Atheists can appreciate the natural world without a nod to God

October 18, 2013

On her show “Super Soul Sunday,” Oprah Winfrey interviewed marathon swimmer Diana Nyad about everything from her incredible endurance to her spiritual beliefs.

The part that struck a chord with me — and many other atheists — was Winfrey’s dismissal of Nyad’s non-religious label. Nyad explained that she called herself an atheist but that didn’t take anything away from the awe she felt about the world and all of its inhabitants. To her, “God” was humanity.

Winfrey clearly didn’t understand that, responding, “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then! I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, that that is what God is!”

First of all, Winfrey’s definition of God is fairly meaningless, applying to everything and nothing all at once.

More importantly, however, was the (unintentional) implication that those of us who find beauty in plants and animals and the universe itself can’t possibly be godless. That’s a common stereotype atheists face and it’s an incredibly pernicious one, made even worse because it was repeated by a celebrity of Winfrey’s stature.

I doubt Oprah would ever tell a self-described lesbian that she was really a bisexual, or a moderate Republican that he was really an independent. Most of us who choose a label for ourselves like that do so only after a great deal of thought. That’s why Winfrey had no business telling Nyad she wasn’t really an atheist. Nyad politely explained her case, but you can understand her hesitation to push back too hard. It’s Oprah, after all.

But let’s get back to the real question at hand: Are atheists capable of feeling awe about our world?

Absolutely.

Atheist musicians experience that feeling when playing or listening to a beautiful composition.

Atheist scientists experience that feeling when they gaze at the stars or look through a microscope.

Atheist parents experience that feeling when they first lay eyes on their newborn child.

There’s nothing religious about it. It’s just nature: elusive, expansive and enveloping. You don’t need to look for a higher power to give thanks. Sometimes, you can just bask in the wonderful way the world turned out, considering all the ways it could have gone in another direction. As Richard Dawkins so wonderfully wrote in his book “Unweaving the Rainbow,” “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.” For Dawkins, there’s even a beauty to death. We are fortunate enough to experience this blink in the life of the universe. Let’s not waste our time giving credit where it’s not due.

Nyad, who has spent so much of her life battling and embracing the ocean, understands all of that perfectly well. Religious people don’t have a monopoly on appreciating the world we live in — and Nyad, a proud atheist, is living proof of that.

Hemant Mehta is the author of “The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide” and a blogger at FriendlyAtheist.com. He wrote this piece for On Faith.

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