October 16th, 2013
03:20 PM ET

What Oprah gets wrong about atheism

Opinion by Chris Stedman, special to CNN
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(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. Dr. Donnell Johnson

    The Gnostic gospels were indeed "scripture" far more so than the present form of the so called "Holy Bible". In fact, these scriptures tell the tale of Jesus the man. Married, a Buddhist, a nudist, a true renaissance man of his time.

    The Greek Phase: ανοιχ τή ο δο ιτ, simply means, "what time did you get in last night?” Loosely translated into today’s vernacular.

    We know that the so called "missionary position" was so named after Jesus walked in on Mary Magdalene and Joseph having relations. He condemned their activities saying, "...you have soiled my sheets, you have confused my mission and compromised my position."

    Did you know that in the Gospel of Thomas, it is written that Jesus relied heavily on Thomas saying, "...it is a weary day dream that Thomas earns great victory in quenching the thirst of my people."

    It was incorrectly translated from the Coptic to mean that "Thomas the Contender" was a champion for Jesus, when in fact; Jesus was referring to Thomas' ability to mix wine-based cocktails! We often joke that he should have been called, "Thomas the Bartender".

    October 18, 2013 at 12:55 am |
    • Atheist, me?

      And u wonder why people think Atheists are dogmatic, religious, immoral and without spirituality and above all stupid! But it doesn't have to be. Put ur best foot forward! Love your neighbour as yourself.

      October 18, 2013 at 1:25 am |
      • Dr. Donnell Johnson

        I'm afraid I don't understand.

        October 18, 2013 at 1:32 am |
        • Joey

          Basically the above poster disagrees with what you wrote so you are now an atheist (read evil). It doesn't make any sense whatsoever, but that tends to be the thought process of many Christians.

          October 18, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  2. exporensis

    Oprah Winfrey is many "things" but not any kind of authority on anything called God in any language. She should stick to what she does best -wowing the masses with do-dads and pop psychology and making biilions.

    October 18, 2013 at 12:44 am |
  3. Ben

    Dear Oprah
    If that's what you believe God is, something completely un-supernatural, then welcome to the atheist club.

    October 18, 2013 at 12:40 am |
  4. perry


    October 18, 2013 at 12:38 am |
    • Apple Bush

      perry, yes you are, and mentally challenged too.

      October 18, 2013 at 12:44 am |
  5. perry

    let's ask dm murdock to tell us y she calls herself a scholar

    go ahead dm

    October 18, 2013 at 12:36 am |
  6. Dr. Donnell Johnson

    Mr. perry,

    Jesus was quite real, and quite human. Even Timothy and Philip knew the true nature of Christ, as evidenced in this passage from the Gospel of Philip, "...and our Lord came unto me and witnessed as I behaved without intimidation."

    Scholars believe this is evidence of group s xual activity, common place at this time in history among men afield.

    actually believed in what he called, "The Divine".

    What does this mean? Jesus, while inarticulate and a bit clumsy in general, had an excellent grasp of the fundamentals of what the Native Americans call, "Mother Earth" and what it is to be a "Human Being".

    How do we know this?

    Look at the teachings of Jesus in the Gnostic literature that relates to being reborn as a Snake, a Lizard, and a Spider. Why did Jesus feel he was reincarnated; and why these animals and insects? That is easy if you read the Gospel of Mary.
    Mary had many pet names for her lover and among them were Snake, Lizard, and Spider. Snake and Lizard I can understand.

    October 18, 2013 at 12:31 am |
    • Larry

      Seriously, you're a doctor?!?

      October 18, 2013 at 12:34 am |
      • Dr. Donnell Johnson

        In my research I have found that Mary Magdalene was in fact both consort and wife. A consort was simply a companion. If you read the scriptures, you will find that in the late BE and early CE, it was actually possible to both be married and single simultaneously.

        How you ask?

        You must refer to the Gnostic versus attributed to Phillip who said, "Be it spouse or alone, we are only that which our threshold allows on the Sabbath."

        Loosely translated it means a woman can be beholden to a man one day, and quite free the next. This makes polygamy possible without breaking God's law against Adultery.

        October 18, 2013 at 12:38 am |
        • Larry

          How could you possibly think that I was interested in what you had to say given my post?

          Let's rule out Psychology as your field, eh?

          October 18, 2013 at 12:43 am |
        • Apple Bush

          In the Jesus Gospel he discusses long journeys east of the desert where, "....there I encountered great wisdom and peace among the monks. They removed the sand from my sandals and blew upon my feet with flowered breath"

          He goes on to say that, "...we meditated together for many days, fasting but joyful in the divine and always mindful of odor."

          He brought these teachings to his 12 plus Mary and his parents saying, "...know me and know the many lives of the snake,

          the lizard, and the beasts of all previous lives. Mine is the journey of a God. Perfection can be found through self-sacrifice."
          This is well documented but sadly, few too people understand that Jesus was no more a rabbi than me.

          October 18, 2013 at 12:50 am |
        • Lisa

          If you're looking for that kind of thing you need not look past canonical gospels. Jesus goes into the wilderness for over a month without water or food.

          Then he has "visions".

          Pure shamanism.

          October 18, 2013 at 12:56 am |
    • In Santa we trust

      Would I be right in thinking that your doctorate is not in a science?

      October 18, 2013 at 12:48 am |
      • Apple Bush

        Jesus was a monk, and according to Timothy, an enthusiastic nudist. "...without concern nor bashfulness, the fullness of our Lord cannot be contained by his tunic.

        October 18, 2013 at 12:52 am |
    • joe

      esus was quite real, and quite human. Even Timothy and Philip knew the true nature of Christ, as evidenced in this passage from the Gospel of Philip, "...and our Lord came unto me and witnessed as I behaved without intimidation."
      Nope. You can't use the book to prove the book. The undeniable fact is that there is not one shred of contemporaneous evidence that Jesus existed. Not one writing, one piece of jewelry, one stone table, nothing. Zilch.

      God walked the earth and nobody cared. It is what it is. Deal with it.

      October 18, 2013 at 1:15 am |
      • Lisa

        Oh, Jesus could easily have existed, but there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that this Christ character was ever real, or that it was Jesus.

        October 18, 2013 at 1:22 am |
    • Ridiculous

      Inarticulate and clumsy??? Let's see how many of your words, teachings, sayings, and so forth are quoted 2,000 years after you walk upon this earth... You are completely ridiculous.

      October 18, 2013 at 1:32 am |
  7. Apple Bush

    You are at a German “sparkle party”. You are wearing your party pants. You are ready to dancy dance. It is a hard-core German sparkle party and you are wearing your rubber boots. The music is pulsating and it feels good to dance. You notice a familiar face standing at the bar. You dance over to her as fancy as you please in your polished rubber boots. You bend low to smell her perfume and say hello. It is your father. Where is your God now?

    October 18, 2013 at 12:29 am |
  8. Ronnie Harper

    Well said!

    October 18, 2013 at 12:29 am |
  9. Pseudotriton

    Part of the problem is that, in the US, being an atheist is the next closet behavior. Many atheists are just "coming out" to their family and friends now. It's somewhat unbelievable in this day and age, yet it is true in America. So the call for greater conversation between theists and atheists is good, but it might be easier said than done, given that many atheists are still in their closets.

    October 18, 2013 at 12:25 am |
    • romnesia

      if true what does that say about the environment that the religious create?

      October 18, 2013 at 12:50 am |
    • Sara

      It's a very regional issue, however, with the oppression much greater in the south and middle of the country. The west coast and northeast are not generally problematic for non-believers unless they live in sheltered communities.

      October 18, 2013 at 1:02 am |
  10. perry

    son of man
    son of god

    October 18, 2013 at 12:24 am |
    • Apple Bush

      Is he the son of man, the son of a god, a god, or a ghost?

      October 18, 2013 at 12:26 am |
  11. modernenglishschool

    Oprah often talks without listening. I appreciate her attempts to be open, but she is simply not an eloquent speaker when it comes to spirituality. Her conversations with Eckhart Tolle were a little sad as she constantly attempts to align his ideas about spirit, always trying to rename things "God". Her problem is that she does not understand the word theist. She also cannot give up on the Christian idea of god as it would cause many of her flock to flee.

    October 18, 2013 at 12:21 am |
    • Larry

      More like she is in love with the idea of there being some kind of "God", so she is desperately trying to define one into existence by trying to find something that everyone believes in and simply calling it "God". It just doesn't work.

      October 18, 2013 at 12:39 am |
      • Sara

        I find the scientific pantheist movement disturbing in the same way. Get yourself a new word when you create something new rather than twisting an old one so far it loses all meaning.

        October 18, 2013 at 12:57 am |
  12. perry

    he was god

    October 18, 2013 at 12:21 am |
    • Pseudotriton

      Who? Thor? Zeus? Apollo?

      October 18, 2013 at 12:26 am |
  13. Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy

    When one person is delusional, it's called insanity.

    When a group of people are delusional, it's called a cult.

    When thousands of people are delusional, it's called religion.

    October 18, 2013 at 12:19 am |
    • Phelia

      Goodness gracious Jack Hardy, you're quite the poet and you didn't know it. Lmao, get real.

      October 18, 2013 at 1:39 am |
  14. albie

    Great article – many good points. I'll just add that Oprah is not the sharpest knife, which is why she appeals to the middle american laze at home moms

    October 18, 2013 at 12:16 am |
    • Lisa

      You'd think that, but her magazine is full of products too expensive for anyone who isn't in her general tax bracket.

      October 18, 2013 at 12:46 am |
  15. Ryan

    Bravo, Mr. Stedman. Well put.

    October 18, 2013 at 12:09 am |
    • Apple Bush

      I agree but some gratuitous nudity would have been nice.

      October 18, 2013 at 12:12 am |
  16. perry

    thanks for more court material

    October 18, 2013 at 12:00 am |
    • midwest rail

      Prove there's a lawsuit. Your online hallucinations mean nothing.

      October 18, 2013 at 12:04 am |
      • perry

        y do u call yourself a scholar?

        October 18, 2013 at 12:22 am |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      perry, try the kiwi cheese cake.

      October 18, 2013 at 12:11 am |
    • In Santa we trust

      Another new handle; what an interesting life you must lead.

      October 18, 2013 at 12:52 am |
  17. perry

    who else spoke like he did? no one

    October 17, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      Who is 'he'?

      October 17, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
    • perry

      no one ever spoke anything like jesus christ. not even close. no one

      October 17, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        Hundreds of would-be messiahs spoke just like him. You are an idiot.

        That is not even to mention all his buddies that talked like him.

        October 18, 2013 at 12:14 am |
        • Apple Bush

          Unless he had a speech impediment. Did he have a speech impediment? Dr. D. Johnson thinks he was deaf.

          October 18, 2013 at 12:14 am |
        • Dr. Donnell Johnson

          I have spent a great deal of my professional life in the study of the Gnostic Gospels. As it turns out, the majority of “prophets” contributing to these scriptures was quite illiterate and most likely drew pictures to explain their wisdom.

          Needless to say, transcribing pictographs to verse was a tough task for the monks in those early centuries.

          Moreover, Jesus was the worst of the lot. This poor man could not even draw stick figures in the sand and apparently could not be trusted with anything so as to draw. As the story goes, Jesus would have to play a primitive form of "charades" while his scribes tried to guess his meaning.

          Most scholars agree that this is why these books were omitted from the Holy Bible.

          The evidence would suggest that Judas, Mary, Jesus and others spent a great deal of their down time reflecting on the spiritual dichotomy of the soul vs. the physical and how that relates to the teachings of God.

          Jesus was attracted to Buddhism and often rested his decisions on the non-bias imaginings of one who would make sacrifice in this life only to be reborn in the next.

          In short, Jesus was a Jew by birth, but not by practice. He taught his own flavor of Buddhism and his closest disciples, Judas and Mary for example, were quite sure he was a snake in a previous life.

          October 18, 2013 at 12:18 am |
        • perry

          i expected alqaeda to lie, not the snake. where is she, btw, shedding her skin?

          no one spoke like he did. no one

          October 18, 2013 at 12:18 am |
        • Kev

          14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about.

          15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all.

          16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.

          17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,

          18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

          19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

          20 And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. Luke 4:14-20 KJV

          October 18, 2013 at 1:03 am |
        • Lisa

          Writers familiar with Jewish scripture could easily have put those words in Jesus's mouth, right? Luke is still just a book, written by a human, after all.

          October 18, 2013 at 1:35 am |
        • Atm

          Did you cut and paste that out of the book of Dawkins?

          October 21, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
      • exporensis

        Greeks named somebody name Jesus Christ–Did Greeks, then, find another Man/God-after Zeus Pater, Chronos, Zues,etc.?

        October 18, 2013 at 12:39 am |
      • Lisa

        Actually, his teaching was pretty standard rabbinic stuff of that time.

        October 18, 2013 at 1:01 am |
  18. Ungodly Discipline

    perry is officially the stupidest person on the blog today. No offense.

    October 17, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      I am sorry, that was uncalled for. AB is the stupidest. No wait, Bill Deacon. I can't decide now.

      October 17, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        No not AB, AP. There. No wait, it is definitely perry.

        October 18, 2013 at 12:15 am |
        • Sara

          I'm assuming perry is another faith/mary incarnation, though the male name is slightly less usual.

          October 18, 2013 at 12:53 am |
  19. perry

    the alpha and the omega

    ahhhhhhh and ommmmmmm

    October 17, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
    • sally

      omega 3 is important. especially if you're on a low-fat diet.

      October 18, 2013 at 12:20 am |
  20. Reality # 2

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    Strong circ-umstantial evidence that there is no god (or did they all die as martyrs?)

    Number of god's creations who died horrible deaths from the following diseases:

    1. 300,000,000 approx.

    2. 200,000,000 ?

    3. 100,000,000 approx.
    Black Death

    4. 80,000,000–250,000,000

    5. 50,000,000–100,000,000
    Spanish Flu

    6. 40,000,000–100,000,000
    Plague of Justinian

    7. 40,000,000–100,000,000

    8. 30,000,000[13]
    AIDS pandemic

    9. 12,000,000 ?
    Third Pandemic of Bubonic Plague

    10. 5,000,000
    Antonine Plague

    11. 4,000,000
    Asian Flu

    12. 250,000 or more annually Seasonal influenza

    October 17, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
    • TC

      Can't be true.

      Impossible that more people die of influenza than conservatives with guns. If that was true Piers Morgan would tell us so.

      October 20, 2013 at 9:05 am |
      • Chris Weiss

        That number is not the US alone. More people die from the flu each year than die from AIDS. However, in the US more people die from guns than the flu. Of course, more people die from self-inflicted gunshots than actual murder, so if guns were not available would we have the same deliberate suicide rate? We'll never know.

        October 20, 2013 at 7:39 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.