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Oct 16 2013

Oprah’s bigotry

Oprah Winfrey did it again. She did an interview with Diana Nyad, and along the way, Nyad revealed that she was — oh, horrors — an atheist. Oprah could not process that. She’s so thoroughly anti-atheist that she could not imagine that someone who had accomplished something, who was a human being right before her eyes, could actually not believe in a god, so she vocally denied the possibility. David Niose has written the best criticism I’ve read so far.

Obviously, Oprah needs needs an education. At a minimum, she needs to add some Carl Sagan titles to her book club’s reading list. An outspoken nonbeliever, Sagan was known not just as a great scientist, but for inspiring wonder and awe. Many would agree that his Pale Blue Dot commentary is more profound than any religious broadcast. Or perhaps Oprah should consider the deep message behind the monologue of Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God. Atheism and awe are quite compatible.

Oprah, exalted by so many but oblivious to the fact that she is dehumanizing atheists, does more to perpetuate negative attitudes toward nonbelievers than Pat Robertson or James Dobson ever could. The general public takes comments from Robertson and Dobson with a grain of salt – but Oprah, as a media tycoon and a beloved celebrity whose opinions are taken seriously by millions, has just confirmed that atheists are "the other," outsiders who just don’t belong in the in-group. (And the evidence is clear that atheists are indeed widely, and wrongly, scorned in America. With commentary such as Oprah’s, we can see why.)

Maybe she needs to devote a show to educating herself and her viewers on the awe-inspiring, wondrous aspects of atheism and secular humanism?

Yes! And of course, to illustrate that atheists are wonderful, sensitive, caring people who are delighted with the universe, she should invite ME to be on the show.

Oh, wait.

29 comments

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  1. 1
    nkrishna

    Go away, Oprah.

    I mean, I know that’s not going to happen, but I wish it would and have for a long time. I’ll have to leave her education to someone with far more patience.

  2. 2
    Joey Maloney

    You could go on her show and tell her that she’s not really Black.

  3. 3
    Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

    I have never been more awed by the universe than I am now. Atheism actually opened me up to far more wonder than Christianity ever could.

  4. 4
    nothere

    Paging Frank Perdue.

  5. 5
    borax

    @3 Kevin, truth. I am a speck of almost nothing in a gigantic universe incapable of noting my existence. At the same time I’m surrounded by unmeasurable beauty and incomprehensible horror. I know my life will be meaningless when compared to the grandness and vastness of the universe, but I’m glad to be here for the short little time I have. To me that is awe, and I don’t need a small, petty god to make it any better.

  6. 6
    sadunlap

    Using this only as a figure of speech, Oprah has more money than God. She could buy herself a first rate education. There’s a number of great schools right where she lives. In addition to appreciating Sagan it would help with the anti-vac nonsense she allows on her show. Acquiring lots of money does not say anything, one way or the other, about one’s intelligence or ability regarding any other matter than the acquisition of money. It’s how you use it that matters.

  7. 7
    gsciacca

    Despite all her book reading, she remains uninformed and insulated from reality.

  8. 8
    David Wilford

    I think Oprah’s response to Nyad has more to do with her playing to the feelings of her audience than anything else, and I’m sure the vast majority of her viewers aren’t atheists.

  9. 9
    Raging Bee

    Oprah doesn’t need an education, she needs a spine. I’m sure she’s not as stupid as she sounded in this instance — but she’s an entertainer with a huge audience, and she’s probably afraid she’ll lose a huge chunk of it if she goes against the Party Line by admitting that a person can be both good and atheist at the same time. And this incident proves that she cares more about keeping her audience than about maintaining the honesty that got her that audience in the first place.

    She’s part of the establishment now, and we probably can’t expect her to be any better than she is. Perhaps the only option is to publicly acknolwedge that her time is passed, and she can retire into irrelevance on her own personal all-Oprah channel.

  10. 10
    kieran

    Why is this a surprise, this is the woman who unleashed Dr. Oz, has promoted woo, puts experts in the audience instead of onstage next to the dingbat whose book she’s promoting and you’re surprised when someone doesn’t fit the narrative of Oprah, that everything has a meaning and leads towards spiritual development, she tries to force the narrative to fit her preconceived notions of the world.

  11. 11
    jnorris

    … she should invite ME to be on the show.

    Go for it PZ, you and your pet kraken on Oprah. I’d watch that.

  12. 12
    Rey Fox

    I think Oprah’s response to Nyad has more to do with her playing to the feelings of her audience than anything else, and I’m sure the vast majority of her viewers aren’t atheists.

    That seems like a very uncharitable view of her audience, to assume that they’re so afraid of atheism that they need to be shielded from it somehow. I mean, maybe it’s true, but it seems to me that someone with Oprah’s level of influence ought to be using Nyad’s statement as a teachable moment of sorts. That she decided to act defensive and deny Nyad’s atheism is all on her, I think.

    Maybe I’ve been in a bubble of my own, but it still surprises me that atheism is so shocking in 2013.

  13. 13
    Sastra

    DIANA NYAD: 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 lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. To me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.
    OPRAH: 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.

    Oprah is playing a popular game of bait ‘n switch — and she’s probably doing it unconsciously, motivated by a desire to justify her own spirituality and bring other people into it.

    So God = “believing in awe and wonder and mystery,” is it?

    It’s the same thing. There’s no personal being there, there’s no mental essence, there’s ONLY the experience itself? That’s all you mean? A “God” which is in fact perfectly consistent with the strictest atheistic naturalistic scientistic humanistic material-world-view?

    Like hell she means that. She only thinks she means that in a desperate attempt to make God seem like something everybody believes in, everybody needs to believe in.

    What she means is that feelings of awe and wonder and mystery both point to God and are, in some woo-full and essential and supernatural sense God itself. Feeling happy proves God because God is Happiness. A “mystery” is always solved by shoving in an inherently irreducible and inexplicable supernatural non-explanation. And PZ and the rest of us can see that switcheroo a mile away.

    It’s a shrewd strategy. Define God in a way that can’t be wrong and associate it with everything good. Be broad and general and seemingly open and accepting … and then passively-aggressively shift your meaning from the “God is whatever moves you the most” definition to the real one — which involves supernaturalism, the paranormal, fundamental Mind, other ways of knowing, faith, woo, religion, and spirituality.

    And geez — Diana Nyad even gave her another option: “my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.”

    Oprah sort of took it, didn’t she? Grabbed it (so you DO have a version of God!) and then edged it into something even more open to transcendent interpretation. No atheists, everyone believes in God, etc. etc.

    I think we atheists need to stop doing that. Oprah needs an education, absolutely. But c’mon — let’s not enable their tricks by just handing them language about “our” definition of God. They smell that and eat it up.

  14. 14
    Pierce R. Butler

    Oh Em Gee – PZ Myers has favorably quoted an article from Psychology Today!?!

    Consider the eschaton immamentized!

  15. 15
    Sastra

    Rey Fox #12 wrote:

    That seems like a very uncharitable view of her audience, to assume that they’re so afraid of atheism that they need to be shielded from it somehow.

    I think David Wilford is probably right about Oprah’s audience. Remember, God = Love. What terrifies them so much isn’t atheism itself, but outspoken atheism. Atheism as a legitimate option, proudly advanced as not just reasonable but truer and thus better than theism. Oh noes! Someone is going to try to change my entire life! They’re going to take away Love! From the world!

    That’s part of the reason they play the re-definition game. It’s to shut down any criticism, put everyone on the same side, defuse the arguments and stop the discussion before it begins. A variation of the Argument from Shut Up.

    “I don’t believe in God.”

    “Shut up because I’m going to find a way that you do.”

  16. 16
    doublereed

    She probably SHOULD invite you on the show. You just wrote a book, after all. Maybe Oprah should read it.

  17. 17
    vaiyt

    It’s very simple, really. Oprah is just like many other believers who think spirituality equals goodness, and that god has a monopoly on beauty. She can’t process someone who is an atheist (non-believer AND non-spiritual) and isn’t struggling with the lack of meaning in their life.

  18. 18
    swampfoot

    I’d love to see her try that shit with Matt Dillahunty. In fact, Matt would be the PERFECT guest on her show as a representative atheist voice.

    Or maybe Phil Hellenes? I am just so enamored with his “Science Saved My Soul” video. It captures the wonder of a naturalistic worldview so perfectly.

    Maybe Tim Minchin!

  19. 19
    David Wilford

    I think PZ would have to walk on water before Oprah would have him on.

  20. 20
    Endorkened

    Oprah is a Strong Black Woman, and her authentic and in no way generic and corporatized spirituality is an integral part of her cultural identity–by stripping her of the dignity of her faith, you are constructively colonizing her spiritual body, and are therefore all rapists. Your bigotry has been noted, and will be reblogged and flamed constantly on Tumblr until the next time Seth Macfarlane says or does something awful. So, like, a week.

  21. 21
    Cuttlefish

    Oh, come on–Oprah, in agreeing with what an atheist experiences as defining “God”, has effectively said that the major religions of the modern world are all wrong. Her wobbliness should be every bit as offensive to religious people as to atheists!
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2013/10/15/oprah-says-major-religions-all-wrong

  22. 22
    consciousness razor

    Oprah is playing a popular game of bait ‘n switch — and she’s probably doing it unconsciously, motivated by a desire to justify her own spirituality and bring other people into it.

    It reads to me (just from your excerpt) like Nyad is the one who baited the hook. Instead of giving a “definition of God” which has nothing to do with a deity, she should’ve talked about having those same kinds of experiences that religious people associate with a god, and how that sort of experience doesn’t imply a belief in a god. Yes, that’s wordier and hard to argue if the issue is pressed, and in a conversation like that I wouldn’t expect it to be articulated perfectly clearly every time. But it’s not so hard just to say “I don’t believe in a deity and I believe in [blah blah blah] that you’re associating with a deity.” Then people can take you at your word, instead of interpreting the contradictory “I do/don’t believe in X” in a way that confirms their own views. Of course, it can’t be that hard for believers like Oprah to exercise a little charity, to read it the way an atheist like Nyad or you or I would, so I’m not saying Oprah’s just making an honest mistake. She saw an opening for a talking point and used it, but we certainly don’t need to make that opening in the first place.

  23. 23
    TonyJ

    Joey Maloney:

    You could go on her show and tell her that she’s not really Black.

    You joke, but my drunken idiot of a (thankfully ex-) stepfather actually said that to one of our next-door-neighbors.

    “I don’t consider you to be black, Willie. You just seem too much like a normal guy.”

  24. 24
    cuervocuero

    It seems from Oprah’s words, she herself has moved from sectarian religiosity to the ‘god is love’ loosening of belief. I read that a lot from theists moving towards atheism. No Hell, no bad stuff, just love’n'beauty because they feel those passions when looking at the world and situations but haven’t untangled completely from a life of religious upbringing enough to realize what is inherent human ability and what is imposed as reasons therefore. It takes a big ‘snap’ to reverse the scene and say that religions hijacked human sensitivities already present.

    At the same time, Oprah sounded like she was denying Diane’s statement of being and having to theosplain it, which is religious/spiritual privilege at its rudest. I could guess that Oprah might need to re-state it in a framework of ideas that keeps some “God” in it, otherwise her same passionate reaction to the world, seen in Diane’s light of life, could be construed that Oprah is non-theistic. That allegation of subconscious motivation is being generous to Oprah, given that her career is made out of being a professional interviewer.

    Sadly, it’s ironic that a woman who has worked as hard as Oprah has to be a success grabs at a woman’s declaration of existence and silences her voice, rewriting it in her own.

  25. 25
    anchor

    @#5, borax:

    “I am a speck of almost nothing in a gigantic universe incapable of noting my existence. At the same time I’m surrounded by unmeasurable beauty and incomprehensible horror. I know my life will be meaningless when compared to the grandness and vastness of the universe, but I’m glad to be here for the short little time I have.”

    But, don’t forget, “we are a way for the universe to know itself” [Sagan*]

    We’re also a way for the universe to be mistaken.

    Fortunately, we are capable of learning and there are many insignificantly tiny specks that can and do share in noting each other’s existence and our discoveries. Relations between localized specks – that’s the part that provides life and universe with meaning…a way the universe educates and celebrates itself, with science and art, respectively.

  26. 26
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    @ Sastra

    Further to your comments:

    God = Love

    Love = God

    We can switch the terms around by the Symmetric Property of Equality. This makes logical sense, but we see their game, in that we immediately sense the two expressions are NOT the same. The second (my) expression really doesn’t tell us anything. We know what love is, even if we each have a different take on it and the borders are a little hazy. But no-one has a clue as to how they would define god. Words like “Love” are used to fill in the fantasy.

    “God” is along for a free ride. By attributing real terms to the fiction, He can take on a life of His own. He hijacks language to flesh out his new cloths. Being told He is Love, means the fantasy we create builds inferences that really only belong to our understanding of the word “Love”.

    We could consider my Imaginary Cat ™ : Knowing that this supreme being is a cat immediately allows us to know all manner of things about It through inference. We know that it has imaginary fur and imaginary retractile claws. We know too that it loves me, because such is the nature of cats. Any one of us could talk for days on the subject of my Imaginary Cat ™ , having been told naught but it’s divine name.

    God has a penis, is omniscient and is Love. I could riff for weeks on just those three imaginary attributes. And if any of you make up the same shit as I do, that only proves how real He is.

  27. 27
    aaronbaker

    I can’t bring myself to watch the interview; the quotation from Winfrey in the Niose editorial suggests that Oprah may be defining “God” here as Whatever There Is that Engenders Awe. If that’s what she means, the problem there is the enormous irrelevant and often pernicious baggage that the word “God” carries with it. We have a better expression in English for that concept: “Whatever there is that engenders awe.”

  28. 28
    shades

    consciousness razor @22:

    That doesn’t necessarily work. I had almost the exact discussion you’re describing as ideal with my mother out-law… who still mirrored Oprah’s reaction. We got into a discussion of the feeling of awe and wonder one can experience in the natural world, and found commonality in that. Thinking that was an awesome in-road into commonality and understanding, I pointed out that this was a shared human experience; that we both had it, though she was catholic and I was an atheist.

    And she said “No you’re not.” Then, while I stared dumbfounded (have I mentioned this was pre-coffee? Never talk with your out-laws pre-caffeine): “You’re too caring and creative to be an atheist.”

    So, nope! The True Scotsman is always around the corner, savvy to your tricks.

  29. 29
    rnilsson

    Late as always.

    To my mind, Oprah is not in this biz for teh Mooney, she wants something else. If I had the wherewithal to donate 10 million dollars, as opposed to 10, to some worthy cause, I might just call it a day and simply do that. No, Oprah wants something else. My guess is, she wants recognition and affirmation. And that’s OK really – as long as it’s not at someone else’s expense. But that’s what she just did here. Bad move.

    I endorse the idea of having PZ’s book on her book club list. (Yeah, cheap shot, but not very inaccurate.)

    And just donated $10 to PZ’s donut/bisquit fund. (cf above)

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