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Dear Oprah: Atheists Exist

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As a public figure, Oprah Winfrey has built an entire empire created in Her own image. This is why — as a magazine publisher, network head and a talk show host — Oprah makes it all about her, whether she’s listing her favorite things, trying to get you to read books she likes or interviewing Holocaust survivors. In terms of branding, it makes sense, but when you watch this interview with swimmer Diana Nyad, you can see the drawback of her Oprah-vision.

Oprah interviewed the 64-year-old marathon swimmer about her recent trip from Cuba to Florida, in which Nyad swam for for 110 miles without a protective cage. It’s an awe-inspiring feat, and for Oprah’s “Super Soul Sunday” show, Winfrey wanted to find out what motivates Diana Nyad. What keeps her going? Nyad responded with a beautiful answer about her Humanist beliefs, which orient her to the grace and wonder of the universe without necessarily believing in an guiding Creator. Nyad said, “To me, my definition of ‘God’ is humanity. And is the love of humanity.”

However, Oprah got stuck on this singular word: “God.” Rather than accepting Diana Nyad’s own definition of her identity, Oprah told her that she’s not an atheist (which is what Ms. Nyad labels herself). Winfrey retorted, “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery. That that is what God is! That is what God is! God is not the Bearded Guy in the Sky.” Despite numerous interjections, Oprah strong-armed her into fitting into Ms. Winfrey’s own definition of spirituality, which looks no different from religious belief. She steamrolled right over her own subject, instead of just listening.

According to Hermant Mehta, Nyad’s “explanation of what [her spirituality] meant wasn’t even close to what Oprah was talking about.” It’s not just that she doesn’t go to church or doesn’t know; it’s that she doesn’t fucking believe in God. Mehta writes,

Nyad’s explanation is the same sort of breathtaking awe that scientists will often tell you they feel when they gaze at the stars or look through a microscope. It’s not religious. It’s not spiritual. It certainly has nothing to do with a Higher Power. It’s just amazement at how life, the universe, and everything works — how evolution made it that way and how lucky we are to be a part of it at all. In Oprah’s mind, that’s not really atheism. Because she can’t fathom how atheists could ever truly appreciate life the way she does as a spiritual person.

In an interview with CNN on the subject, Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard (and TC contributor) Chris Stedman suggests that Oprah “erased” Nyad’s spirituality, contributing to the erasure and wide distrust we see of atheists today. Stedman reminds us that moments like these underscore the lack of religious knowledge that polls indicate most Americans lack of other beliefs systems that aren’t our own. Despite living in the most multicultural society in history — in terms of ethnicity and religious beliefs — we still don’t have the first clue about each other.

However, bridging that faith divide begins with the kind of dialogue that furthers understanding of each other. We can begin to know one another when we come to the table to ask honest questions about what they believe that comes from a place of interest, rather than judgement. Oprah couldn’t understand where Nyad was coming from simply because she doesn’t agree with her, but true discussion can happen when we realize that others don’t have to be wrong for us to be right. It’s not just agreeing to disagree. It’s agreeing to live in a world that’s bigger than we are, an expanding universe outside our control.

We might never know where we come from, but on the time we have on this planet, the least we can do is get to know humanity a little better. When Oprah stops being too busy to look past her own belief system, she might actually learn something from Diana Nyad. If she doesn’t believe in a Creator, which I don’t, she would see that His greatest gifts are right in front of her.

You can watch Stedman’s CNN interview in the video below. TC mark

Boys, An Anthology is available for preorder on Amazon and iBooks here.

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