One of the fundamental aims of the Sea of Faith Network, which I helped to found, is to bring believers and non-believers together. One might think that theists and atheists are diametrically opposed in their views, whereas in fact they share a lot of common ground.
Faith is a human creation. Every prayer, theological argument, doctrine and religious artefact can be dated as accurately as any antique, work of art or scientific theory. Knowing that faith has a history and has been created in particular circumstances is of interest to both believers and unbelievers. Faith communities need to recognise this if they are to interpret their faith and make it relevant for today.
I believe a true Christian understanding of God means that in practice, believers and their agnostic and atheist friends are engaged in the same explorations. When St Aquinas writes, for example, that God is not a being but beingness itself, it doesn’t really allow or invite any discussion about the existence of God. Rather it invites us to explore the mystery of existence and life – something non-believers will want to do too. Similarly, when St Anselm tells us that God is that which cannot be doubted, we are not encouraged to debate the evidence for a divine presence at work in the world, but rather to look for that which is fundamental to life. St Augustine wrote “If I know myself I shall know thee O God”, and this self-exploration and self-questioning is important to us all.
Our attitudes to morality also seek out common ground. No Christian should believe they have special and exclusive entitlement to a moral blueprint for life. Certainly the Christian tradition is rich in resources for considering moral problems, whether they spring from examples of self-sacrificing service, or of failure and abuse. It contains many parables to challenge and combat prejudice but we can only tackle the issues effectively through a desire to discuss them with everyone concerned and a determination to act for the common good.
More fundamentally, we all live in the same world with access to the same language and knowledge. Despite what many believers might claim, they are not favoured with special insight denied to rest of us. What Christians call prayer should not therefore be seen as making favoured requests on behalf of themselves. Indeed the practice of prayer, whilst not always described in those terms is common to many activities shared by believers and non-believers alike – meditation, reflection, articulation of hopes and fears, acknowledgment of failure.
In highlighting the extent of this common ground, one might question the need for religion at all. The fact is that we all need communities and friends to encourage us in our striving. We need stories to inspire us to act, and help us face up to our failings. We need activities that bind us together in creating a society where all can flourish. At their best and when not claiming any special status, faith communities can provide this, and more.