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First as a student then as an instructor, I spent three decades in class rooms. Even now, when I step into a class to speak, I am immediately comfortable with my surroundings. So when I attended my first Philosophers’ Cafe last night, I knew exactly what to expect: an informal discussion in informal surroundings by well-educated people. Nor were my expectations wrong.

Philosophers’ Cafes are events organized throughout the Vancouver area by Simon Fraser University, the institution where I earned two degrees and spent five years teaching. Events may take place on a campus, but are just as likely to take place in a library or a cafe. An academic is on hand to coordinate the discussion, and anybody who cares to can drop by to participate.
Topics are usually chosen for their broad appeal, but are diverse. For example, this month, participants could choose from such discussions as “Charity and Justice,” “Michael Blugakov’s Master and Margarita” (in Russian), “Does reason have limitations?”, “Intellectual vs. technological discoveries,” “Is nothing sacred? The ethics of television,” “Are traditional proofs for the existence of God still valid?” and a dozen other topics. The topics remind me very much of the sort of points that I used to argue earnestly in pubs and seminars as an undergraduate, and still occasionally enjoy with intellectual friends.

The session I attended last night was on the topic, “Should we teach religion in public schools?” Although as an agnostic, the topic is not of overwhelming importance to me, I foresaw that it could lead to a number of interesting points. Besides, the location, Nature Gardens’ Organic Deli on University High Street near the SFU Burnaby campus, was close enough to my townhouse that I wouldn’t have wasted much time if the discussion was less than I had hoped.

I arrived early so I could grab a bowl of soup to fortify me for the discussion. Jason Carreiro, the education doctoral student who was the evening’s coordinator, was already there, deep in discussion with one of the deli’s owners. However, I took out my book and kept to myself until the event started, remembering that, when I was teaching, I always preferred to have a few moments to myself before beginning.

About a dozen people participated. All had obvious academic backgrounds somewhere in their past. Besides the deli owner, they included two men who were strongly biased against religion and a third who was mildly so, two Moslem women who were Carreiro’s fellow grad students, a Christian art teacher in a wheelchair with her helper dog, and an education student from Belfast who professed herself to be a Catholic.

After everyone introduced themselves, the coordinator read part of a newspaper article on the topic, and made a few general remarks to get the discussion started. It was exactly as I had hoped – a free-ranging discussion in which maybe two-thirds of those in attendance participated without prodding, distinctions were made, interesting suggestions raised, and tempers only threatened to get out of hand once. But, if voices were occasionally raised, only beliefs and not people were attacked, and, although no consensus was reached during the two hours, people departed amiably enough.

To me, the experience was reminiscent of the round-robin bardic circles I’ve attended at various conferences and conventions over the year. Both are a non-threatening way to enjoy the company of strangers, and left me feeling stimulated and full of good natured espirit d’escalier. Even if other Philosophers’ Cafe sessions turn out to only half as interesting as last night’s, I recommend them as a civilized remedy for midweek boredom, and plan to attend others over the next few months.

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