There has been a lot of talk recently about Oprah’s comments after she told swimmer Diana Nyad that atheists do not experience awe and wonder. And now even more talk about how she owes the atheist community an apology.
Oprah is equating any sense of awe with spirituality, and therefore claiming you are not an atheist if you are spiritual. Fox news quickly ran to her defense, an obvious move as David Viviano points out in this blog:
“Fox News runs to her defense only because atheists are involved, we know that already. Claiming that she only stated her opinion, well opinion or not it is wrong and it deserves to be called out. Just like the bigots that say homosexuality is an abomination, its wrong and deserves to be called out. If I have an opinion that I think a sports team is horrible but they win the championship is my opinion wrong?”
So does she owe atheists around the world an apology? Maybe, but I would rather see her apologize directly to Nyad. Oprah has a poor definition of what atheism is and attempts then to tell Nyad what she believes, instead of accepting Nyad’s beliefs as her own.
Again, Viviano points this out:
“[But] to be honest I would rather her educate herself on this issue. Then why not do an episode on this topic again? Talking about how she was wrong and that after reading up, talking to other atheists that can share their experiences, she can learn. We live in a society where people can say whatever ignorant thought comes to mind and when asked to correct it, we are made to be the bad guys.“
Oprah is allowed to be wrong, but she should not be defended for being wrong. She needs to own up to her mistakes and learn from them. What she said offended many people and belittles their position on the supernatural and unnecessary deities in order to look at the world and be amazed by its beauty.
Atheism and spirituality do not have to be mutually exclusive. Both author and Neuroscientist Sam Harris and the late journalist Christopher Hitchens embrace the term spiritual as not having any religious connotations. Harris decribes this in this blog post “In Defense of Spiritual”,
“The word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus, which in turn is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath.” Around the 13th century, the term became bound up with notions of immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, etc. It acquired other connotations as well—we speak of the spirit of a thing as its most essential principle, or of certain volatile substances and liquors as spirits.”
And he then described Hitchens use of the word:
“And I would point out that my late friend Christopher Hitchens—no enemy of the lexicographer—didn’t share them either. Hitch believed that “spiritual” was a term we could not do without, and he repeatedly plucked it from the mire of supernaturalism in which it has languished for nearly a thousand years.
It is true that Hitch didn’t think about spirituality in precisely the way I do. He spoke instead of the spiritual pleasures afforded by certain works of poetry, music, and art. The symmetry and beauty of the Parthenon embodied this happy extreme for him—without any requirement that we admit the existence of the goddess Athena, much less devote ourselves to her worship.”
Now it is obvious not all atheist embrace terms such as spiritual, and many do believe it is too far equated with religion and the supernatural to use the word themselves but this does not mean that spirituality is automatically owned by the religious, etc.
If you are an atheist who sees the wonder and awe of the world and this is your own spiritual experience then who is someone like Oprah to tell you that your view of spiritual means you cannot be an atheist. All I hear is that Oprah needs to take some time out of her attempt to stay relevant long enough to read a few books about what atheism is, what spirituality is and then offer Nyad (and in turn atheists in whole) an apology for not doing her homework and making a broad generalization that she knew nothing about.