Beliefs Culture

Oprah interview stirs debate: What is an atheist?

Video courtesy OWN TV via YouTube

(RNS) What was supposed to be a touchy-feely, one-on-one interview by Oprah Winfrey with long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad has morphed into a broader, sometimes angry exchange about what it means to be an atheist.

Earlier this month (Oct. 13) Winfrey, 59, hosted Nyad on “Super Soul Sunday,” her weekly talk program on cable’s Oprah Winfrey Network. Nyad, 64, recently completed a 53-hour solo swim from Cuba to Florida.

During the hourlong segment, Nyad declared herself an atheist. She then explained, “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 and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.”

Long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad attends Day 1 of 'Swim For Relief' benefiting Hurricane Sandy Recovery at Herald Square on October 8, 2013 in New York City.

Photo courtesy Debby Wong /

Long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad attends Day One of “Swim For Relief” benefiting Hurricane Sandy Recovery at Herald Square on October 8, 2013 in New York City.

“Well, I don’t call you an atheist then,” Winfrey said. “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 a bearded guy in the sky.”

Nyad reiterated her lack of belief in a divine being, but the exchange upset many nonbelievers. They took to the Internet and social media to express outrage at Winfrey’s assumption that only believers can experience the transcendent or spiritual.

“As an atheist I am even more in AWE and WONDER about the Universe and Nature,” tweeted someone called “Mark Secular.” “I don’t need a god @Oprah to see the beauty of it.”

“(I)t’s ‘difficult’ enough being an atheist in these parts,” Stacypie tweeted from Dallas. “I don’t need her defining MY spirituality for all.”

And Boston Atheists, which draws members from across New England, launched a Twitter and Facebook campaign to get Winfrey to officially apologize.

Within a day or two of the broadcast, several prominent atheist leaders and organizations issued statements expressing disappointment with Winfrey. Most saw in the talk show host’s rejection of Nyad’s atheism what polls, studies and often their own experience tell them — that atheists are among the least trusted and least liked Americans.

“Oprah … does more to perpetuate negative attitudes toward nonbelievers than Pat Robertson or James Dobson ever could,” wrote David Niose, president of the Secular Coalition for America, on the website of Psychology Today. “Oprah, as a media tycoon and a beloved celebrity whose opinions are taken seriously by millions, has just confirmed that atheists are ‘the other,’ outsiders who just don’t belong in the in-group.”

Chris Stedman is the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of the new book, “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.”

Chris Stedman is the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of the new book, “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.” Photo courtesy Alex Dakoulas

On CNN’s Belief Blog, Chris Stedman, Harvard University’s assistant humanist chaplain, wrote, “Winfrey’s response may have been well intended. But it erased Nyad’s atheist identity and suggested something entirely untrue and, to many atheists like me, offensive: that atheists don’t experience awe and wonder.”

Others weighed in on,, Skepchick and other atheist and humanist blogs. Even Fox News’ “The Five” weighed in, with co-host Eric Bolling saying, “Oprah shouldn’t have an opinion whether Nyad believes in God or not.”

Why has this struck such a deep chord? Ryan Cragun, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Tampa who studies atheists, said it may be because atheists are beginning to be more public about their lack of belief, seeing this as an opportunity to express their difference, their presence and their rights — much like the gay community has done before.

“Americans are beginning to realize that there are atheists, but they don’t really know who and what atheists are,” Cragun said. “They likely still think atheists are just crotchety old men saying, ‘Your god doesn’t exist!’ Thus, when they encounter an actual atheist who says, ‘I’m constantly amazed at the world we live in and it makes me stop and wonder all the time,’ they are surprised.”

Marcia Z. Nelson, author of “The Gospel According to Oprah,” agreed, saying Winfrey may be exhibiting more unawareness than intolerance.

“As I see it, Oprah was being her spiritually and professionally curious self,” Nelson said. “The problem atheists have is partly one of language; the God and religion people have been working on refining their descriptive languages for millennia. Oprah was actually doing atheists a favor by quizzing Nyad. Atheists need to concentrate more on expressing awe and less on taking hyperbolic offense where none is intended.”


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • There are usually two basic presumptions about atheists: 1) they have no morals, and 2) they have no appreciation for the amazing wonder that is existence. And both presumptions are deeply false. If anything, such presumptions might be theorized as projections on the part of those who hold them.

    What was so great about this interview is the way in which Nyad so clearly, calmly, and steadfastly articulates what nearly all atheists share: a deep sense of awe at the mystery of being, the beauty of life, and the wonder of humanity. In my research — in my extensive interviews with secular people from all walks of life — I heard such sentiments expressed again and again: life is amazing, existence is surreal, and there is deep ender in everything. And yet, for secular people, it is exactly because it is all so unfathomably mysterious that it is so amazing. Saying it is the handiwork of some God sort of depletes the splendor, in a way.

    When Oprah insists that Nyad’s orientation is not atheism, that by being in awe of the universe and humanity, she is thus in awe of “God” — she (Oprah) misses the point. It is almost as if Orpah can’t conceive of a sense of awe if it isn’t linked to theism/religion. That’s really too bad, and reveals a deep lack of understanding (on Oprah’s part), and a real lack of imagination concerning the variety of human responses to life. All people experience a sense of awe — it is just that more and more are divorcing that from theistic assumptions.

  • With “taking hyperbolic offense where none is intended,” Marcia Nelson resorts to a childish line of defense. The same, in fact, used by people accused of inappropriate humor, racial slurs, and sexual harassment. A more helpful response would be, “I am sorry. Thank you for pointing out my offense. I have learned something today, and shall be more careful in the future.”

  • I’m an atheist who thinks atheists are missing the point. It’s not about tolerance of atheists, it’s about how one defines God. By Oprah’s definition, all of us our theists, but by my definition, Oprah is atheist.

  • I find them both annoying: Oprah with her pantheism/panentheism/”Spinoza for Dummies” platitudes, and Nyad, the “atheist,” who believes in the soul and its continuation after death.

    Question: Does atheism necessitate materialism?

  • No. Atheism simply means no belief in a deity of any sort. Belief in an afterlife is more compatible to theism since it’s a faith based system of belief, but does not equate to either theism or atheism.

    I personally don’t find it annoying, I find it refreshing to see people have a diverse outlook on the big questions. Not every atheist is entirely logical, and not every theist is entirely dependent on faith. We’re all people who are overwhelmingly wrong about most things we think.

  • Re: “It is no more offensive for Winfrey to express her belief than it is for Nyad.”

    True enough, however, Winfrey didn’t stop at merely “express[ing] her belief.” Winfrey went on to spontaneously redefine atheism, then used that new definition to instruct Nyad that she wasn’t one.

    That’s not just expressing one’s own beliefs, that’s purposely dismissing someone else’s. Theists do this all the time, so it’s to be expected, even from a theist like Winfrey who otherwise has a reputation for being “understanding” and “tolerant.” Like most theists, when it comes to non-believers, she is neither of those things.

  • The real problem here is the slippery nature of religious labels. They can mean just about anything you want them to mean and everyone seems to believe that their definition is the normative one.

  • “Look Diana, when I compare your skin color to a brown paper sack and you are lighter than the bag — you are not an atheist!”

  • My reaction to Oprah’s comment was more on her watered down idea of God. Might as well say “God” is all the love in a puppy’s heart. Don’t you believe in puppy love? Then you’re not really an Atheist!

  • I believe that the church is the biggest creator of atheists as intelligent people reject the nonsense that comes from a church in which men represent their own interests and not god, and refuse to accept reason.

  • it seems that what most have missed is the simple arrogance of theists in which it is impossible for them to see that others think differently then they do!

    This has a great deal to do with their lack of conceptual imagination, since they were taught to NOT think differently then those of the Congregation, so they have difficulty perceiving anothers point of view !

    This problem is very closely related to Sociopathic mental problems, in the sociopaths inability to imagine how others should or will react, this has to do with the fact they (theists) are taught that the way the Preacher/Priest says you should look at the world in the ONLY true version of Reality, which causes their followers to become nearly sociopathic through simple laziness of mental function, this is why when theists go into their Preaching rant they seem almost retarded because they are NOT using THEIR personal thoughts but simply repeat what they are supposed to believe !

    The simple result of being taught to NOT think for oneself is a mild form of retardation that interferes with ones ability to learn in any situation that is not formatted the same way the Preacher/Priest taught, which results in their lack of understanding of concepts that are NOT stagnant since ALL theistic teachings are based on a short term stationary universe( resulting in Flat Earthers and Earth Centric universe beliefs), there are those that will find this insulting but it is based on reality and observation and there is no way to dismiss the fact that Theists have been made incapable of understanding and accepting the CONSTANT changes to their universe and environment that are impossible to ignore

  • Oprah is a pantheist in the Deepak/Secret mold. To her, the quantum field IS God, as she says “not some bearded man in the sky.” If you believe that the creative energy of the universe = God, then anyone who is grooving on the output of that creative energy isn’t an atheist. Her comment came out in a way that was easy to misread as an insult to atheists, but I don’t think she meant it that way. If you’re gonna be upset about something, be upset that the most powerful media mogul in the world uses her authority to spread a mushy-headed pantheism supported by the misuse of scientific knowledge.

  • Between religious and atheists or secular is an in-between category of “spiritual”. These are not so much church-mosque or temple goers, and may not believe in a personal God, but in a “higher beyond-the-natural power.” They might seek a spiritual experience but not in a temple. They are big on homeopathy, faith healing, numerology, astrology, amulets, etc. At times people like Oprah seem to be speaking about this type of belief in something beyond “normal” explanation. More at

  • She didn’t re-define atheism so much as re-define “God” in non-theistic terms (in fact not even deistic ones) – which actually makes her an atheist!

  • I find your comment full of rich irony. You rightly feel offended for having your beliefs defined for you by a theist. Yet you proceed to falsely define the beliefs of so many. I’m a minister and could easily find all kinds of offense in the false descriptions you have laid at my feet. None of your remarks come close to describing me, yet you’ve taken it upon yourself to decide what I am and believe, to a far, far greater degree than Oprah could have ever done. I struggle to find empathy for the “offense” everyone is taking here. Perhaps because I experience slander and false descriptions all the time. If you have been offended by Oprah, then welcome to the club. Offensive things are said about me all the time, simply because of my profession and what many (such as yourself) assume I think and believe. Clergy are not all the way you describe. Most not even close. And the other irony is that I have some wonderful relationships with atheists simply because we can connect through our common sense of awe and wonder. I’m thankful there are some who will see me for who I am and not as the arrogant, retarted, closed-minded, sociopath that you have made me out to be simply because I give that sense of awe and wonder a name.

  • (Imho) Oprah is right, this woman is not an athiest. @3:37 the swimmer says that she believes that the soul live on. That makes her a theist/spiritual person.

    I have learned that there are 3 posibilities:
    1, theist (you know that there is a(re) god(s)/being(s) and/or afterlife, and you know who are what that is)
    2, agnostic (you think that there could be a(re) god(s)/being(s) and/or afterlife, but you have not figured out who or what yet)
    3, atheist (you dont believe in any god/being or afterlive)

    I am a atheist.

  • I blog on the Skeptic Ink Network and wrote a post about this also:
    I don’t think she was being malicious, but I do think she and her staff should have not have been so ignorant about the issue.

    I also wrote an article on Huffington Post about atheism and spirituality before this whole controversy broke out:

  • Another aspect of the Nyad and Oprah exchange is the unaddressed questions left wide open by Oprah’s poor representation of theistic beliefs. Oprah’s expression of clearly new agey, animistic ideas about god are not in keeping with christian values. For the average Christian, God is not wonder and Jesus Christ is not awe. So what then does Oprah or any theist mean when they speak of God, a god or any gods?

    Nyad was able to be clear about her atheism and what she does believe while Oprah represented her own theistic beliefs very poorly. Further, Oprah’s smug certainty left very little room for faith. Where does this certainty come from? Is this certainty deserved regardless of the brand of theism? What then is the nature of any theist’s “faith”? Are all theists right about their various god claims? Christians? Muslims? Hindus? Jews? If not, which theists are wrong? Which theists are right?

    And finally, what is spirituality? That subject seems to be a peculiar and particular point of view.

  • The real problem with Oprah’s comments — apart from a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes a right relationship with God — is that she proffers Nyad membership in the God-believing club as though it were something that Nyad would be glad to have. It would be like my saying to a light-skinned black, “Don’t sell yourself short — you’re white as far as I’m concerned.” To which I would expect the response, “I’m quite happy being black, thank you, and I don’t need you to tell me who or what I am!”

  • I am a standard new atheist. I am incapable of sustained rational inquiry. And therefore I will simply recycle comments I cribbed from Sam Harris and the website circa 1998. I will end by caricaturing all religious believers as narrow minded bigots and act scandalized that anyone could possibly believe that crap. Thank you.

  • Phil, you just stirred the muddy water and made it even harder to see than before. Just as you don’t care for Oprah to generalize what she believes atheists are or are not, you have just done the same for Christians. I am a Christian and am also a minister. I am well educated and have worked hard to cultivate relationships with those who may disagree with my evangelical belief system. I am not afraid of debate or disagreement. As you have seen in this issue, one comment can drive you back to basics about what you believe so that you can fine tune and more effectively articulate what you believe. You have be wrong on both counts.

  • To define atheist is as hard as defining spirituality. Each person has their own definition according to their upbringing and biases. We are no longer a culture of Christian or NonChristian because that too has its own definition according to the one proclaiming it. Nyad expressed her belief plainly, as did Oprah. We are all entitled to what we believe and we will each soon find out if you are right or wrong, for we cannot all be right or wrong.

  • How about we trade you in for a luxury new atheist or possibly the economy new atheist model and save a couple of bucks.

  • Oprah was probably trying to include what was a misunderstood concept by her, because atheism seemed to have perplexed her, so she responded in a knee jerk response to say, “then, its God…” – But, what she didn’t realize is that she marginalized a group of people who are already marginalized by society. She actually did more good than harm, because now atheists will come out of the woodwork and finally admit that they are atheists.

  • What absolute rubbish. Phil did not even mention christians at all so your assertion that he generalised them is unfounded and quite frankly an outright lie.

    The absolute most you could say is that he generalised theists and that is only in his first paragraph and the article in question backs his points up. Polls and surveys in america confirm what most thiests in america think of atheists.

    Perhaps instead of arguing with people and playing semantic word games you could provide a single piece of good evidence that a god even exists, then you would likely not have so many issues with people disagreeing with you.

    Furthermore once your done finding some evidence that a god exists then you would need to find some more to confirm that christianity is the correct religion. You say you are well educated then I ask you why the bible has so many huge errors in it? ie Age of the earth, origin of man, global flood etc.

  • I am a standard new theist. I am incapable of sustained rational inquiry. And therefore I will simply recycle comments I cribbed from William lane Craig and Kent Hovind. I will end by caricaturing all non-believers as narrow minded bigots and act scandalized that anyone could possibly believe that crap. Thank you.

    ^^^^^ That is actually how your comment should have appeared

    What is hilarious about all this is people like Sam Harris follow evidence and logic to come to a conclusion whereas the theist apologists are simply playing semantics with the bible in order to justify their preordained conclusion.

    The fact that there are over 30 000 denominations of christianity in the US alone really should tell a lot of people about the validity of the religion.

  • You have become very angry with someone. You don’t have to be stupid, naïve or cruel be a theist.

  • Like the lesson of people that whisper in one ear to the next can explain a great deal about different forms of one faith. The original concept takes all sorts of turns, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t experience what they experience. In this century, there is always a choice to be intolerant of anything or anyone. Throwing angry insults randomly is cathartic at best, or creating a group of bullies at it’s worst.

  • I don’t feel devaluing a persons belief system is necessary especially if it helps them be a better person ( develeping morals and values that keep them from being unproductive citizens) and helps the world. Giving to the poor, building hospitals to help others, helping with education, helping poor families, building orphanage, have been some good that religion has done. Is it possible to focus on the positive of each other or should we continue causing division and factions by treating others like an object of ridicule.

  • I’m An Atheist And If My Lack Of Belief Scares People,Then So Be It,I Don’t Agree With Theist But I’m Not Afraid Of Them,It’s Really Sad That She Feels Justified In Telling Someone That Does Not Believe In A Creator,That The Awe Inspiring Feeling Is A Creator,What Ever She’s Rich So She Gets A Free Pass,To My Fellow Atheist Don’t Expect An Apology Because It’s Not Coming,Fact;The Most Intolerant People Are Theist,Why Doesn’t She Have A Segment On How Some Of The Verses In The Bible Are Down Right Disgusting.No She Won’t Do That,Of Course Not.Because That Would Show People How Horrible The Bible Really Is,Stand Up Atheist America,And Let The World Know We Don’t Need A God To Tell Us To Respect And Show Compassion To Our Fellow Humans,If You Do Need A God To Be Understanding And Compassionate,You Were Never Understanding And Compassionate To Begin With…..Respecting All People Regardless Of Beliefs,Because It’s The Right Thing To Do Not Because Of Fear Of Punishment…..Peace Be With The Whole Earth…..

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