How Oprah Winfrey Flustered the 'Friendly Atheist'

The Washington Post was showing its soft spot for atheists again in Saturday’s Metro section. Blogger Hemant Mehta (“The Friendly Atheist”) wanted to chew out Oprah Winfrey.

Mr. Friendly was flustered when Oprah told distance swimmer Diana Nyad that she couldn’t be an atheist if she found joy and mystery in nature. He then lectured Oprah that she wouldn’t dismiss bisexuals or moderate Republicans like that:

Nyad explained that she called herself an atheist but that didn’t take anything away from the awe she felt about the world and all of its inhabitants. To her, “God” was humanity.

Winfrey clearly didn’t understand that, responding, “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then! I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, that that is what God is!”

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

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.

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.

Mehta certainly nails one point. The God of Oprah has been a very amorphous New Age-y concept, pushing gurus like Eckhart Tolle. See how the Canadian news mag Macleans caught Tolle blathering:

“I feel very strongly there is an intelligence at work in every flower, in every blade of grass, in every cell of my body. And it is that intelligence that,” he says, “I wouldn’t say created the universe. It is creating the universe. It’s an ongoing process.” As for the world’s established religions, he feels they have all lost their way—the purity of their message long since twisted into rigid ideology and buried under edifice, ritual and ego.

Poor Oprah favors gushy feelings without any confining doctrines. She thinks Nyad's nature talk is just a church like hers.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis