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.