Thursday, October 17, 2013

How to Respond to Oprah's Ideas About Atheism

In college I briefly worked as a server in a faculty club. One day, while clearing empty plates at a large table of diners, I asked one, "Would you like me to take your plate?" The man flew into rage, shouting a lecture at me. He roared that it was "basic etiquette" that the placement of the fork and knife on his plate communicated to me that he was finished. Therefore, my speaking to him was unnecessary and rude. I stood there with my gaze down, no doubt with a red face, and felt like an ill-bred kid. Later I grew so angry about the incident that I quit that job. For years the memory popped into my head from time to time, and I fantasized about how I should have reacted. How I should have lectured him back about how it was more rude of him to publicly humiliate me than it was for me to ask if he was finished with his plate. Yes, I had unwittingly caused a breach of etiquette. But his reaction to my mistake turned a teachable moment into conflict and strife.

I can't help but think something like this has happened between Oprah Winfrey and the freethought community. Oprah Winfrey has unwittingly insulted a large group of people, and now instead of calmly trying to understand the mistake within the context it was made and gently correcting it, the freethought community has started yelling.

Before I go on, if you haven't seen the interview Oprah Winfrey did with swimmer Diana Nyad, check that out first:

The Internet has exploded with freethinkers responding to this interview, specifically taking issue with Oprah's disparaging view of "atheism" as being a worldview that negates feelings of awe over nature, beauty, love, y'know, all the big stuff.

The first response I read was that of David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association (AHA). I am a proud, card carrying member of a local chapter of AHA, and have enjoyed conferences hosted by the AHA, and so when I saw the headline Why Oprah's Anti-Atheist Bias Hurst So Much, I was ready to be deeply disappointed or even angry with Oprah Winfrey. But after I watched the interview, I just didn't see anything that I thought justified the harshest of Niose's criticisms. I mean, Niose went as far as to paint Oprah as worse than the Religious Right, saying that she's done more to "perpetuate negative attitudes toward nonbelievers than Pat Robertson or James Dobson ever could."

The Boston Atheists have started an online campaign where they create memes featuring fictional exchanges with Oprah using real atheists' quote. However, even if they are primarily intended to spread the word about how much atheists can be in awe, they do just as much to make Oprah look stupid.

PZ Myers just went right ahead and labeled it "Oprah's bigotry." (Too be fair, Myers sort of has a reputation as a shock jock in the world of atheist blogging.)  

Isn't this all going way too far?

The criticism of Oprah comes across the spectrum of the freethought world. Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta is critical of Oprah's "nebulous spirituality" and says:
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.
Mehta glosses over the fact that in the interview Nyad herself calls herself a "spiritual" person, defines that in a nebulous way. More importantly, Nyad opened her atheism up for questioning with her statement, "To me, my definition of 'God' is humanity. And is the love of humanity." It is right after this statement that Oprah says "Well, I don't call you an atheist then!" Didn't Nyad just define "God" as something real (as humanity and love)? Why didn't she say something more like, "To me, God is a presence, a creator, and I just personally don't believe in that." Instead, she went ahead and defined "God" as something everybody knows is real, and Oprah came back with an affirmation that such a definition of "God" is perfectly acceptable. 

Oprah emphasizes this point further when she says "God is not the Bearded Guy in the Sky." Listening to Oprah talk about her type of faith (Oprah calls herself Christian), her beliefs seem more similar to members of Unitarian or Quaker congregations (which generally welcome atheists.) In that she thinks about these philosophical issues and abides by her own conclusions rather than taking a cue from any authority figures, she fits the broad definition of a freethinker. And yet, the freethought community doesn't want to give her any benefit of the doubt. 

Oprah Winfrey likes to emphasize that she is accepting of all faiths, and she acts on this sentiment by bringing on guests who represent many different worldviews. When Diana Nyad explains why she calls herself an atheist by saying that she doesn't believe in a "presence", Oprah takes no issue with that. In fact the only point they seem to disagree on is how the term "atheism" is properly applied. So does Oprah Winfrey have an anti-nonbeliever bias, or is she really just confused about the meaning of atheism? I assert it is the latter.

Let's consider why Oprah might be confused about the meaning of atheism.

Atheism is a dirty word in the mainstream. It isn't just a dirty word to religious fundamentalists. It isn't even just a dirty word to theists. It's a dirty word to a lot of people who are non-God-believers. C'mon. How many people who are technically atheists won't call themselves atheists? How many atheists just can't let go of religious words like "spiritual" and "God" and "soul", and so they re-define them to be broad enough to have a secular meaning? Didn't Spinoza redefine God as nature? Didn't Einstein called the universe God? Atheism has been a dirty word for a very, very long time, and that's not just going to go away. 

It probably doesn't help that now one strain of the freethought movement that has been written about in many mainstream publications is called the New Atheism, and is known for its aggressive criticism and intolerance of all forms of religious belief. 

Is Oprah Winfrey's view of atheism a personal bias against non-God-believers or is she simply understanding the term as it is most commonly used? 

Yes, it is frustrating. Yes, when our own allies use the term in a disparaging way, it confirms the bias of those who truly are bigots against us. To me, the label atheist carries all kinds of wonderful connotations. I associate God with authoritarianism and escapism, and conversely associate atheism with freedom and an embrace of reality despite its flaws. I find labeling myself an atheist liberating and courageous. And it bums me out that most people seem to think we atheists are arrogant, immoral curmudgeons. So, yeah, I'm annoyed with what Oprah said. But over-reacting isn't going to help anything, and it might make things worse.

As I've helped my fellow freethinkers try to build strong communities, I've heard a lot of talk about the benefits of this type of organization. Rarely do I hear talk about the drawbacks. The problem with like-minded people getting together a lot is that we re-affirm and eventually exaggerate each other's views. Just as we strengthen our communities, we insulate ourselves, risk narrowing our perspective and failing to see the bigger picture.

The bigger picture: Oprah Winfrey's not our enemy. In fact, in this instance she's probably helping us out. 

Think about it: Oprah gave a platform to Diana Nyad, a self-declared atheist. She presented this atheist as an inspirational and heroic person. She conducted a friendly, respectful conversation with this atheist. Oprah's comment about Nyad not really being an atheist was followed up with Nyad repeatedly re-affirming her chosen label and further explaining it, so that it was abundantly clear that she lacks a belief in a personal god or divine presence, but is still a person with a deep sense of wonder, awe, as well as respect, tolerance, and love for all of humankind. Seems like an obvious net gain for freethought to me!

Oprah rejects the bearded man in the sky, but how many monotheists do believe in God, heaven and hell, angels and demons, literally? Oprah Winfrey calls herself a Christian, but her faith is certainly not traditional. The type of faith she personally professes would have gotten her burned at the stake five hundred years ago. More theologically conservative Christian have declared that Oprah Winfrey is not a Christian. (Yes, I see the irony in Oprah telling an atheist she's not an atheist when she's had critics do the same shitty thing to her.)

I liked the interview. It reminded me of a lot of conversations I've had with believers. They say silly things to me such as, "I'm so surprised you're an atheist because you're so spiritual..." And then we go on to have a meaningful, casual exchange about our very different perspectives. They learn something. I learn something. That wouldn't happen if I got offended and started lecturing them on how ignorant they are about real atheists. I'm sure I'm ignorant to plenty about their actual perspective, too. That's just how these sort of things go.


  1. Nice article!

    Oprah is in many ways a talented woman and an enormously effective business person. But she has so "bulldar" and often promotes con-men and liars. Her misconceptions of atheism are a case in point. Her self-centered egotism leads her to assume that anyone who is intelligent, well-spoken and polite must REALLY be at least a Theist like herself. The result is condescending nonsense.

    Diana Nyad, had she been less polite and laid-back, could have torn Oprah to pieces on her own show.

  2. I dunnno, Mooner. I tend to think that Oprah is a brilliant marketer. Her success is largely due to her ability to be likable and disarming. Even though she's insanely rich and famous, people feel they can relate to her because she is presented as a vulnerable person who triumphs over everyday struggles. She appeals to a ridiculously broad audience by preaching the most popular mainstream values, while parading representatives from the outside of the widest variety of perspectives, so everyone feels included through those surrogates. I personally find all the spiritual stuff to be a lot of feel-good nonsense that doesn't actually do anything to make the world a better place, but whatever. People think Oprah is driving the bus, but she's just a brilliant reflection of the direction mainstream American values has taken. I think if Nyad or anyone had "torn her to pieces" on her show, the PR result would be that guest looking like a real bully.

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  4. As usual, a thoughful, friendly, and broad-minded post, Martha. You touch on a point discussed in depth in Walter Kaufman's Faith of a Heretic -- viz., that there are many instances throughout history of people defining the old terms in new ways and then reaffirming their belief in God. (He cites Spinoza, as you do.) Something similar happened in the ancient world, he says, when Hellenistic theologians continued to profess belief in Aphrodite because they felt love was a mystical force that deserved reverence. They didn't believe in the living, breathing goddess any more than we do. Yet I doubt that Oprah would say that I must "really" believe in Aphrodite if I've ever been in love. The argument, such as it is, seems to be about words more than anything, and which myth you prefer. Like Kaufmann, I prefer not to use the word God, because it is too ambiguous. I also don't like to call myself spiritual, since it implies, to me, belief in an occult force, a presence.

    As for awe at nature, I have no idea why we have to go out of our way to assure believers, that, yes, we feel awe at the wonder of the universe, as though any other attitude would turn us into cold, unfeeling rationalists. Nonsense. The only time anybody ever really *feels* awe at nature is when they're stoned. The universe is simply too big to be thought of as anything other than a mathematical abstraction, impressive as it may be.

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  6. The more I think about this, the more I wonder, why does the privilege of defining someone else's beliefs extend only in one direction? When Nyad described her attitudes, Oprah said, rather presumptuously, in my view, "Soo .... what I'm hearing is you're not really an atheist." A proper response, when Oprah said you didn't have to believe in an old man in the sky, would have been, "Soo ... what I'm hearing is you're not really a theist." If Nyad can't be an atheist because she doesn't conform to Oprah's definition, then, in fairness, Oprah is not a theist if she does't conform to Nyad's definition. There is nothing self-evident about the right of the self-styled believer to set the terms of the conversation.

  7. Joe, for the sake of diplomacy given this topic that tends to inflame emotions, I'd say it is best of nobody starts telling anybody else what they "really are" and instead just explains how they interpret various words and labels. If somebody who doesn't believe in a literal God or Christ wants to call themselves a "Christian" because they strongly feel they live their life according with the teachings of Jesus and enjoy certain Christian rituals or fellowship, that's great. In fact, I'd argue that's in keeping with how religion has been practiced by probably the majority of people since the dawn of civilization. There are lots of reasons to go along with religious practice, regardless of personal belief - aesthetic appeal for the rituals, community, family, association with people who share one's lifestyle and values, respect in the public arena, etc. Sure, Oprah broke that rule. But I'm glad Nyad didn't return in kind because that might have soured the interview.

    1. I think it's clear to everyone by now that you are a much nicer person than I am, Martha. I would add only that at one time, the non-literal Christians you speak of were known as "heretics."'