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Oprah, Atheists, and the Gift of Ambiguity

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Yes, you can be well-intentioned and still do harm. That, at least, is what television personality and media mogul Oprah Winfrey learned when she apparently and good-naturedly dismissed Diana Nyad's claim to being an atheist.

Nyad, who had recently completed a 53-hour solo swim from Cuba to Florida, was being interviewed by Oprah on her Super Soul Sunday program. At one point during the interview she said very clearly, "I am an atheist," and then continued by saying, "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."

To which Oprah replied, "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."

Few suspect that Oprah meant her words to be heard as anything other than accepting and affirming, an attempt, perhaps, to bridge any gap that Diana Nyad might have felt between herself and Oprah because of their distinct viewpoints about the existence of God. Oprah was trying to say, in essence, "we're not that different, you and I."

But that's exactly what has upset a number of atheists. They do not see the difference between them and believers as a gap that needs to be bridged. They want to be seen as both different and acceptable. They don't, in other words, want their convictions reduced to some slightly different, if more generic, from of religious faith, as if only the religious can feel awe. Rather, they desire to be respected not just in spite of but even for their disbelief.

And who can blame them? In our contemporary culture, atheists regularly rate as among the most distrusted persons in society because of their lack of belief in God. For this reason, Oprah's gesture of acceptance felt more like condescension...or worse. As Chris Stedman, author of the recent Faitheist and humanist chaplain at Harvard commented, "Winfrey's response may have been well intended. But it erased Nyad's atheist identity and suggested something entirely untrue and, to many atheists like me, offensive: that atheists don't experience awe and wonder."

In the minor furor that has erupted around Winfrey's remarks, it seems to me, lies one of the more profound and important challenges of living in 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? Can we, in other words, genuinely respect those whose worldview seems utterly irreconcilable to our own? This isn't only a question for Christians or, for that matter, the religious. When Richard Dawkins calls into question the credibility of a reporter because of his Muslim faith, Dawkins similarly gives the impression that he has a hard time understanding how anyone who views the world differently than he does can be considered truly intelligent or educated.

Problems arise for both believers and atheists alike, I would suggest, when we need or expect our beliefs and viewpoints to be validated by their acceptance by others. While the scientific worldview birthed in the Enlightenment has yield tremendous gains, perhaps an unfortunate and unintended consequence of modernity is our unquestioned acceptance of rational proof as the ultimate criteria in all matters, scientific or not. Once you've stamped QED to a proposition, be it mathematical or philosophical, there is little room for debate and every objection threatens the integrity of the proof. So whether the question at hand is "At what temperature does water boil?" or "What is the meaning of life?", when your only standard is indisputable proof, disagreement is always and only oppositional.

But what if we reclaimed a sense that belief in God -- or, for that matter, disbelief in God -- is less a matter of proof than it is confession: a willingness to give one's good reasons and evidence for one's views but also to surrender a claim to final proof. In this approach to articulating views, the boldness of a well-reasoned conviction is also and always accompanied by a commensurate acceptance that some things are ultimately beyond proof.

When one shifts from a desire to prove a viewpoint or belief to a desire to articulate and confess it, differences no longer need to alienate because the validity of one's confession doesn't rest in its acceptance by another but in the integrity of the confession itself. And the moment we stop seeing the agreement of others as necessary for our own validity becomes the moment we can accord them their own dignity and full humanity as persons, persons who don't exist to validate our beliefs but instead stand as beautiful and worthy in their own distinctiveness.

If we can shift from a necessity to prove to a desire to confess, then we discover not only how to "tolerate" each other -- which all too often feels like another form of condescension -- but also how to appreciate and value each other as distinct persons. While we may not agree, yet we may find in the beliefs of others ideas that challenge, stretch, and perhaps even strengthen our own.

Further, no longer impeded by a need either to overcome or assimilate the distinctiveness of another, we may be able to find meaningful common ground on which to work together on the pressing problems of the day. For instance, had Oprah simply valued and identified with Diana Nyad's expression of awe and wonder at the world instead of reducing it to a slightly different but essentially similar expression of faith as her own, then the conversation might have moved on to how they could work together to save this precious world that elicits wonder from one and belief from another.

To move in this direction, however, requires the capacity to live with ambiguity, and such a commodity seems strikingly rare of late. We live in a culture that prefers black and white clarity to the grey hues of ambiguity. We value certainty over discernment, absolute knowledge over tentative belief, and the illusion of stability that dogmatism (of the religious and non-religious types) offers in response to the perceived threat of chaos some fear ambiguity portends. I suspect that as our nation becomes ever more diverse, regularly confronting us with people who think and believe differently than we do, our penchant to seek out certainty at any cost will only increase. But that is not our only option. We are free to take delight in the more challenging but also more creative space living with ambiguity makes possible.

Ultimately, I don't believe for a moment that Oprah meant anything by her statement except to be welcoming, accepting, and hospitable. For this very reason, however, she provides us with a helpful example of how a well-intentioned person of faith can unintentionally erase the identity of another person who believes differently. She is, of course, not alone. I suspect most of us have made similar mistakes and likely will again. But if we can refuse the false comfort of absolutism, perhaps we can make that mistake less frequently and create room for genuine conversation and creative collaboration at a time when the world desperately needs more of both.