Respecting another’s belief (or nonbelief)— and still connecting

Friday,  Oct. 25, 2013

Oprah, Atheists, and Ambiguity
In this post, David Lose, writing for the In the Meantime blog, talks about the controversy that erupted after a recent Oprah Winfrey program. The program upset many atheists, who quickly let their  displeasure be known through social media and elsewhere. It all started after long distance swimmer Diana Nyad at age 64 fulfilled her lifelong dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida and was invited to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday program.  During their 90-minute conversation, Nyad let it be known that she was an atheist. At the same time, she stressed an important point.  ““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 have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.”

Wnfrey retorted, ““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 a bearded guy in the sky.” Some atheists took offense, believing that Oprah was treating Diana condescendingly and not validating what the swimmer was naming as her own reality. Some atheists were so angry that they wanted Oprah to issue an apology.

In today’s link, David Lose provides a thoughtful, balanced approach to the incident. He writes: “In this exchange, it seems to me, lies one of the more profound and important challenges of our increasingly pluralistic world. How do we accept as fully human those persons who disagree with us profoundly, those whose very beliefs may, in fact, seem to call into question our own? This isn’t only a question for Christians or, for that matter, the religious. Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris frequently seem to give the impression that they have a hard time understanding how anyone could believe differently than they do, at least anyone remotely as intelligent or educated as they are.” (My thanks to Rev. Becky Kiser for directing me to this link.)

Related.  Other articles about the conversation between Oprah Winfrey and Diana Nyad include Mary Elizabeth Williams’ piece, “Don’t tell an atheist she’s not an atheist,” on;  Caryn Riswold’s essay ,”Oprah, Atheism, & How Not to Be an Ally” on her Feminismxianity blog on Patheos; and Kimberly Winston’s  “Oprah’s interview stirs debate: What is an atheist?” from the Religion News Service.

After reading all these articles, I wondered how Diana Nyad herself thought about her interview with Oprah, so I looked up her post about it on her own blog.  I found that she said nothing at all about the part some people found controversial,  She considers it the most wonderful interview she has ever participated in.  Nyad said she didn’t want to come across as fawning, but her delight in the interview and her admiration of Oprah were palpable.  About her interaction with Oprah, she said, “She lets you know that you are two equals, curious about the ways of the human spirit, thirsty to discover….together….some new insight as to how to better live these cherished lives of ours. . . . You enter a magical world of calm intensity in her presence. There is nothing else. Nobody else. There is no pretending. No impressing. She cried at some of my stories. She was intent on soaking up everything I was feeling.  We traveled together for those 90 minutes and the journey was bountiful.”

It seems that not only is beauty in the eye of the beholder, so is controversy!

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.


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