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What Oprah doesn’t get about atheists

On her show “Super Soul Sunday” this past weekend, Oprah Winfrey interviewed marathon swimmer Diana Nyad about everything from her incredible endurance to her spiritual beliefs.

The part that struck a chord with me — and many other atheists — was Winfrey’s dismissal of Nyad’s non-religious label. Nyad explained that she called herself an atheist but that didn’t take anything away from the awe she felt about the world and all of its inhabitants. To her, “God” was humanity.

Winfrey clearly didn’t understand that, responding, “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then! I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, that that is what God is!”

First of all, Winfrey’s definition of God is fairly meaningless, applying to everything and nothing all at once.

More importantly, however, was the (unintentional) implication that those of us who find beauty in plants and animals and the universe itself can’t possibly be godless. That’s a common stereotype atheists face and it’s an incredibly pernicious one, made even worse because it was repeated by a celebrity of Winfrey’s stature.

I doubt Oprah would ever tell a self-described lesbian that she was really a bisexual, or a moderate Republican that he was really an Independent. 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.

But let’s get back to the real question at hand: Are atheists capable of feeling awe about our world?


Atheist musicians experience that feeling when playing or listening to a beautiful composition.

Atheist scientists experience that feeling when they gaze at the stars or look through a microscope.

Atheist parents experience that feeling when they first lay eyes on their newborn child.

There’s nothing religious about it. It’s just nature: elusive, expansive, and enveloping. You don’t need to look for a Higher Power to give thanks. Sometimes, you can just bask in the wonderful way the world turned out, considering all the ways it could have gone in another direction. As Richard Dawkins so wonderfully wrote in his book “Unweaving the Rainbow,” “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.” For Dawkins, there’s even a beauty to death. We are fortunate enough to experience this blink in the life of the universe. Let’s not waste our time giving credit where it’s not due.

Diana Nyad, who has spent so much of her life battling and embracing the ocean, understands all of that perfectly well. Religious people don’t have a monopoly on appreciating the world we live in — and Nyad, a proud atheist, is living proof of that.

Hemant Mehta is the author of “The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide” and a blogger at

Wow, I hope Oprah likes the taste of toe jam. That was a pretty ignorant comment for her to make.


Asked by Ballad at 4:50 PM on Oct. 22, 2013 in Religious Debate

Level 45 (193,996 Credits)
This question is closed.
Answers (17)
  • how our bodies are literally composed of star dust.

    ^^^This gets me everytime I think about it! We are made of the stars, how freaking cool is that. I don't have to believe in a deity to see the wonder and beauty of this world.

    Answer by kmath at 5:11 PM on Oct. 22, 2013

  • I'm confused by the wording of this. Did you simply copy & paste

    I read this article a few weeks ago, so it's not about Ballad directly, but about Oprah being a complete bitch to an atheist rather than accept that not everyone is the same religion she is.

    Answer by NotPanicking at 5:09 PM on Oct. 22, 2013

  • it is sad that there are some people that can't appreciate the beautiful things in this world without being removed from their deity

    Answer by tnm786 at 4:56 PM on Oct. 22, 2013

  • I'm confused by the wording of this. Did you simply copy & paste this Ballad? I'm not trying to be rude but, you've stated before that you're not an atheist.

    Anyway, yes of course, science itself can be quite "magical" & "awe inspiring". Think about how vast our universe is and, how our bodies are literally composed of star dust.

    Answer by 3libras at 5:03 PM on Oct. 22, 2013

  • Oh don't get me started on Oprah's own God Complex!

    Answer by MamaK88 at 6:50 PM on Oct. 22, 2013

  • "Oh don't get me started on Oprah's own God Complex!"

    Ugh, I know! That bitch pisses me off, and the fact that she places herself on this pedastal as one who is above us all, yet claims this belief in "God" just reveals her as the fool she is.

    Answer by anime_mom619 at 7:42 PM on Oct. 22, 2013

  • Reminds me a little bit of a sign I saw on a church marque the other day. It said "God does not believe in atheists, therefore atheists do not exist."
    Ummm WHAT?? That is the biggest bunch of bullshit ive ever read. Seriously if someone buys into this line of thinking they are hopeless.

    Answer by sahmamax2 at 8:42 AM on Oct. 23, 2013

  • Is arrogance a requirement for christians?
    Oprah is a twat and has no clue what true awe and appreciation for the beauty of this universe feels like. Shes too busy kissing her own ass

    Answer by sahmamax2 at 9:36 PM on Oct. 22, 2013

  • I can't separate my belief in my Deity from myself However, there is no reason why someone who does not believe in a Diety can not appreciate everything that (s)he experiences. That makes no sense to me.

    Answer by Dardenella at 5:03 PM on Oct. 22, 2013

  • somone posted the interview (either here or FB-can't remember)
    I couldn't believe how fast Oprah took the fact that Nyad is in awe with the world, and turned that into her not being Atheist then


    Answer by charlotsomtimes at 6:14 PM on Oct. 22, 2013