Oprah Winfrey recently caused consternation within the secular community by suggesting that atheists who experience awe and wonder are actually having a religious experience. In an interview with American swimmer Diana Nyad on her show Soul to Soul, Oprah questioned her about whether she could really claim to be an “atheist in awe” and basically accused her of theism.
The successful and charismatic, (but somewhat naive) TV presenter asked Nyad: “You told our producers you’re not a God person, but you’re deeply in awe?”
Nyad replied: “Yeah, I’m not a God person. I’m an atheist” to which Oprah then asked : “But you’re in awe?“. Nyad retorted: “I don’t understand why anyone would find a contradiction in that. I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist and weep at the beauty of this universe, and be moved by all of humanity. So to me, my definition of God is humanity, and is the love of humanity.”
Oprah, who is very outspoken about her Christianity on TV, replied by telling Nyad that her beliefs did not fit with atheism as she undertands it. “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 the bearded guy in the sky.” she said.
Nyad continued: “It’s not bearded, but there is an inference with God that there is a presence, that there is either a creator or an overseer. I don’t criticise anybody because we will never know, we will never know until our last breath. Just for me, I’m an atheist who’s in awe”.
Continuing to grill Nyad, Oprah said: “So do you consider yourself a spiritual person, even as an atheist?”
Nyad replied: “I do, I don’t think there’s any contradictions in those terms. I think you can be an atheist who doesn’t believe in an overarching being who created all of this and sees over it. But there’s spirituality because we human beings, we animals, we plants and maybe even the ocean and the stars, we all live with something that is cherished and we feel the treasure of it.“
Nyad was very right in my opinion. Just because a person lacks a belief in God, does not mean that they cannot be moral, or that they cannot experience a sense of the numinous, but unlike Nyad, I would not personally use the word “spiritual” as that word has certain personal overtones for me which link it inextricably with organised religion and the bearded god, but as Shakespeare said “What’s in a word?”. If the meaning of experiencing a sense of awe and wonder in the world is maintained, that is fine by me. In my personal experience, leaving religion behind opened my eyes to the wonders that are found in nature and in the process of evolution. I would say that most atheists that I know are ‘in awe’; they have an above average interest in scientific inquiry. Famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Karl Sagan, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens have produced tomes of ‘scientific poetry’ in the form of books on popular biology, astronomy, and secular philosophy.
John Keats’ famously well-known, light-heatedly accused Isaac Newton of destroying the poetry of rainbows by “reducing it to the prismatic colours.”
What nonsense. Simply knowing the real origin of a phenomenon does not in any way destroy its beauty and elegance. In fact, more poetry can often be seen in phenomena which has been elucidated by the lens of science. Richard Dawkins’ book “Unweaving the Rainbow” is an excellent one to read in order to really understand the majesty of evolution. The book really convinced me that evolution and science are infinitely more profound than anything religion claims to offer.
Here are two quotations from Richard Dawkin’s romantic “Unweaving the Rainbow”.
- The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.
- We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
A reading from Dawkins’ book can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjVoV6lblpY&
A particular London-based group of people known as The Sunday Assembly have brought this observation to life by setting up a kind of “Atheist Church”. The group, understanding that the support and sense of community that religious people experience at their churches, mosques, temples and kingdom halls is often lost when people become atheist, does not need to be dumped, have set up Sunday afternoon communities in London, Bristol and Brighton and even as far as Melbourne and New York. A new Sunday Assembly venue is planned this year for Oxford.
They describe themselves as “a godless congregation that celebrate life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.
We are here for everyone who wants to:
Live Better. We aim to provide inspiring, thought-provoking and practical ideas that help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the people they want to be
Help Often. Assemblies are communities of action building lives of purpose, encouraging us all to help anyone who needs it to support each other
Wonder More. Hearing talks, singing as one, listening to readings and even playing games helps us to connect with each other and the awesome world we live in”.
I’m not sure I would go to such meetings, but I do think it’s a wonderful idea for certain atheists who feel that their support network has been pulled out from under their feet, or for those who feel (of course wrongly) that their morality seems to lack a basis.