Diana Nyad says she’s an Atheist and Oprah remarks, “But you’re into awe.” Oprah seems to be speaking on behalf of those who think that Atheists are automatons who are incapable of experiencing what the religious community has obviously come to own as the human condition. Ms. Nyad can only defend herself by adopting pantheism, but not before Oprah corners her with the “moment of death” question. Here, Oprah exerts her power as a TV icon, and posits with vigor that Nyad’s moment of death will be an “oh-wow one for you.” Ms. Nyad quickly concedes that she will end up in Hell if such is the case. She then explains that she has nothing to say about the beliefs of others, which is fine…though I can’t help but sense a hint of accomodationism.
The conversation then moves into whether or not an Atheist can be spiritual, and Ms. Nyad thinks that they can. She expresses wonder about oceans, plants, and civilizations that have gone before us, and she sees “energy” in all of this. (This part is odd as we get a window into Oprah’s life as she admits to talking to trees, but I digress.) Nyad defines the soul as a “love of humanity,” and she believes this soul lives on, though the body dies. In fact, she sees souls in everyone.
I don’t know, but this is one of the stranger explanations of Atheism I have ever come across. My interpretation of the exchange rest in my understanding of Oprah’s position as a television powerhouse. I don’t think Ms. Nyad is cowering in her presence, but Atheism seems to require a sugarcoat to make the concept palatable for Oprah’s show. On a deeper lever, it seems this is what Atheism faces in the mainstream of American matters. Of course we have a plethora of videos smothering the net with videos of Atheists who blatantly state: there are no god or spirits (the notion of spirits being correlative to “spirituality”), and religion is BS, but to state such points on an Oprah show would be blasphemy.
I suppose in some ways, Nyad’s way is crafty. If an Atheist must walk on pins and needles to get people to at least glance at the prospect that Atheism is here to stay, then let the freedom ring. The idea that it needs a kind of sophistry to function seems rather epistemologically neurotic, but if that’s what it takes for truth to arise from the mucky coat of religion layered over the world, I’m glad it worked for her, and I’m glad it was done on Oprah’s show. Thank you, Oprah.
Here is the rest of Lipka’s October 2013 article: