Include atheists in discussions, Buddhist urges
By Brenda Suderman

Winnipeg Free Press
March 30, 2008


The next time someone convenes a discussion between different faith groups, consider extending the invitation to those who proclaim to have no faith at all, suggests a leader in the Buddhist community.

"I think a true interfaith movement would include non-believers as well," says Rev. Fredrich Ulrich of the Manitoba Buddhist Temple. "I wonder how my colleagues would feel if we would start an interfaith community (group) and invite atheists?"

One of five religious leaders who spoke at the evening panel discussion on the relationship between faiths at the University of Winnipeg on Thursday, March 27, Ulrich said an interfaith group he attended while living in Edmonton did expand to include atheists.

The two-hour panel discussion, moderated by Rev. James Christie, dean of theology at the University of Winnipeg, concluded a five-venue series visiting Winnipeg's temples, mosques, and synagogues. This evening course, which attracted upwards of 200 people at most venues, was sponsored by the Manitoba Interfaith Council and the University of Winnipeg. Although similar in intent, this course was not connected with the Faith in the City tour undertaken by the Free Press, now in its final weeks.

”It stretches the boundaries of what we must listen to and what we must respect," Rabbi Larry Pinsker said in response to Ulrich's question. "It seems to me that one of the tasks I need to pursue is what point do I stop listening and agree to disagree? I would ask how much are we prepared to give up and live in peace with each other."

"Everyone has the right to his own religion, his own way, as long as he is not forcing his religion on anyone else," added Sikh leader Hakam Singh Johal. "Just look at the good parts and ignore the bad parts." After hearing each leader speak briefly about the tenets of his religion's beliefs, audience member Samara Sahar wondered how the idea of dialogue between the religions could be lived out.

"How do you take the message of interfaith dialogue to your own communities and is there resistance to that," asked Sahar, representing the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. Muslims have had more than a century of discussions between various faiths, replied Imam Hosni Azzabi, of the Grand Mosque. "We see the benefit in that we should speak for ourselves."

For Ulrich, a former Methodist minister turned Buddhist sensei, religion can be liberating and restricting at the same time, but mostly it should be a path to the divine. "I've come to realize no human being can understand God," he said. "In our ignorance, there's room for agnostics, atheists and a tired old Buddhist. We need to get beyond ourselves."

"Our religion believes one flower is not as beautiful as a bouquet," added Johal. "We believe that when all human beings get together it is more beautiful than one person.

But religions have to move beyond talking about love and understanding and peace and actually practise it, urged course participant Jim LaVallee. "We talk of emotions, love and life and God. What's in your heart about what your beliefs tell you?" asked the former bodyguard to aboriginal leader Phil Fontaine. "How do you expect people to come to you, to love, if that isn't demonstrated?"

"Every religion should work harder at alleviating human suffering," Hindu pundit Venkat Machiraju replied. "That way people can automatically come together, because we have the same problems." And every person has the power to be agents of blessing in this world, added Pinsker.

"You have to see the world and realize you could be the blessing that heals," he said. "Make sure every breath you take is a blessing or a commitment to bless those around you."

Christie said the large number of people taking the course has prompted the faculty of theology to develop a certificate program in world religions, to be offered in 2009. The course has also attracted attention well beyond Winnipeg. A United Church minister from Edmonton involved in interfaith work flew here to attend Thursday's meeting and to encourage participants to continue to be involved in discussions between religions.

"Interfaith (dialogue) is about sharing respect for one's self, one's tradition, and the traditions of one's neighbour," Rev. Robert Hankinson said in an interview. "I think we've grown in the understanding that we're one faith among many."