Oprah and atheism

I am an atheist. That used to be a more difficult thing to say, but at this point I often forget that it’s not a “normal” thing to proclaim. About 20 percent of the country was polled as “None” as far as religious preference goes. That doesn’t necessarily mean atheistic, but it’s sometimes difficult to see that a good chunk of people are unaffiliated with any religion. Especially when the general consensus of modern America still seems to be that being non-religious is a bad and/or weird thing.

That being said, I haven’t heard anything atheism-related in the news since the controversy with the atheist memorial in Florida. But the topic of religion has garnered some minor dispute once again. A story has recently surfaced about a religiously affiliated soup kitchen refusing to allow an atheist group to volunteer there because, to paraphrase, “that wouldn’t be the Christian thing to do.”

Honestly, I don’t find that particular story all that interesting. It’s needlessly discriminatory and a problem, of course, but it’s also patently ridiculous. Everyone, religious people and non-religious people alike, can see what’s wrong with that picture. The person in charge of the soup kitchen comes across as glaringly unreasonable. I actually wish that all bigotry was that flagrant — it’d be easy to recognize in a crowd and even easier for reasonable people to point out the obvious flaws.

Sadly, that’s not the case, and some biases are a little more subtle. Take, for instance, the second mildly controversial story concerning everyone’s favorite semi-relevant talk show host, Oprah. During a segment dubbed Super Soul Sunday on her channel, Oprah interviewed long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, a fairly awesome individual who also happens to be an atheist. It went less than spectacularly.

When Nyad stated that she was an atheist “who experiences awe and wonder at the natural world and humanity,” Oprah replied something to the effect of “Then I don’t label you as an atheist because an atheist can’t think the world is cool because God is the world.” To be fair to Oprah, the particular show was subtitled “Exploring the Big Questions with Diana Nyad,” so it was clearly intended to be more nuanced than it ultimately ended up being.

It’s just an example of a poor conversation, more specifically a poor conversation about religion. I don’t think that Oprah has some bias against the non-religious, but she definitely has a bias toward her own point of view on the matter, which leads to her projecting that point of view onto others who clearly don’t share it.

I’m not just referring to Christians when talking about the religious bias, and I want to make that point very clear. Being in a minority group, religious or otherwise, doesn’t automatically make a person some paragon of more-knowledgeable-than-the-other-person-by-default, unprejudiced wisdom who knows more about [insert relevant topic here] because they’re not in the majority. Going into any conversation with that mindset could only inhibit it, no matter what touchy topic is on the line.

That type of bias shows up everywhere. How many times have you heard some form of the phrase “You’re not a real [insert group here]”? It’s a bias much more difficult to pick out and reflect on than others. That’s why I’m focusing on it more.

Many people in the atheist community have been talking about how Oprah needs to apologize to atheists, but I don’t necessarily agree with that assertion.  Now, of course I think she’s wrong. She really couldn’t be more factually inaccurate. As a general rule, though, I’m very wary about some vague and demanding “us” constantly insisting that celebrities apologize to “us” for saying objectionable things.

It’s as if the viewing public is not only a hive mind but a hive mind with really sensitive feelings and a tendency to take personal offense to most things. The tasteful thing to do would be for Oprah to apologize to Diana Nyad for being insensitive and making her have an awkward conversation on television, and that should be the end of it. It would be infinitely more genuine and respectable than Oprah’s PR people trying to help her save face by apologizing to an unclear “everyone.”

That situation is a perfect example of how talking about religion can turn sour even if the intentions are good. The difficulty here, then, lies in how to converse about religion. Most people would tell you that the best way to talk about religion is to not do it at all, and I’m sure that method has a 100 percent success rate as far as avoiding awkward religious conversations goes.

Personally, I like talking about religion and do it fairly often. After a while, it’s made very evident that just assuming you know someone’s beliefs better than they do is a good way to have an unproductive conversation that ends worse than a game of unfinished Monopoly. Throwing fake money and small plastic houses at each other while spewing profanities may or may not happen in the religion conversation scenario.

The Phoenix