Oprah Winfrey’s Awkward Conversation with Marathon Swimmer Diana Nyad, an ‘Atheist Who’s in Awe’

Diana Nyad is the 64-year-old marathon swimmer who made headlines around the world last month after swimming from Cuba to Florida, a 110-mile trip, without a protective cage. It took her about 53 hours. (Her record earned her no shortage of attention from skeptics, too.)

Yesterday, she appeared on Oprah Winfrey‘s “Super Soul Sunday” (a show you never heard about until this moment and will never watch again after finishing this post) to talk about her religious beliefs:

Here’s what awesome: It turns out Nyad is an atheist. She’s a Humanist, really, who sees something amazing and beautiful in the way we all interact and love one-another. She is amazed by the natural world. She believes it’s all over when she’s dead. She’s also very non-confrontational about her beliefs — if you believe in God, okay, no problem, but she doesn’t. She also has this wishy-washy idea of what a soul is — she calls it a “spirit” — and she believes it lives on after we’re gone. You could argue she’s really talking about a legacy or memory that we leave behind, something that’s not-at-all supernatural.

Here’s what’s not awesome: Oprah takes Nyad’s statement of “I’m an atheist who’s in awe” and suggests that Nyad isn’t really an atheist.

Oprah the Theologian proceeds to have one of the most awkward faith-based conversations you’ll ever hear with someone who doesn’t seem to understand how the host is trying to steer her away from outright proclaiming her godlessness:

Nyad:… 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: Yeah…

Nyad: … and suffered. To me, my definition of “God” is humanity. And is the love of humanity. And as we return to…

Winfrey: Well, I don’t call you an atheist then! I think if you believe in the awe…

Nyad: Okay…

Winfrey: … and the wonder…

Nyad: Okay…

Winfrey: … and the mystery…

Nyad: Okay…

Winfrey: … That that is what God is! That is what God is! God is not the Bearded Guy in the Sky.

Nyad tries to explain that, of course, God isn’t some bearded guy in the sky, but he’s not a Creator or “overseer,” either. We’ll never know, she adds. It’s all about faith and she’s not a faith-filled person.

But Oprah wasn’t satisfied with that, so later in the interview, she tried to get Nyad to admit she was still “spiritual”… because if you’re not religious, that’s the next best thing, right?

Nyad, unfortunately, took the bait and said she was indeed spiritual, though her explanation of what that meant wasn’t even close to what Oprah was talking about.

Winfrey: … Do you consider yourself a spiritual person, even as an atheist?

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.

Winfrey: Well, I believe that and feel that so deeply. It’s why every time I enter my yard or leave, I say, “Hello trees!”

Sure, Oprah. Sure you do.

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.

In Oprah’s mind, that’s not really atheism. Because she can’t fathom how atheists could ever truly appreciate life the way she does as a spiritual person.

There’s no contradiction in what Nyad is saying (though she could have been much more firm about what she does and doesn’t believe in). There is, however, all sorts of definitional waffling going on with Oprah. Despite her decades of interviews, she still hasn’t figured out how to accept the fact that some people just don’t buy into her nebulous spirituality.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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