Oprah and Diana Nyad: A Religious Trademark on Awe and Wonder

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Diana Nyad is garnering popular criticism online. Oprah made some sweeping, and wildly inaccurate, statements concerning atheism. In essence, Oprah claimed atheists could not feel wonder and awe— these two qualities being thus tied distinctly to believers. Statements such as these are a big reason why my blog exists. Only, to be fair, Einstein said similar remarks a long time ago; Oprah’s sentiment is an all too familiar one.

Atheists are not incapable of awe and wonder. The most powerful experience of wonder I have had in recent days occurred earlier this month when I went swimming in the mountains. It was cold, and the mountainside was more empty than usual. I was the only person in the water. When I dove deep, trailing my fingers along the rocks, and looked up, I saw the sun reflecting against stone; I saw orange and red and yellow fallen leaves floating on the surface. The air in my chest, for a moment, felt like magic. I never wanted to breathe again.

While I could lament for paragraphs upon paragraphs on the wrongness and implications of Oprah’s interview, I want to briefly comment on three points: Redefinition, Bias, and Gender.

Redefining God & the Individual

In this interview, not only does Oprah redefine Diana Nyad’s religious stance, but she attempted to redefine God, not in a new manner per se, but in a relevant one. Oprah’s statements could be received as equally problematic for the believer. She seems to point out an inadequacy in contemporary religion by stressing awe, wonder, and mystery in contrast to a more traditional ideal. (Which, to me, sounds very atheist of her, but I digress…) If I were a believer, I would be skeptical of Oprah’s definition which seems to partner agenda. Perhaps more disconcerting is when Oprah refuses to accept Diana’s definition and instead succumbs to the ineptitude of label. Oprah used her own belief system to define someone else. Have we learned nothing from history?

Negative Bias

What bothers me most about Oprah’s statement is her obvious negative bias for the word “atheist.” She interrupts Diana and asks if she is an atheist with an agitated look on her face. (It was the type of look that borderlines, not disgust, but inconvenience.) Prejudice against atheists runs so deeply within Oprah that she didn’t even stop to think before saying atheists are incapable of feeling. Furthermore, when she learned of Diana’s ability to feel, she immediately revoked her identity as an atheist. To Oprah, atheism is not compatible with humanity. Intolerance to non-believers is dangerously apparent when it is not unacceptable to ask them if they feel human emotion.

Diana’s Gender

Atheism is largely man’s play. I admire Diana Nyad for what she said. I loved the way she emphasized tolerance and contradiction. Her illustration was beautiful. I cannot help but speculate; if Diana had been male, would Oprah have criticized her religious position so disrespectfully? Or would popular reaction to this interview have come about so strongly? I often think about how we come to the aid of women who do not need our help and what that says about our culture.


  1. erikamsteele · October 20, 2013

    I didn’t watch the interview because I am at my parents’ and the connection here stinks. I think Oprah would have criticized a male, but maybe not as disrespectfully or as fervently. Women are seen as spiritual, nurturing, and caring; all of the things religion allegedly adds to people’s lives There must be something wrong with a woman who is not religious. Something must be broken inside her for her to embrace the “emptiness” of atheism. I am more shocked that she said that atheist are not human. Ridiculous.

    • Sarah Key · October 20, 2013

      I tried finding a transcript to send you of this clip, but I couldn’t find an unbiased one. During the interview, Oprah does not say that atheists aren’t human. However, by stripping away their ability to feel awe and wonder, she does degrade their humanity. If she had actually said “atheists are not human,” I can’t even begin to imagine the way media would have jumped on the topic.

      I think you’re right, and it’s this false perception of inner brokenness in the female atheist that leads Oprah and others to make such presumptuous remarks. I hope to write more entries in the future about how atheism is frequently attributed to masculine qualities, the male-dominated nature of secularism, and point out frequently overlooked female atheists/thinkers. Thank you for commenting.

      • erikamsteele · October 20, 2013

        I’ve watched the clip now and I don’t see the interview the way you see it. I didn’t hear her say that atheist can’t feel awe. I hear her trying to connect to Diana’s words as she does with anyone else that she has interviewed. The interview was no different than any other interview. I think Oprah likes to hear herself talk.

        As far as the treatment of females who aren’t spiritual, nurturing etc my view on that still remains. I didn’t see Oprah treating Diana this way. It does happen, but not here. Had Diana been male, Oprah would have still tried to over talk him. That is just her interviewing style.

  2. erikamsteele · October 20, 2013

    Reblogged this on Feigned Affections.

  3. Hunt FOR Truth · October 20, 2013

    The amazing story to me is that Diana Nyad made a historic swim… that she survived it even… not that she is an atheist. Diana Nyad is the 64-year-old marathon swimmer and she swam a huge distance under extremely dangerous conditions. That is the amazing thing — the crowd value story in this interview.

    Regarding what is on this blog…
    First off, of special interest, this interview is on an Opera Super Soul Sunday show. I expect that on her Super Soul Sunday shows that Opera will question spiritual values, afterlife beliefs, and perhaps even religious beliefs or religious experiences. That is typical of this venue on the Opera channel – OWN tv.

    Opera said to Diana: “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think that if you beleive in the awe, in the wonder and the mystery, ah, that that is what God is.” Diana was ready to reply and Opera further stated “That is what God is. He’s not the bearded guy in the sky.”

    I watched this tape several times and other clips too. The two ladies had a relatively plesant converstation. They appear to have different beliefs. Opera did not criticize.

    How that this video clip reflects Opera as anti-atheist or anti- Diana is beyond my understanding. It was a positive interview. Diana made intresting points and those points about her spirituality and beleifs were received without criticism. Opera’s facial expression reveals some stressful internal process is occurring — what she said is not ciritical. For all I know, Opera may have an upset stomach, a cramp, gas, a blank minded-moment, or a cue from in here ear from her staff abuot something. My speculation is as valid. What else are you going on?

    • erikamsteele · October 20, 2013

      Now that I have seen the interview, I wish I would have waited before commenting. I don’t see the interview as being negative or Oprah as being critical of Diana Nyad’s stance at all. I don’t see her as trying to redefine God or Christianity either. I see Oprah as trying to connect to what Diana Nyad was saying as she does with anyone she has ever interviewed. I don’t see her treating Diana any differently than she has ever treated anyone who has come on her show.

      I have heard some people think Atheist and anyone else who is not Christian as being amoral, less human, and somehow less than. I did not hear that in this interview. Christians are individuals and are capable of independent thought. What Oprah is saying in this interview is very much in line with my academic understanding of Christianity and how many of my friends live their lives.

      Tolerance and understanding go both ways. Discrimination against atheists does exist, but I do not see it in this interview.

    • Sarah Key · October 20, 2013

      Hunt FOR Truth – Diana Nyad’s swim is incredible. I’m glad you have pointed that out. I wrote the paragraph about my swim in relation largely to her achievement. There have been other, more recent moments of awe and wonder in my life, but I wanted to specifically write about that one.

      To say the least, I would call what Oprah said critical. Maybe we are using a different definition of critical though? Oprah practiced good listening skills. In that way, she received Diana’s story “without criticism.” However, if one focuses on what was said by Oprah, I think her criticism is blatant and slightly disappointing. I appreciate the way you have offered up other options for Oprah’s expression in that moment. Your explanation does help me feel less bothered about the interview. Thank you.

      Nice to see another Xangan here, by the way!

      • Hunt FOR Truth · October 20, 2013

        I do think Oprah’s comment was oddly put … she said: “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think that if you believe in the awe, in the wonder and the mystery, ah, that that is what God is.” Maybe that is what she was stressed about — I know when I regret what I am just saying that my face gives me away on that. We can’t really say what was in her head. However, her mouth didn’t betray anything more than surprised amazement. Her body language did say she feels right being a believer and this seemed to lit her in her chair. We can’t say that is what she was thinking though.
        Diana is comfortable saying that she’s an atheist and that she is has a spiritual life. That’s what I got out of the interview segment. As well, I think that Oprah was getting an education by how Diana defines her spirituality. I’m not surprised by what Diana said. However, Christians and atheists do not often hear or read each others thoughts about spirituality.
        Did you notice that Diana was not flustered? She was comfortable and clear about how her beliefs differ from Christian beliefs regarding God and yet that she is spiritual. I don’t see any problem with that.
        I don’t think we ought to find fault with Oprah. This was an unusual interview for the Super Soul Sunday program. It went well for Diana and for how she spoke about her beliefs too. If you identify with what she says, you ought simply be pleased by her warm and charming portrayal of her beliefs. She is a true hero in many ways.

      • Hunt FOR Truth · October 20, 2013

        What was your Xanga name?

      • Sarah Key · October 22, 2013

        For two or three years, I ran an artist’s blog called CrazyKey123. Then I started writing on a private blog until the Xanga 2.0 transition.

  4. happierheathen · October 20, 2013

    I’ve had dozens of similar conversations with believers, and what I see in Oprah is something I’ve often seen in my own experiences: Oprah is seeking to restore her own emotional comfort by rationalizing away Nyad’s atheism as nothing more than Nyad misunderstanding her own thoughts. The leading questions (e.g. “Would you consider yourself spiritual?”) are a hallmark of that. Oh, well, you’re spiritual so you’re not *really* an atheist (and I feel much better now).

    Thank god for the gift of self delusion.

  5. D. Eaton · October 20, 2013

    I can imagine going to Oprah for her advice on some topics but spiritual guidance isn’t one of them…

  6. Catholic Tap House · October 20, 2013

    Your question about Diana Nyad’s gender I think are valid and you’re right. We could only speculate on that based on public opinion and Oprah’s response.

    This debacle was brought up in a class of mine. Another student said Oprah wasn’t trying to change Diana Nyad’s position or make her into a theist but she was merely looking at the word atheism from a different point-of-view. Basically Oprah is understanding the word atheism as it is commonly used which was careless on her part. In a few short words she propagated negative stereotype. And with a woman like Oprah who constantly emphasizes tolerance that’s disheartening to see.

    And just to say this before I forget… your description of the swim was moving. Diana Nyad probably would have liked it too. ;-)

    • Hunt FOR Truth · October 20, 2013

      My impression of Diana was positive and I was feeling her as warm and genuine and compassionate… nothing Oprah was saying was critical. I did notice her facial expression was stressed. I don’t claim to be typical of Christians. However, there just aren’t any facts here in the clip that support bias even. This is a show that specifically explores spirituality and spiritual experiences including how people believe regarding God.
      For example next week show:
      10/27 Oprah & Bestselling Author Dani Shapiro: Finding Devotion
      10/27 Oprah & Bestselling Author Anne Lamott: The 3 Essential Prayers
      I’ve seen Christian and other religious condemn atheists. This isn’t that.
      Diana was treated with respect and admiration by Oprah. There are several other clips covering this interview. The interview was more extensive than 3 1/2 minutes.

  7. autumnstrength · October 21, 2013

    It’s as if Opera is suggesting that if you’re an atheist you’re a very skeptical person of life itself – you don’t think life is mysterious or amazing – you can’t be in awe of the world or the universe around us – it’s the complete opposite – it’s even more amazing that all of this happened by chance, evolving slowly over billions of years. That’s something to be in awe of.

  8. buddy71 · October 27, 2013

    i now know who you are and remember you from xanga. most people feel that if you are not following the christain religion or the christian religion beliefs then you are an atheist. those that follow buddhism, like me, or hindu or any other non christian religion are deemed atheist. but it all depends on what definition you subscribe to about atheist. i feel that what you have said here about what oprah said is right on. she is way out of line. but then she has her opinion and i have mine which it seems is much inline with yours.
    on another note. i am glad to have found you again as i have missed your writing.
    as for diana nyad? she is an awesome woman and her swim is a great achievement!

    • Sarah Key · October 27, 2013

      I am happy to have found you on WordPress, too! I’ll definitely be in touch.

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