens with a lament about how poetry has become redundant in our time, which he linked to the perversion of language in politics leading to “the sophistries of religion,” infantilism, increasing militarism, and, ultimately, the demise of Western civilization. For Beissel, the “age of science” has made us aware that the cosmos is incredibly violent, and that the human species will die out, as the natural world conducts a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” Darwin was the first to fully realize this brute reality, and theories of relativity and quantum mechanics have only solidified it further. Since the universe no longer has any meaning, people have become untethered and no longer know what to do. As a cautious anecdote, Beissel urges us to embrace this demoralizing reality and not to forget the value of things like music, painting, and poetry so that we may better address humans as emotional beings. While the days of religious “nurseries” are over in the West, religions still provide solace and community, and humanists would do well to include these elements if they want to become a global community and not just a “debating society.”

Christopher DiCarlo is a board member of the Society of Ontario Free Thinkers (, public speaker, and writer on topics ranging from bioethics to cognitive evolution. He has taught at Harvard, Ryerson University, and the University of Waterloo. In his talk, “Six Steps to Better Thinking: How to Disagree and Get Along,” DiCarlo lays out a program of rational dialogue with the aim of promoting discourse over hatred, and disagreeing to get along. He also discussed his involvement in The Critical Thinking Project, which has been implemented in a few schools in Guatemala, Peru, Uganda, Ghana, and the Philippines. DiCarlo also mentioned that he’s been contacted by the president of Ireland, Michael Higgins, on the possibly of introducing The Critical Thinking Project in the school curriculum in Ireland.

Tahir Gora is a Canadian-Pakistani journalist, novelist, and TV host (for TAG TV), director of the Canadian Thinkers’ Forum, as well as an inter-faith activist who is a member of the Coalition of Progressive Muslim Canadian Organizations. In his talk, he identified himself with secular Sufi traditions in Islam, and noted his past struggles with clerics imposing a Muslim identity upon him in Lahore, before moving to Canada. Gora framed his talk by arguing that religion is not going away and that it needs to be dealt with by reforming it, which he aims to do in Canada. Gora expressed concern for the recent “anti-Islamophobia Motion” in the Canadian Parliament, M-103, the accommodation of prayer rooms in public schools, and issues surrounding Muslim involvement with politics in Canada more generally. Gora fears that Muslim groups are paving the way for sharia law in Canada, and rejects claims that Islamophobia is a real problem, citing the election of 11 Muslim Members of Parliament in Canada in the recent election as evidence to the contrary. For Gora, the root causes of antagonism toward Muslims can be traced to inequalities within Muslims cultures, such as the idea that women are inferior to men, that Western culture is inferior to Islam, that a pregnant adulterer must be stoned to death, etc. Rooting out this mind-set in Western Muslims is, for him, the best way to combat this problem, while stressing the importance of affirming “Canadian values.” Gora also urged his audience to make a distinction between cultural values and religious values, stating that it is the latter that needs to be rooted out. In response to one question during the Q&A, Gora stated that he doesn’t believe in ‘left’ or ‘right’ along the political spectrum, just ‘rational’ and ‘irrational.’

Gretta Vosper is a minister at West Hill United Church in Toronto, and is featured in the documentaries Godless: The Truth Beyond Beliefand the upcoming film Losing Our Religion. She is also the author of With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. In her lecture “Beyond Critique,” Vosper talked about coming out as an atheist in 2013, and how, despite the fact that she does not believe in God or any of the doctrinal statements that the United Church of Canada posts on its website, they’ve allowed her to stay on as a minister, although her position in the Church is up for review in the fall of 2017. The crux of Vosper’s talk focused on the crisis in the United Church and how, in her estimation, it will be all but vanished in Canada within the next ten years. Her movement away from belief in God is thus presented as a model for saving what is still salvageable in the Church—namely, building relationships with others (she invoked Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship), with those we’ll never meet, and with the natural world. ”Religion has been a blight,” she stated, “but it has also been a place that’s offered community; the best way to find one another; to hold one another; and to call one another together into the future.” For Vosper, this also means recognizing that freedom from religion is an urgent issue (her church is currently sponsoring Ibrahim Khalil, a secular blogger from Bangladesh, to come to Canada as a refuge), as are LGBTQ rights, women rights, workers rights, and questions of environmental justice. The arch of her talk is thus meant to challenge humanists, atheists, and secular activists to recognize that religion has transmitted morality through generations, and that her church, described as “a community growing out of Christianity” can serve as a model for secularist communities (she noted that her church rarely reads from the Bible, approx. 4 lines per week, and focuses instead on literature and music) moving forward.

Seth Andrews is a video producer and former Christian broadcaster who hosts the TheThinkingAtheist/com. In his talk, “My Biggest Beef with Christianity (for the moment),” Andrews opened by telling the audience that they’re not going to learn anything today as he’s “come here to vent.” As a former “fundamentalist Christian” and Christian radio broadcaster, Andrews’ de-conversion narrative focused on the problem with religious language: “What’s the point in blessing our food? What does ‘bless you heart actually mean?” Since his experience taught him that the meaning of these terms was never stable, he came to see it as dishonest (“and a bit of a fuck you!”). Quoting John 14, Andrews rhetorically asked his audience, “would you trust a believing doctor or an atheist who knew what the hell she was doing?” Other passages were drawn upon to provide evidence of the absurdity of religious language—including Psalm 121: 7-8; Romans 8:28; Hebrews 11:1, James 1:5-8; John 20:25; John 20:20—all of which signal for him a naïve optimism as embodied in such lines as: “everything happens for a reason,” and “God never shuts one door without opening another.” He notes religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero’s survey on religious literacy in the U.S. to show how little Christians actually know about the Bible, which he illustrates with an image of a man screaming with a caption reading: “God exists because I don’t understand things.” Andrews attributes his de-conversion to discovering the work of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution Is True, calling them his prophets (both were in the audience), and concludes with an affirmation that he now wants to pursue evidence and “real wisdom.” In closing, Andrews praised his audience, proclaiming: “As rationalists you are making a difference. … My life as an out and proud secular person isn’t about convincing hard line believers, but it’s about me. … Giving myself permission to be a secularist.”

Ali Rizvi grew up in Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, is a former physician, and is the author of the book The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. In his talk “Muslim vs. Islam,” he opens with the same lines that begin his book, noting how the words Allah hu Akbar were whispered in his ear when he was born, as they are for millions of Muslims around the world, which had a positive association for him growing up. With the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism (he notes the Iranian Revolution and the Saudi exporting of Salafism), this phrase, along with that of ‘jihad,’ have become associated with something bad, striking fear in many in the West. Rizvi noted that he grew up in a “moderate-to-liberal” Muslim family and was unable to understand the Qur’an until he was older. Growing up, he was told by his parents that what the Saudis were doing was part of their culture, politics, economics, and the influence of U.S. foreign policy, but had nothing to do with ‘Islam.’ He was therefore appalled when he began reading the Qur’an in translation, citing the following suras as the most pernicious: sura 8:12-13; sura 5:38; sura 4:34; sura 9:29-30; and sura 9:5. Rizvi became and “apostate” after reading the Qur’an in Urdu and began to discover the difference between ‘Islam’ (read: the Qur’an) and being Muslim as a form of cultural identity. He expressed his desire to combat the false narrative that “Islam is a religion of peace,” and was hopeful that with increased Tafsir (exegesis), and the ever-increasing availability of translations of the Qur’an on-line, a reformation will occur. Here he quotes Maryam Namazie’s sentiment: “The internet is doing to Islam today what the printing press did in the past to Christianity.” Like Tahir Gora, he rejects the narratives about Islam coming from the right and from the left, stating that the former only wants to respond with might and power, while the latter blame American imperialism as the root cause and call you a bigot if you criticize Islam. Rivzi disagrees with both of these positions, and puts forward his own distinction as a way to think through contemporary woes: Islam is the ideology codified in the Qur’an, while Muslims represent culture and people nominally grounded in the faith. To criticize the first is thus to target beliefs, while to criticize the second is to target human beings. Rizvi’s book The Atheist Muslim aims to speak to the experience of those who must identify as Muslisms, but are really atheists or agnostics, such as a his friend Raif Badawi, the imprisoned Saudi writer and activist, and Avigit Roy, who was hacked to death by a mob in Bangladesh for his activist as an atheist/humanist blogger. One further distinction that Rivzi presented for his mostly white atheist audience to consider was that between countries where Muslims are a minority vs. those where they are in the majority. In the former, ‘Muslim’ is a form of identity, while in the latter ‘Islam’ is a tool that governments use to oppress citizens. Citing the example of the hijab, and how it is often celebrated by women in the West, he notes that it is forced on people in Muslim majority countries. This is ironic and confusing, he noted, as Western liberals unwittingly find themselves protecting cultural issues that Muslims in Muslim majority countries are fighting against. In the end, Rivzi feels that “it’s up to us in the secular liberal West to change [this state of affairs],” and he views his role as an important one since he can say things about Islam as an “ex-Muslim” that most Westerners can’t. A case in point is a Tweet he posted in response to the question “Is Islam a race?” His reply was as follows: “But Islam is a race: first you hear a loud bang and then everybody runs.” Rivzi is unapologetic about such provocations and wrote a piece in the Huff Post about this phenomenon, which he calls ‘Islamophobia-phobia,’ where he argues that terrorism (or being terrorized) includes holding back from saying what you think and being ashamed of your liberal values, citing the Danish cartoons and the Charlie Hebdo massacre as prime examples.

Stay tuned for part two!

Matt Sheedy holds a Ph.D in religious studies from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism and atheism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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