SHOCK – Atheists Can Experience AWE

There is a video making the rounds in which Oprah Winfrey interviews the swimmer Diana Nyad on her show Super Soul Sunday .   The interview gets around to Nyad proclaiming herself an atheist yet somehow is awed by the majesty of the universe.  This cannot be – an atheist cannot experience awe in the universe, which Winfrey quickly points out. At 1:03 into the interview, Winfrey rejects Nyad’s atheist label because, well if you experience awe you must be a believer. Take a look after the jump.

Now we could take Winfrey’s definition as an indication that Winfrey herself is an atheist (:-)), as her definition of god is merely the emotional experience of a human being and not a supernatural entity. Now thankfully, Nyad clarifies Winfrey’s redefinition of her atheism and indicates that ‘there is an inference with god that there is a presence, there is a either a creator or an overseer’ which she rejects (rightly so). But Winfrey is tenacious and at 1:31 of the interview she suggests that Nyad may discover god on her deathbed – “until that last breath and maybe it’s an oh-wow one for you as it was for Steve Jobs” Wtf?! This is the same old nonsense that atheists will discover god on their deathbed, and is an extension of ‘there are not atheists in the foxhole’.

I don’t think (or hope) that Winfrey was being consciously confrontational because I think believers take it for granted that there can be no meaning in life without a belief in god (which I have blogged about before – see here). You can’t possible experience awe and deep meaning without belief in the supernatural. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is embedded in the very fabric of our society. But, to the contrary, atheists are like all others in the human family and experience the full range of human emotion, cognition, and behaviour (yes, atheists use the toilet. What separates atheists from believers is that we don’t ascribe these emotions to a supernatural entity. For us, these emotions and experiences are fully embedded in our neural structure. But knowing that does not take away from the fullness and majesty of enjoying a beautiful sunset, or the smile of your baby, or a walk through the forest on a warm summer’s day.

Later on in the interview Winfrey asks Nyad if she is spiritual. Now I must admit I don’t understand the concept of spirituality. I don’t really know what the word means or connotes. If it means being in touch with some supernatural (spirit) force in the universe then I have no truck with the concept. If however, it relates to having an emotional experience of being connected, in a fundamental way, with the universe, then I will admit I am spiritual. We are after all made of the same stuff as the most distant of stars in the universe. I leave it to Neil deGrasse Tyson to articulate this awareness.

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