When famed long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad stands on a beach before an endless ocean, she says she feels “awe.”
Nyad famously and unprecedentedly in 2013 swam the 110 miles from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, at the age of 64 — on her fifth try and without the aid of a shark cage.
She had earlier received national attention in 1975 by swimming around Manhattan Island, New York (28 miles), and then in 1979 when she swam from North Bimini, The Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida (102 miles).
She’s also an avowed atheist.
Nyad once pithily described herself in a 2013 “Super Soul Sunday” interview (embedded below) with the inimitable Oprah Winfrey as “an atheist who feels awe,” according to a Psychology Today (PT) article. (I read the article for the first time this week, but it’s still relevant.)
This was something Winfrey, who has long espoused her own somewhat nebulous spirituality, couldn’t quite seem to get her head around.
Here’s an exchange spotlighting that awkward confusion in the interview, which I’ve lifted from a 2013 post in Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog:
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.
The celebrated talk-show host and media billionaire is not alone. A lot of Americans even now can’t seem to comprehend that human beings can be truly awed by anything except a glimpse of the divine.
But this is ridiculously untrue.
The 2013 interview is a study in how Winfrey keeps trying to shepherd Nyad into agreeing that if she feels awe in nature, it must derive from a spiritual realm, not the fully natural one the swimmer is clearly alluding to.
“People are capable of experiencing a sense of awe in the absence of supernatural beliefs, and in fact, the experience of awe may be particularly beneficial for those who do not believe in an afterlife,” Scott A. McGreal wrote in his 2013 Psychology Today article. “… While some people may well use the word ‘God’ purely as a metaphor for the ‘awe, wonder, and mystery,’ most people understand the term differently, more often than not to refer to the existence of a supernatural creator being, so Oprah’s claims are disingenuous.”
Although fewer than half of Americans today still harbor strong antagonism toward atheists, in the era of the Winfrey/Nyad interview, a majority were markedly apprehensive toward nonbelievers. McGreal wrote in his piece:
“According to a survey of how Americans view minority groups, atheists top the list of people that Americans have a problem with, more so than Muslims or gays. In fact, a 2002 survey found that 54% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of atheists (Zuckerman, 2009). Psalm 14 in the Bible describes people who don’t believe in God as ‘filthy, corrupt fools, entirely incapable of doing any good’ (Zuckerman, 2009).
Research back then also indicated that atheists, as opposed to religious faithful, tended to be less racist and sexist, less anti-Semitic, less nationalistic, less dogmatic, and less authoritarian.
If Winfrey were to conduct the same interview today, she would likely be more nuanced and understanding in an America where roughly a quarter of the population now consists of religiously unaffiliated citizens, including atheists, agnostics, and random “spiritually”-inclined-but-not-religious folks (whatever that may mean).
It’s probably unsurprising that the capacity for “awe” is often misrepresented. McGreal explained that studies have defined it as “a response to the experience of vastness combined with a need to make sense of an experience so vast it surpasses one’s current understanding.”
That’s a definition of what presumably led humankind down the rabbit hole of supernatural superstition and, ultimately, organized global religions. But far less “surpasses one’s current understanding” these days, and many fundamental religious assumptions have been permanently debunked (the Earth is the center of the universe, the Sun moves in relation to the Earth, et al.).
As people in the West, particularly, become more educated and intellectually sophisticated they tend to be largely unconvinced by the doctrines of religious superstitions. It’s been a trending phenomenon for decades in developed Western nations.
So, it is now widely understood that “awe” can be a natural human emotion not anchored to divine imaginings. Even Einstein and Sagan and other noted scientists felt that way, although believers still like to think they were just self-deluded.
Like there are supposedly no atheists in foxholes or standing before the majesty of the Grand Canyon (which I’ve been to a number of times and find truly awesome).
“What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility,” Albert Einstein once wrote. “This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”
Even at the end of his life he was still trying to convince religious people that he did not believe in supernatural realms, only natural ones.
But clearly, Einstein, as Nyad, was often overwhelmed by a sense of profound awe in the universe and its magnificent mystery and beauty.
Not a “God” in sight.