Given this common ground, let me speak to the believers. (Forgive my generalizations; brevity extinguishes nuance.) I will momentarily ignore the fact that you believe that your God will torture me for all eternity in hell, and I request the same in return about my belief that your vision of God and a reward in the afterlife is mistaken. Let's callthe offenses even and move forward to determine what the truth might be. When we come into this life, we have nothing and know nothing. Yet as unprepared as we are, the mysteries of life immediately surround us. Solutions are presented by the people closest to us: our parents, pastors, teachers and friends. To discern the best choice from among the varieties of opinion, we need to learn how to think correctly; only then can we know what to think. We must adopt the attitude Aristotle had toward his beloved teacher when he said, "Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth." We want the fishing pole - and we want to know whether, why, and how well it works. We must not be satisfied simply by the fish given to us by others.
The differences between atheists and believers are rooted in our differing methods of discovering truth. My truth-discovering mechanism is the application of reason to the evidence presented to us by the natural world. Believers augment their reason with faith - faith in ideas revealed through holy books and religious traditions. Here begins the controversy. Freethinking non-believers assert that faith offers no means of evaluating the truth of any claim about reality. Faith might offer answers, but it cannot tell you whether its answers are true.
If you have faith that the universe is young when others claim it is very old, we turn to the reason-based physical sciences to discern the answer. If a Christian's faith says that Jesus died and was resurrected but a Muslim's faith says that Jesus ascended to heaven before he could be crucified, they also turn to reason. Though neither can justify their position with direct evidence, both would point to reasons why their holy book is more reliable than the other's. While I assert that reason supports neither miraculous account, the answer to the above debates is less important than the following question: what value does faith bring to either discussion if we all eventually turn to reason for justification? The initial faith does not provide a comment on the truth. Why, then, do we bother with the faith in the first place? A more intellectually tenable position is to believe only what is reasonable based on the evidence at hand. The remainder is a mystery yet to be solved.
Though we may diverge in methodology, let us discuss our differences while remembering our shared ideal of honesty in our search for truth, discarding the prejudice that either the religious or the non-believer is stupid, immoral, or dangerous. I have experienced this kind of friendly debate with my family and friends, and I sincerely believe it can take place on a larger scale in our society. Let us, like Thomas Jefferson, "question with boldness even the existence of a god," while taking it upon ourselves at Virginia Tech to seek the answers with an attitude of mutual respect.