Superstition

Since moving to North Carolina, I have started teaching ESL to adults. At one point, I was teaching students five nights a week. It was overwhelming, and I wasn’t very good at lesson planning yet. One of my South Korean students has been dedicated throughout this process. He keeps an organized three-ring binder and shows up to lessons on time. His English has improved significantly since we first started working together.

My student and I were talking about families and cultures recently. I had created a discussion-based activity with an imaginary character for the exercise. There was a question in the activity that asked about religion. My student pointed to the question and shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Which word?” I asked.

He tilted the paper with his finger below the word “religion.”

“Christianity, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Hinduism are all examples of religions,” I said.

He immediately made the connection and nodded. Since we were talking in the context of family, he first answered for his mother and father. When I asked if he was religious, he said, “No, no. I’m not superstitious.” The word was awkward, more than three syllables, the /er/ sound muddled in his pronunciation. Never cross a black cat in the middle of a road. Don’t knock over the salt. Leave an apple on the tree at the end of the harvest. Hold your breath when you pass a cemetery. That was always one of my favorites. I would ride our horse through the cemetery near my grandmother’s home, pretending I was a character from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or some unknown female figure from the American Revolution, and hold my breath the whole time, spurring the horse faster and faster and faster until we were both thick with sweat, wondering if we would ever get caught.

Superstition remains a compelling force where I grew up, and these superstitions and images from my childhood live somewhere in the back of my mind as comfortable rituals and absurd mysteries. Maybe I could argue that these memories opened me up to a richer world, or maybe I could argue that they are evidence of a culture deeply flawed and clinging to its own suspension of disbelief. Other days, I just try to see the magic in it and remember myself as a girl sitting on a hardwood floor next to my cousin during a lightning storm, lining up acorns on the windowsill, and thinking we were furthest thing from death.

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.