October 16th, 2013
03:20 PM ET

What Oprah gets wrong about atheism

Opinion by Chris Stedman, special to CNN

(CNN) - To some, Oprah Winfrey appears to have an almost godlike status. Her talents are well recognized, and her endorsement can turn almost any product into an overnight bestseller.

This godlike perception is fitting, since in recent years Winfrey’s work has increasingly emphasized spirituality, including programs like her own "Super Soul Sunday."

But what happens when an atheist enters the mix?

A few days ago Winfrey interviewed long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad on Super Soul Sunday. Nyad identified herself as an atheist who experiences awe and wonder at the natural world and humanity.

Nyad, 64, who swam from Cuba to Key West last month, said “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 responded, “Well I don’t call you an atheist then.”

Winfrey went on, “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery then that is what God is… It’s not a bearded guy in the sky.”

Nyad clarified that she doesn’t use the word God because it implies a “presence… a creator or an overseer.”

Winfrey’s response may have been well intended, but it erased Nyad’s atheist identity and suggested something entirely untrue and, to many atheists like me, offensive: that atheists don’t experience awe and wonder.

MORE ON CNN: Diana Nyad completes historic Cuba-to-Florida swim

The exchange between Winfrey and Nyad reminds me of a conversation I once had with a Catholic scholar.

The professor once asked me: “When I talk about God, I mean love and justice and reconciliation, not a man in the sky. You talk about love and justice and reconciliation. Why can’t you just call that God?”

I replied: “Why must you call that God? Why not just call it what it is: love and justice and reconciliation?”

Though we started off with this disagreement, we came to better understand one another’s points of view through patient, honest dialogue.

Conversations like that are greatly needed today, as atheists are broadly misunderstood.

MORE ON CNN: Behold, the six types of atheists

When I visit college and university campuses around the United States, I frequently ask students what words are commonly associated with atheists. Their responses nearly always include words like “negative,” “selfish,” “nihilistic” and “closed-minded.”

When I ask how many of them actually have a relationship with an atheist, few raise their hands.

Relationships can be transformative. The Pew Research Center found that among the 14% of Americans who changed their mind from opposing same-sex marriage to supporting it in the last decade, the top reason given was having “friends, family, acquaintances who are gay/lesbian.”

Knowing someone of a different identity can increase understanding. This has been true for me as a queer person and as an atheist. I have met people who initially think I can’t actually be an atheist when they learn that I experience awe and am committed to service and social justice.

But when I explain that atheism is central to my worldview — that I am in awe of the natural world and that I believe it is up to human beings, instead of a divine force, to strive to address our problems — they often better understand my views, even if we don’t agree.

While theists can learn by listening to atheists more, atheists themselves can foster greater understanding by not just emphasizing the “no” of atheism — our disagreement over the existence of any gods — but also the “yes” of atheism and secular humanism, which recognizes the amazing potential within human beings.

Carl Sagan, the agnostic astronomer and author, would have agreed with Nyad’s claim that you can be an atheist, agnostic or nonreligious person and consider yourself “spiritual.”

As Sagan wrote in "The Demon-Haunted World,":

"When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”

Nyad told Winfrey that she feels a similar sense of awe:

“I think you can be an atheist who doesn’t believe in an overarching being who created all of this and sees over it,” she said. “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.”

MORE ON CNN:  'Atheist' isn’t a dirty word, congresswoman

I experience that same awe when I see people of different beliefs coming together across lines of religious difference to recognize that we are all human — that we all love and hurt.

Perhaps Winfrey, who could use her influence to shatter stereotypes about atheists rather than reinforce them, would have benefited from listening to Nyad just a bit more closely and from talking to more atheists about awe and wonder.

I know many who would be up to the task.

Chris Stedman is the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University, coordinator of humanist life for the Yale Humanist Community and author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Celebrity • Ethics • Faith • God • Inspiration • Nones • Opinion • Spirituality

soundoff (4,964 Responses)
  1. e11even4fter

    Not all atheists think or believe alike just like not all Christians think or believe alike. Maybe Chris Stedman and other atheists can relate to Diana Nyad but that doesn't mean that they are correct in assuming that she is just like one of them.

    March 18, 2014 at 1:07 am |
  2. Djay

    I get where this argument is coming from, but I also see Oprah's point of view. Yes, maybe she doesn't believe in a "God", but awe and power in nature is almost pantheistic, and "spirituality" is more of a faith in the self. They are more atheistic than actual religions, but not right on.
    To be an atheist is to live your life in either complete and utter despair because there is no hope, no reason, no purpose, or to live as animals do. Atheists reject any form of belief, so why would they bother to believe in the earth, environment, self, etc.
    For an accurate view of an atheist, I suggest reading Lucretius.

    January 13, 2014 at 8:43 pm |
  3. quotespotato

    Reblogged this on Thoughts Potato.

    January 11, 2014 at 5:14 am |
  4. Atheism is wrapped up carnality.

    *****************^^^^ :) ^^^^****************

    January 10, 2014 at 12:58 am |
  5. God is not a bearded guy in the ground.

    > :)

    January 10, 2014 at 12:51 am |
  6. Tom Lancaster

    Any Christian who tells you to "read and understand" the Bible is in denial himself. In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God (John 1:1). Jesus is the word and scripture is clear he is; was and shall be. Many folks thought they could read and understand the bible over the years, just as today, only to find themselves lost and confused usually leading to a double standard of judge on Saturday and preach on Sunday. Search the scriptures; for in them ye THINK ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me that ye might have life(John 5:39-40) For the word oof God is quick(living) and powerful and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of SOUL and SPIRIT 9not one in the same). These few verses clrarly demonstrate the Bible is not a book to be studied and memorized, but a living word to be discerneded spiritually, not by man and his finite understanding. Also in my 54 years I have found most Christians cannot explain any of these verses so they revert to denial and Judgenment. As far as Spiritual discernment goes just check out 1 Corinthians 2:14-15. No ability to understand and no need to judge what man does with our limited wisdom.

    January 9, 2014 at 11:25 am |
    • Corey

      More importantly, it is up to Christians to not only discern the scriptures spirituality, but to take the word of God and let them live within us as they did in Christ. That's the Word or Logos.

      2 Corinthians 3:3 Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.

      January 10, 2014 at 12:10 am |
    • Corey

      Well, your question doesn't stand up to principle because Christ lived and taught by what was written in the old law to perfection.Even the oft misquoted "He without sin cast the first stone..." was based on what was written in the old law.
      Christians from Acts 2 through today only have authority based on what was written. If you teach anything outside of that, it is a trespass against God.
      1 Corinthians 4:6 And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another.

      January 9, 2014 at 11:36 pm |
  7. Wuxia007

    Wait a minute. What colleges and universities is author going to that he finds only a few students who have a relationship with an atheist? Also, atheist are not only victims of misunderstanding. You'd be surprised how many people don't actually understand Christianity.

    January 8, 2014 at 11:51 am |
  8. PB MAX

    Insane stuff being said here . Sickening . Atheism is so sad , so hopeless and worse evil when atheists go out of their way to belittle the beliefs of others . How one can stand on this earth and believe that it was all an accident and coincidence that we are are is beyond me . That all the perfection of life and what is needed to achieve life on earth is random is silly and sad . Their is more proof ( scientific ) that God exists than there is that he does not . Pick up the Bible and read , really read it . The new Testament is perfection . I will pray for Atheists as much as i can but at time they do not make it easy

    January 8, 2014 at 11:17 am |
    • Snoob

      I am sorry you feel that way. I am an atheist but I do not judge anyone who is Christian or follows some other faith. I have never walked a day in your shoes so who am I to judge your beliefs? If you want to be a Christian and it makes your life better then great! I support you and I will not judge you. Not all atheist are created equal just like all Christians are not the same so before you say things like "atheism is so sad", please consider that you really do not know what you are talking about and it is not your place to judge how I think or feel.

      January 8, 2014 at 11:43 am |
    • Steve Chenoy

      It's not an accident or coincidence. It's scientific fact. If you could understand science than you would see the lack of "accident" and the beauty of scientificly inevitable evolution both in life and the universe.

      January 9, 2014 at 12:03 am |
      • stymie1

        Right on. Until you understand that evolution is not driven by “accident” alone, you’ll ever get close to wrapping your head around it. In nature, a few simple laws can generate very complex systems. It happens all the time in living and non-living material. Take basic chemistry for instance.

        February 16, 2014 at 3:18 pm |
    • Rob1234

      Pleaseeeee explain to me this evidence you have . I will convert today since your religion has all the answers and you obviously are well studied in this topic. Read a bible???? Understanding what is in the bible is the main reason I am an athiest!

      January 8, 2014 at 7:52 pm |
      • Corey

        If you can give us something that you "understand" beyond the stories you were TOLD when you were 5, then you have a valid reason to be an atheist and Anti-Bible. Until then, you are just making stuff up.

        January 9, 2014 at 11:39 pm |
        • Guest

          Enough already. Quit acting like children. I am an atheist, but you are free to believe whatever you want. You are all making ridiculous assumptions about each other, and doing nothing to further your cause. I don't know why you believe in god, but I know why I don't. That is all that is needed to "validate" any belief. Give it a rest.

          January 10, 2014 at 12:01 am |
    • Corey

      Don't focus on just the New Testament. That is why many are errant in what they call "Christianity". They fail to connect the principles from the old testament to the new testament. It is within these principles that we can have confidence that the Bible is indeed God's word.

      January 10, 2014 at 12:04 am |
  9. Kevin Colquitt

    Oprah Winfrey should be considered as nothing more than a bully for her disrespectful treatment of Diana Nyad. Shame on her!

    December 18, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.