Spend any time reading Internet message boards or online article comments and you may start wondering if religious believers and nonbelievers will ever find common ground. As depressed as I sometimes feel when watching flame wars erupt online, I am also heartened when coming across more moderate, open-minded discussions.
When it comes to morality, there are some important areas where the majority of people can find common ground regardless of their religious belief or non-belief. These usually revolve around issues which are commonly considered major offenses in modern society. Things like murder, theft, rape and assault.
Some people say these things are wrong because of their religious laws. Others use empathy to decide that these acts are morally repugnant. While there can be disagreements about what specifically defines these offenses--and how to deal with those who commit them--we can often find enough common ground to form a civilized society.
When people agree on issues of morality, we can live together peacefully regardless of why we reached that agreement.
Then there are the issues of moral disagreement. Typically these includes hot button issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia and capital punishment. With no common ground in sight, each side feels a need to debate, persuade or otherwise change the minds of those who disagree with them.
For many atheists, these moral dilemmas come down to a matter of personal choice. It's common to hear a statement like: "If you don't believe in contraception, don't use it--but let others make that decision for themselves." Secularists think that it is inappropriate (or even unethical) for religious people to force their beliefs on others.
Yet this approach can pose a problem for believers who think that it is their moral duty to prevent others from doing something that they themselves feel to be wrong. Especially when they have been taught to believe so strongly in their church leaders or ancient holy texts that they are not comfortable with questioning their religious tenets.
When dealing with these moral disagreements, the why behind our reasoning (be it religious or secular) takes center stage.
Examining the "Why"
Looking at the reasons behind moral decisions often means acknowledging that people can reach the same answers by vastly different paths. It means really listening to others, while also turning a critical eye on our own beliefs and on what went into forming them.
This is not easy. But that doesn't mean we should stop looking for common ground or for ways to respect each other. Especially in discussions when it seems our only option is to agree to disagree.