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Can Atheists be spiritual? A conversation with Department of Philosophy head Eric Dayton

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Philosophy professor and atheist spiritualist Eric Dayton.
Philosophy in the Community is a monthly discussion series organized by the Department of Philosophy at the University of Saskatchewan. At this month’s talk on Jan. 11, along with the free coffee, irony brewed thick when Eric Dayton presented the lecture, “Atheist Spirituality: An Oxymoron?” Dayton is the head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Saskatchewan and the Anglophone Editor of Dialogue, a quarterly journal published by the Canadian Philosophical Association.

The Sheaf sat down with him before the lecture to discuss the topic.

The Sheaf: So, why this topic?

Eric Dayton: I think it’s pretty widely thought that spirituality is a good that you can only get from religion. There’s this general view that religion is a prerequisite to spirituality. I want to contest that but also raise a bunch of questions around the issue so that people can think more about it.

Sheaf: What’s the main distinction between religion and spirituality?

Dayton: Most religions are associated with one kind or another of spiritual practice, but you can look at intentional spiritual practices in a non-religious way.

The early Greek schools — for example, the Stoics, the Skeptics, the Epicureans — all were more than just philosophical ideas. They were groups of people engaged in a certain kind of life practice. Living well was a hard job. You had to be very careful and do it in a certain type of way.

Those are clearly part of the spiritual tradition, even though they’re non-religious. They’ve sort of gotten lost. Their influence hasn’t gotten lost, but in later periods — through Catholicism, and then the Reformation — spiritual ideas were always given a religious cast.

Sheaf: What are you bringing to the table that differentiates from the common atheist argument?

Dayton: I’m asking the question, “Suppose you are an atheist: What would you do if you had spiritual inclinations? Should you be afraid?”

Sheaf: Are spiritual inclinations a form of atheist doubt?

Dayton: I don’t really have any doubts about what I think, so in that sense I’m not seeking a religious answer.

It’s a religious view that if you have spiritual inclinations, it’s God sprinkling crumbs for you to follow. But if you don’t have any tendency to think that, what would draw you into spiritual practice?

Sheaf: Like what kind of practices?

Dayton: Yoga and meditation, for example. These clearly have a goal, and so they fit one aspect of spirituality, which is that they have a direction and a practice.

Sheaf: Who has influenced your thinking in this area?

Dayton: Definitely non-European thinkers.

When I was 12, I was in school in Switzerland, an experimental school influenced by 19th century German philosophy and also the Indian philosopher [Rabindranath] Tagore. Tagore was a contemporary of Gandhi, a resistance leader, a poet, novelist and an educational philosopher. He corresponded with the head of the school that I went to.

They were part of a sort of “free school” movement in the 20s and 30s. Not that I went then.

I’ve been interested in Buddhism for quite a long time.

Sheaf: Isn’t Buddhism a religion?

Dayton: There’s reason to think that Buddha was not a religious person, but more like these Greek philosophers who had schools. Of course he became part of a religion later, but it’s not clear that he was a religious person from the beginning. He was more of a meditative master.

Sheaf: Is there any room for an atheist church?

Dayton: Atheists have much less reason to join a church, and it’s much harder to stay involved. Ordinary religious churches tend to have an exclusivist character that keeps their followers from straying and changing their views too much. Religions sort of have walls up to keep people in and to keep other religions from poaching. There wouldn’t be any reason to do that in an atheist church, so people would just drift away.

Sheaf: Instead of the four-wall church model, could the Internet become some sort of atheist pseudo-church?

Dayton: I think it’s too early to tell whether atheism is being furthered by the Internet, or whether it’s just a vehicle for atheists to become aware of each other.

Sheaf: Atheists have a reputation for coming off as arrogant. Why do you think that is?

Dayton: I don’t think it’s that atheists are arrogant. There is a certain type of pro-science argument that is arrogant. We might call it “scientism.” People who are scientistic are very arrogant about the power and the primary reality of science over everything. Generally, it’s an attitude that’s very dismissive of folk wisdom. But science doesn’t solve many important questions, such as: How should I live? What’s going to happen to me when I die? People care about these questions.

[box type=”info”]Philosophy in the Community takes place on the second Wednesday of each month at the St. James Church basement, 7 to 9 p.m.[/box]

Photo: Supplied

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