Oprah Oprah Oprah

Oprah Winfrey and amazing swimmer Diana Nyad had a profoundly muddled, inarticulate, and self-contradictory conversation about God and souls on Oprah’s show Super Soul Sunday. During the course of this discussion Oprah and Nyad teamed up to create so much atheist outrage and facepalming that it has made it all the way to mainstream outlets like Raw Story and CNN. Throughout the interview Nyad gropes so incoherently that she actually reminded me of listening to children creatively improvise answers to questions adults want them to answer, that they feel pressured to answer, but have no idea how to answer. Eager not to disappoint, she has that child’s rambling, off the wall kind of thought process, all sold with an earnest attempt to sound sure and confident.

But amidst so much gobbledygook and casual offensiveness, I think there are actually some interesting things they’re both doing that can be more charitably explicated and thought about by atheists. So I want to go through it and give my thoughts on what we can learn from it since this conversation is probably indicative of a lot of people’s driving concerns and their jumbled concepts.

Oprah Winfrey: You told our producers that you’re “not a God person”, that you’re a “person who is deeply in awe”.

Diana Nyad: Yeah, I am not a God person. Do I argue against my friends who are religious–Buddhists, Jews, Christians? No–

It seriously bugs me how so many atheists feel compelled to offer this defensive, apologetic, disclaimer that they are harmless and would never try to argue against anyone’s religious beliefs, as though that’s the worst thing in the world.

Oprah Winfrey: Do you consider yourself atheist?

Diana Nyad: I am an atheist.

Oprah Winfrey: But you’re in the awe.

Okay, so if you haven’t been keeping up. This is the first statement of a theme that has many atheists clutching their pearls in horror. Oprah implied that there is something mutually exclusive about both experiencing awe and being an atheist. This is ignorant. This is stereotype mongering. I’ve even seen it suggested that this is Oprah dehumanizing atheists by claiming we are deficient in a basic human capacity. I think that’s going a bit far.

For one thing, she is a skilled interviewer who knows how to provoke her subject with the questions her audience might be asking. She was giving an opening for Nyad to explain how she reconciled this prima facie tension; how she found awe without God when there is this default assumption out there that they necessarily go together. That’s really not such a scandalous thing to do. Especially because, at least in my experience, there are many atheists who are outright averse to some concepts very closely to awe, having no place for any language of “sacredness”, “reverence”, “worship”, “spirituality”, “transcendence”, etc. Since for many people, and likely including Oprah herself, awe is usually in that constellation of experiences, so it’s a logical place for her to probe and start a conversation about how someone without these other concepts can still have the “awe” one.

And Nyad takes the opening and represents atheists pretty well here.

Diana Nyad: I don’t understand why anyone would find a contradiction in that. 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 of the billions of people who have lived before us who have loved and hurt and suffered.

But then she goes off the rails:

Diana Nyad: To me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.

Now did you catch that–she just said her awe is about connecting to humanity and then she defined God as humanity and the love of humanity. Whatever in the world that is supposed to mean. Maybe this is just her rambling, practically childlike desperation to please Oprah and give her a response she thinks Oprah wants when she doesn’t know what else to say. Or maybe it’s sincere. Nonetheless she was the self-contradictory one who right there opened the door to adopting God language for herself and stopping talking like an atheist. So this is not really Oprah’s fault when she drops the bomb that’s got atheists ramping up the outrage machine:

Oprah Winfrey: 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. That is what God is. God is not the bearded guy in the sky.

Okay, let’s unpack this because there’s a lot going on here.

There are two ways we can interpret the statement “I don’t call you an atheist then”.

One is that Oprah is refusing to let Nyad identify as she wishes. And from an identity politics focus, this is unconscionable. We have the absolute right to define ourselves! The atheist outrage coming from this angle is making this seem like the threat is of erasure of atheists. So let people have their atheism if that’s how they want to identify. The idea also is that “atheist” shouldn’t be a dirty word and Oprah shouldn’t be trying to protect Nyad from herself here by sparing her the awful label of atheist. Another issue is that Oprah might be trying to subsume all dissenters from theism into theism against their will so that the real challenge atheism poses to theism can be obscured and rendered powerless to threaten theism’s hegemony. These are all generally valid concerns. And I completely get why many atheists want to harp on these emphases while a “teaching moment” has presented itself. Oprah’s reach is massive and her audience is probably largely in need of education about atheists, so it’s a nice strategy to seize this opportunity to educate people about how anti-atheist prejudice is wrong.

But there are other ways to look at this. For one thing, it might just be a semantics issue. What does it mean to be an atheist? What kinds of propositions does that entail or preclude? Many atheists hang around–the outspoken self-consciously identifying atheists who are in an uproar over Oprah–are actually people who are very happy to challenge people’s self-labeling. Frequently, they explain to self-identifying agnostics that they’re essentially really atheists with just an agnostic epistemology. I do something like this all the time.

And even in the pushback against this very interview, some atheists have been aghast about the anarchic approach to semantics in which “God” and “soul” can mean almost anything. Regularly atheists rightly challenge many self-identifying theists who really only believe in an impersonal god to stop equivocating with the word God when it papers over their differences from those who believe in personal gods and gives the greater sense of social agreement on the existence of a personal God than is true. And, of course, atheists often try to claim deists or pantheists as essentially really atheists. Insofar as none of this is a matter of trying to undermine people’s autonomous right to define themselves but rather to eradicate obfuscations brought on by equivocations and exploited by religions to keep more people in their folds than belong there, I don’t think this is such a scandalous semantics conversation to have.

Finally, and most sympathetically to Oprah, there is a case to be made that what Oprah is doing here is really helpful for skeptics because she is outright opposing anthropomorphic gods. She is outright rejecting at this point the notion of a personal god. She is adamantly, even dogmatically, treating it as simply obvious that there is no God of the genuinely Abrahamic type that is the backbone of the most pernicious forms of Western theism. She’s clinging to the word God, of course. She believes in and peddles lots of spiritualistic woo nonsense and that’s a whole other hugely bad thing. But in the great tide of history, Oprah is on the side of the heretics here. There are just two strategies; one is to define your challenge to the orthodox personal god idea as a challenge to the dominant language and religion and declare yourself an atheist, or to try to reappropriate and redefine the words people are viscerally attached to so that they’ve been emptied of their worst content.

While atheism strikes many of us (including me) as clearer and more honest and more long term rational strategy, this sort of move to God being just a word for wonder and love and awe, etc., is for a great many people to become like atheists and naturalists in their essential rejection of religious dogmas and obeisance without having to make the psychologically and socially difficult total rejection of god talk that’s been ingrained in them and is so important to people around them. So they slide to this vague, contentless God concept as their way of saying, “there’s some great totality that unites us all and it’s a worthy object of our awe and amazement and we should be loving people”. So far as all this goes, it’s really not all so terrible. I get why my fellow atheists don’t want the God language to have to remain and trap people, and why they balked viscerally at Oprah’s insistence on not deviating from it, but in the grand scheme of things, the Oprahs of the world can also be seen as dissenters who undermine classical theism in the way most amenable to huge numbers of people who are irrationally glued to religious words.

Diana 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… I don’t criticize anybody because, you know what, the definition of life is “we will never know”. We will never know…

This is good. Here Nyad is making clear that rejecting the personal God is grounds for rejecting the language of “God” and not just slipping in and blending in with people who adamantly mean personal God when they say God. Unfortunately this wasn’t her tune a moment before. Nonetheless this makes the key point and I wish that right here Nyad had the wherewithal to pin Oprah down on whether she was willing to assert there’s a personal God or not.

Oprah Winfrey: Until that last breath and maybe it’s an “oh wow” for you, as it was for Steve Jobs.

And there’s the real worst part of the interview. A death bed conversion myth for Steve Jobs??

Here Oprah is laughing joyously, seemingly relishing the idea of the skeptic who is shown that–well, what exactly? something ineffably “spiritual” is true? Is she now veering towards a personal god after all out of hopes of an afterlife?

Diana Nyad: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I could be like “Whoah, I should have been praying. All these years I’m going the wrong way!” But for now, I don’t criticize anybody. People tell me they see ghosts? They see ghosts! People tell me they remember past lives back to the Middle Ages? They remember them! People see God and feel God and that’s their faith and I have nothing to say about it. Just for me, I am an atheist who is in awe.

It pains me to see how much Nyad has internalized this absolute ethic of never ever ever ever implying anything someone says about faith or spiritual matters is in anyway whatsoever criticizable. The bowing and scraping to prove she will be as credulous as possible to avoid even giving the shadow of offense to anyone. It is truly pathetic and it’s probably worse that she actually sounds sincere in her earnest desire to abdicate all critical thinking, even in her own head, for the sake of other people’s feelings. This is the problem that atheists are worried Oprah’s cross-examining challenge to Nyad’s atheism threatens to perpetuate: a culture that demands atheists give huge, apologetic disclaimers for themselves.

Oprah Winfrey: “An atheist in awe.” Do you consider yourself a spiritual person– even as an atheist?

So here, Oprah, instead of trouncing Nyad with hate, is happy to let her self-identify and rolls the concept of the “atheist in awe” over her tongue like a tantalizing new synthesis to mull. And it’s here where Nyad starts sounding like an incoherent, eager to please child earnestly making stuff up to appease an adult who asked her describe something she really has no idea about:

Diana Nyad: I do, I don’t think there’s any contradiction in those terms. I think you can be an atheist who doesn’t believe in an overarching being who created all of this and sees over it. But there’s spirituality because we human beings and we animals and maybe even we plants but certainly the ocean and the moon and the stars, we all live with something that is cherished and we feel the treasure of it.

That’s right, we all have “spirituality”. Maybe not the plants. We don’t want to get carried away here. Oh, but definitely the moon and the stars and the ocean have spirituality and cherish it. The moon. Has a spirituality. Which it treasures.

Oprah Winfrey: Oh I believe that and feel that so deeply. That’s why every time I leave my yard or leave I say “hello trees!”

Diana Nyad: Yeah, oh yeah. I just, the older I am, I walk around all day, with flowers and buildings that people created. But certainly, beings; every pair of eyes I look into I see the souls.

Oprah Winfrey: Okay and how do you define that, the soul?

Diana Nyad: Your soul is your spirit, it’s your love of humanity, it’s your belief in humanity, your belief that there is more than you, there were people before us.

So every “being” has a soul–but this doesn’t include buildings I don’t think–I take it she means every being that has eyes when she says “certainly beings”. But then the soul becomes human specific. It goes from being a “spirit” to just your love and belief in humanity. Which is weird since lots of animals have eyes but don’t love humanity. And suddenly the definition will shift again:

You can weep at the discovery of an ancient city and realize that those people lived and they loved and they danced and they ate and they suffered and they lived, just as we are. There have been so many, 40, 60, 80 years lives, billions of them, and we all have souls and I feel their collective souls.

Okay, I can dig this. This is basically an old school way of looking at the soul as the overlapping subjective common internal experience that unites us even though we’re different people spread across different bodies and time periods, etc. You can think of us as being “reincarnated” totally metaphorically and not literally in the sense that the same basic human experiences keep recurring in each successive generation even if not in the same conscious beings. And feeling a connection to other humans and the enduring of the general human experience beyond the finitude of particular people is a profound and inspiring sort of thought. Reappropriating the language of “soul” for that is not so bad. That can work naturalistically.

Oprah Winfrey: Wow. What do you think happens when you die?

Diana Nyad: I think that the soul lives on because we have created so much energy and when we display courage and hope it lives on but I do believe the body goes back to ash and it is never more.

This is half good, half bad. There is a literal sense in which we do go on through our effects on those we empower. And we can stretch and say that insofar as courage and hope lead to some of the best in humanity and are powerful inspirations to others, we keep that going. But the bad is she seems to think that this is a literal “energy” as some reified stuff–assuming she means to say that; which further assumes she has any idea what she’s saying at all with this word salad at all at this point.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Britomart49

    god can mean almost anything

    • davcot

      I am God.You are God also.Every time I had a flat tire and wished God would be there to help me,he never came.Only me.I am in awe of my Godliness!

  • alqpr

    “profoundly muddled, inarticulate, and self-contradictory” – my ass!

    It wasn’t intended as an academic philosophy seminar so shouldn’t be judged as one. I agree with you that those taking great offense have gone overboard, but in a sense so have you.

    I mean really! picking on “we human beings and we animals and maybe even we plants but certainly the ocean and the moon and the stars, we all live with something that is cherished and we feel the treasure of it”, when it’s obviously intended more as a kind of poetry than as a proposition. Actually, it’s a profoundly materialist and reductionist point of view to see some kind of continuity between the electro-chemistry behind the emotions of an awed human, the biological drives of an animal (or plant), and the compulsion of the universe as a whole to obey the laws of physics.

    On the other hand I think you were bang on in your “unpacking” of Opra’s “Well I don’t call you an atheist then.” (I would have loved to see it countered more strongly by Diana with something more like “Ah! But then I *do* call *you* an atheist because we share a belief that if the word ‘God’ refers to anything, it must be something different than the traditional theistic concept”. But don’t we all have the experience of finding the perfect comeback 20 min after the conversation is over!)

  • Steve Parady

    “Profoundly muddled” is kind of unfair, don’t you think? It’s hard to find words to describe the sense of awe and wonder most people feel. Deep thinking, erudite philosophers use many words, many of which are not that familiar to, let’s say 95% of people. So try to explain a sense of awe and wonder if you don’t have the words for what you are trying to say. I don’t think a lack of technical vocabulary makes a person profoundly muddled.

  • Light_Sleeper

    Oprah has a concept of divinity so incoherent that it can be neither attacked nor defended: God is apparently “whatever it is that instills awe in people who experience awe.” (I would have pegged Oprah as a Christian, but it’s clear she is not. I wonder what she would define her faith system to be?)

    Her implication that Steve Jobs could have converted on his death bed — converted simply by experiencing awe, of course — is absolutely disgusting. By that criteria, everyone who passes away without expressing wonder could be counted as a deathbed deconversion.

  • YesGrrrl

    Great discussion, but please don’t call Oprah a “skilled interviewer” — and this particular interchange highlights exactly why she is a completely UNskilled journalist. She consistently brings HERSELF into each and every question and answer, fawns over her subjects (no sense of objectivity), constantly constantly CONSTANTLY interrupts while her subject is speaking, and even molds answers to what SHE wants to hear (or thinks she hears). Look at what she does here — denies Nyad’s response and tells her, “no, that’s not what you mean — you meant THIS!”

    A “skilled interviewer” would have listened — really listened — to Nyad’s initial attempts to clarify her feelings and gently led her to speak her own mind in greater detail (instead of immediately countering with “Well, here’s what *I* feel, and this is what YOU really mean”).

    The Oprah Technique is not unique to the Nyad interview. Oprah lures a succession of great and interesting people to the table, but I can never listen for more than 5 minutes without screaming at the screen.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I am amazed at the energy atheists put into convincing others that their own experiences of awe are invalid. I don’t feel the eternal energy that cosmologists say is the essence of all in the universe, as a father, son, mother, or father. I do, however, understand that people all understand events based on their own experiences and perceptions, usually based on what they have had identified by others.

    It takes a very creative mind to come up with a new paradigm for understanding common experiences. It takes great courage to stand alone while others have no commonly accepted language with which to communicate. You have said that A-theists often attempt to reclassify A-gnostics as A-theists, as if either is a religion on its own.

    How about we call the eternal energy that continues to manifest on earth in many forms and many futures All-in-All, or OM, or (my personal; favorite I Am) without a faces, bodies, or stagnant names. The Roman Catholic Church used to love litanies that called all their manifestations of awe by all sorts of names, while still proclaiming themselves a religion of monotheism.

    This was, and is the sound of one hand clapping, but what do we expect from a bunch of legalistic academics who don’t need to wipe their own butts as long as they seem above the masses?

    I don’t believe in any religion, including Atheism, because religions all want everyone to become ditto-heads.

  • Liralen

    By not believing that Nyad means what she said, you are denying her agency. At best, your reverence for absolutism prevents you from understanding what she said.

    Denial of agency, reverence for absolutism, and redefinition of terms are tools of fundamentalist indoctrination. I don’t think you’re fully free of it yet.

    Did you see what I did there?

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I don’t know what you did there actually. I am not an absolutist and I have no reverence for absolutism and neither did Oprah express any reverence for absolutism. Neither did I say I don’t believe Nyad means what she said nor deny her agency. I pointed out contradictions between things she said that put what she meant in doubt. I also pointed out places where what she said was nonsensical and offered different interpretations of what it might mean charitably or uncharitably.

    • Liralen

      As an example: “Maybe this is just her rambling, practically childlike desperation to please Oprah and give her a response she thinks Oprah wants when she doesn’t know what else to say. Or maybe it’s sincere.” and “The bowing and scraping to prove she will be as credulous as possible to avoid even giving the shadow of offense to anyone. It is truly pathetic and it’s probably worse that she actually sounds sincere in her earnest desire to abdicate all critical thinking, even in her own head, for the sake of other people’s feelings.”

      You express doubt that she really means what she said, or alternatively, means that she said, which you believe is contradiction or nonsensical. The first viewpoint denies her agency, the latter opinion is because there is no room in your atheism for spirituality or mysticism, so you can’t understand what she said. It’s all black and white to you, with no shades of gray in between.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I am not denying her agency. I am questioning her motivations since she’s going all over the map. One minute she’s saying she’s an atheist, then she’s saying “God is the humanity and the love of humanity” and she believes in that. She’s incoherent. So, I’m speculating as to why. Agents have multiple motivations. It’s perfectly consistent with someone’s agency to ask if she has some other motive that explains why she’s speaking patently incoherently. I don’t understand what she said because it’s unintelligible, not because I have “no room for spirituality or mysticism”. You can be intelligible and speak about “spiritual” things and mystical things. I can just as easily consider you to be the condescending one for taking a position that any demands for clarity and consistency from the dear woman are a horrible offense to her as though such things are impossible for her in principle when there’s no reason they should be.

    • Liralen

      And where exactly did you get the notion that I’ve taken such a position? Specifically, the “such things are impossible for her”, although everything in that sentence was something you made up.

      I did imply “impossibility” (“difficulty” really, otherwise I wouldn’t bother) for you, by casting doubt on your agency through still being under the influence of fundamentalist indoctrination. Hence the “did you see what I did there?”. But not impossible for her. I get what she’s saying – I’m a former agnostic turned Christian, so I’ve been there. And I’m what you’ve described in a previous post as your bête noire – one who was raised to be an agnostic/atheist, with no tolerance for fundamentalists on either end of the spectrum.

      But you are not my bête noire. Quite the contrary. I mean you well. I hope that someday you will be able to understand shades of gray, and that it’s not necessarily a binary god or no god situation. Once that happens, my hope is that we can respect beliefs that differ from our own and can then “all get along”. ;) And yes, I know that’s silly in general, but still possible between people like you and me.

  • Lynn

    We all have to accept that Oprah is a skilled entertainment interviewer, not an objective straight news interviewer. The reason people watch her is BECAUSE she inserts her own lens into her interpretations of the subject matter. I do think she displays a slight bias against atheists in this interview, but it is because Diana herself did not stand her ground as she was herself trying to describe her beliefs in a way that would make sense to multiple parties — herself, the audience and also of course to Oprah. Daniel — I think your deconstruction was mostly quite apt and rather hilarious — thanks!

  • Shane Corbett

    Excellent article, i will be referencing this one many times. Thanks,