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. Lawrence of Arabia

    What Oprah gets wrong about atheism??? Maybe we should have a talk about what she gets wrong about theology too? Or would that just take far too long?

    October 17, 2013 at 7:31 am |
    • Kettle

      LoA...Have you met pot...oh I see you have.

      October 17, 2013 at 8:14 am |
      • Lawrence of Arabia

        OK, I'll bite... What have I gotten wrong about Theology?

        October 17, 2013 at 8:25 am |
        • Alias

          You think the bible is more than a story book.
          True, it has good lessons and some ancient wisdom, but that does not mean the god it talks about exissts.

          October 17, 2013 at 9:29 am |
        • Lawrence of Arabia

          "You think the bible is more than a story book."

          And THAT is how you think that I've gotten theology wrong?

          "True, it has good lessons and some ancient wisdom, but that does not mean the god it talks about exissts."

          Actually, when you say this, you are being paradoxical because you say that it has good lessons and wisdom, but you don't believe in God. Since the Bible claims that God exists, and you don't believe it, you must feel that the Bible lies. Ergo, you believe that when one lies, he is teaching good lessons and showing wisdom. That doesn't make any sense...

          That's like saying that "Jesus was a good moral teacher, but He wasn't God." Well, Jesus claimed to be God, and no "good, moral teacher" would ever claim to be God if he wasn't... So which is it?

          October 17, 2013 at 9:33 am |
        • Alias

          They are not mutually exclusive.
          Jesus was right when he preached the golden rule, but wrong to claim he could raise the dead.
          the book is right in places, and wrong in places.
          It's amusing that you can't see how getting some parts right is how it lures people into believing the other stuff.

          October 17, 2013 at 10:02 am |
        • G to the T

          Part of the problem is that there really isn't any "wrong" theology. For just about any theological point you can find someone identifying as a christian that either agrees or disagrees with it.

          October 17, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
        • Joey

          Lawrence you don't know that Jesus claimed to be god. The best you can say is that the people who wrote the gospels many years after Jesus died claimed that Jesus claimed to be god. Since Jesus never wrote anything down himself (that we know of yet) we will never know what Jesus actually did or did not say.

          October 17, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  2. saggyroy

    If Oprah feels that you have to have a god to appreciate things, how does she celebrate Halloween without believing in vampires, witches and ghosts?

    October 17, 2013 at 6:03 am |
    • Truly

      My sister in law falls into the first two categories and my mother in law falls into the third.

      October 17, 2013 at 6:39 am |
    • tallulah13

      I would like to apologize. I accidentally hit "report abuse" on your comment. I am using my iPad and the page jumps around when people post videos. I actually agree with your comment.

      October 17, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • randyb12

      There are witches...don't you remember when the Christians in Salem burned a bunch of them at the stake!

      October 17, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  3. Phelix Unger

    Jesus did it

    October 17, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • Zsa

      and the lawn looks mahvelous, dahlingk

      October 17, 2013 at 2:48 am |
      • Dyslexic doG


        October 17, 2013 at 6:54 am |
        • Reality # 2


          October 17, 2013 at 7:52 am |
  4. Apple Bush

    Yep, bald like the moon.

    October 16, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
  5. Apple Fresh

    This has been a fake AE all this time right?

    October 16, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
    • AE


      October 16, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        Well if that is true, you are an odd one.

        October 16, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
        • AE

          You were the one posting about how your child was eaten by a bear a few days ago. Or maybe it was a fake Apple Bush.

          October 16, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Wasn't me. Must have been a fake. Why would you think it was a FACT either way?? lol

          October 16, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
        • AE

          I was kidding.

          I followed up with a short story where you (or the fake) threw the child at the bear to protect yourself and ran off screaming.

          October 16, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Dang it, I want to read it!

          October 16, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
        • AE


          "My son got ate by a bear and my daughters eat dead cat." – Apple Bush

          October 16, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Oh yeah, that was me.

          October 16, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
        • AE

          Sorry I used your child as an example.

          October 16, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          If the story were true you would be gross, but sense it is nonsense, all balls are broken thusly.

          October 16, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
        • Dippy

          It's "since" not "sense".

          October 16, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          I miss Tom Tom. Dippy is a poor substitute.

          October 17, 2013 at 12:43 am |
    • AppleSauce

      He's a pip, all right.

      October 16, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
  6. Apple Fresh

    sweet smelling flowers roam the sidewalks
    while big bellied dandelions platoon;

    the spring rains are falling a funny tune at the expense
    of a funny man;

    stepping on and off the curb, looking a bit bored;
    eyes up and shoes flexed for the sprint

    suddenly bright sun elbows its way between two clouds;
    a funny man flaps his ready feat into a small puddle and smiles

    the sun was sweet;
    it tasted warm on his tongue and eye lids

    a funny man went for swim;
    flippers flipping and arms waving his funny man water ballet

    October 16, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
  7. Apple Fresh

    Religion is a crime
    I preach that mess all the time
    The churches just keep on prayin’ and sayin’
    I ain’t hatin’
    Just demonstratin’
    Atheists stand up fool and show your face
    Ain’t no disgrace
    Gotta be that way playuh
    Do us all that favor

    October 16, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
  8. AE

    The author of this article, Stedman – was that the man Oprah used to date? Is he writing this for revenge? A shame if he is.

    October 16, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I'm so glad you're not on my side. Research (or even google) isn't your strong point, is it?

      October 16, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
      • AE

        So he is! I knew it. No need to criticize me, I don't watch Entertainment Tonight everyday like all atheists do.

        October 16, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
    • Apple Fresh

      Yes, he was in charge of maintenance for her vagina. He could actually fit all the way inside to clean.

      October 16, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
    • EZ


      Took 10 seconds:

      Oprah's boyfriend.


      October 16, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
      • AE

        (i was kidding)

        October 16, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
        • Apple Fresh

          (uh huh)

          October 16, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
  9. Apple Bush

    Just because there is this, doesn’t mean there isn’t more.

    Something here with us yet somewhere else. Passing through us and we through it;

    As we perform our perfunctory tasks every day. Perhaps it is us.

    October 16, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  10. Apple Bush

    It has recently been discovered that our universe resides in the toilet bowl of one Mr. Curtis Jeffery. His “big bang” seemed normal based on his enormous size relative to us.

    Our entire expanding universe is just a used condom Mr. Grody-Pants is blowing up because he thinks it’s funny. Good one “God”.

    I wish we pooped galaxies instead of shit. That would be awesome and it would answer some questions about dark matter.

    October 16, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Doesn't everyone p00p galaxies? Are you telling me that I'm the only one?

      October 16, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
  11. Apple Bush

    ...and though they grieved and rent their clothes, it was in the pub the followers gathered for darts and dark ale which they hoisted in sadness and drank with great sorrow. Many libations they consumed and they called it the blood of the son of God.

    October 16, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
  12. tallulah13

    Oprah is very convinced of her own superiority. As with god, I don't buy into the myth.

    October 16, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
  13. AE

    Here is a fact about one of the atheist posters on this site:

    A park ranger was telling a reporter about bad things that have happened to people in the national parks. According to this ranger, people try to get their pictures taken with bears. He told how one parent (Apple Bush) smeared honey all over his child's head so the bear would play with him & make a cute picture. The ranger was just about in tears as he told how the child got mauled.

    October 16, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Here's a fact about christians: If their god is real, they will go to hell for lying.

      October 16, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
      • AE

        He forgives.

        October 16, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Does he forgive bears?

          October 16, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
        • AE

          No. But you should.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
        • tallulah13

          So basically, you can be the most immoral, evil person in the world, but if you just tell your imaginary friend that you're sorry, all is forgiven and you get to live forever in paradise? No wonder people fall for that BS. No accountability and a license to sin.

          I just couldn't do that. I was brought up to be responsible for my own actions. My parents had better morals than god.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
        • AE

          Yes. The Bible makes it very clear that we have a license to sin. It is awesome.

          October 16, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Hey AE, bears gotta eat too. Get off your high horse you don't know. It was God's plan.

          October 16, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          God is a di.sg.usting creep for allowing some people to be so evil to others.

          October 16, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      So, it's my kid I will do what I want.

      October 16, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
      • AE

        Was your kid.

        October 16, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      The kid is breathing on its own now by the way.

      October 16, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
      • AE

        I know for a FACT that one of your kids died in a bear attack. So you have had 2 kids involved in bear attacks? One lived, one died?

        October 16, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          No just one kid. I did not put enough honey on it and it survived.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
      • AE

        I said it was a fact one died.

        October 16, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
        • Apple Fresh

          Yes I noticed that. I am not clear on why you said that but I don't care.

          October 16, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
  14. Apple Bush

    You, child
    Crossing the line without knowing
    Just for being who you are
    What confusion was hard wired?
    A developing brain, healthy and ready
    Sabotaged as a child
    Savage religion.

    October 16, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
  15. Apple Bush

    I shaved my head today. Completely bald. Yup.

    October 16, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
  16. Apple Bush

    God created the universe. Many billions of years ago, a life form evolved on a planet not so far distant and their scientists deduced the building blocks for life existed in the universe and from it, new life forms could be created. These ancient ones populated Mars with life and eventually, due to asteroid events over millions of years, life arrived here on Earth.

    We are a product of that primeval turbulence. Therefore, we must worship the Aliens, not God. The Aliens have to worship God. This is all true because I have faith that it happened just this way.

    October 16, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      You must need more faith, then. With enough of it, you get to lie and say that your feelings are "facts" and "evidence."

      October 16, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
  17. Apple Bush

    Go now and tell the fools the truth of their misplaced worship.
    Speak loudly that religion is the true great evil on this Earth.
    This Evil affects every plant and animal the Mother gave us.
    Tell them and care not if they are vulgar, for you are the light.

    October 16, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
  18. Apple Bush

    One tiny hole that is; zero
    Large porous spaces
    Grass and critters. Critters crawling by; Crawling
    Tiny little holes; giant tiny holes
    One narrative of all perception; the position doesn’t change
    You are right there

    October 16, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
  19. Apple Bush

    The only people I can't stand on this blog are the grammar police. And if you are a Christian grammar policeman you really suck. Take your silly little corrections and go fuck yourself. This is a blog and we type fast and don't care!!

    October 16, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
    • Dippy

      It is police officer, not policeman.

      October 16, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
      • Apple Bush


        October 16, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
      • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

        Dippy, I admire your chastisement of the linguistically challenged. You're doing Karl Kraus proud. However, please don't become a crusader for political correctness. These PC thugs are ruining America.

        October 16, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          I will only accept corrections from Tom Tom the Piper's Son and she left the blog or got blocked.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          At least Dippy isn't mean spirited in his corrections.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          I know, but I liked her once I got to know her better.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
        • AE

          I heard she started studying science, became a Christian and now posts on the CNN Science and Technology blog.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          No AE, you heard the truth here, on this blog from the atheists.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
        • AE

          Opinions. We are leaving opinions on an opinion piece.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          I was only coming on here for a few weeks before they revamped the system to supervise it more and kick people off, but from what I saw of her (if indeed it was a her), she seemed like a genuinely nasty human being who refused to listen to those who disagreed with her and only communicated with them when she was being rude and condescending to them. I'm glad she's gone.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Well I am no apologist, but she did have a fun side too.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          So did Vlad the Impaler.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          The thing about her was that she was genuine. She HATED bad grammar and the blog is how she blew off steam.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          She had to grow on you. Acquired taste and all. She was a great "bad cop" that would allow another person to play good cop. I loved her.

          October 16, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
        • Olaf

          awwww! even trolls love others trolls.how redeeming!

          October 16, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
        • Akira

          I miss Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son. She was a hoot.
          She truly didn't care what anyone thought of her...she was brutally honest and pulled no punches. One never had to wonder where s/he stood with Tom.

          October 16, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
        • Alias

          Of course, you know, they can't really block you.
          Even if you have to slightly modify your name and give a different email, you can still get back to commenting.
          I know. This is my third handle and a made up email.
          They get mad at me when i talk honestly about Israel.

          October 17, 2013 at 9:42 am |
      • Apple Bush

        The issue with Dippy is correcting obvious type-o's. Just correct when someone is clearly a dumbass, not just people typing too fast, that is irrigation.

        October 16, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
      • DWeezy

        *It is a Police Officer

        October 18, 2013 at 2:33 am |
  20. Apple Bush

    I have decided to convert from atheism to Solipsism. The ceremony is going to be a blast, I will be having all my friends and family over and un-validating their existence. Then it will just be a free-for-all. I will also be getting a tattoo of my own face on my ass.

    October 16, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

      They do have a point though. There truly is no objective reality other than what goes on in one's own mind. They just go a step further and say that that is all that exists. Maybe they're right.

      October 16, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        I can't disagree. I certainly don't know and don't pretend to.

        October 16, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          Yep, I could be am emotionless bot or a figment of your imagination.

          October 16, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        I am now esoteric in my feelings towards believers that are agnostic, however I do believe that they are, each one, atheist. However since I am a solipsist I know they are what I want them to be, and that is comforting.

        October 16, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
        • I Don't Get It

          Apple Bush,

          Your use of the word "esoteric" is quite abstruse. Can you elaborate?

          October 16, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          It means abstruse.

          October 17, 2013 at 12:54 am |
        • I Don't Get It

          I suspect that you are a bit off on your understanding of "esoteric".

          Your statement is saying, "I am now specialized and of limited interest in my feelings..." (esoteric) Is that really what you mean?

          Using abstruse, you would be saying "I am now obscure and difficult to understand in my feelings..." Is that really what you mean?

          October 17, 2013 at 1:07 am |
      • Susan StoHelit

        If you are a solopist, then you define yourself as a masochist – unless perhaps you're Bill Gates. Otherwise, everything that ever goes wrong in your life is you choosing to hurt yourself.

        October 18, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
    • Sara

      If you are a strong solipsist you will either still be an atheist or have to declare yourself god. Unless you're a pantheistic solipsist, in which case you get to keep your friends.

      October 18, 2013 at 5:06 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.