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.