In finding common ground between those who have different beliefs, there is one unifying idea that is easily stated but very important: All of us, theists, atheists, and agnostics, can dedicate our lives to something greater than ourselves.
For some this means obedience to the will of God. But those who do not believe in God can devote themselves to another high purpose, such as allegiance to a set of core values. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until we find rest in thee.” A secular humanist might say, “My heart is restless until I rise above my own narrow interests.”
The crucial disagreement is not between belief and unbelief. It’s between those who are committed to a larger purpose and those who are unconcerned with the common good. Deep down we long to grow toward something larger and more lasting than ourselves, something that calls forth the best we can be.
When I think of focusing on the common good, I think of Frank Powell. I know Frank’s daughter Jean, who is now over 90. Jean suspects that her dad was an agnostic.
Frank was a dedicated humanitarian who founded the first bureau for handicapped children in Wisconsin and set up programs for kids with deafness, rheumatic heart trouble, and other ailments. When at last he was on his deathbed a local minister came by and asked him, “Frank, have you made your peace with God?” Echoing the words of Henry David Thoreau, the old man replied, “As far as I know, I have not quarreled with him.”
“Well then,” said the pastor, “are you confident that your soul will attain salvation?” “Reverend, I’ve spent my life up to this point thinking about other people and I’m not going to start worrying about myself now.”
At the funeral, that minister said he had to respect a man who could give those answers. Perhaps he sensed spiritual maturity in the old agnostic, Frank Powell.
Roger Christan Schriner
To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.