Monday, July 20, 2009

Finding Common Ground

Forty years ago today man first set foot on the surface of the moon. After eons of gazing skyward with blissful ignorance and total wonderment, our journey to the stars was finally under way. In all, twelve human beings have walked on the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor, and in time others will surely return.

Why did we go to then moon? Was it, as many have so succinctly pointed out, just because it was there? Can the challenge of defining a purpose for something so grand be that simple? One reason Christopher Columbus no doubt traversed the mighty Atlantic Ocean was to find out what was on the other side. The instinctual need to know, our unquenchable thirst for knowledge, lies at the heart of what motivates us as intelligent beings.

For some the need to know cannot wait, and the need to believe takes precedence. As life goes, this is not a crime. The complexity of the universe is more than sufficient to make us wonder whether or not the goal of understanding it all will ever be within our grasp. Believing in something greater than ourselves can be a noble and admirable sentiment. We who call ourselves rationalists also sense the urge to be a part of something greater than ourselves. For us, however, that something takes the form of a purpose - not a being whose very existence is a matter of debate.

Sadly, the overriding trait of the relationship between theists and rationalists is antagonism. For a culture that celebrates diversity, this is something of a mystery. What is it about the nature of these world views that makes each so unpalatable to the other? Are we in fact precluded from sharing the things that make life most worth living? Or does the pursuit of ideological détente provide the best hopes for finding common ground?

The most obvious thing rationalists and theists share is their humanity. In the context of divining purpose, however, one's humanity defies description in terms of whether it is religious or secular. It must be conceded that ultimate truths about human nature and the universe are beyond our understanding for the time being. This does not mean that having religious faith is something to be looked down upon. On the contrary, it is eminently worthwhile insofar as it invites healthy speculation about that which we someday hope to understand.

Questioning the commitment to our own presumptions about life - and about each other - is critical to the task of understanding, which, in turn, is critical to the task of living with tolerance. Agreeing to disagree has its place, but in the quest to find common ground, there is no substitute for seeking out, even among our adversaries, that which is truly deserving of respect.

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