Why Oprah may have a point about Diana Nyad

About a week ago, Oprah was accused of believing that atheists can not experience awe or wonder. Literally, she said that “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.” For many atheists this meant that Oprah believes that atheists lack this capability. However, Diana Nyad, the swimmer she interviewed, stressed that this was something she believes in. Perhaps there was good reason for Oprah to question what Nyad said.


What is it that atheists don’t believe in?
Of course, this assertion leaves us with the question of how ‘God’ should be understood. But Diana Nyad was very clear about her own beliefs: “So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.”

Is it really wrong to be puzzled by someone giving a definition of God but still calling herself atheist? Maybe Oprah questioned Nyad’s self-description and not atheists’ capabilities to experience awe or wonder.

Maybe Oprah (unawarely?) made a sensible point.

With some effort, I can see where Oprah is coming from because of one simple reason: perhaps believing (in God) and being a member of a religious group are two (very) different things. And what Oprah may have said implicitly, is that she does not question atheists’ capacity to believe in awe or wonder, but that those who give a description of God, may fail to recognize that they are also believers. So instead of saying one is an atheist who does believe in some form of God, Oprah would rather expect him or her to say (s)he believes but does not share the dictated convictions of organized religion.

Maybe Diana Nyad is not an atheist, since she believes in some concept of God, but non-religious.

For Oprah, believing in God would then not necessarily be the same as being religious or having a religiously provided conception of what ‘God’ refers to. Believing can also exist in the acknowledgement of the perfection of the universe. From this perspective, it’s the religious puritans who should be angry with Oprah, not atheists.

The logic of ‘God’
Personally, I consider myself an agnost. I sometimes joke that agnosts are atheists who understand logic. Why? Because what the signifier ‘God’ tries to describe is potentially unknowable for human beings. It’s in the name: God can be everything, nothing, and both at the same time. That’s why it is called ‘God’.

It may be something we can not even comprehend and that our senses can not grasp. That we can not see or think of. It may even reside outside of what we can know and experience. Outside our logic, or at least what we believe logic to be.

Given that, it would be overly arrogant, logically incorrect, and therefore even a little silly to assert that God does not exist. Even if a human being does not acknowledge the signifier ‘God’, it makes no difference for or say anything about what that signifier is trying to refer to. Hence, it is far more logical to say that you don’t believe in religious claims, which is something different than to state that you don’t believe in God – or that what it tries to refer to does not exist.

Most of the people I meet who call themselves atheists are actually non-religious, following the lines of the argument above. They don’t believe in religious books and what is written in them, they are not convinced everything actually happened, and they disagree with rules and rituals these religions prescribe. But not supporting the convictions of a religion does not necessarily say something about (one’s actual attitudes towards) God.

Moreover, their ideas about religion are often much stronger than what they have to say about ‘God’. Like Oprah, it often comes to me that people who call themselves atheists disapprove of religion and its beliefs about what the signifier ‘God’ refers to.

But who says that religion has anything to do with God?

Where religion ends and believing begins: being humble
Religion is a highly anthropological activity. There is a chance that what ‘God’ tries to signify doesn’t even bother about us at all, let alone religion. That ‘to bother’ is an irrelevant category to it. The ‘God’ of religion is a ‘God’ through the eyes of men. And it is this ‘God’ that Nietzsche seems to refer to when he says that ‘we’ have killed ‘him’.

But does that say anything about God? The actual God that people possibly can not know.

For me, believing and being religious are not one and the same; they can only reinforce each other. You don’t have to be religious to believe, just like there may be people who call themselves religious, but in their hearts do not believe in God. The planet provides us with considerable numbers of people who believe in one or more forms of the superstitious. Among them are those who call themselves atheists. There are people who believe in fate, others call it genetic determinism.

Are these people true atheists, or people who fail to see God for what God is? For that matter, can we even succeed in seeing God for what God is – if God is.

Perhaps Oprah is right and it would be a better idea to understand atheists as people who are not involved with organized religion, its rituals, and the things it tells you to believe in. At least that is something human beings can actually comprehend and discuss.

Perhaps Wittgenstein was right after all: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”

There’s nothing wrong with being humble.

One thought on “Why Oprah may have a point about Diana Nyad

  1. Interesting thoughts Bas. I’m in the camp that believes in God, but does not belong to a particular “religion”. I also don’t hold the idea that “all roads lead to heaven.” Being part of a religious order, and thinking that all roads lead to heaven are both over-simplifications of something that is deeply mysterious and personal.

    I like the words of Henri Nouwen who said “what’s most personal is most universal,” each of us has to search the depths of our own being for the truth, this takes humility. As you said, it’s foolish for someone to say they know FOR SURE that God does not exist. Conversely, I think it would be arrogant of me to say there’s no possible way that God doesn’t exist, I have to admit that it’s at least POSSIBLE that it’s all in my head.

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