This is What Oprah Doesn’t Understand About Atheists

The fallout from Oprah‘s ignorant comments toward an atheist guest is still in high gear and I offered my thoughts in the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” section:

Are atheists capable of feeling awe about our world?

Absolutely.

Atheist musicians experience that feeling when playing or listening to a beautiful composition.

Atheist scientists experience that feeling when they gaze at the stars or look through a microscope.

Atheist parents experience that feeling when they first lay eyes on their newborn child.

There’s nothing religious about it. It’s just nature: elusive, expansive, and enveloping. You don’t need to look for a Higher Power to give thanks. Sometimes, you can just bask in the wonderful way the world turned out, considering all the ways it could have gone in another direction…

Read the rest of it (and feel free to comment) there!

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.

  • AFabulousAtlantanAtheist

    What has most confused me about this controversy is why people from both sides of the argument keep ascribing emotional response to a stimulus (seeing mountains/stars/moon/etc.) as being a belief of some kind. People do not suggest they believe in anger, but in this case I keep see Xtians and even Atheists commenting on a belief in awe and wonder as not precluding someone from being Atheist. I think that awe and wonder can occur whether you believe they could occur or not.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Freedom of Awe does not mean Freedom FROM Awe!

      *stage whispers* Amuricaaaaa!

      • 3lemenope

        Stalin?

  • Jacqui H

    I was once struck dumb by a post someone made on facebook. She had a picture of a rainbow and captioned it “How could anyone see a rainbow and not believe in God?!” I very much wanted to reply that it is indeed possible to feel awed by a rainbow, even if it “just” light being bent and splayed out in all its sections. Instead I just took her out of my facebook feed. Just an example of the pernicious stereotype you speak about in the article. I’m so glad this is getting press and I hope the jump to “mainstream” media continues.

    • tyler

      “how could someone have a 4.0 gpa and not be asian?!”

      “how could someone belong to a gang and not be black?!”

      “how could a guy be a cosmetologist and not be gay?!”

      “how could someone meditate and not be a buddhist?!”

      ah, stereotypes….

      • Kirk

        As an Asian and a Buddhist, I love this comment. LOL :)

        • trj

          You might like this sketch as well, then.

          • C.L. Honeycutt

            The first half of that was so painful that I almost couldn’t watch it.

      • Randy Meyer

        Stereotypes are awesome!! :)

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        “How can someone leave comments online and not be a half-literate Godbot?”

    • Andrew M

      Twenty years ago I had a very dear friend who happened to be a devout Baptist. We lost touch as we moved on to college. A few years ago, I tried to get back in touch with this friend, and in their reply to me, I was told, “I’m disappointed to see you’re still an atheist. How could you watch the birth of your child and not believe in God?” Sadly, that’s when I realized we didn’t have much to talk about. At all.

      • Vizbones

        ” How could you watch the birth of your child and not believe in God?” Yeah! Especially when the mother bleeds to death thanks to her “intelligent” design!

      • Intelligent Donkey

        Well, God might well have been involved in the process.

        http://www.explosm.net/comics/2954/

      • Matt D

        “How could you watch the birth of your child and not believe in God?”

        Because I understand the birth process better than you do?

    • katiehippie

      I’m going to run out of facebook friends because of this.

      • closetatheist

        you can be mine cause I’ve blocked so many assholes like this from my feed that pretty much the only stuff left is advertisements and the people who post details of their fucking daily workouts. in fact, I may drop the whole thing altogether.

    • Ann Onymous

      How could anyone not interpret the world through the same lens I do?!

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        How can you be so persecuting as to say that!!??!

    • CottonBlimp

      Did you know people seriously objected to science figuring out how rainbows work? I think it’s the inspiration for the title of Dawkin’s book “Unweaving the Rainbow”.

  • invivoMark

    This post could’ve been a lot shorter:

    “… what ‘atheist’ means.”

    I like yours better, but mine has the advantage of brevity. Perhaps this is why the Washington Post does not ask me for contributions. :-)

    • Art_Vandelay

      I would love for the WP to just give me a 1000 words on this. Not that Hemant didn’t do it justice of course…he’s a far better writer than me…but I wouldn’t have stopped at “pernicious.”

  • http://danieltuttle.com/ Daniel

    I find the universe to be far more awe inspiring lacking a designer.

    • trj

      Agreed. Having some god magic the universe into existence really just makes it banal.

    • C Peterson

      I might feel differently if I saw evidence of anything like good design. But it isn’t there. With somewhat better technology, there’s nothing in nature that a competent engineer couldn’t improve upon.

      Nature is beautiful as something that demonstrates how complexity can arise from simple rules. But if interpreted as intelligently designed? It is only possible to see a truly incompetent designer, and there’s no beauty or awe in that.

      • Agrajag

        I’ve found that many religious people are unaware of this. They believe, for example, that the human body is somehow “perfect” or at least very close to it.

        In reality of course, that’s extremely far from the case, and I expect we’ll see huge improvements to it over the next century as we put our deliberate science to it as opposed to the randomness of evolution which tends to simply aim for the local maxima for reproduction.

        Deliberately designed biological components outperform biology by orders of magnitude in many cases. For example, if you had respirocytes (google them) instead of red blood-cells you’d be able to hold your breath for several hours, and that’s just a single rather trivial example.

        • joey_in_NC

          Deliberately designed biological components outperform biology by orders of magnitude in many cases.

          Given materialism, there really are no such fundamental things as “deliberately designed” things. In fact, there can be no such fundamental thing as “design”, unless you think something magical happens somewhere along the endless causal chain of purposeless events. “Deliberately designed” things are still perfectly natural things. If respirocytes existed, their creation would be fundamentally the same as the creation of red blood cells, meaning that both were created by completely purposeless natural forces.

          • Agrajag

            True, from a strictly philosophical perspective. But in everyday speech we do tend to separate between objects that are the result of a human brain designing an object to fulfill some purpose, and objects “designed” by evolution.

            But certainly, given that the human brain itself is a result of evolution, you can of course argue (and from a certain perspective be correct) that for example a CPU is exactly as natural as a bacteria.

            • joey_in_NC

              True, from a strictly philosophical perspective.

              From not only a strictly philosophical perspective, but also from a strictly scientific perspective.

              But in everyday speech we do tend to separate between objects that are the result of a human brain designing an object to fulfill some purpose, and objects “designed” by evolution.

              True.

              But certainly, given that the human brain itself is a result of evolution, you can of course argue (and from a certain perspective be correct) that for example a CPU is exactly as natural as a bacteria.

              Given materialism, that is EXACTLY correct.

          • C Peterson

            While everything may be natural, not everything is artificial. And the reality is, artificial things can always be produced that reflect better “design” than non-artificial things.

            Humans are better designers that any god. And if nature is the product of intelligent design, that designer was incompetent, pure and simple.

            • joey_in_NC

              While everything may be natural, not everything is artificial.

              You missed the point. What is your definition of “artificial”? Something touched by man? But isn’t that simply an arbitrary abstraction, considering you would reason the creation of man is not artificial?

              Humans are better designers that any god.

              If you think humans actually design things out of their own volition (rather than being compelled through purposeless forces of nature to do those things), then you believe in some magical thinking.

              • C Peterson

                Artificial generally does mean made by man, or at the least, some kind of life process. How is that arbitrary? And yes, I believe that there is such a thing as volition in humans (and other animals as well), and that behavior is far too complex to be reduced to simply the sum of its natural components. Our actions are based on natural processes, but are not predictable even with a perfect knowledge of those processes. And there is nothing about that view that requires “magical thinking”.

                Perhaps you are proposing some sort of curious new theology, where an intelligent designer created a universe with deliberately poor design, in order that one of its creations should eventually develop the ability to do better? Whatever you say.

                • joey_in_NC

                  ..and that behavior is far too complex to be reduced to simply the sum of its natural components.

                  “Behavior” may be a complex sum, but it is still simply the sum of its natural components. If you think there are some other ingredients or forces, what are they?

                  Our actions are based on natural processes, but are not predictable even with a perfect knowledge of those processes.

                  I never mentioned anything about predictability.

                  And there is nothing about that view that requires “magical thinking”.

                  Unless you think there are some magical ingredients or forces that make behavior not simply the sum of its natural components.

                • C Peterson

                  A complex system is not the sum of its parts. That is one of the definitions of a complex system. That doesn’t mean it requires other forces or ingredients.

                • joey_in_NC

                  A complex system is not the sum of its parts. That is one of the definitions of a complex system.

                  You’re taking the word “sum” too literally. And you’re the one who introduced the phrase sum of its parts, not me.

                  Bottom line is that given materialism, the most complex of systems are still guided 100% by natural forces, which are completely mindless/purposeless phenomena. Agrajag has it absolutely correct when he says that, fundamentally speaking, a CPU is exactly as natural as a bacteria. And going back to my first point, there really is no such thing as “design”.

                • C Peterson

                  the most complex of systems are still guided 100% by natural forces

                  Yes. So what exactly is your point? The fact remains that humans are both smarter and far better designers than any god they’ve ever imagined. The fact remains that if you believe the Universe was intelligently designed, that designer was not competent. And that was the only point of my original comment, not some abstract discussion relevant only in a philosophy class.

                • joey_in_NC

                  Yes. So what exactly is your point?

                  That given materialism, there is really no such thing as design, which makes your point about who or what is the “better designer” utterly pointless. That’s like arguing which galaxy system is more hip.

                • 3lemenope

                  That given materialism, there is really no such thing as design

                  This is only the umpteenth time you’ve implied that materialism prevents all good and true things, like value, morality, and purpose.

                  I’d be pleased as punch if you’d actually take a gander at defending (rather than simply asserting) that thesis, since many of your other comments seem to rely pretty heavily upon it.

                • joey_in_NC

                  This is only the umpteenth time you’ve implied that materialism prevents all good and true things, like value, morality, and purpose.

                  Not that it “prevents” any of these things, but simply that all these things are merely different abstractions of completely mindless/purposeless interactions of fundamental particles. Thus, these things are completely subjective descriptions and are not fundamental things (given materialism).

                  I’m sure you would agree as a materialist that there is no fundamental things as good or morality. I’m simply arguing here that design is in the same boat. Many think that design (or intelligence) is a fundamental ability that man has, and that it spontaneously poofed into existence once man evolved. But it’s not. It’s still the result of particles banging into each other.

                  I’d be pleased as punch if you’d actually take a gander at defending (rather than simply asserting) that thesis…

                  You haven’t been reading my posts. Agrajag seems to understand what I’m saying (see below). I’m not sure why no one else can.

                • 3lemenope

                  Not that it “prevents” any of these things, but simply that all these things are merely different abstractions of completely mindless/purposeless interactions of fundamental particles.

                  As a philosophy student I grew to loathe certain words. “Merely” is one of those words. (“Simply”, “obviously”, and the adverbial “just” are also on the list.)

                  I’m sure you would agree as a materialist that there is no fundamental things as good or morality.

                  No, I do not agree.

                  Many think that design (or intelligence) is a fundamental ability that man has, and that it spontaneously poofed into existence once man evolved.

                  Such people have never seen an ant farm or a beaver dam and don’t spend much time around other mammals, I guess.

                  But it’s not. It’s still the result of particles banging into each other.

                  Materialism != Reductionism. Using the fact that underlying material doesn’t share the same qualities as the objects which they compose as a premise in an ontological argument leads, as it did here, to a compositional fallacy. It’s akin to expecting humans to be invisible to the naked eye because all the atoms that compose a human are, individually, invisible to the naked eye.

                  You haven’t been reading my posts. Agrajag seems to understand what I’m saying (see below). I’m not sure why no one else can.

                  Agrajag conceded what I will not, I imagine because he or she has a different perspective on ontological and metaphysical matters than I do, one that happens to be more vulnerable to your mode of criticism.

                • joey_in_NC

                  Such people have never seen an ant farm or a beaver dam and don’t spend much time around other mammals, I guess.

                  Many would not consider either of those things the result of intelligence. If you do, then what about an amoeba swimming around for food or a virus taking over a cell? Where exactly do you draw the line delineating what is intelligence and what is not?

                  Materialism != Reductionism.

                  True, but I have yet to hear a decent argument that materialism should not devolve into reductionism. If a system supervenes on its components in the case of strong emergence, then how exactly does that happen? Do new physical laws suddenly emerge once material organizes and interacts in a certain way? For example, once a brain gets developed enough, do new physical laws appear such that the brain as a whole actually controls the subatomic particles that comprise it?

                  Agrajag conceded what I will not…

                  Why not concede that a CPU is just as natural as bacteria? Did the CPU involve a different set of natural physical laws in its formation compared to the formation of bacteria?

              • C.L. Honeycutt

                Jesus, not only have you completely misunderstood the implications of what’s recently been explained to you, despite those implications likewise being discussed, as well as such simple concepts as the use of metaphor in language, which, again, were discussed with you… but you’re being randomly pissy about it and looking for “gotchas”? Ugh.

          • joey_in_NC

            No, I’m familiar with emergence. If you’re referring to strong emergence (which is usually the case in these discussions), then you’re moving away from materialism. Read Mark A. Bedau’s critique of emergence here, with which I agree completely. Strong emergence does seem “like magic”.

            • joey_in_NC

              Of course there was no logical critique, or even an example case where emergentism is paradoxical in the section you referenced, merely an assertion that emergentism feels wrong to some guy.

              How about the claim that a human soul with free will and inherent value emerges once conception occurs? Can you give a logical critique against this type of “emergence” that can’t also be used to critique emergence in general?

      • Timothy McLean

        You know a big part of why the world is more awe-inspiring without a creator?

        If there was no creator, then the way we and everything else are is a happy accident made by a set of natural laws converging in an excellent pattern. I can appreciate the natural world like one would a crystal, or a complex computer program with emergent behavior, or something. I can enjoy these even with the flaws and bugs in them, just like I can enjoy the natural world even though there are parasitic worms and the like.
        If there was a creator, these imperfections that make the end result less pleasant were added on purpose, making the universe little more than a game of The Sims where the player decided to torture his little people.

        • C Peterson

          Exactly. In fact, the “flaws” in the natural system aren’t flaws at all, simply specific aspects of the system. It takes a creator to introduce flaws. And if there is one, it certainly went out of its way to monkey wrench the Universe.

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com/ Q. Quine

    Everyone, please write Oprah a letter telling her how you fell meaning and awe in life without the need to take mythology as truth.

  • Art_Vandelay

    This thing still pisses me off to no end. Oprah is my Joe Klein.

    • Jeff

      But how could she be Oprah if Joe Klein isn’t there to see it?

      • closetatheist

        I’m so happy there’s an innernet joke that I get.

  • Don

    Hemant, you write, “Winfrey had no business telling Nyad she wasn’t really an atheist.” She didn’t do that, though. Winfrey said, “I don’t call you an atheist.” It’s not a small distinction. She’s wrong to conflate a natural sense of awe with vaguely theistic reverence, but she is speaking about (and from) her own perspective; she isn’t saying Nyad is no atheist. She’s witlessly playing games with what the word God should or can represent. For her that awe at Creation is awe of the Creator. Nyad, however, is free to feel pure awe. I’m sure Winfrey understands that for Nyad there’s no God there and therefore that Nyad is an atheist–though elsewhere in that interview Nyad sure didn’t help her own case much. Nor ours.

    • Jeff

      In other words, Oprah wasn’t being presumptuous or arrogant, she was simply being rude.

    • Art_Vandelay

      It’s not really that insulting to Nyad. Okay…Nyad doesn’t fit her definition of an atheist…ridiculous definition but fine. Oprah does presumably believe that there are true atheists out there though and she thinks that to be one, you can’t experience awe and wonder with nature. Once someone tells her they do experience that, she ceases to consider them an atheist. That’s the real problem here…not what she thinks of Nyad who she doesn’t consider atheist but what she thinks of atheists. It’s an awful stereotype and one that feeds into the prejudice against atheism.

    • Feral Dog

      “I don’t call you an atheist” implies that because she feels amazement and joy at the natural world, she can’t be a real atheist. Trust me, I grew up on Oprah (thanks, mom). Decoding Oprah-speak is pretty easy.

    • Caprica

      You presume a lot about OW’s intellect. Personally, I don’t see any evidence of her thinking taking the path that you just stated.

    • Kodie

      Like most Christians do, I have some idea what I would consider a true Christian to be – if I were a Christian. But I’m not. I pretty much take every Christian’s word that they are a Christian, even if I think they are “bad” at it, i.e., interpret the scripture another way than I would.

      Now, leave it up to Christians to stereotype everyone. Oprah has her version of what it would mean to be an atheist, and Nyad doesn’t fit her own interpretation. Why would she take away someone’s self-identified label? As we are also familiar with, Christians often decide for themselves what Christianity means and decide that followers of other interpretations aren’t truly Christian.

      Why is Nyad’s label for Oprah to define? That is what Oprah did. She didn’t just tell Nyad she wasn’t really an atheist, she decided for her. This is like telling Oprah “I don’t call you black because you are too wealthy” or “I don’t call you a woman because you are too successful” or telling a gay man “I don’t call you gay because you seem like a regular guy” or “I don’t call you an American because your parents are Chinese”.

      Who gives a shit about Oprah’s perspective? Because she’s Oprah and cultivated a large following, a lot of people find her to be influential and her ideas and views particularly important. There is no “but she was speaking from her own perspective” here. She has no business making a remark of that kind. Her opinion counts a lot when she is giving away luxurious scarves and state-of-the-art coffee grinders, but not when she is judging people.

  • Jeff

    Nice post, but I think in today’s society, we preach to the choir and fall upon deaf ears of those we are trying to persuade. Everyone here of course thinks Oprah is wrong. Anyone who listens to Oprah thinks we have either a) blown this out of proportion, or b) how can we not believe in god? There are numerous psychology studies that prove we believe what we believe, many times regardless of any factual information presented to us. Those who lost/gave up their faith usually didn’t do it cold turkey, there was some event, or long series of events that caused it. We are really being silly if we think we are going to change her faith, though we might be able to change her stereotype of atheists. Maybe the best response to her would be “Oprah who?”

    • NathanExplosion

      I don’t see this as trying to “change her faith”.

  • L.Long

    The title is

    “This is What Oprah Doesn’t Understand About Atheists”

    Could be much shorter…

    “This is What Oprah Doesn’t Understand.”
    But the article would have been MUCH MUCH much longer.
    Yes she is rich and made a big business from her ‘talents’.
    Does not mean she is intelligent, just smart and lucky, and knows how to appeal to the lowest denominator.

  • John Bidwell

    I used To Pray

    I used to pray, as if
    my wishes touched the heart of God

    While those who study
    fossil fishes thought it rather odd.

    The trace of ancient
    relatives in prehistoric slime-

    As carbon dated
    minerals reveal a planet’s time.

    How strange our epic arrogance-
    so recently arrived

    On land where
    creatures stories high once walked, and flew, and thrived.

    At different turns
    the masters ruled, to us by massive size-

    But left the world
    with evidence that every species dies.

    Mutations brought
    advantages by happenstance for sure-

    But clearly with
    advantages more likely to endure-

    And pass the torch of
    competence for all life would require-

    Until one human
    species raised a torch now holding fire.

    The wonders were too
    much to grasp, but need for explanation-

    Inspired a million
    stories that would soothe each generation.

    But certain laws
    discovered brought consistency to view-

    A grasp of how this
    all can be, but held by just a few.

    So many choose those
    stories as the map to find their way-

    Instead of building
    answers they’re content to simply pray.

    Most heartless of
    inventions- to survive by tooth and claw-

    But reading all the
    evidence, instead we’re left with…awe.

    John H. Bidwell

  • James Kujawa

    Mr. Mehta, I hope your health is good. If people don’t understand the reason for life and feel why we even live without a god here is why. This is an individual response.
    I am an RN by profession. I don’t believe in an afterlife, so I try to extend the only life humans will ever have and to make them healthy enough to enjoy this one. I am in awe of astronauts, because not only do they have the courage to travel to outer space (trusting other humans/scientists, engineers, physicists. etc. to keep them alive), but they have the incredible intelligence to fix Hubble, the International space station etc. when they get there. I am in awe of doctors, who can go in and repair a damaged heart and it is not a supernatural event, he just knows his job. Why does a car seem so similar to a human heart? The spark plug system in a car is similar to the electrical system of a human heart.( SA node/AV node/bundle of his/Purkinje fibers).( This is the reverse and correct response to that millions of parts by chance landed together and formed a 727 from the creationist type reasoning). We, the human race, made those planes. It was not by chance. A scientist with a PHD in physics or math will admit we have only gone to the Moon when a high school dropout knows who and what is at the end of the Universe through a Sunday mass (Who has more humility here)? I am in awe of people who believe a man built a boat and put 2 of every species on it, ordered to do so by his loving god while he destroyed the entire human race. Wow, just absolutely in awe.

  • Bones Thompson

    A lady once told me that I’m agnostic because I told her that I would consider the existence of a god if she could provide evidence. I told her that she doesn’t understand Atheism.

  • ludcidphoenix

    I say these everywhere in reference to this, but I’ll say it again.

    I’d rather have questions without answers than answers that can’t be questioned.

    The former fuels our desire to explore the universe, discover it’s wonders and show them respect and appreciate. The latter, encourages ignorance, fuels wars and bigotry and gives power to those who deserve none.

  • Caprica

    I don’t know why anyone is surprised by Oprah’s comments. I have found her to be rude, vaccuous, uninteresting and pretty thick. ‘Awe’ is only a three letter word but she seems to struggle with its meaning.

    • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

      Upvote just for your screenname.

      • lmern

        Upvote just for your upvote.

        • Agrajag

          Downvote. Just for your upvote of the upvote.

          • islandbrewer

            Downvote for your downvote of the upvote of the upvote.

            • Joe GK

              No vote for no reason.

        • Ingersollman

          Upvote for the upvote of the upvote and the downvote of the downvote and because I too think O is a jackass.

          • lmern

            Awww man. I needed that. Thanks guys.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        Upvoting my report on everyone below me for thread derailment.

  • Michael Murray

    With that definition of god maybe we should try to convince Oprah to admit that she is a deist not a Christian ?

  • justice25

    As an atheist I find the world and the universe really exciting, science give us fantastic information about the complexity of our world and our lifes. Religious views of this is limited and boring. It´s far more meaningful to grasp reality. I´m glad I live in Norway, where people are far less religious. And guess what, contries without religion, are the most peaceful and democratic nations!

  • Kodie

    It is basically the same awe. It’s not like finding out the natural explanation for sunsets makes looking at them disappointing.

  • John Kaiser

    Oprah is not really black.

    • John Kaiser

      I think she is an alien, and I know this because she has a orb of green light around her that is sparkly. I can see it when I wear my tin foil spectral glasses, that I got from Sylvia Brown.


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