Oprah, Atheism, & How Not To Be An Ally

Oprah loves teaching us about ourselves.  This month, it’s a great example of exactly what NOT to say to someone who is different than you.  Chris Stedman describes the exchange that took place between the talk-show-host-network-mogul and Diana Nyad:

A few days ago Winfrey interviewed long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad on Super Soul Sunday. Nyad identified herself as an atheist who experiences awe and wonder at the natural world and humanity.

Nyad, 64, who swam from Cuba to Key West last month, said “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 the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt.”

Winfrey responded, “Well I don’t call you an atheist then.”

Winfrey went on, “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery then that is what God is… It’s not a bearded guy in the sky.”

Nyad clarified that she doesn’t use the word God because it implies a “presence… a creator or an overseer.”

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The show was subtitled “Exploring the Big Questions with Diana Nyad,” and it might be true that Oprah was trying to connect with Nyad on matters spiritual and awe-some … but this little power play undermined whatever good might have also come out of Nyad’s presence on Oprah’s stage.

Oprah told her she didn’t have the right to name her worldview.

Nyad says “I am an atheist” repeatedly in their conversation.  By saying “I don’t call you an atheist,” Oprah is essentially saying “you don’t have the right to name yourself.”

That an African-American woman would say that to someone else is … well, historically interesting.  It’s an old tool of the powerful, to name others over whom they have power.  Begin with the Yahwist’s creation tale recorded in Genesis 2 where the adam names all the other creatures, fast forward to colonialist’s march around the globe changing the names of regions and persons to suit their own needs, and don’t forget about the old patriarchal insistence that a woman bear the name of the man who owns her.  This is how you control others.

And it’s exactly what NOT to do in order to be an ally to a marginalized group.  David Niose wrote over at Psychology Today:

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. … Oprah…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.)

I have written previously about Christian privilege and being an atheist ally.  I’m currently working on a presentation for a session of the American Academy of Religion in November about how this plays out in the college classroom.   I think it’s a crucial thing for people of faith to explore.  Because here in this conversation, Oprah manifested a theistic privilege, what I call “the ability to presume that everyone thinks and believes like you when you are part of a majority faith.”

What she did not do was listen.  Really Listen.  She did not accept the name that another human being gave to her own worldview.  She imposed the name that she has for it onto someone else.  Oprah didn’t say “that is what God is TO ME.”  Even those little words might better reflect her search for common values, a desire for connection instead of erasure.

It’s more than a little patronizing to just imply “you believe in God you just don’t know it.”

If you’re going to engage in conversations about the big questions, you should be prepared for answers that differ from your own.

And you shouldn’t impose your OWN name upon them.

Image & video via OWN.

 

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.


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