Oprah is, for many, an idol. She inspires a devotion among her followers that borders on the religious. Indeed, Oprah is a woman whose often generous character appears to beg praise. What Oprah is not, however, is tolerant of the notion of atheism.
Oprah demonstrated this during an interview that aired Sunday, October 13, with self-identifying atheist Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old marathon swimmer who made international headlines for, after many years of trying, swimming the 110 miles from Cuba to Florida without the assistance of a protective cage.
During the “Super Soul Sunday” interview, Oprah and Nyad touched on a great many topics, but it was Oprah’s incredulity at Nyad’s atheism that has earned the interview media attention:
Nyad:…I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist, go on down the line, and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity; all the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt… and suffered. To me, my definition of “God” is humanity. And is the love of humanity. And as we return to…
Winfrey: Well, I don’t call you an atheist then! I think if you believe in the awe, and the wonder, and the mystery… That that is what God is. That is what God is! God is not the Bearded Guy in the Sky.
Winfrey later encouraged Nyad to identify as a “spiritual” person, to which Nyad responded:
I do. I don’t think there’s any contradiction in those terms. I think you can be an atheist who doesn’t believe in an overarching Being who created all of this and sees over it. But there’s spirituality because we human beings, and we animals, and maybe even we plants, but certainly the ocean and the moon and the stars, we all live with something that is cherished and we feel the treasure of it.
Winfrey confirmed that she feels that “deeply” and that that’s why she talks to her trees. Or something. You can watch a video of the exchange below:
Atheists and humanist groups have flinched at Oprah’s apparent failure to grasp that one needn’t believe in God or gods — or for that matter, even identify as “spiritual” — in order to feel awe and wonder when confronted by life’s wonders.
Oprah’s gaffe prompted American Humanist Association President David Noise to write an article for Psychology Today lambasting the media mogul’s “anti-atheist bias.” He explains her stance in particular hurts because, given Oprah’s huge audience, her misinformed opinions about atheism may give many among her supporters who are already hostile to atheists a reason to feel their ideas are shared and valid.
There’s a great deal of evidence for America’s pervading antagonism toward atheists. Despite atheism being on the rise, a number of state and national polls suggest atheists face significant mistrust and outright condemnation from the American public, and that Americans perceive atheism at the very least as a character flaw that might, for instance, preclude them from political office or from being “good” people. Of course, this is untrue. Morality is not bound to religion or atheism, but the idea persists that without religion, one cannot have a sense of morals or ethics.
As such, Noise isn’t alone in being concerned about Oprah’s unintended jibe.
The group Boston Atheists has gone so far as to generate an online campaign complete with a number of images designed to be shared across social media with ready quotes of atheists attesting to the awe and wonder they feel and rallying against Oprah’s apparent desire to relabel atheists as spiritual.
Atheism, on its own, is simply defined by an absence of a belief in God or gods. If taken in a broader view, it may also constitute non-belief in the wider pantheon of the supernatural, though, and perhaps this is where Oprah’s confusion springs. Some spiritual traditions do also allow for atheism, among them Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and even some forms of neo-paganism and Wicca. Oprah herself is an exponent of the so-called “Secret” or “Law of Attraction,” the belief that, if a practitioner wants it enough, the universe will somehow reward them with their heart’s desires by matching their thoughts with things.
The spirituality power grab Oprah makes in her talk with Nyad is particularly insidious though because it relies on the implicit idea that one must believe in something in order to feel the range of ecstatic emotions the religious or spiritual readily identify with, the implication being that without belief, a person is not whole, is somehow handicapped or blind. Yet merely listen to nonbelievers and we know this isn’t true.
They are just as capable of expressing wonder, the most ready example currently making its way around the Internet being the poetic fact — not belief – that our very bodies are made up of elements that were likely forged by dying stars. For sure, atheists can be left speechless at the magnificence of a sunrise or the profundity and improbability of life without needing to invoke the idea of a deity or a personal creator universe, precisely because these are human qualities and not ones that divide down lines of belief.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising Oprah would want to redefine Nyad’s identity though. Oprah’s show, and brand for that matter, has come to rely on feel-good phrases like “meaning and purpose” and “spiritual journey” that don’t sit easily with America’s feelings about atheism. So, sadly, in the context of the program, and in the wider context of many Americans’ view of atheism, Oprah’s recasting of Nyad’s atheism isn’t all that remarkable — indeed, Nyad later in the interview accepts Oprah’s label of spirituality which many atheists also do accept while, at the same time, many do not.
Yet the chance the interview has provided to educate on the issue of non-belief seems invaluable for many in the atheist and humanist communities, and it is one they are understandably seizing. There have even been some calls for Oprah to broadcast a new program devoted to exploring non-belief. Whether that will make its way onto the OWN network, though, remains to be seen.
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