October 16th, 2013
03:20 PM ET
What Oprah gets wrong about atheism
(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.
About this blog
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.
I find it strange and a bit sad that the posts in response to an article that is decrying the negative images many have of atheist are of the same sort of mean spirited close-minded stereotypical behavior that gives many those negative images the author was upset about. Its mind-numbing to see that the go to position for atheist regardless if they are mainstream or not is to go into instant ridicule mode if one brings up faith and god. Its hardly constructive and it does nothing but cement the images people have of atheist.
it's on both sides of the fence. Have you ever met "pervert alert" or "AthiestsAreIdiots" on here? (See previous page.)
Those freaks want to provoke others because they can't deal with reality.
People are dying of AIDS because gays AND HETEROS are spreading it.
Drugs, crime and abortions are involving gays and HETEROS.
So much for your delusions about reality.
I agree with you methos. I do not believe in God but I think it is very combative on both sides. I think atheist feel they are being judged by those who believe and those who believe think atheists mock them. It seems to go in a big circle of each side blaming the other.
People seem to like to be part of a group and to label the other group as bad :-/ It is a little sad. That said, I think there is more good than bad in most people even if we like to throw stones.
I have summarized my findings regarding the religiously fundamentalist method for inquiry and verification.
It is best illustrated with this video:
A world without religion, without the crazies. Please God let it be soon. LMAO
Oprah is an idiot, as usual. She has no idea about Atheists. But the reason her comments outraged me the most is that I am an avid reader of Holocaust memoires. Many of the survivors-turned-authors were/are Atheists, which surprised me. So she is saying–these people, after experiencing near-death, after experiencing the murder of their families, after being starved and beaten and worked almost to death–that they are incapable of awe? Really? Because I find their experiences very, very awe-inspiring. After all these people have been through, this overweight talk show host has the audacity to say they have not experienced awe in their lives. She is sickening.
People that turned their Holocaust memories into books for profit were atheists? Really?
After suffering as they did in concentration camps, I personally believe that if they can write a book and people will buy it and read it and maybe they can profit from it, GOOD FOR THEM!
What's wrong with that? You're acting like they're convicted murderers profiting off books. They're not, they're victims who suffered horribly.
Same principle the Jewish nation faced when in Egypt. They turned away from God. They even started worshiping other gods. Then they were freed by Moses, but God gets the power and the glory. Why because the anger of God through Moses was displayed. They actually found Egyptian chariots and skeletons in the Red Sea
Except that, actually they didn't.
Yes, that is, if you are the kind of atheist that claims to have knowledge that God does not exist. How would one go about obtaining this knowledge without having certain qualities like omnipresence or omniscience? However, if you are the kind of atheist that does not claim to have certainty about the subject, but in essence is just saying, "I am choosing not to believe," well then that is something else.
I see – you are not addressing the mainstream atheist.
Why don't you 'christian' freaks recognize the hindi gods, or the muslim's Allah? Do you refuse to believe in them?
Go on with your two faced hypocrisy!
God does not need to prove himself based on the demands of others. If some of these atheists would look at the temptation of Jesus by Satan. Not once did Jesus show the power of God to satisfy Satan's requests. Yet people DEMAND proof from other people to prove God exists. Total similarity and very insulting
God's evidence > human evidence
Wow – pretty nifty way to claim the existence of something – just make a claim that it is greater than something else. LOL (eyeroll)
I think human beings are all flawed and imperfect. So our beliefs are flawed and imperfect.
Yet there is a power that is perfect and gives evidence in His way. Not the way that proud and arrogant human beings demand. But in His way. And it is better than your way.
including the human beings who wrote, translated and edited the bible, AE?
"Yet there is a power that is perfect and gives evidence in His way."
Oh, I see why I keep misunderstanding you. It's because you forgot the "I think" for this line too. So really, it should have been:
"Yet, I think there is a power......"
-including the human beings who wrote, translated and edited the bible, AE?
Yes, I think there is a power in this universe that is greater and more trustworthy than Doris.
AE perfectly put.
I'm OK with that. Now maybe one day you'll be able to demonstrate such a greater entity so that all can see and believe.
If you are seeking something greater in your life, you can ask that power. For me it helped to seek some spiritual principles like grat!tude and humility.
Uh huh. Yeah, that's what I call iron-clad evidence. You've convinced me totally.
Read a Bible sometime. God made a bet with Satan that cost Job everything he had.
as opposed to empty proxy threats from those who claim to KNOW the mind of "god"?
A lot of people who say they do not believe in a god usually are living a lifestyle they would have to reject if they did believe in a god, especially the god of the bible. Personally, I would rather believe in a god and be wrong, than not believe in a god and be wrong. And to be clear I mean believe in an intelligent spirit being, not the stuff religion hands out. When you look at religions record, it's no wonder people turn their back on a belief in a god.
You sure you got the right god? there's been thousands of them through the millenia. And if you chose the wrong one, you're really p!ssing off the REAL god.
So what about Gullible's Travels, Parts 1 & 2, I'm sorry, I mean the Bible – do you believe it? Do you believe in the supernatural claims made in the Bible?
If you read the 10 commandments, the very first one is about honoring God and not worshipping false idols. God already knew there was false idols and more would come based on absence of God. In other words God spelled it out very clearly that Odin, Hera, Zeus and the spaghetti monster were not the God of life.
wrote those stories?
And the people that do believe in a god, are they not also living a lifestyle that their subscribed god would reject? Most god-centered worldviews also follow the presumption that we are inherently sinful. Is it inconceivable that someone could demand evidence and still lead a moral life? Are these two things mutually-exclusive?
Barry Bonds is God.
If you don't believe that, you've never seen Him play.
Are you claiming that God uses drugs?
Certainly NOT! (although He may 'obstruct justice' once in awhile).
Barry was God before the alleged steriod use. (And I'm defending steriod's – they are bad, but methinks Jose Canseco was correct, and I do beleive 75% of ballplayers were using them ...)
the sad part is, is that all these people who dont believe in God, will regret ever believing such thing and saying that there is no God. if u believe that God doesn't exist, HE EXSIST, if u believe that he exsist, HE EXSIST. dont matter what u think about him. HE EXISTS. very soon, all these non believers with cry like never before, but it will be too late, the true Christians will be rejoicing in heaven, while the rest stay here with the antichrist, and the beast. laugh now, cause the ones who laugh first cry last, the ones who cry first laugh for an eternity.
I pray for all of u people, for God to have mercy on u all, who dont believe. God loves sinners, but doesnt love sin.
feel so sorry for u, laugh now, ull remember what i placed here. and say wow she was right all along. along with everyone else who dont agree. u know why i am so sure, im more than 100 percent sure in what i believe to be true. because i hav felt his presence so many times and he has answered my prayers.
firm believer in Jesus Christ, aint no atheist gona change that, or change the truth about God, SO REPENT OPRAH, and stop teaching demonic religion. ur just an illuminati puppet on satans schedule.
If you refuse to think for yourself then others will think for you. In the meantime ~ piss off.
feel so bad for u, same thing as to what i placed before
OooOooOoo.....siiiiiiin.....quick, everybody kneel!
may God have mercy on ur soul
In the U.S., we should appreciate our freedom, which comes in many forms. At one time (approx. AD 800-1100), Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world, open to people of all or no faiths. There were huge advances there and then in engineering, biology, medicine, math, and celestial navigation. "algebra", "algorithm" – those come from the Arabic. Also, most of the named stars were named then and still carry the Arabic names. Then fundamentalist religion gradually took over, and so began the steady decline in freedom; the intellectually fertile period was over, has has since never recovered.
I think Thomas Jefferson addressed this all-too common phenomenon in history with:
"[If] the nature of... government [were] a subordination of the civil to the ecclesiastical power, I [would] consider it as desperate for long years to come. Their steady habits [will] exclude the advances of information, and they [will] seem exactly where they [have always been]. And there [the] clergy will always keep them if they can. [They] will follow the bark of liberty only by the help of a tow-rope."
"Whenever... preachers, instead of a lesson in religion, put [their congregation] off with a discourse on the Copernican system, on chemical affinities, on the construction of government, or the characters or conduct of those administering it, it is a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried, and giving them, instead of it, what they did not want, or, if wanted, would rather seek from better sources in that particular art of science."
Quote: "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."
Winfrey is incapable of listening. She can only blather on with her stream of consciousness crapola.
The difference between me and your god is if I saw a child being ra.ped I would try to stop it
@Sybaris no truer words have been said. Excellent !!!!
Be prepared for the free-will or "mysterious ways" scam that all Christians must swallow.
I know............ and that is some special kind of twisted rationale
What are you doing to stop the ones you don't see?
"The difference between me and your god is if I saw a child being ra.ped I would try to stop it"
What do you do to stop the ones you don't see? Do you just deny that they don't happen?
As you should.... Man was given dominion/authority over the earth.
What idiot believes this story has any value. Oprah is one woman the fact she buys the crap her fans have fed her so long she's believing her own press. It's inane as worrying about the name of a football teams name is as other's are out of work and other's are trying to kill health care for those who can't afford it. Let's all care about a nonissue that Oprah has an opinion on.
Maybe the interviewer, Oprah, should have just sat there without speaking, so as not to "erase her atheism." I saw this clip. It was nothing but a respectful conversation between two people with different viewpoints. We used to be able to have those. Apparently, that's no longer an option.
I have an acquaintance who is Catholic and what I would consider a "religious fanatic". The reason I say that is that he cannot have ANY conversation where he does not stop lecturing of the virtues of catholicism or boring me to death with the meaning of "biblical words". Now, he spends his ENTIRE day (every single day), first going to mass, then going to nursing homes, hospitals, and homeless shelters to do "God's work". I asked him if he thinks he is going to heaven and he said "no, because of my past iniquities", yet he is busting his butt trying to make up for them by doing good deeds. I have to admire him for his tireless charity work, yet feel sorry for him that he thinks he is earning himself a ticket to heaven.
Another hapless victim of irrational religious guilt.
Remind your friend about the thief on the cross, next to Jesus when he was being crucified. In Luke 23:40-43, the thief asks for Jesus to remember him when he comes into the kingdom, and Jesus says, the thief will be with him today, in paradise. The thief did not need to work to get into Heaven. He just believed and knew that Jesus was God. You cannot work to get into Heaven.
I personally believe that agnosticism is more intellectually honest than atheism. As one commentator pointed out, many atheists base their beliefs on the absence of proof. I assume that the sort of proof he is referring to is empirical, scientific data. Of course the supernatural cannot be measured by the natural. God cannot be proven or disproven with science. However, logic and philosophical arguments can be made for or against God's existence.
Replace "God" with "Fairies" then you'll understand how atheists see your argument.
Your posts are actually supporting Ryan's statement about atheists requiring proof of existence. But I guess that went over your head. As to play your prove it theory, dragons were considered fictional. But new "evidence" your favorite term has proven that dragons more than likely existed. Keep trying
The "amen" was for Ryan.
As long a "Amen" means "go away and stop bothering us."
Oh, THAT Ryan, I thought you meant Paul Ryan. Never mind.
On the other hand, it can be fairly stated that most agnostics are really atheists that don't want to bother arguing with annoying religionists.
Or most agnostics are atheists who don't want to lose their job, be persecuted by rabid Christians, be ostracized by neighbors and friends or come to bodily harm from religious fanatics.
Atheists are lazy by standard, i know that because my son in law is an atheist and he's also the most lazy azz SOB i've ever seen.
Well that proves it. Case closed.
When you consider there is as much evidence for Zeus, the christian god, the unicorn in my closet, the easter bunny and a thousand other gods that have traversed history then it becomes intellectually honest to dismiss all.
Saying "I don't know" isn't necessarily more intellectually honest when you can simply apply Ockham's Razor to the concept of religion to effectively eliminate the possibility that it is in fact realistic in any way.
Okham's can be quite useful with problem solving in the natural world, as long as we are not trying to study singularities or the existence of something or a Being transcendent of time/space,.
It's a bit too convenient to suggest that the idea that Ockham's Razor doesn't apply here simply because you think the subject it's being applied to is too complex.
That's what Ockham's Razor is good for – taking complex issues and ideas that are up for debate and reducing them down to see which one requires the least amount of assumption.
Not sure about you, but believing what religious people do takes an enormous amount of assumption...they call it "faith".
agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive. nor are agnosticism and christianity. one deals with knowledge (gnostic or a-gnostic) the other deals with belief
"...one deals with knowledge (gnostic or a-gnostic) the other deals with belief"
Then you don't understand knowledge, belief, and thus Christianity.
The opposite of knowledge is ignorance, not faith.
The opposite of faith is not knowledge, but unbelief.
Faith means having trust and confidence. Faith involves trusting in what we know. The more knowledge we have, the stronger our failth.
In Christianity, knowledge and faith go together.
I'm an atheist, but I'm also agnostic. I don't believe in any of the claims out there saying that certain gods are real, but I don't just assume that there are no gods anywhere in the universe.
So, I'll assume you share my uncertainty about the possibility of there being gods somewhere, but unless you actively believe in a god, of gods, you are also an atheist, my friend. Welcome to the club!
Ok. Well, I am glad to see some people posting that atheism is about belief and agnosticism is about knowledge. Though I also believe that one can be agnostic to a degree about a lot of things, including God, but still choose to believe and/or follow a particular religion.
Do you believe in God?
That is more honest? Really?
Oprah is all about taking God out of religion and repackaging it into sales that she has a stake in. I'm not sure how we got to this place that we believe that ethics and morality and religion are portrayed by the media that sells it.
Considering that that's exactly what religion does – convince people that the only way they can possibly be seen as a good person is to believe in what they tell you to – it doesn't seem like such a hard one to figure out just how we got to this place.
Unfortunately it's true that organized religion is big business and is guilty of the same. I won't quibble about your belief vs. mine, but know that some of us do take it for the nonsense that it is. Our version has Jesus only act coming close to anger was to throw the merchants and their junk out of the "church". Religion is a big part of why Christianity is so misunderstood in my opinion.
I can say with 100% honesty that I have oodles more respect for people who hold whatever belief they choose without being led around on a leash by their particular cult.
What I generally refer to as the religion corporation does tend to attract the lowest common denominator.
And while I don't insist that religious people believe specifically what I do, I do ask that if they must feel the need to have faith in some kind of supreme being or even an afterlife that they do so without belonging to an oppressive regime disguised as a religion.
Such major league BS in this forum.
Let me make it clear to those people who assign all kinds of thought processes to atheists: (I ' l l t y p e s l o w l y , s o y o u c a n g e t i t ....)
The only thing that atheists have in common is the non-belief in any gods, as a result of total absence of any proof. That's it. There are no other generalities that they share. None. Nada. Zip. Zero.
So stop deluding yourself that you know "what atheists think".
I'm taking to you, too, Oprah.
You don't have to act like a smug basturd like this poster to be an atheist.You can be a cool, normal guy that people like.
Nice language coming from a possible Christian. Well done. If you claim to be a Christian, don't worry about it. We are all used to Christian hypocrisy.
I'm not a Christian!Geez....
I get the frustration, believe me I do.
But I thought this article was well done in the way it made exactly the point I think you are trying to make: Atheists must stop hiding and feeling like we should be guilty or ashamed for being Atheist and start expressing those beliefs just as vocally as religious people do.
If more of us start doing this I believe there would be less misunderstandings and less propagandistic stereotypes being tossed around about us by others who don't understand us....because we never explain it to them.
I know many Atheists prefer to act in an opposite manner than the religious people by actually NOT being blunt and open about their beliefs. Many tend to simply want to keep it to themselves, which is perfectly fine – I wish more religious people actually felt this way.
But unless we begin explaining in better, more articulate ways just what it is that we believe we only enable those people who don't understand us to continue perpetuating those stereotypes.
What beliefs are you talking about? You really don't get it, do you? There is no common thread, no common narrative, no set of rules, no dogma, nothing in particular that you can ascribe to atheists as a group.
You are horrendously bad at reading and comprehension. I bet you're not an atheist, but you could be. There are dumb people who call themselves atheist, yet actually believe in a god anyway. They are truly pathetic dumb-asses.
Don't be one of them. The only thing that makes an atheist an atheist is a lack of any belief in a god or gods.
That is ALL of it. NOTHING MORE.
You simply don't get it.
I can have nothing in common whatsoever with a stranger who is an Atheist, and yet still have more in common with that Atheist than a person I've known for years who happens to be religious.
Just because you choose not to see any commonalities does not in fact mean there aren't any.
And I'll excuse your presumptuousness this time.
this is exactly the kind of nasty non-argument that makes atheists look bad. Stop insulting everyone and speak like an intellectual adult, please. I can barely understand your argument when you make it so rudely.
All you can point to in an atheist is their lack of a belief in any gods. That's it, end of story.
There is no dogma, no set of rules, etc. for atheism. It is the dictionary definition and NOTHING MORE.
Perhaps you are referring to actual ideologies that some atheists may hold, like secular humanism or animism.
Do you believe in the supernatural? You can be atheist and still believe in crazy stuff. Because a lack of a belief does not influence or control anything in particular within a person's brain. Only an actual ideology can be said to exist as an ideology, not a declaration that you do not have a theistic ideology.
No, you really don't get what I'm saying. I see that now. Your brain is stuck on the word "atheism" and you can't think straight.
Oh well indeed....if people don't get what you're saying it's because you can't seem to articulate your point in a coherent, mature manner.
I see that now.
I rather like a slightly longer explanation. I say to the Christian (or other theist): "Think about all of the thousands of gods people have believed in throughout time. You believe in only the one god of your religion and disbelieve in all the rest. I just believe in one less god than you do."
As an atheist myself, daughter to an atheist, married to an atheist, and with a pair of little atheists running around my house, may I make any suppositions about what atheists think? I speak for at least five of us.
Who are you criticizing, exactly?
So you all lack a theistic ideology in your lives in your household. So what? You don't speak about what, if any, ideology you DO FOLLOW, so, no, you do not speak for anyone else since you haven't really said anything anyway. Get it?
God is dead.
Well ... I'd think that he/she/it was never alive in the first place.
God was alive?
Will you guys make up your minds? 😉 The guy on the last page said kenny is dead, not God.
But wait doesn't god look like us?
I am an old dude with white hair and a beard.
Daddy is that you?
You have a big nose hair sticking out and it looks like a huge booger. Classy stuff there.
It says we were made in his image. not sure what that means but if i were him I would hope to come up with somthing better looking than us.
If God made me in his image, then God is hung like a horse.
Horses are shot in the head, not hung. Thanks for playing.
If we are made in God's image then why aren't we invisible too?
Non-existent would be more like it.
Very good question.
God is a Spirit.... and so if we're created in the image of God, it stands to reason that we are Spirits as well.
However, as you can tell man also has a body. This is just a shell (vessel of clay as the Bible calls it). We need it to survive in this realm.
It is for this very reason that Christ Jesus and salvation is so important...because once your spirit leaves your body, it needs to dwell somewhere. That's why we're given the free gift of salvation, so that our spirits will be with God and not separated from Him (death). Death just means separation from God.
Your Spirit existed with God, long before you were born into the earth realm.
No he doesn't. He/it/she is invisible and we are not.
The Hebrew root of the Latin phrase for image of God—imago Dei—means image, shadow or likeness of God.
You are a snapshot or facsimile of God. At the very least this means humans occupy a higher place in the created order because we alone are imprinted with godlike characteristics. Your godlikeness is the path to your greatest fulfillment. You will feel the greatest pleasure and wholeness when who God made you to be is fully developed and expressed.
Your godlikeness can also be a pitfall, because in our hubris we often confuse being like God with being God.
Your hubris is very overweening today. You have nothing to be proud of yet arrogantly insult everyone around you.