ColumnOprah seems to think she knows best when it comes to social and religious identities. Here’s why that should piss you off.
Almost immediately, the godless Internet lit up with a range of reactions from heretics of all shapes and sizes proclaiming their indignation, anger and even “hurt.” This was Oprah—Queen of the popular media big leagues—and she was getting it wrong. But there’s more to this story than “nonbelievers annoyed.” Believers should be too.
The exchange took place on Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, which featured the talk-show host trying to muscle Nyad’s ability to experience awe and wonder into what is increasingly becoming mainstream God vocabulary—that is to say, one that expands the definition of the term well beyond its traditional angry-dude-in-clouds confines. Nyad, eloquent and powerful (figuratively, as well as literally), allowed Winfrey some wiggle room with language, but overall wasn’t having it:
Nyad: I’m not a God person…
Winfrey: Do you consider yourself atheist?
Nyad: I am an atheist…
Winfrey: But you’re in the awe.
Nyad: I don’t understand why anyone would find a contradiction in that. 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. To me, my definition of God is humanity, and is the love of humanity…
Winfrey: Well I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and in the mystery, then that is what God is… God is not a bearded guy in the sky.
Nyad: It’s not bearded, but there is an inference with ‘God’ that there is a presence, that there is either a creator or an overseer.
A moment later, after Nyad stated the fact that “we will never know,” Oprah said “’til that last breath—and [somewhat defiantly] maybe it will be an ‘oh, wow’ one for you…”
For us nonbelievers, this kind of exchange is nothing new. It’s one we’ve all had with often well-meaning folks (I should say that Oprah shows no malice here and seems genuine, albeit insensitive) who have trouble arranging us on their spiritual (and often religious) gameboards. It’s certainly well-trodden ground in the media. Here’s another recent example that caught a news cycle or three—CNN anchorman Wolf Biltzer, after May’s deadly tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, interviewing a survivor standing amidst horrible debris with her young child in arms:
Blitzer: I guess you gotta thank the Lord, right?
Tornado survivor: Yeah. [Clearly trying to quickly dismiss the question.]
Blitzer: Do you thank the Lord? …
Tornado Survivor: I – I – I’m – I’m actually an Atheist.
Unlike Oprah, Blizter seemed to quickly catch the woman’s drift, as it were, and moved on to playing with the kid. (Very cute.) Nevertheless, in watching the interview, one gets the sense that in that moment he was pushing the issue. When he didn’t get the “oh, yes, praise be” response he expected, he slipped into ‘But you have to, right? Do you?’ Like Nyad to Oprah, this woman did not fit his paradigm and he was taken aback.
These high-profile exchanges bring up two important questions. The first, which has been well covered, is whether atheists can have awe (and/or spirituality) in their lives without god(s) or a “higher” power. As a nonbeliever, I certainly don’t want to diminish the issue, but the question’s frequency really isn’t all that surprising, despite its insulting nature. The concept of being unable to make room for supernatural dualism in one’s spiritual framework is confounding to many. Burden of proof issues and a lack of scientific method aside, believers are operating within a framework that simply does not accommodate the kind of utter oneness that edges out anything higher or lower or elsewhere; it’s just something they can’t not see.
But question two is broader and more baffling, and one that has caught the attention of a number of my faithful friends (yes, believe it or not, I have many): Why is it that Oprah would feel comfortable responding to someone explaining his or her (very) personal sense of self (such as, “I’m a spiritual atheist”) with a “No. You can’t be that. I’ll tell you what you are.” Odd, right? Well, not really.
Pegs and Holes—Atheists are Not Alone
Sadly, it’s not difficult in our culture to find a wide range of precedent for the “you don’t believe what you say you believe” admonition. In fact, most of us can start quite young. Remember mom and dad’s head-patting “I know you think you believe that”? (Oh, man. Instant tantrum.)
How many women have been nominally exiled outside the cap-F, feminist camp because they might harbor the idea that a fulfilling life for them features being a stay-at-home mom, or perhaps, god forbid, they enjoy porn now and again? How about the virgin homosexual teen being told he or she’s not really gay—yet—or the bisexual who’s informed by certain members of the homosexual and lesbian communities that he or she is merely “confused”?
Want more? Might you be an animal rights advocate who’s “not” because you eat meat? An environmentalist cast away for not being sold on the evils of GMOs? And here’s one that’s near and dear to my heart: evidently, to some, my atheism somehow interferes with the Jewish identity with which I was born. (There’s a great line from Ricky Gervais that I like to trot out when asked by my tribespeople why I’m an atheist: “God made me this way.”)
The list goes on.
We all know how our culture is sadly characterized by a scarcity of empathy. But what about these instances where empathy is simply not available, when there’s just no way one can put themselves in the shoes of others who are so, well, other? What’s missing from the equation that leads people to feel okay contorting another’s sense of self and transmuting that sense into their own ideas and language? The answer seems to lie in the inability to simply listen and accept—baffled or not. Comfortable bemusement is just not in most people’s skill set. Control, however, is.
But that’s their side of the street, right? What about ours? Us others? What is our role in the cultural codependence that has the likes of not only average Joes telling us who and what we are, but our institutions, as well? Where do pundits and anointed culture purveyors like Oprah and Wolf come off telling us what we think? How dare they!?
How dare they, indeed. Have we handed them the keys to our personal kingdoms? Perhaps. Oprah’s untold millions are “earned” from a nation of viewers who turn to her to interpret their thoughts for them (not to mention telling them what books to read—including, um, “The Secret”). Why would we be surprised when she offers such interpretations and contortions designed to bring outsiders into the mainstream from what must surely be the cold? She’s just doing her (read: our) job.
What was great about Nyad (who, at 64 recently achieved her goal of swimming from Florida to Cuba) is not only how she didn’t evade the issue (she chose to appear on a show called Super Soul Sunday, for god’s sake) but how well thought out her feelings were, and how she held firm throughout the discussion.
Not all of us are prepared to come out of our closets when our belief systems are queried, challenged and dismissed, nor should we feel forced to do so. But given the opportunity—and the platform—to stand one’s ground, doing so deserves a ton of credit. That pesky acceptance thing, both self- and societal, ultimately emerges from freedom from fear and the courage to speak one’s mind.
Now, no one is suggesting that the shaken Moore survivor should have blitzed Blitzer with what might have been a (some might argue wiser) alternate question: “Why do you think God chose to punish and kill all those people? What do you think they did to earn such horrifying and violent deaths?” That would be insensitive, right?
The bottom line is that no one gets to tell you who you are or what you think. That’s up to you—no matter what anyone believes. Or doesn’t.
Scott Adelson is EcoSalon’s Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him @scottadelson on Twitter.