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.
In the interview she is chatting with endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who recently swam from Cuba to Florida at age 64. Nyad unhesitatingly identifies as an atheist when asked about her beliefs, then adds that she sees no contradiction between her atheism and her ability to experience awe, or in her words to “weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity.”
Oprah, however, apparently found this description unsettling, for it seems that in her view atheists must be cold, emotionless rationalists. “Well I don’t call you an atheist then,” Oprah responded to Nyad's disclosure. “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”
What is most alarming about Oprah’s revelation is that she doesn’t even realize its invidiousness. Atheists, to her, don't feel that deep, emotional connection to the universe. She has drawn a circle that includes people of all faiths, but excludes atheists, thereby confirming negative attitudes toward nonbelievers.
To those among Oprah's legion of loyal viewers who may have held anti-atheist prejudices, this now validates their bias. That's right, those atheists just aren't like the rest of us, they can now say, nodding their heads. While we religious people of the world are appreciating the wonder and awe of life, those atheists are just one big buzzkill!
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?