Oprah and the Atheists

October 23, 2013 | 8 comments

Members of the atheist community are outraged, but not at their usual targets, such as conservative politicians or pastors. Instead, they have set their sights on Oprah Winfrey.

This past weekend on her show Super Soul Sunday, Oprah interviewed Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old marathon swimmer, to discuss her amazing feat of swimming from Cuba to Florida in 53 hours. During the course of the interview the following exchange occurred:

Nyad: 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 and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity, and is the love of humanity, and as we return to —”

Winfrey: Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It’s not a bearded guy in the sky.

Nyad: It’s not bearded. But I guess there is an inference with God that there is a presence, there is a, either a creator or an overseer . . .

Atheists responded by criticizing Winfrey’s lack of understanding about atheism, and some, such as the Boston Atheists, are calling on her to apologize for her comments.

Chris Stedman, the associate humanist chaplain at Harvard University, wrote on CNN.com, “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.”

Hemant Mehta, a Chicago schoolteacher who also hosts the popular “Friendly Atheist” blog, wrote on the Washington Post’s website, “Most of us who choose a label for ourselves like that do so only after a great deal of thought. That’s why Winfrey had no business telling Nyad she wasn’t really an atheist. Nyad politely explained her case, but you can understand her hesitation to push back too hard. It’s Oprah, after all.”

Let's Define Our Terms

I’ve watched this short exchange several times, and my takeaway is that it’s really important to define the terms we use in our conversations. When Nyad said, “My definition of God is the love of humanity,” this may have confused Oprah, who heard Nyad define God as something in which she believes. This is the opposite of atheism, or “the lack of belief in God.” If God were simply defined as “the love of humanity,” it would mean that the only true atheists are misanthropists like Ebenezer Scrooge.

But in order to be meaningful, the concept of God can’t be something merely natural, such as the universe or the emotion of love. If it were, then the concept of God would become redundant. Why call the universe "God" when you can just call it what it is, the universe? Nyad got it right when she said that the idea of God includes the concept of a creator or overseer of the universe.

Atheists Can Have Awe

I think Oprah Winfrey suffers from a misunderstanding that is common among those who are unfamiliar with atheism. My book Answering Atheism addresses a very similar misunderstanding at the beginning of the very first chapter:

I was once reading a defense of atheism while waiting to be served in a restaurant. The hostess looked over at my book, with its bold ATHEISM in the title, and asked, “How could someone ever be an atheist? I mean everybody has to believe in something, don’t they?” Unfortunately, this woman confused nihilism (the belief that nothing matters) with atheism (the belief that God does not exist). It’s true that nihilists are usually atheists, but many atheists are not nihilists. They would say they believe in many things that matter, but God just isn’t one of them.

I agree with atheists who are critical of Winfrey that atheists are certainly capable of experiencing awe when they observe the universe. They can do this because awe is simply the emotion we feel when we are in the presence of something more powerful than ourselves. This can be something divine or something natural (such as the ocean or even a tall building). Awe is just the emotion we have when we sincrerely say the word “Wow!”

Atheists Can't Have Gratitude

However, atheists cannot legitimately feel the emotion of “gratitude” or “thanks” when they observe the universe, because they don’t believe there is a creator to whom we can express those emotions. Any feeling of gratitude they have has to be dismissed as misplaced “folk psychology,” platitudes that don’t really apply to what they are describing. Theists, on the other hand, can say that gratitude is a natural emotion for a creature to have and points to the existence of a Creator to whom we should give thanks.

This exchange can be a great springboard for atheists and theists to discuss the following questions:

Have you ever wondered where such an awe-inspiring universe came from or why it exists instead of just nothing at all?

Do you think there is purpose or meaning in life, a way we were meant to live and treat each other, or that everything is just an accident and there is no "proper" or "correct" way we are supposed to live?

Some atheists like Diana Nyad also believe in the immortality of the soul (see 2:52 of the interview) and that there is a life after death. Does the concept of having an immortal soul and a spiritual life make more sense under a theistic view or an atheistic view?

If you want some advice on how to navigate these and similar questions with an atheist or agnostic friend, then pick up a copy of my new book Answering Atheism, available from Catholic Answers Press.


Ever since he converted to Catholicism at the age of seventeen, Trent Horn has had a passion for explaining and defending the Faith. After earning a degree in history from Arizona State University, Trent traveled the country training pro-life advocates on college campuses to engage opponents in...

Answering Atheism
Today’s popular champions of atheism are often called New Atheists, because they don’t just deny God’s existence (as the old atheists did)—they consider it their duty to scorn and ridicule religious belief. But there’s nothing really “new” about their arguments. They’re the same basic objections to theism that mankind has wrestled with for centuries. We don’t need new answers for this aggressive modern strain of unbelief: We need a new approach. In Answering Atheism, Trent Horn responds to that need with a fresh and useful resource for the God debate, combining a thorough refutation of atheist claims with a skillfully constructed case for theism based on reason and common sense. Just as important, he advocates a charitable approach that respects atheists’ sincerity and good will—making this book suitable not just for believers but for skeptics and seekers too.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  AJ Boggs - Buena Vista, Virginia

Excellent work, Trent. Although I would have to disagree on one matter, which is that atheists are not always nihilists (and I may be misunderstanding what you meant, which if that's the case, then sorry). Atheists who do not believe in life after death or the immortality of the soul are forced into nihilism whether they like it or not. Ultimately, what they (think) they do, any good or evil they may commit, is meaningless; it has astronomically low affects on the grand scheme of things and it has no effect whatsoever on their or others' state of eternity, since they believe they have no state of eternity. It renders their "love" meaningless as well. This quote is from Carl Olsen on another blog post highlights a very valid point he made to an atheist woman who said she "loved" her children.

"And I am convinced that you love them. But it seems to me that your beliefs about God and reality necessarily mean your love for them is a matter of biology and neurology only—it has just as much meaning as water running down a hill or leaves falling from trees. Yet you and I both know that love is much more than a matter of biological chance."

October 23, 2013 at 11:44 am PST
#2  AJ Boggs - Buena Vista, Virginia

Also, I hope to get a copy of your new book. You are a profoundly engaging and inspiring apologist/thinker, especially against atheism.

October 23, 2013 at 12:00 pm PST
#3  Zachary Bos - Lunenburg, Massachusetts

Hellow there -- Zachary Bos here, from the Boston Atheists community. I'm glad that you're giving some attention to our response to Oprah Winfrey's thoughtless words about atheism; the topic is part of the larger issue of community solidarity, sensitivity, and interpath understanding that we should all be participating in.

You can follow our campaign -- the point of which is to invite Oprah and OWNtv to engage in a dialogue about religious identity, labels, and understanding, not to solicit an apology per se -- by following the #atheistawesome hashtag on Twitter (https://twitter.com/search?q=%23atheistawesome&src=hash) or by checking for updates on our blog, where our new social media materials and periodic round-ups of new articles and commentary on the situation can be found: http://bostonatheists.blogspot.com/search/label/Oprah.

A few points:

<>
No outrage, I'm afraid. If you'll look at the articles, tweets, and op-eds, you'll not see atheist outraged being quoted. Rather, that's the spin being applied TO the atheist response, by commentators, publishers, and editors who know that controversy attracts readers.

I think it is reflective of the widespread prejudice against atheists, that ANY response we have in a public forum is labeled as "outrage." Consider this quote from Austin Cline: "Atheists have no obligation to remain silent while believers are free to dominate the conversation." All we are doing is failing to remain silent; that doesn't make us angry. We're just acting in accordance with our values, and in defense of our community and identity.

<<... but not at their usual targets, such as conservative politicians or pastors.>>
The targets we are most concerned with, in the Boston Atheists organization as in most secular membership groups I am aware of, is community building, mutual aid, and civic participation. And I'm sure we stand with the great majority of theists in deploring hypocrisy, greed, and criminality wherever they are found, in the words and deeds of politicians and pastors, plumbers and plasterers, persons religious or nonreligious.

<>
To be clear, we are inviting Ms. Winfrey to dialogue. The bellicose connotation of "set their sights" and "usual targets" bespeaks an assumption about our motives (and our characters?) that isn't justified.

<>
An apology would be appropriate, but we're more eager for her to acknowledge that her words were uninformed and insensitive, and to participate in a dialogue. It is more important that this incident be taken as a teachable moment, rather than a mere transaction of injury and apology.

<>
I would offer that Ms. Nyad was attempting to do what we often must do in interpath conversation: translate the terms of her worldview into the terms of another's. The golden bridge of understanding is more often built with rhetoric and idiom than logic and analysis. That's just how human conversation and understanding works.

<>
I can't say I disagree with your reasoning there :)

<>
Precisely. In order to communicate her way of looking at the world, she introduced a term that Oprah can connect with -- "God" -- and then refined her message, by clarifying (you might say, disrupting) Oprah's way of understanding that word. It's a bit messy, but then, language is more of a jury-rigged technology than a rigidly logical system.

<>
Well put.

<>
I disagree. I feel quite often the sensation of gratitude. It's a human-enough thing to feel (or, going back, a social-primate-enough thing to feel), given our evolutionary history. That we feel such a feeling doesn't, of course, populate the universe with things to feeling that feeling TOWARD. As anyone who has experienced unrequired love or similar spontaneous emotion will tell you, how we feel doesn't often square with the facts of the world.

<>
To be clear, atheists can (and do... here, I'm doing it) say that gratitude is a natural emotion. The sensation that such an emotion is correlated with the existence of a Creator is, however, evidence that falls apart under scrutiny.

<>
Agreed -- that is a great conversation! There's a lot of common ground for theists and atheists to share here.

October 24, 2013 at 6:52 am PST
#4  Zachary Bos - Lunenburg, Massachusetts

Posting again, since my comment above lost all the material I quoted from your essay. Here we go.

Hellow there -- Zachary Bos here, from the Boston Atheists community. I'm glad that you're giving some attention to our response to Oprah Winfrey's thoughtless words about atheism; the topic is part of the larger issue of community solidarity, sensitivity, and interpath understanding that we should all be participating in.

You can follow our campaign -- the point of which is to invite Oprah and OWNtv to engage in a dialogue about religious identity, labels, and understanding, not to solicit an apology per se -- by following the #atheistawesome hashtag on Twitter (https://twitter.com/search?q=%23atheistawesome&src=hash) or by checking for updates on our blog, where our new social media materials and periodic round-ups of new articles and commentary on the situation can be found: http://bostonatheists.blogspot.com/search/label/Oprah.

A few points:

YOU WROTE: "Members of the atheist community are outraged..."
No outrage, I'm afraid. If you'll look at the articles, tweets, and op-eds, you'll not see atheist outraged being quoted. Rather, that's the spin being applied TO the atheist response, by commentators, publishers, and editors who know that controversy attracts readers.

I think it is reflective of the widespread prejudice against atheists, that ANY response we have in a public forum is labeled as "outrage." Consider this quote from Austin Cline: "Atheists have no obligation to remain silent while believers are free to dominate the conversation." All we are doing is failing to remain silent; that doesn't make us angry. We're just acting in accordance with our values, and in defense of our community and identity.

YOU WROTE: "... but not at their usual targets, such as conservative politicians or pastors."
The targets we are most concerned with, in the Boston Atheists organization as in most secular membership groups I am aware of, is community building, mutual aid, and civic participation. And I'm sure we stand with the great majority of theists in deploring hypocrisy, greed, and criminality wherever they are found, in the words and deeds of politicians and pastors, plumbers and plasterers, persons religious or nonreligious.

YOU WROTE: "Instead, they have set their sights on Oprah Winfrey."
To be clear, we are inviting Ms. Winfrey to dialogue. The bellicose connotation of "set their sights" and "usual targets" bespeaks an assumption about our motives (and our characters?) that isn't justified.

YOU WROTE: "Atheists responded by criticizing Winfrey’s lack of understanding about atheism, and some, such as the Boston Atheists, are calling on her to apologize for her comments."
An apology would be appropriate, but we're more eager for her to acknowledge that her words were uninformed and insensitive, and to participate in a dialogue. It is more important that this incident be taken as a teachable moment, rather than a mere transaction of injury and apology.

YOU WROTE: "But in order to be meaningful, the concept of God can’t be something merely natural, such as the universe or the emotion of love."
I would offer that Ms. Nyad was attempting to do what we often must do in interpath conversation: translate the terms of her worldview into the terms of another's. The golden bridge of understanding is more often built with rhetoric and idiom than logic and analysis. That's just how human conversation and understanding works.

YOU WROTE: "Why call the universe "God" when you can just call it what it is, the universe?"
I can't say I disagree with your reasoning there :)

YOU WROTE: "Nyad got it right when she said that the idea of God includes the concept of a creator or overseer of the universe."
Precisely. In order to communicate her way of looking at the world, she introduced a term that Oprah can connect with -- "God" -- and then refined her message, by clarifying (you might say, disrupting) Oprah's way of understanding that word. It's a bit messy, but then, language is more of a jury-rigged technology than a rigidly logical system.

YOU WROTE: "I agree with atheists who are critical of Winfrey that atheists are certainly capable of experiencing awe when they observe the universe. They can do this because awe is simply the emotion we feel when we are in the presence of something more powerful than ourselves."
Well put.

YOU WROTE: "However, atheists cannot legitimately feel the emotion of “gratitude” or “thanks” when they observe the universe, because they don’t believe there is a creator to whom we can express those emotions."
I disagree. I feel quite often the sensation of gratitude. It's a human-enough thing to feel (or, going back, a social-primate-enough thing to feel), given our evolutionary history. That we feel such a feeling doesn't, of course, populate the universe with things to feeling that feeling TOWARD. As anyone who has experienced unrequired love or similar spontaneous emotion will tell you, how we feel doesn't often square with the facts of the world.

YOU WROTE: "Theists, on the other hand, can say that gratitude is a natural emotion for a creature to have and points to the existence of a Creator to whom we should give thanks."
To be clear, atheists can (and do... here, I'm doing it) say that gratitude is a natural emotion. The sensation that such an emotion is correlated with the existence of a Creator is, however, evidence that falls apart under scrutiny.

YOU WROTE: "Have you ever wondered where such an awe-inspiring universe came from or why it exists instead of just nothing at all?"
Agreed -- that is a great conversation! There's a lot of common ground for theists and atheists to share here.

October 24, 2013 at 6:53 am PST
#5  Kim Baker - Westminster, South Carolina

Let me start by saying kudos to both Trent and Zachary for maintaining such a respectful tone. Too often, this kind of dialogue becomes emotionally polarized to such an extent that it reflects badly on both sides and fails to engage with the real substance of the conversation -- God.

In reading Zachary's responses, I find myself with a couple of questions -- for Zachary or for anyone else who cares to weigh in.

First, how are the terms "atheist" and "secular humanist" different? I notice that Zachary identifies himself as a member of the "Boston Atheist community." Is there a difference between such an atheist community and a secular humanist group (which I have seen publicized in local papers from time to time)?

Second, isn't it a bit untenable -- at least rhetorically -- to simultaneously acknowledge that logical analysis is often insufficient to describe the breadth of human experience (e.g., "The golden bridge of understanding is more often built with rhetoric and idiom than logic and analysis. That's just how human conversation and understanding works") -- and yet, to then rely on that same insufficiency to reject a God-created universe (e.g., "The sensation that such an emotion is correlated with the existence of a Creator is, however, evidence that falls apart under scrutiny"). Honest question!

October 24, 2013 at 8:54 am PST
#6  Tom Runkel - Weirton, West Virginia

I never thought that I would come to the defense of Oprah, but......She was having a conversation with a guest and had an observation which she made to the guest. From what I've read here the guest did not disagree with her host. Maybe she was over compensating and trying to be a good gues but she did not disagree with Oprah. Next thing we know we have the thought police drawing down heat on Oprah.

She had a conversation with the guest. They both seem to have been civil with each other. Didn't seem as though any offense was taken by the participants.

Now we are free to have the conversation about who said what to whom but I don't think anybody has anything to apologize for. And we are all free to discuss our feelings about what was said to whom. Too many times these political-type organizations insert themselves where they really shouldn't.

Just a thought.

October 26, 2013 at 7:47 am PST
#7  Tom Jensen - Omaha, Nebraska

Dear Mr. Bos,

Would you please explain how you could know what Oprah (or anyone for that matter) "ought" to do? (e.g. that she "ought" to engage in dialog for the purpose of attaining some higher "good") The only way you, as an Atheist, could know what she "ought" to do, is by having access to her brain chemicals and possessing the ability to scientifically determine exactly how those chemicals will react. Saying that a person "ought" to behave in a certain way for the good of society (or some other "good"), only adds more words to the problem it doesn't solve because you would then need to prove that all brain chemicals must operate in identical fashion. (i.e. why should all brain chemicals "value" the "good" of society--whatever "the good" means?)

When I was an Atheist, I had to conclude that it was for psychological reasons, not logical ones. Thanks!

October 27, 2013 at 6:36 am PST
#8  Brian Baudoin - Flint, Texas

Zach Bos and Trent Horn,

Man, this article and exchange really made my day. It's very refreshing to see a credible, thoughtful, and respectful exchange of ideas actually happen on the internet. In my experience, most times any exchange like this comes up between theists and atheists it quickly devolves to the intellectual level of Youtube comment spats. Many times it either goes like:

1) Atheists completely acting like just the fact that they claim themselves as Atheists automatically places them infinitely higher intellectually than any theist could ever even hope of reaching. Anyone who is an Atheist is automatically wise, intelligent, and thoughtful while anyone who is not might as well have never progressed past a Dr. Suess reading level. While on the other side many theists talk as if they've never made any credible look into why someone would be Atheist or what it even means to call yourself that. They've never taken the time to look into Atheistic arguments and contemplate the people behind the arguments as thoughtful people with a legitimate world view (not saying it's correct, just saying you don't have to be a terrible human being to hold that world view)

or

2. No one knows how to disagree with each other in a productive way or act like our differences just don't matter. It's either too relative and everyone's afraid to disagree with each other or hurt feelings, or turns way too aggressive way too quickly at the first sign of conflict.

The fact is that on some level there is truth about how the world works and how we se the world does affect our lives and those of others. The God question is highly important and the answer to it does bear serious consequences as to how we live life. While it's easy to avoid conflict and say "Hey, you do you and I'll do me and we'll all see how it works out in the end", in the end it's not aiding anyone intellectually to do so. I think it's important to call each other out when we perceive errors in people arguments in matters such as these. I also think that there it a right and wrong way to do that. That's why I was happy to read an article and response that calls me to honestly go into deeper thought about different labels and perceptions and didn't make me want to puke because of the rhetoric.

Touche' good sirs, touche'

October 31, 2013 at 12:54 pm PST

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