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. Will W

    I do not mess with atheists. They ARE close-minded.

    November 22, 2013 at 5:27 am |
    • Fr33th1nk3r

      You're probably doing them a huge favor....

      December 1, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
    • Matt

      That's a pretty close-minded thing to say.

      December 3, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
  2. MacDaddyD

    Atheism is, by definition, a "no". There is no necessary "yes" associated with it. No, I don't believe in God/Gods, but there are all kinds of things I don't believe in; why should I define myself in those terms? Perhaps to advocate for my right not to be religious - yes, that's an excellent reason, but beyond that, I find that I have better conversations when I talk about what I do care about. As you say, the "yes" can foster greater understanding. And that goes to the labels I use to self-identify. If pressed, I'd call myself a nontheist, then an atheist, but above all a humanist.

    An aside: Some atheists make too big a deal about religion being bad. I cannot fathom why anyone would want to pick that battle. Freeman Dyson correctly notes that there's no way to determine whether religion has done more harm than good. If one is going to take a combative stance, one should be on firm ground. Asserting that religion is on balance bad is an insult to the rationality we cherish, and a terrible way to start a good conversation.

    November 16, 2013 at 4:02 am |
    • MacDaddyD

      And yes, Richard Dawkins, that's you I'm talking about. Gnus need to chill. They're giving the rest of us non-believers a bad name.

      November 16, 2013 at 4:05 am |
      • Fr33th1nk3r

        Richard Dawkins is correct– we should not have to handle absurdities with "kids gloves".

        December 1, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
        • MacDaddyD

          I criticize Dawkins adn the "gnu atheists" not for the tone - that's a secondary consideration - but for making an argument without firm basis. Dawkins et. al. are saying that religion does more harm than good. How does one prove that? If one is going to make an argument against ignorance, let alone do do sans the kid gloves, one had better be on firm logical ground.

          Religious believers argue, with no basis, that it's better to believe than not to. Atheists are right to call them out on that and ask them to prove it. That's the reasonable thing to do. It's not reasonable to take on the burden of proving the opposite.

          "Religious belief is illogical and has caused a lot of misery; why should one believe?" That's a statement based in fact and reason. Going further and asserting religion is on balance bad says: "I've tallied up the good and bad stuff that people have done throughout history, sorted out what was and wasn't due to religion, and here's the net result." Good luck with that.

          December 3, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
  3. Siseon

    So what are those who do not believe in a God, but are not 'spiritual' or in awe of beauty or justice? The problem is that the author is somehow in awe of the (unjust) claim to morality that religions make. I'm not saying that atheists are immoral, it's beyond morality whether you believe in god or not. You can perfectly well reject religion simply because you are rational and not having to replace it with religion-like attributes...

    November 15, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  4. Marcus

    Why does atheism even exist? Why doesn’t God simply reveal Himself to people, proving that He exists? Surely if God would just appear, the thinking goes, everyone would believe in Him! The problem here is that it is not God’s desire to just convince people that He exists. It is God’s desire for people to believe in Him by faith (2 Peter 3:9) and accept by faith His gift of salvation (John 3:16). God clearly demonstrated His existence many times in the Old Testament (Genesis 6-9; Exodus 14:21-22; 1 Kings 18:19-31). Did the people believe that God exists? Yes. Did they turn from their evil ways and obey God? No. If a person is not willing to accept God’s existence by faith, then he/she is definitely not ready to accept Jesus Christ as Savior by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). God’s desire is for people to become Christians, not just theists (those who believe God exists).

    November 13, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • shamgar50

      Stand in front of a mirror, and read your post out loud, until you feel as silly as I think you are.

      November 14, 2013 at 7:49 am |
    • Fr33th1nk3r

      How convenient, Marcus......a god who requires no proof– just our unwavering faith.

      December 1, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
    • Djay

      The reason that would never work is because there are always those few that want to focus on what they can taste, touch, feel, see, and smell. If science can't prove it, then it doesn't exist. Luckily for us, the existence of A god can be proven by reason, and has been through philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo. C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity" also makes some good points, to atheists and struggling Christians alike.

      Basically, the deal is you have to make a bet. There are only two possibilities, and two choices. God exists + you believe (living breathing like a good Christian/Religious person). Here you gain heaven, life everlasting. God exists + you don't believe. You lose heaven and life everlasting. God doesn't exist + you believe. You lose nothing except maybe time and pleasures. God doesn't exist + you don't believe. What do you gain besides the satisfaction to be right, and live your life in whichever way you wish.

      Really, it's a choice every person has to make sooner or later.

      January 13, 2014 at 8:39 pm |
  5. Penelope

    I can't understand all the focus on atheism recently. There have always been people that don't believe in anything and deny there is a God. It seems that now it is being used to support political agendas.

    November 11, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • Tyler

      and what is so wrong with that? the founding fathers of america had the main idea of separation of church and state so that the religious views of the free would not corrupt their.. system, if you will. just as it had done for the british.

      November 15, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
    • MacDaddyD

      @Penelope "It seems that now it is being used to support political agendas."

      Wow, we can't have that. Especially since religious people NEVER engage in political advocacy reflecting their beliefs. (/sarcasm)

      Actually, I can't think of any political position commonly advocated by atheists that is peculiar to atheism. Atheists, agnostics and (many) theists alike agree on separation of church and state. Many atheists (and agnostics) are humanists, but many theists are humanists also, albeit non-secular ones.

      But we do see significant number of theists actively seeking to inject tenets of their own religion, or religion generally, into public policy. Might be time for a "cast the log out of your own eye" type of moment.

      November 16, 2013 at 3:00 am |
  6. Haha

    I used to be an atheist. Back then we were matter of fact about it. Gen Y atheist though seem to be unable not to be obnoxious whiners about it. How can people who don't beleive in anything be offended by everything? When I was an atheist and someone said something that I didn't agree with a just chucked it up to the fact that they were st upid and the world has lots of stu pid people. Why would an atheist that believes this life is only shot they have waste it trying to change the stupid? Is what I would have thought.

    November 5, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  7. William Rothchild

    Atheism: The belief there was once absolutely nothing. And nothing happened to the nothing until the nothing magically exploded (for no reason), creating everything and everywhere. Then a bunch of the exploded everything magically rearranged itself (for no reason whatsoever), into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs.

    And they mock your beliefs.

    November 4, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • Chris

      That doesn't make sense. In every theistic view "nothing existed" and then "something" happened. Whether by god, space aliens (posing as god), volcanos, a big turtle, or through natural (but not supernatural) process, something happened. No atheist believes nothing happened. Stuff is still happening today.

      November 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  8. Ehsan

    Oprahs charities are towards blacks, her believes are all towards blacks.. she is just a racist person got rich in US because rest of us are not racist...

    November 1, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  9. Ehsan

    Believing in god is one thing .. but believing in the Political Christianity and Judaism is just another thing.. Winfrey just believes in the God that the political Christianity believes in that doesn't exist.. if this makes me an Atheist.. so be it.... But some day when Winfrey dies and then she tries to wake up and find JESUS, she will realize that she was wrong all along

    November 1, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • ..

      she won't realize anything, because... she'll be death.

      November 3, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  10. Mister Stiffie

    When I don't understand something and make up shizzle to explain it, people call me a liar. If I say gawwwd told me, they call me a holy man.

    October 31, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • jackmac5

      Wow you misspelled gawwwwd. Idiot.

      November 12, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  11. clairmaurice

    This is one of the best things anyone has said on the internet about atheism for a long time.

    "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."

    October 29, 2013 at 5:28 am |
  12. fred

    You are mocking God, why is that? Does not sound like someone with an open mind but one who hates which is never a good thing

    October 28, 2013 at 6:54 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.