Oprah recently hosted Diana Nyad on her Soul to Soul show on the OWN network. Diana made a bit of history recently by swimming from Cuba to Florida without using a shark cage. An impressive feat made even more so by the fact that she’s 64.
The interview, as you can imagine based on the title of the show, involved a discussion about God and spirituality. Diana considers herself to be an atheist ‘who is in awe’. Based on Diana’s explanation of what she means by that, Oprah proceeds to tell her that she doesn’t consider Diana an atheist at all. You can see the clip below:
It’s clear from Oprah’s description of what she believes God to be — he’s “not that bearded guy in the sky” but rather the belief in “the awe and the wonder and the mystery” — that she’s got a very different concept of God than most folks. By that definition you could say I’m not an atheist as I have no problems with the concepts of awe and wonder and mystery, though I’m not sure how those things could be a God of any kind.
Apparently this has caused a bit of a stir in the atheist community. Personally, I’m not really bothered by it, though I am amused. I certainly consider myself an atheist and yet I’ve felt awe and wonder on an uncountable number of occasions throughout my life. Others such as the Boston Atheists have started a Facebook campaign seeking an apology and affirmation from Winfrey for her comments:
In response to Oprah Winfrey’s biased comments against atheists in an October 2013 interview, the Boston Atheists are asking for support in asking her for an apology and some gesture of acknowledgment and affirmation toward the secular community. Whether that means inviting she invites Josiah D Van Vliet on camera for a sit-down on camera to talk about atheist community organizing, or about how atheists can listen to and understand and appreciate music, depends entirely on how much noise we can make about this!
Additionally, American Humanist Association President David Noise wrote an article for Psychology Today about how Oprah’s comments confirm the negative image of atheists held by believers:
What is most alarming about Oprah’s revelation is that she doesn’t even realize its invidiousness. Atheists, to her, don’t feel that deep, emotional connection to the universe. She has drawn a circle that includes people of all faiths, but excludes atheists, thereby confirming negative attitudes toward nonbelievers.
To those among Oprah’s legion of loyal viewers who may have held anti-atheist prejudices, this now validates their bias. That’s right, those atheists just aren’t like the rest of us, they can now say, nodding their heads.While we religious people of the world are appreciating the wonder and awe of life, those atheists are just one big buzzkill!
I suppose that may be true for some believers, but I seriously doubt Oprah is adding all that much fuel to the anti-atheist fire among believers. She didn’t say anything particularly disparaging, she just applied her vague and ham-fisted definition of God to someone who considers themselves an atheist. I suppose you could infer that Oprah is saying that atheists are incapable of feeling awe and wonder and mystery, but knowing that I am an atheist and that I have experienced those emotions shows me that at worst she’s just ignorant.
I’ve seen a few folks criticize Diana as well because she seems to believe in a soul and an afterlife. While it’s true that most atheists don’t believe in souls or afterlives, there’s nothing about the word “atheist” that rules those ideas as out of the question. An atheist is simply someone who does not believe in God(s). That’s it. That’s all that’s required to be an atheist is a lack of belief in God(s). Diana says she thinks collectively humanity and love of humanity is what she’d call God and some folks think that means she’s not really an atheist, but Einstein said more or less the same thing about nature as God and it’s pretty clear he was an atheist as well even though he disliked the term (he often used “religious nonbeliever” instead).
Meh, I think if she considers herself an atheist then she probably is. Oprah doesn’t think she is, but then the definition Oprah is using makes me think Oprah is closer to atheism than she realizes. Either way, I don’t think this is an issue worth getting all upset over. Especially in comparison to the likes of Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. Now there is an anti-atheist bigot.