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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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".
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.
I'm afraid I don't understand.
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.
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.
If that's what you believe God is, something completely un-supernatural, then welcome to the atheist club.
perry, yes you are, and mentally challenged too.
let's ask dm murdock to tell us y she calls herself a scholar
go ahead dm
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.
Seriously, you're a doctor?!?
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.
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?
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.
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".
Would I be right in thinking that your doctorate is not in a science?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
if true what does that say about the environment that the religious create?
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.
son of man
son of god
Is he the son of man, the son of a god, a god, or a ghost?
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.
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.
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.
he was god
Who? Thor? Zeus? Apollo?
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.
Goodness gracious Jack Hardy, you're quite the poet and you didn't know it. Lmao, get real.
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
You'd think that, but her magazine is full of products too expensive for anyone who isn't in her general tax bracket.
Bravo, Mr. Stedman. Well put.
I agree but some gratuitous nudity would have been nice.
thanks for more court material
Prove there's a lawsuit. Your online hallucinations mean nothing.
y do u call yourself a scholar?
perry, try the kiwi cheese cake.
Another new handle; what an interesting life you must lead.
who else spoke like he did? no one
Who is 'he'?
no one ever spoke anything like jesus christ. not even close. no one
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.
Unless he had a speech impediment. Did he have a speech impediment? Dr. D. Johnson thinks he was deaf.
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.
i expected alqaeda to lie, not the snake. where is she, btw, shedding her skin?
no one spoke like he did. no one
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
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.
Did you cut and paste that out of the book of Dawkins?
Greeks named somebody name Jesus Christ–Did Greeks, then, find another Man/God-after Zeus Pater, Chronos, Zues,etc.?
Actually, his teaching was pretty standard rabbinic stuff of that time.
perry is officially the stupidest person on the blog today. No offense.
I am sorry, that was uncalled for. AB is the stupidest. No wait, Bill Deacon. I can't decide now.
No not AB, AP. There. No wait, it is definitely perry.
I'm assuming perry is another faith/mary incarnation, though the male name is slightly less usual.
the alpha and the omega
ahhhhhhh and ommmmmmm
omega 3 is important. especially if you're on a low-fat diet.
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.
Plague of Justinian
9. 12,000,000 ?
Third Pandemic of Bubonic Plague
12. 250,000 or more annually Seasonal influenza
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.
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.