Oprah Mouth, Insert Foot

One of the criticisms that gets leveled at atheists from time to time is the claim that atheists think they’re “superior” to theists allegedly because atheists think theists must be “stupid” or “deluded” or such to still believe in gods.  I’ve never personally met an atheist who believes that and I’m certainly not one myself.  I think theists happen to believe something that isn’t true.  Everyone believes something that isn’t true.  We’re all misinformed or reasoning poorly about something.  I’m sure I believe something that isn’t true right now.  I just don’t know what it is — because if I did I wouldn’t believe it, of course.

Here’s something I did believe which I’ve had to conclude wasn’t true.

About a year ago I wrote a post on this blog in which I expressed the belief that “activist atheists” such as Richard Dawkins were doing at least as much harm as good, that more moderate voices needed to speak up.  Well, Oprah Winfrey managed to prove that wrong.

About forty years of progress in social acceptance of atheism gone in less than four minutes.

In order to believe that anyone who has any kind of emotionally moving experience is not an atheist, you must believe one of two things:

  • Atheists are little more than automatons leading lives utterly devoid of emotional content.  We are never moved by any natural wonder such as a sunset.  We never enjoy anything like the company of friends…actually, we don’t have friends since friendship is emotional content.  We never appreciate art and since we can’t appreciate it we certainly can’t create any.  Since we can’t feel sympathy or compassion towards others we must be devoid of any sense of morality or ethics.  We absolutely never fall in love.  (I’m not sure if we’re allowed to have orgasms under this paradigm…maybe just male atheists.)  Sub-variants here would include believing atheists are lying when they claim to have these experiences, or only have them in some greatly diminished form due to their lack of religious belief.
  • Since “everyone knows” emotional experiences are evidence of god’s presence, people who say they are atheists but have emotional lives are really just confused and/or in denial about the existence of god.  This is notably different from believing that atheists are just wrong because it involves theism claiming ownership of an essential quality of humanity.  This is a claim that theists simply can’t back up.

It should go without saying that neither case is acceptable, and both in fact are profoundly insulting.  What is being done here is something that has been done to every minority since the invention of minorities.  Take one or more negative attributes (lazy, immoral, violent, etc.) and assign them to the targeted minority on the flimsiest of pretexts.  Examples to the contrary are dismissed with the likes of “oh, they’re an EXCEPTION.”

Let’s hop around the web for various views on this.  Here’s a bit from Daniel Fincke’s entry from Camels with Hammers on Patheos:

Oprah Winfrey and amazing swimmer Diana Nyad had a profoundly muddled, inarticulate, and self-contradictory conversation about God and souls on Oprah’s show Super Soul Sunday. During the course of this discussion Oprah and Nyad teamed up to create so much atheist outrage and facepalming that it has made it all the way to mainstream outlets like Raw Story and CNN. Throughout the interview Nyad gropes so incoherently that she actually reminded me of listening to children creatively improvise answers to questions adults want them to answer, that they feel pressured to answer, but have no idea how to answer. Eager not to disappoint, she has that child’s rambling, off the wall kind of thought process, all sold with an earnest attempt to sound sure and confident.

Fincke goes on to present an apologetic for Oprah’s position by way of deconstruction, a sentiment also expressed by Marcia Z. Nelson, author of “The Gospel According to Oprah”, as quoted by Kimberly Watson on Huffington Post’s Religion page:

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.

Oh, it’s those UPPITY atheists who are causing the problem.    They should just BE QUIET and NOT MAKE TROUBLE.  Does this sound at all familiar?  As one commentator on this article puts it:

Marcia Z Nelson’s response — last paragraph of the article — is one of those statements which makes you wonder whether a person has ever actually met an atheist — or any angry person, for that matter. (“Stop being angry. — Why, what is this?! You’re getting angrier! Did you not just heard (sic) me command you not to be angry?”)

/facepalm

As far as I am concerned these attempts to spin Oprah’s position in a positive manner fail due to one simple factor: the complete lack of an apology.  At least one atheist organization, Boston Atheists, has formally requested one.  Neither Oprah nor her people have, to the best of my knowledge, even acknowledged the controversy.  Absent an apology or at least clarification, her statements stand at face value.  One of the reasons why I’ve delayed writing this was to see if such was forthcoming, but if it hasn’t by now it’s unlikely to.

Moving on, here are some segments from Hemant Mehta’s comments on The Washington Post’s site:

First of all, Winfrey’s definition of God is fairly meaningless, applying to everything and nothing all at once.

My addition here is that this idea of god is really just a massive equivocation.  It’s not what anyone prays to and it’s not what is meant by any major congregation.  Catholics (e.g.) do not belief that god is a concept; they believe that god is an entity and his son died on the cross for the sins of mankind, etc.  If those things are not true or subtracted from Catholic doctrine then Catholicism is nothing but old men in bad hats trying to tell everyone what to do.  Belief in god as done by any organized religion comes with a whole lot of intellectual baggage.  These attempts at equivocation are only intended to get theism’s foot in the door or to neutralize dissent.  It’s similar to the common tactic employed by postmodernists: arguing for an extremely radical position in order to appear controversial and attract converts but retreating to a watered-down position that’s obvious to the point of banality when challenged.

More importantly, however, was the (unintentional) implication that those of us who find beauty in plants and animals and the universe itself can’t possibly be godless. That’s a common stereotype atheists face and it’s an incredibly pernicious one, made even worse because it was repeated by a celebrity of Winfrey’s stature.

As we used to say in City of Heroes, I most vehemently concur.  It is particularly odious hearing this position from someone who typically breaks her arm patting herself on her back over how enlightened and tolerant she is.

I doubt Oprah would ever tell a self-described lesbian that she was really a bisexual, or a moderate Republican that he was really an independent. Most of us who choose a label for ourselves like that do so only after a great deal of thought. That’s why Winfrey had no business telling Nyad she wasn’t really an atheist. Nyad politely explained her case, but you can understand her hesitation to push back too hard. It’s Oprah, after all.

Had Oprah made a similar attempt to nullify the identity of almost any other group she’d have been blasted from all sides.  (I doubt anyone would care if she picked on Republicans, though.)  David Niose on Psychology Today’s page made similar observations:

Unfair prejudice is most shocking not when it comes from expected sources—a KKK leader, for example, or a skinhead—but when it comes from a respected mainstream spokesperson who supposedly reflects enlightened contemporary values. Thus,brace yourself for Oprah Winfrey, as she disparages millions of atheists by telling her audience that, in her opinioin, atheists are incapable of awe.

Chris Stedman weighs in from CNN’s Belief page:

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.

And:

The exchange between Winfrey and Nyad reminds me of a conversation I once had with a Catholic scholar.

The professor once asked me: “When I talk about God, I mean love and justice and reconciliation, not a man in the sky. You talk about love and justice and reconciliation. Why can’t you just call that God?”

I replied: “Why must you call that God? Why not just call it what it is: love and justice and reconciliation?”

This is a position that has been advanced by many prominent atheists; proof left as an exercise for Google.

Finally, a bit from Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True:

It’s really time for us to discard the word “spirituality.” All it does is give believers a reason to say, “See, you’re really one of us after all.” The never-ending series of Templeton-funded papers by Elaine Ecklund, which implicitly equate spirituality with religiosity, testify to the invidious nature of this confusion.

Let the word “spiritual” be reserved for the faithful. Why can’t we atheists just say that we’re “moved” or “in awe” or “deeply touched” by sunsets, music, and scientific discoveries?

I much admire Nyad for her athletic prowess, her open lesbianism, and now her overt atheism. But I still prefer the honest anti-religious invective of a Christopher Hitchens to the numinous gushings of Diana Nyad.

The response I’ve seen to this interview force me to agree with Coyne (whom I’ve disagreed with in the past in his comments section).  Atheists need to expunge anything that smacks of religious imagery from their language.  And as distasteful as I have found their aggressive activism, we still need the so-called Four Horsemen.

We may need the whole cavalry.

Dennis Heffernan

No one of consequence.

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