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 I 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.
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