Commentary: God, atheism and belief

The Miami HeraldMarch 6, 2011 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

That which is without quality cannot be measured, the invisible cannot be examined, the

incorporeal cannot be weighed, the limitless cannot be compared, the incomprehensible does

not admit of more or less.’’

Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century Christian philosopher)

“I am that I am.”

Exodus 3:14

Occasionally, I manage to tick off an atheist.

It is not something I set out to do. Usually it results from some passing comment reflecting my belief that God is. As in a recent column on Lara Logan, the CBS reporter sexually assaulted in Egypt. I wrote that she is “deserving of our compassion, our empathy and our prayers.” This drove a reader named Patricia to her keyboard.

There ensued a brief colloquy whose highlights on her part included: “Please stop the superstitious nonsense.” And, “Keep the public naive and stupid.” And, “An atheist is absent of belief and willing to change their position when evidence is presented. When you mention prayer, you are acting as an evangelist promoting an irrational act.”

And here, allow me to establish that I support the right of people to believe — or not believe — as they wish. Indeed, if you’ll forgive the cliche, some of my best friends and co-workers are nonbelievers.

This would include Terry Jackson, a Miami Herald editor who died of cancer two years ago. I remember telling him I would pray for him. “I’m a pretty hardcore atheist,” T.J. warned, but he added that he would take any help he could get.

I always thought there was a lot of grace in that response. It’s a grace that is usually missing when atheist readers question me on issues of faith.

Indeed, I find myself struck by the similarity between certain atheists and fundamentalists. Meaning the ones who can always tell you exactly what’s on God’s mind and even what He had for breakfast this morning. God did this, they say, because He didn’t like those people, did that because that country ticked Him off. Funnily enough, God’s likes and dislikes always seem to exactly match theirs.

There is a certain hubris in them that is mirrored in the declaration that God does not exist because our telescopes cannot see Him nor our equations prove Him. It was only a minute ago, as the universe measures time, that our kind was scared of fire, so our faith in our tools to now definitively disprove God is as arrogant as it is amusing.

Show me evidence, says Patricia, and I will reconsider. She makes the same error fundamentalists make when they try to force schools to teach from the book of Genesis: She imposes upon one discipline the standards of another rather than assessing it on its own terms — like a rap fan declaring Mozart invalid because Mozart had no beats.

To put that another way: God is not proven. God is felt. I know the subjectivity of that will give Patricia — and others — fits. Deal with it.

Last year, writer Marilynne Robinson published a book, Absence of Mind, whose purpose was less to prove the existence of God than the possibility of God. In a lyrical, profoundly thoughtful dissent, she took issue with the notion that because what is felt cannot be quantified, it is somehow invalid. Feeling is, after all, the most common of human experiences. She questioned “this defining of humankind by the exclusion of the things that in fact distinguish us as a species.”

And yes, I know: T.J. died despite my prayers. Why? demands the skeptic. I don’t know. When I see God, I’ll ask. The thing with me is, I’m OK with “I don’t know,” OK with the humility those words require, OK with what I can only feel and never prove by the tenets of science.

One of my favorite gospel songs says, “Over my head, I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere.”

I believe that. If that belief offends someone, I’m sorry.

But not really.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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