Oprah Winfrey, who apparently didn’t get the memo about labels, came out with this gem the other day when confronted with a person who called herself an atheist but insisted that she felt awe at the beauty of the universe and humanity itself:
“‘Well I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder, and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It’s not the bearded guy in the sky,’ she said.”
The person being interviewed had the audacity to contradict La Oprah, being rightfully incensed at having a label applied to her without her consent–and having her own self-label questioned in the same breath–but Oprah kept insisting that no atheist could possibly feel wonderment or awe just like Christians do.
Let’s walk it back, shall we?
First, wonderment and awe are human emotions just like love and hate are. Every emotion a Christian feels, a non-Christian can feel as well. Stripping someone of essential humanity is not a nice thing to do. It might make Oprah feel better–and we could speculate endlessly about why Oprah desperately needs to believe that atheists don’t feel some emotions that she feels–but it is neither loving nor kind to do to another person.
A while ago, I encountered one of those “logical Christian” types–you know, those tedious and unendurably sad Christians who have contorted themselves, via an intricate and mind-breaking series of fallacious and irrational arguments, into believing that their belief system is the only logical/rational option available–who told an atheist friend of mine that, since he obviously couldn’t feel true love since he’d discarded his Christian faith, that surely he didn’t really love his wife, and that moreover he might as well rape her as give her presents, since he also didn’t have a moral compass anymore.
It blew my mind. I mean, seriously, it messed with my head for a good week or so. A Christian minister acquaintance with whom I shared this story asked me point-blank why I even cared what such a horrible human being thought of me or any of my friends, and that helped a lot–even a minister could see that this person was a horrible human being and certainly didn’t agree with him in the least. But this acquaintance, by freeing me of my horror at this toxic Christian’s behavior, helped me to work out what’d bothered me so much about that exchange and it came to this: this person had tried to strip my friend of his essential humanity. In this creepy Christian’s world, only Christians could feel love, or tenderness, or mercy, or kindness. If someone was not a Christian, then clearly that person could not feel those things, and might as well go out raping and pillaging all over the place since those things didn’t matter to this straw-non-Christian (and may I say how really creepy it really was that he leaped immediately to rape, implying that only Christianity was holding him back from raping women himself?).
Obviously, none of his assertions were true, and all this toxic Christian had to do was just ask the atheist in question if he loved his wife or if he ever felt the desire to hurt other people or rape them since deconverting. By the same token, all Oprah has to do is ask atheists if they ever feel awe or wonder. All Christians have to do is listen–just listen, that’s all. They’ll hear plenty of atheists talk about passionate love and blinding awe and all those emotions they think are unique to religion. And sooner or later they’ll have to come to grips with the simple fact that these emotions are not unique to religion at all. They are human, and any human can feel and experience them.
A hundred years ago, these same Christians with their big ole Jesus smiles and their big ole Jesus pantsuits would have been writing about how black people and Chinese immigrants didn’t feel pain the same way that “normal” (read: white) people felt them, so that made it okay to beat them, overwork them, and otherwise mistreat them. Even today it’s not uncommon to run across white supremacists who insist that minorities don’t feel the same things they feel (remember that awesome Queen Latifah SNL commercial about Excedrin Racial Tension Headache pills, where she asks with some umbrage, “Yes, I think Condoleeza Rice is very articulate. Why do you sound so surprised?”). Heck, MRAs practically built their whole pathetic movement upon the idea that women are strange and weird alien creatures with unguessable motives and a scorching desire to hurt men. Stuff like this is just a way to dehumanize the opposition, which makes it okay to look down on them and even to abuse them.
Be watching for Christians pulling this stunt, folks. Be paying attention when someone tries to make another group of people seem less than human by denying that they feel the same things or react to things the same way.
Second, the atheist in question didn’t ask for Oprah’s consent to the use of her self-label. She didn’t ask, “What do you think this set of parameters would make me?” She didn’t actually go looking for Oprah’s stamp of approval. It’s not up to Oprah to decide what this person is or isn’t. The person in question says she’s an atheist. It’s not Oprah’s job to try to force her into saying “Oh, wow, then I guess I’m really a theist/Christian/whatever you are trying to make me say.”
Often people who have chosen a particular label run into people who tell them that this label could not possibly be accurate. Oprah’s reaction is quite typical of people who don’t understand atheism. Just as vegetarians constantly battle a world that tries to tell them they’re not “really” vegetarians if they eat this or that or don’t care about animal welfare particularly, atheists get told over and over again that they can’t really be atheists if they feel this or that. It feeds into the dehumanization attempt nicely: only people in our tribe feel this particular very human emotion. This person feels this emotion. Therefore, this person is a member of our tribe even if s/he insists otherwise. It’s not fair, and it’s only going to make the person being treated this way more resistant to communicating. In Oprah’s interview transcript, notice how the atheist she’s talking to sounds like she’s all but inching down in her seat and bracing herself in discomfort. She’s on a big talk show with one of the biggest names in the business, so she doesn’t want to be rude, but she’s certainly not going to let Oprah trample her like that without a bit of pushback.
Do you think that tomorrow, or next year, or in ten years, this person will look back at this interview and consider it the sparking moment in her dramatic conversion? Or do you think she’ll chalk it up to yet another theist who doesn’t want to listen or treat others fairly? I know what I’d think if I were treated that way.
Third, the label isn’t that important anyway. In this context, what does Oprah’s atheist guest’s beliefs have to do with her profession as a swimmer? Nothing whatsoever. What does Oprah’s theism have to do with her profession as a talk-show hostess? Nothing whatsoever. The labels matter if people make them matter. Oprah, who is a theist, acts like a stone-cold twit in this interview; she is unloving, ungracious, and dehumanizing of those who don’t believe like she does. Meanwhile, her guest, who is an atheist, behaves with grace under pressure as well as wit and charm; clearly she’s had to deal with this kind of treatment before. Oprah wants to sit down and debate her on whether or not her guest’s beliefs fit into Oprah’s understanding of atheism (which looks woefully inadequate to begin with), and figure out if the label the guest is using is accurate. Just as clearly, Oprah can’t rest until she’s figured this out, and once she figures it out (by declaring that the label is inaccurate), she feels much better.
But why does she need to go to those lengths?
I’m not sure that the label is as important as Oprah thinks it is. I’ve run into a number of people in my life who’ve claimed to have once been atheists. Kirk Cameron is the most famous example, but often you run into Christians who say they used to be atheists. They do it to make their conversion seem more palatable and relatable, I know. I realize they’re trying to make themselves sound more intellectually advanced, so I’ll pay more attention to their dramatic conversion stories.
The problem with that delusion is that I’ve known enough atheists to know that just as being an atheist doesn’t make someone less than human, it also doesn’t make that person more than human. Being an atheist doesn’t confer special powers of perception and rationality upon someone. Christians who do this want it both ways: they want atheists to be both less than human (in not being able to love or to use rationality or whatever else it is they think atheists just can’t do without a god), but also more than human when it suits them (in being oh-so-very-intellectual that they recognized how very, very wise it would be to adopt this or that religion). When dealing with other atheists, well, atheists aren’t quite human. When dealing with their own past, well, atheists are amazingly superhuman.
It’s aggravating and inconsistent–but really, those are two qualities that are, themselves, very human.
If there was one thing I could tell Christians, it’d be this: Don’t bother fighting about labels, and don’t expect your own labels to be compelling. Fighting about labels isn’t very loving. And it’s not dealing in good faith with your conversation partner, either. If a Christian tells me, as several have in the last couple months, that s/he used to be an atheist, I see no reason to quibble about that self-labeling. It doesn’t really matter to me what that person was or wasn’t in the context of the person’s proselytization argument (and believe you me, you can all but hear ’em sputter in the wake of my lack of caring, “But.. but.. I was a MAGIC ATHEIST! Fear and respect the MAGIC ATHEIST!” Ah, but they don’t realize, I am an ex-Christian, so I am well aware of the Cult of “Before” Stories). It doesn’t even particularly matter to me if the person calls him- or herself an evangelical or a fundamentalist but doesn’t conform to what I think those terms mean. It’s not like there’s some universally-accepted checklist given to humankind by a loving and benevolent god or something that lets us know for sure what qualities do and don’t make the cut.
What I’m not going to do is assume that someone can or cannot feel something I feel based on beliefs. We’re all human, and what might be harder for modern mainstream and fundagelical Christians to grasp than anything else is just how unmistakably human non-believers really are and how very alike we all are with or without religion. I know that’s going to be a challenge for their self-image. It certainly was to mine. One of the hardest things I had to deal with was realizing that my religion didn’t make me more special or more human than anybody else. It didn’t confer upon me any special qualities I hadn’t had before my conversion (though it did make me a raging jerk for a while, I’m sure). It didn’t make me a better person at all. Nor did it make me suddenly start feeling things I had never felt before. And the things I attributed to the touch of my god were things I felt after leaving Christianity, sometimes while doing things I know, for 100% sure, my old pastor wouldn’t have approved of me doing at all.
For a person who makes her living talking to people, Oprah seems curiously unwilling to really communicate with this atheist guest. All it’d take to shake her delusion is communicating with more atheists. All it’d take is her listening, truly listening, to what other people have to say. All it’d take is honestly confronting the truth: that atheists do, indeed, feel all the stuff she feels and that it’s not really a god doing it at all, but just people being people–which is why we won’t see her doing any of that anytime soon. But to the Christians I know are reading this, please, don’t be like that.
I’ll close by paraphrasing one of the choicest bits of wisdom I ever heard, from an older gentleman who was part of a huge jury pool for a very well-publicized trial back in the 90s; he got disqualified for not believing that mental illness was an excuse for killing somebody. What he said upon leaving the jury selection room and being asked about his experience by TV reporters has stuck with me for twenty years:
“We all crazy, and we do what we do.”
Next up, we’re going to talk about the year I spent in the Unequally Yoked Club. You’ve heard of it, right? That’s when someone’s married to a Christian who gets upset about his or her mate deconverting. Yes, you heard me. We’re talking about mixed marriages next. I’m so going there.
Also, I’m mostly moved into the new place and though I’m sore all over and getting a head cold from the dust, I’m alive and the cats are acting especially needy. Still got to get the old place shaped up, but we ought to be back on a fairly normal every-other-day schedule at this point. You really, really, really don’t want to know just how much I wanted to get this piece written and get back into the swing of things–I am literally surrounded right now by stacks of boxes taller than I am, with a narrow corridor through the study leading to my desk; that’s how much I love you folks.
It’s good to be back.
I’ll see you soon.