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Oct 22 2013

Such a deep chord

Kimberly Winston looks at why atheists got so het up about Oprah’s casual aspersions on atheists. (Well one reason is just that it’s something to do. If someone mentions us, we talk about it. If someone mentions it – atheism – we talk about it. But besides that.)

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.”

Well yeah. That’s what I said – we talk about it. Mention us or it, and we’ll talk about it.

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.”

ARE YOU CALLING ME EASILY OFFENDED?!?

 

25 comments

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  1. 1
    Aratina Cage

    Nelson shouldn’t be telling us how to think or act. We can express awe just fine, thank you. That’s what emoticons are for. :)

  2. 2
    Anthony K

    Atheists need to concentrate more on expressing awe and less on taking hyperbolic offense where none is intended.”

    Good point. Oprah: your comments regarding atheists are simply awful, and if they accurately express your deeply held beliefs, then you’re pretty awful too.

    Better?

  3. 3
    Anthony K

    We can express awe just fine, thank you.

    Awe and mystery. We do those as well as any New Ager.

    Why, just this morning I said to myself: “Aw, fuck: why did I have those last two pints last night?”

  4. 4
    Randomfactor

    I’m reminded of the George of the Jungle movie, where the narrator says the explorers look on with awe:

    “Awwwwwwww…”

    “NOT THAT KIND OF ‘AW”

  5. 5
    Jason Dick

    *sigh*

    The vast majority of discrimination is not intended. That is no excuse. Oprah still basically implied that atheists are less than human. That is not okay.

  6. 6
    Pierce R. Butler

    Marcia Z. Nelson, author of “The Gospel According to Oprah,” agreed, … Oprah was actually doing atheists a favor …

    Nelson should describe herself as an Oprahpologist.

    Atheists need to concentrate more on expressing awe …

    Time for another Deep Rift, between atheists and awetheists (& their allies, the aweccommodationists).

  7. 7
    Al Dente

    less on taking hyperbolic offense where none is intended.

    This is the excuse racists and sexists use when they’re called on using slurs. “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.” Marcia Z. Nelson needs to think a little harder on what might be offensive.

  8. 8
    Jackie, all dressed in black

    less on taking hyperbolic offense where none is intended.

    I wonder what atheists who say this exact thing to feminists would say to that?

  9. 9
    AJ Milne

    Good point. Oprah: your comments regarding atheists are simply awful, and if they accurately express your deeply held beliefs, then you’re pretty awful too.

    Awesome.

    (/See, Oprah? See!?)

  10. 10
    karmacat

    What it may show is that Oprah is rather narcissistic. She can’t imagine that other people think differently from her.

  11. 11
    Beth

    @5

    Oprah still basically implied that atheists are less than human. That is not okay.

    Why do you say that? What did she say that you feel implied that atheists are less than human?

  12. 12
    Shatterface

    Ryan Cragun, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Tampa who studies atheists,

    What a strange turn of phrase – like we are something growing on a Petri dish.

    I don’t know whether Cragun uses that phrase himself but if someone said ‘I study Christians’ or ‘I study Muslims’ rather than studying Christianity or Islam I could see people getting upset over being treated as an object.

  13. 13
    AJ Milne

    Yeah, oh dear, why oh why would atheists be bothered by someone so casually saying, oh, actual atheists are shallow, unreflective people; if you feel awe and wonder, you can’t be one of them…

    … and it’s not like she has to connect the dots a whole hell of a lot, as it’s only the sleazy, shitty little lie they’ve heard told about themselves every time they’re so foolish as to be too public about what they do and don’t believe, their entire lives?

    … and she doesn’t even blink, doesn’t even stammer, doesn’t even hesitate, because it’s no big thang, and as if it ever was, hey, just say it out loud casual-like; everyone here already knows this, see?

    … and you figure she’s probably quite fucking right about one part of that, anyway. That being: enough people do think that, so yes, it will pass, with a whole hell of a lot of ‘em. They’re all just gonna nod…

    … and hey, if these apparently shallow, unreflective ‘unspiritual’ goons we’ve just so calmly and unblinkingly smeared got to where they are by anguishing and thinking and finally thinking blood about what was honest and what was right and what lies they could stand to tell themselves and their children and their friends anymore, whatever the miserable social costs refusing to do so might be in their particular world, and if they still try with variable results to look charitably at some bubbleheaded celebrity guru all the same and not smoulder too visibly at the glib, facile excuse for ‘thought’ that consecrates a delight in dazed ignorance as some kind of ‘spirituality’…

    … and then said deep thinking guru comes along and uses her ample microphone time to repeat the standard, convenient, endlessly reinforced lie, yet again, and call them shallow…

    Well, I can’t imagine why that would bother ‘em at all. Just touchy people, I guess.

  14. 14
    alqpr

    What Winfrey said was “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. 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.”
    That’s not the same as saying actual atheists don’t experience awe and wonder; it’s just trying to redefine atheism by redefining “God” and begs the response “Well if that’s what you think God is, then I *do* call *you* an atheist because you don’t believe in the traditional theistic version of God”.
    P.S. The offensive unsolicited advice about what “atheists need to” do came not from Winfrey but from Nelson.

  15. 15
    Axxyaan

    @Shatterface #12;

    Personally, I don’t see nothing to be upset about. People can be study objects for scientists. Why should we be upset about that? And if scientists want to limit their research to a particular group of people like the godless then I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  16. 16
    AJ Milne

    alqpr/#14:

    Yeah, um, no.

    First, yes, I expect it is also the standard believe-in-belief-and-warm-fuzzy-energy-fields-type-theist redefinition game. And as such slippery Sams are generally hopelessly unethical about this stuff, it’s no wonder she’s put her foot so rudely in this particular puddle. Let’s redefine atheism, indeed. She’s not the first. She’s just the one with one of the larger audiences.

    But look at why. And, importantly, look at how.

    Why? Because, hey, it’s awfully inconvenient having someone admirable and likeable and enthusiastic about life and the world standing here actually being one so bloody publicly, so let’s not call her that. Wouldn’t want people getting the wrong idea about those, after we’ve been doing our damndest for most of forever to smear that word with a solid whiff of pariahdom. ..

    No no, let’s make sure we find an excuse to keep ‘atheist’ a dirty word. Oh don’t call yourself that, poor dear. That’s someone who doesn’t experience awe and wonder.

    And that’s the how. So, in fact, re your ‘that’s not the same as saying actual atheists don’t experience awe and wonder;’, quite the contrary. It’s exactly that. She is, in fact, trying to redefine that very word, that very way.

  17. 17
    Draconaes

    Atheists need to concentrate more on expressing awe

    But if we do that, don’t we get accused of not actually being atheists?

  18. 18
    alqpr

    @AJMilne#16:
    Yes, as I said, she is trying to redefine the word. But not the people. By redefining the word into what is essentially a nullity, she is not dismissing “real” atheists but only the empty set of people who she thinks the label applies to. (Or perhaps she really is trying to insult and undermine, not all “real” atheists, but just *declared* ones. If that is what you meant, then you might be right – and if you had said it that way it would make more sense.)

    Either way, the proper answer to that is to say “No, I *am* an atheist, and according to what you have just said so are you! If ‘atheist’ just meant ‘having no sense of wonder’ then it would probably refer to no-one. But that’s NOT what it means, and what it does mean includes you”. I might continue with “Perhaps you are just trying to insult those of us who openly declare their atheism, but if so then you should be ashamed of yourself!”

  19. 19
    AJ Milne

    By redefining the word into what is essentially a nullity, she is not dismissing “real” atheists but only the empty set of people who she thinks the label applies to…

    I think you’re reading between the lines, and in a fashion that gives her way too much credit.

    I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find she thinks a) there are people who feel no such sense of wonder, and b) that’s the standard atheist everyone’s supposed to look down upon and/or pity for such an alleged deficit. Because it’s a very standard trope.

    It’s also a very standard othering. And how her variety of religion defines itself. Better than the rest because they’re oh so deep, and oh so reflective, oh so ‘spiritual’. Atheists, see, are these dreadful broken people who can’t or refuse to be so deep, so reflective, so spiritual.

  20. 20
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    I just posted about this, asking “Can religious people experience wonder at the universe?”

  21. 21
    Ophelia Benson

    Beth @11 –

    @5

    >>Oprah still basically implied that atheists are less than human. That is not okay.

    Why do you say that? What did she say that you feel implied that atheists are less than human?

    She said that if you feel awe and wonder, then she doesn’t consider you an atheist. That quite clearly implies that atheists never feel awe and wonder.

    There’s a background assumption that never feeling awe and wonder is in some sense less than human. Put down baldly like that it looks somewhat…prejudicial. Hm. Your question prodded me into noticing that.

    I do think the capacity to be bowled over (aka blown away, etc) by beauty, technical feats like the Mars Rover, the cosmos, etc etc, is a valuable one. However when pressed I realize I don’t think people who lack that capacity are less than human. I miss it in people who don’t have it, but I don’t think they’re less than human.

  22. 22
    Beth

    Ophelia @21

    Thanks for the explanation. I appreciate it.

  23. 23
    Ophelia Benson

    Beth – you’re welcome, and thank you for asking the question. Once I broke it down to try to answer carefully, I saw a problem. That’s always useful.

  24. 24
    rnilsson

    So, in the final analysis, Oprah turns out to be a Useful Idiot, not just an Godam Idiot? Is that really the outcome she wanted? Harpo, Useful Tool? Surprising, to some extent.

    Sensing the seed of an anagram. No, not quite that either.

  25. 25
    Dave Ricks

    What does strike a deep chord with me is Winfrey’s advantages over Nyad, in privilege and framing.  This incident is an example, dramatization, or (dare I say) a parable of these issues:

    • The writer Marcia Z. Nelson credits Winfrey for “being her spiritually and professionally curious self,” but there’s no chance the dialog would ever flip Winfrey into introspection, to wonder if maybe she was the one who was wrong about her self-identification all these years.  So much for Winfrey’s professional curiosity.

    • Nelson says that atheists need to make a move, to show that atheists are as awe-full as Winfrey, which supports the mainstream public, in their default or going-in position, that atheists are deficient until proven numinous, and atheists need to respond by showing how numinous they are.

    I see Winfrey’s advantages, and I hear the Bowie/Lennon song “Fame” (1975): Is it any wonder – I’ll reject you first (with the pitch descending, fame – fame – fame – fame – fame – fame – fame – fame … on a real-time digital audio Eventide H910).

    If I’ll take anybody’s advice, it’s Greta Christina’s advice, that atheists should simply come out and be seen for whoever they are.  So what, if I say the gods of ancient Greece and Abraham® are imaginary?  Like Bill Cosby said in the 1960s: “Now that black people are in TV commercials, white people will know we have body odor and bad breath like everyone else.” That’s my standard for acceptance: Not to be accepted for being as flowery as Winfrey, but accepted because I wake up with morning breath, and I brush my teeth.

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