In chat with Diana Nyad, Oprah Winfrey channels Krista Tippett

October 16, 2013 • 9:54 am

Is it any surprise that Oprah Winfrey is a sucker for faith? She’s pitched all kinds of woo on her show, and although I know she’s done some great charity work, gotten people to read books, and done other useful things, I could never watch her for more than five minutes.  She was just too earnest, too saccharine—too eager to show the world that she was its nicest inhabitant.

Oprah’s most cloying aspects, a least vis-à-vis faith, are on tap in the following four-minute interview with athlete Diana Nyad, who recently swam from Cuba to Florida—at the age of 64!

As you’ll hear below, Nyad admits that she’s “not a God person” and is in fact an atheist. Sadly, she also says, “My definition of God is humanity—and the love of humanity,” which sort of spoils her admission. Why, if you’re an atheist, must you to give the name “God” to anything? It’s a sop to the faithful. And Oprah snaps it up, telling Nyad that because of her spirituality she must not be an atheist after all.

The video:

Here’s part of the transcript from Dave Niose, in a piece at Psychology Today called “Why Oprah’s anti-atheist bias hurts so much”: 

In the interview [Winfrey] is chatting with endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who recently swam from Cuba to Florida at age 64. Nyad unhesitatingly identifies as an atheist when asked about her beliefs, then adds that she sees no contradiction between her atheism and her ability to experience awe, or in her words to “weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity.”

Oprah, however, apparently found this description unsettling, for it seems that in her view atheists must be cold, emotionless rationalists. “Well I don’t call you an atheist then,” Oprah responded to Nyad’s disclosure. “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”

But note that that’s what Nyad herself calls “God”! Oprah also finds solace in Nyad’s admission that she, Nyad, is a spiritual person, and snaps at that bait as an admission of religiosity. Nyad finally claims, despite being an atheist, that humans have souls that live on after their deaths—souls created by “energy”—despite the fact that the body “goes back to ash.”

But what Niose chooses to kvetch about is Oprah’s marginalization of atheists:

What is most alarming about Oprah’s revelation is that she doesn’t even realize its invidiousness. Atheists, to her, don’t feel that deep, emotional connection to the universe. She has drawn a circle that includes people of all faiths, but excludes atheists, thereby confirming negative attitudes toward nonbelievers.

To those among Oprah’s legion of loyal viewers who may have held anti-atheist prejudices, this now validates their bias. That’s right, those atheists just aren’t like the rest of us, they can now say, nodding their heads.While we religious people of the world are appreciating the wonder and awe of life, those atheists are just one big buzzkill!

. . . Oprah, exalted by so many but oblivious to the fact that she is dehumanizing atheists, does more to perpetuate negative attitudes toward nonbelievers than Pat Robertson or James Dobson ever could. The general public takes comments from Robertson and Dobson with a grain of salt – but Oprah, as a media tycoon and a beloved celebrity whose opinions are taken seriously by millions, has just confirmed that atheists are “the other,” outsiders who just don’t belong in the in-group. (And the evidence is clear that atheists are indeed widely, and wrongly, scorned in America. With commentary such as Oprah’s, we can see why.)

This gets it exactly backwards.  What prejudiced viewers will really say after hearing this interview is “That’s right, those atheists are exactly like the rest of us—they, too believe in God. They just give Him another name.”

In truth, I think that more damage to atheism was done here by Nyad, eloquent though she was, than by Oprah. After all, Winfrey makes just one short claim about the issue, denying that Nyad is an atheist because she believes in wonder, awe, and humanity.  In contrast, Nyad calls those feelings “God”, admits the existence of souls that exist after death, and says that she has no problem with believers, even those who accept the existence of ghosts. In other words, she’s an atheist who, like Oprah, accepts woo.

It’s really time for us to discard the word “spirituality.” All it does is give believers a reason to say, “See, you’re really one of us after all.” The never-ending series of Templeton-funded papers by Elaine Ecklund, which implicitly equate spirituality with religiosity, testify to the invidious nature of this confusion.

Let the word “spiritual” be reserved for the faithful. Why can’t we atheists just say that we’re “moved” or “in awe” or “deeply touched” by sunsets, music, and scientific discoveries?

I much admire Nyad for her athletic prowess, her open lesbianism, and now her overt atheism. But I still prefer the honest anti-religious invective of a Christopher Hitchens to the numinous gushings of Diana Nyad.

67 thoughts on “In chat with Diana Nyad, Oprah Winfrey channels Krista Tippett

  1. Argh that story is floating around the web almost always with the slant that Oprah was dissing atheists. I agree with her completely (and you)- the minute someone starts talking about “spirituality” and “connection” it’s still religious blather by another sloppier name. It drives me crazy! The word spirituality should be abolished grrrrr. It reminds me of the annoying pro-choice position that “abortion is bad, but it should be a woman’s decision”. NO! It’s not bad! It’s no different that snipping off your toenails but most pro-choice advocates are to wussy to say so.

  2. I can see both interpretations of Oprah’s reaction to Nyad calling herself an atheist. I, myself, would pick up on Oprah refusing to see Nyad as an atheist — after all, how could someone admirable like Nyad be an atheist if your prejudices dictate that they are cold, unfeeling and perhaps even monstrous. I can imagine others dividing atheists into two camps: the bad ones (like the ones I describe above) and the good ones, like Nyad, who believe in woo — these ones *think* they’re atheists but they are really believers.

    I agree about getting rid of the word, “spirituality” and I think further atheists need to demand to be called atheists….it’s too bad Nyad believes in woo like some atheists do — atheists with bad critical thinking skills.

    1. Right. How hard would it have been for Oprah to say “An atheist? Why sure, we all feel a sense of awe and the wonder and mystery. I interpret it as God, but not everyone does and that’s fine?”

      Instead, like God, Oprah lays out that this IS what God is so hey, you can’t be an atheist you just contradicted yourself. Atheism isn’t fine.

    2. ” how could someone admirable like Nyad be an atheist if your prejudices dictate that they are cold, unfeeling and perhaps even monstrous.”

      Yep, that’s what it all boils down to. It would be fun to re-edit this replacing “atheist” with “lesbian” or “African American” and send it back to Oprah.

  3. Oprah’s job/ratings/paycheck all depend on her being able to interview her guests, and to do that well, she needs to establish a common ground with them, even if she has to lie about what that common ground is. Many studies have shown that people feel far more sympathetic to others if there is some sort of in group they share. In this case, Oprah established that commonality by forcing her god-centered framework on Diana Nyad and she collaboratd by not refuting it.

    1. Yes, I agree. There is a certain peer pressure and arrogance at play here.

      I’ve seen people almost grovelling to be touched by Oprah’s magic wand… the Oprah Effect. They want to belong to the club, and Oprah wants mostly to be liked. I don’t see that she’s keen on expanding her own mind, as she has often tried to inspire other people to do. One letter I sent her challenging her religiousity and suggesting that the topic of atheism be explored on her show didn’t even rate a reply.
      It seems to me that she over-rates her own intelligence, and like the majority of the “faithful”, she’s already made up her mind about god. She and her cohorts are more invested in continually patting themselves on their backs for their ‘awesome’ faith and faithfulness. No critical thinking going on here…. only the church of feeling good.

    1. Well, yes… 

      But Hitch could send mixed messages, too… 

      It’s innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That’s the numinous, and there’s enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required.


      1. Both Christopher Hitchens and Carl Sagan were overt in claiming the sense of the numinous needs to be secularized and
        de-supernaturalized. Hitchens was fond of saying we get a grander sense of “transcendence” from the pictures in the Hubble telescope than most religious art.

        Hitchens spells this out in the 2-hour “Four Horsemen” interview and in this video

        Carl Sagan talks about the numinous in his novel “First Contact”. There’s a discussion in there over whether the Andromeda Galaxy conveys more sense of the numinous than the resurrection.

        I myself am entirely comfortable with this language but would make no claims about what atheists, freethinkers or skeptics in general ought or should be doing with this.

          1. I’ve often thought it odd that creationists are revolted rather than impressed at the notion that we are related to every other living thing on the planet, while at the same time virulently insist that we are all descended from a pile of dirt.

  4. Niose’s citation in her Oprah article of the counter-example of Carl Sagan is very telling!!

    Sagan was nothing if not full of awe, and clearly disbelieved in God even if he (most of the time) preferred to label himself agnostic. Sagan selectively admired some religious sensibilities (notably Gandhi and Martin Luther King) while being quite severe with classical belief- pulling no punches there- and never gushed any kind of New Age woo. (Sagan is in general the skeptic critic of religion whose views coincide most exactly with my own!!! His “Varieties of Scientific Experience” is priceless!!))

    Spirituality is indeed a mushy word. Some folks use it in a clearly non-dualistic and thoroughly secular sense, which is OK by me, but the word does indeed gender a great deal of confusion at this point (like “scientism”) because of a morass of definition.

  5. I think it’s a matter of habit and depends on the context where it’s used.

    In danish we have a shitload of words that originally had a religious meaning, but now are used in an entirely different context. I have no problem with those words and I hope spirituality is headed in that direction.

    In short; The more the word is used in different ( and often wrong strictly speaking ) context’s, the sooner it will lose its original meaning.

  6. Spirituality is a word that can be owned by anyone. Its meaning is so polarized that it is characteristically useless. Even if it’s usage is defined by context, it is rarely more useful than being defined some other way. People who know or suspect that I am atheist, cringe when I tell them ‘I meditate.’ and they hate it too when I say ‘My soul.’ or ‘She is an anglel.’ or ‘That was a miracle.’

    Meditate = slow my heart rate focus on the blood in my head. Soul = conscious states of my brain. Angel = devastatingly beautiful and nice. Miracle = bit of random fortune and lots of hard work. Spiritual = reflections upon a life well lived and the life that becomes greater for advancing my own knowledge about the universe.

    Oprah is embarrassingly misguided and myopic as a human.

      1. Very well said, JT. Oprah’s confidence when talking about spirituality and other woo nonsense borders on arrogance.

        1. The confidence of any theist, when pitching their particular brand of woo, always, at the very least, borders on arrogance, and all too often swathes itself. Either they feel threatened by atheists, or they feel that the mere existence of the concept threatens their own beliefs. They feel compelled to find a chink in the way that we relate to the world about us, in the wonder with which we see the natural world, to enable them to accuse us of being believers, really. Failing that, they try to label atheism itself, as a religion.

          Clutching at straws, I say.

    1. Looks like an un-meditative way to add to the confusion to me.

      Is knowing the difference between your definition and the following definitions important; would it bother you if people thought you intended:
      Meditate: To enter a supernatural state.
      Soul: A floaty bit that shoots out after you die.
      Angel: A manifestation of floaty bits. (Incidentally are your angels ever handsome?)
      Miracle: An event that could only occur due to supernatural intervention.
      Spiritual: Relating to floaty bits.

      Would it bother you that due to misunderstanding different people’s definition of those words public policy and laws were enacted that favored religious interpretations of those words, because everyone admitted to being spiritual, believing in angels, and having souls?

      It is one thing to define words to communicate within a thinking brain but to communicate (understand intended thoughts), mutually understood meanings must be agreed upon.

      * I think confusion is inherently problematic for societies.

      1. The usage of language is important when it comes to potentially changing society. If people continue to use the word, soul, as a desciption of conscious states formed in the brain it, ultimately, purjures the original (ambiguous) definition of soul as defined by religious people. The paucity of their ability to define their supernatural world grows.

        FSM = god. Religious people either think that is silly or they hate it, because they know it undermines any definition of god.

        1. I suggest that it’s utterly pointless to try to secularize soul or spirituality without, after using either of these words, explicitly defining what you mean. If you tell your friends what you really mean by your use of these words, they may get it, and if you repeat it enough you won’t ever again have to give your definition for these friends. To expect this will ever happen on a large scale, though, is naive (no offense) because it will never happen. To attempt to change the meanings of these words is not only exceptionally unlikely; it’s pointless. Let’s come up with better, more specific words.

  7. I saw Nyad on some show – can’t remember which – and noted that while nobody tried to Jesus bait her, she made no mention of having any celestial power behind her.

  8. Nyad finally claims, despite being an atheist, that humans have souls that live on after their deaths—souls created by “energy”—despite the fact that the body “goes back to ash.”

    Since the definitions of “God” legitimately include a lot of ‘non-personal’ gods — God as a Force or a Power or a Life/Mind “energy” or an Essence of love, creativity, or so forth — then I might be inclined to classify Diana Nyad as a non-traditional (or Eastern) Theist.

    Which doesn’t take away the problem with Oprah immediately trying to helpfully remove the “stigma” of atheism by buying into it. Diana Nyad CAN’T be an atheist — she’s too nice.

    Since my own background was mostly “spiritual-but-not-religious” I am less likely to give them a break when it comes to being oh ever so much better than the more traditional religious believers. The prejudice against atheism is still there … and it can be even nastier and more entrenched. It just goes passive-aggressive.

    Consider this: theists of all stripes routinely insist that we atheists don’t believe in God because deep down, we don’t want it to be true. The issue is a moral one, not a scientific or rational one. The evidence for supernaturalism is reasonably sufficient for people who aren’t opposed. And it could never be enough for those who close themselves off from the Truth and refuse to see.

    Traditional monotheists (the People of the Book) say that atheists don’t want to believe in God because atheists don’t WANT to be ruled by an Absolute Authority who created Hell for those who fail to obey. Now, this is not the real reason, of course — but that’s not a bad group to be in, is it?

    The Spiritual-But-Not-Religious types, however, use the same strategy — but their God is a nebulous God of Love and Peace. No Hell, no threats, no obedience. Sounds nice … until you consider what this means when it comes to atheism. It entails that atheists don’t want to believe in God because they don’t WANT everyone to be in a loving and blissful state of peaceful harmony and joy forever and ever.

    What kind of bastard wouldn’t want that? Would hate that? We atheists apparently do, as the script has it. Frankly, I’d rather they thought I was rebelling against the concept of Hell.

    That’s why Spiritual-But-Not-Religious folks like Oprah are so eager to remove all the nice people from the category of atheism. Either we DO believe in God and evidence this just by being nice … or we simply don’t know about the NICE option, the nebulous God of nonjudgmental Love of the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious. We’ve been fooled into thinking God is mean. A God which isn’t mean would change our minds — if we could just get past our prejudice.

      1. Hey, it’s definitional. “Do you want to be extremely happy forever?” Technically, you can’t say “no” because you’re allowed to tweak your own understanding of “happiness” however you want. If your idea of “bliss” necessarily includes regular episodes of angst, anger, and boredom — then who’s to take it away from you?

        Besides, you may not exactly want “everyone to be in a loving and blissful state of peaceful harmony and joy forever and ever” — but you can’t really hate it, given the entire range of alternatives. I mean, there’s got to be something that ranks lower on your Afterlife Preference Chart, right?

        1. To be honest, no, not really.

          The idea of a concsious eternal existence ranks as number one on my “hell no” list.

          As a believer might put it, I think I lack the imagination required to think of a desirable eternal existence.

          Even the best feeling will eventually grow old and tired on the ladder of infinite good feelings… If you catch my drift.

          1. Do you have a preference between “a conscious eternal existence during which you are blissfully happy for a long, long time” and “a conscious eternal existence during which you first undergo every excruciating pain and agony you can imagine for an incredibly extensive and tedious amount of time … whereupon, you THEN gradually also begin to get bored?”

            I do see your point, but personally the fate of “getting tired of feeling my best” falls into the same category as realizing that “huge amounts of money can’t buy happiness:” I’d prefer to find it out for myself. 😉

            1. Do you have a preference between “a conscious eternal existence during which you are blissfully happy for a long, long time” and “a conscious eternal existence during which you first undergo every excruciating pain and agony you can imagine for an incredibly extensive and tedious amount of time … whereupon, you THEN gradually also begin to get bored?”

              No, I don’t. It’s not the condition I’m worried about. It’s the idea of eternity.

              Can you imagine being concsious forever?

            2. “‘huge amounts of money can’t buy happiness:’ I’d prefer to find it out for myself.”

              Me too!

              @ Jesper: “Can you imagine being conscious forever?”

              No. But I’d be willing to find it out for myself. 😀


              1. Hehe… I’ll pass, but happy trails then. Look out for the black holes and the wall of singularity.


  9. It does seem that the term spirituality is variously defined but come on – the root is SPIRIT, why would anyone choose that word if they aren’t referring to something supernatural?

      1. Once a little cat was killed by a train, and his ghost wandered up and down the tracks near where it happened, looking for his lost tail. One day an owl, who lived in a tree near the crossing and could see ghosts and things from the other world, called out to the little cat.

        The owl gave him some directions and said, “If you go there, they can make you whole again.”

        Elated, the little ghost cat followed the owl’s instructions and found himself at the neighborhood liquor store.

        Why did the owl send him to a liquor store?

        Because that’s where they re-tail spirits.

    1. When atheists Percy Shelley and Bertrand Russell used the word “spirit” they only referred to their sense of self-identity and the principle of conscious self-awareness.

      Of course, they lived before the New Age further compounded the confusion of an already ambiguous word. Our culture was previously dominated by Christianity which has a highly dualistic understanding of man (spirit and matter) like Hinduism and Platonic philosophy though unlike Judaism and Buddhism ans Aristotelian philosophy all of which are more holistic (Aristotle did not believe the soul survived death because it was so inextricably married to and marbled into the body, and Buddha had doupts in that direction.)

      Nonetheless the 1st paradigm dominates American discourse.

    2. I think I am going to have a hard time not saying things like “they put up a spirited goal-line defense” or “thanks to the miracle of the internet”.

  10. Now Oprah was going to pay 6800.00 I think for a purse now who does that.She doesn’t need a purse if she got it was it just to look at maybe. I suppose if I had her money would buy stuff and just look at it,stuff I didn’t need.

  11. Meh. Nyad was trying to be a good guest, to be agreeable and play within the house rules. As the host, Oprah had the responsibility to make the guest comfortable and not trick, cajole, or otherwise force her guest into a false confession. What Winfrey did was rude and bigoted, in that context. It would be like my insisting that whatever qualifications she THINKS she has for being a black woman, unless she uses Ebonics to speak all of the time, then Winfrey is in fact white.

    1. +1

      If I said I was an atheist, and my questioner promptly tried to defuse it (or diffuse it?) by turning it into some wishy-washy sense-of-wonder pantheist thing, I’d be pissed off.

  12. Can “spiritual” be rescued from believers? I ask this question in light of having read Andre-Comte Sponville’s book, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality , which I found awfully good.

    1. Yes. But we’re never going to agree on this. It’s another time-wasting argument that’s been going on forever.

  13. I couldn’t bear to watch the clip – the description was enough. I’m allergic to the word ‘spiritual’, and replace it easily with existential, ethical and even transcendental(the ability to be hypnotised by any damn thing – especially nature).

    So I say that I have three kinds of health – physical, mental and existential (that I can articulate to myself what I’m on about currently).

  14. Reblogged this on The Little Tower and commented:
    I have to agree, it seems like Oprah simply reacted to what was said. I really wish we had a better word for those who do not believe in big religion, but insist on all the trappings of faith (ghosts, souls, etc). Spiritual may be the best bet though.

  15. From my take on this (blatant self-promoting link provided):

    “About a year ago I wrote a post on this blog in which I expressed the belief that “activist atheists” such as Richard Dawkins were doing at least as much harm as good, that more moderate voices needed to speak up. Well, Oprah Winfrey managed to prove that wrong.”

    “The response I’ve seen to this interview force me to agree with Coyne (whom I’ve disagreed with in the past in his comments section). Atheists need to expunge anything that smacks of religious imagery from their language. And as distasteful as I have found their aggressive activism, we still need the so-called Four Horsemen.

    We may need the whole cavalry.”

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