Is it any surprise that Oprah Winfrey is a sucker for faith? She’s pitched all kinds of woo on her show, and although I know she’s done some great charity work, gotten people to read books, and done other useful things, I could never watch her for more than five minutes. She was just too earnest, too saccharine—too eager to show the world that she was its nicest inhabitant.
Oprah’s most cloying aspects, a least vis-à-vis faith, are on tap in the following four-minute interview with athlete Diana Nyad, who recently swam from Cuba to Florida—at the age of 64!
As you’ll hear below, Nyad admits that she’s “not a God person” and is in fact an atheist. Sadly, she also says, “My definition of God is humanity—and the love of humanity,” which sort of spoils her admission. Why, if you’re an atheist, must you to give the name “God” to anything? It’s a sop to the faithful. And Oprah snaps it up, telling Nyad that because of her spirituality she must not be an atheist after all.
Here’s part of the transcript from Dave Niose, in a piece at Psychology Today called “Why Oprah’s anti-atheist bias hurts so much”:
In the interview [Winfrey] is chatting with endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who recently swam from Cuba to Florida at age 64. Nyad unhesitatingly identifies as an atheist when asked about her beliefs, then adds that she sees no contradiction between her atheism and her ability to experience awe, or in her words to “weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity.”
Oprah, however, apparently found this description unsettling, for it seems that in her view atheists must be cold, emotionless rationalists. “Well I don’t call you an atheist then,” Oprah responded to Nyad’s disclosure. “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”
But note that that’s what Nyad herself calls “God”! Oprah also finds solace in Nyad’s admission that she, Nyad, is a spiritual person, and snaps at that bait as an admission of religiosity. Nyad finally claims, despite being an atheist, that humans have souls that live on after their deaths—souls created by “energy”—despite the fact that the body “goes back to ash.”
But what Niose chooses to kvetch about is Oprah’s marginalization of atheists:
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!
. . . Oprah, exalted by so many but oblivious to the fact that she is dehumanizing atheists, does more to perpetuate negative attitudes toward nonbelievers than Pat Robertson or James Dobson ever could. The general public takes comments from Robertson and Dobson with a grain of salt – but Oprah, as a media tycoon and a beloved celebrity whose opinions are taken seriously by millions, has just confirmed that atheists are “the other,” outsiders who just don’t belong in the in-group. (And the evidence is clear that atheists are indeed widely, and wrongly, scorned in America. With commentary such as Oprah’s, we can see why.)
This gets it exactly backwards. What prejudiced viewers will really say after hearing this interview is “That’s right, those atheists are exactly like the rest of us—they, too believe in God. They just give Him another name.”
In truth, I think that more damage to atheism was done here by Nyad, eloquent though she was, than by Oprah. After all, Winfrey makes just one short claim about the issue, denying that Nyad is an atheist because she believes in wonder, awe, and humanity. In contrast, Nyad calls those feelings “God”, admits the existence of souls that exist after death, and says that she has no problem with believers, even those who accept the existence of ghosts. In other words, she’s an atheist who, like Oprah, accepts woo.
It’s really time for us to discard the word “spirituality.” All it does is give believers a reason to say, “See, you’re really one of us after all.” The never-ending series of Templeton-funded papers by Elaine Ecklund, which implicitly equate spirituality with religiosity, testify to the invidious nature of this confusion.
Let the word “spiritual” be reserved for the faithful. Why can’t we atheists just say that we’re “moved” or “in awe” or “deeply touched” by sunsets, music, and scientific discoveries?
I much admire Nyad for her athletic prowess, her open lesbianism, and now her overt atheism. But I still prefer the honest anti-religious invective of a Christopher Hitchens to the numinous gushings of Diana Nyad.