American Humanism Association Symbol with the "NOT" sign through it.

Master-General of the Order of Woo is the New Arbiter of Who is an Atheist

Looks like it’s time for me to turn in my Atheist card and quit all the secularism groups I’m a part of. The Woo Master-General, Oprah has essentially declared in an interview with Diana Nyad that she gets to dictate how someone should identify, religiously. Her verdict? Anyone who actually has ‘teh feelz’ can’t be an atheist. Sorry guys, it’s been fun. I guess because I’m a human being, I can’t be an atheist now.

Background

Nyad, age 64, is a long-distance swimmer who finished her fifth attempt to swim between Florida and Cuba. She began swimming as a coping strategy for the abuse she experienced as a child. She also openly identifies as a lesbian and an atheist. You can read more about her on her Wikipedia page.

Oprah’s Bullying

It was that last identity that was blatantly challenged by Oprah on her show, Super Soul Sunday. Apparently, according to Oprah, a lack of belief in the deity department precludes one from ever experiencing a sense of awe or wonder. Take a look at this exchange:

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…
Winfrey: Yeah…
Nyad: … 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…
Nyad: Okay…
Winfrey: … and the wonder…
Nyad: Okay…
Winfrey: … and the mystery…
Nyad: Okay…
Winfrey: … That that is what God is! That is what God is! God is not the Bearded Guy in the Sky.

You can watch the video here:

Hemant Mehta has a great post that breaks down how silly this belief is, so I won’t spend much time on it myself other than to say the very first result of a Google search for “Atheist FAQ“ answers that very question.

Media Coverage

To me, Oprah’s blatant ignorance manifesting itself as a microagression, isn’t the part of this story that get’s my goat. Someone who promotes so much pseudoscience can hardly be expected to be informed about how atheists actually think. To me, the biggest issue here is how it’s all playing in the media.
The Blaze takes issue with Hemant’s descriptor as “One of the most awkward faith-based conversations you’ll ever hear.” Here’s how they described it:

While this characterization may be a bit of an overreach, the conversation, which focused, in part, on faith and Nyad’s self-professed atheism, is worth exploring — especially if you have an interest in theological matters. The discussion was, at moments, odd, but it remained respectful on all fronts

Um, maybe I’m being over-reactive, but I didn’t find it “respectful on all fonts.1 ” I found Oprah’s insistance that she knew Nyad’s beliefs better than Nyad did insulting. The article later says:

The athlete’s answer was a bit confusing, especially considering her use of the word “soul,” however it’s clear that she does not believe the human body continues living postmortem (then again, almost everyone is in agreement on this latter sentiment).

Actually, her answer wasn’t that confusing. It was fairly straight forward. She was trying to move on from what was an awkward line of questions. It’s pretty clear that she was using the terms ‘soul’ and ‘spiritual’ colloquially. As for the last sentence, I wonder if the author actually passed any reading comprehension exams, because it was pretty clear that Nyad was stating that there is nothing that exists after death. Which, unfortunately, the majority of people do not agree on.

Ok, ok. The Blaze is probably too easy to pick on. How about we move on to a liberal news outlet.

Mediaite’s article on this is good on the surface. It’s got little pockets of awesome like this:

Being awed at the world is not at all a religious notion. There is plenty of beauty to be found in the natural world, you don’t need to believe there was a creator to be able to appreciate that. And when Oprah says this awe is what God is to her, that’s perfectly fine, but she can’t use her own belief system to tell someone that they are not who they say they are.

This is exactly right. There is absolutely nothing about awe and wonder that is predicated on religious belief. In general, the article is supportive of Nyad. I’m glad that people want to be accepting of atheists. But. You knew there was a “but” coming. But, this article has several problem parts too that point to a larger, if more subtle, issue with the perception of atheism in American culture.

Now Nyad just happens to be an atheist, and said so to Oprah Winfrey in an interview that aired on Sunday. And Nyad was very open and honest about her worldview and how she’s able to appreciate the awe and the majesty of the earth despite her atheism.

Emphasis mine. The author is trying to say that he is on the side of Nyad. And he probably is. But the way he phrased the last sentence there he makes it seem like atheism is a handicap to living a full life. It seems to imply that atheism is a condition that one must overcome to feel appreciation for the universe. For me, it was the opposite. Adopting a naturalistic worldview gave me a greater sense of wonder. Looking back now, I see religious deities as small and petty compared to what we know about the universe now. See Zen Pencil’s take on “Pale Blue Dot” to see what I mean. But it doesn’t stop there.

Oprah doesn’t hate atheists or harbor an anti-atheist bias or anything like that; it’s just hard for many religious people to wrap their heads around the idea that there are people who live happy lives without religious morality guiding it or the belief in a being watching over them 24/7.

[Citation Needed]. Look, I doubt Oprah actively hates atheists, as most people don’t actively hate us. But there are two problems with this statement. First, WE HAVE NO FUCKING CLUE WHAT OPRAH THINKS. I doubt she actively hates atheists, but we also can’t read her mind. Second, she very well is harboring anti-atheist bias. Here’s the thing about biases… they usually are not known to the holder of said bias. Oprah’s actions show that she has some animus to the idea that someone might actually be happy and not believe they are a part of some “larger” scheme.

And by the way, for anyone who thinks all atheists are just a bunch of nasty trolls looking to mock and deride religious people any chance they get, watch this interview, because there are a lot of atheists out there like Diana Nyad, who are perfectly content with unbelief and don’t begrudge others who believe in a supreme being.

Oh Jesus H. Tap-dancing Christ! If I had a penny for every time I had to read this trope, that atheists who happen to be angry are trolls, I could retire and do nothing but blog. If you think that because an atheist is angry they’re trolling, you need to go read Greta Christina. Look, I know there’s lots of newly minted atheists out on Facebook and Reddit who think it’s their job to “one-up” theists, but even that is not done in a vacuum. Atheists are explicitly reminded every day that they are not part of Real ‘Merica™ and that anger is a way to fight back. I’m not condoning abusive behavior. Like Greta, I too believe we need to make sure that anger is focused. But reading shit like this makes it really hard to not just want to smash things.

Ironically, one of the best articles on this subject came from The Christian Post. I support decent journalism, even if it’s from an organization I regularly disagree with.


  1. We of course are excluding the following fonts: Comic Sans, Helvetica 73, and CurlzMT. Leaving these fonts out still allows us to qualify this as “all fonts” as no one who matters would ever use these fonts 

Leave a Reply