CHARLTON: Is atheism truly what we think it is?

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By Dave Charlton

Who gets to decide when another person is or isn’t an atheist?

Oprah Winfrey has ignited a bit of controversy over this question in a recent interview with long distance swimmer Diana Nyad. Winfrey interviewed Nyad on Oct. 13 as a part of her Super Soul Sunday. During the interview Nyad remarked that she is an atheist, which sparked an interesting exchange, the highlights of which are as follows:

Winfrey (in response to Nyad’s statement of being an atheist: “But you’re in awe [of nature].”

Nyad: “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.”

Winfrey: “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.”

Nyad then went on to say that while she is a spiritual person, she doesn’t believe in an overarching being.

Some atheists have called upon Winfrey to issue an apology for failing to acknowledge Nyad’s atheism. But is that actually what Nyad claimed? Nyad used the word “atheist,” but is that a completely adequate way to explain her beliefs?

This interview is a classic example of the shortcomings of our language when it comes to defining words such as belief or unbelief, spiritual or nonspiritual, religious or nonreligious, and atheist or believer. These are words that can have a greater depth of meaning and much greater nuance in their definition than we often give them.

Take the word atheist, for example. Does it always mean “someone who does not believe in God?” Not necessarily.

Breaking down the word semantically reveals more tan one shade of meaning. Atheist is a combination of the prefix a, which means no or none, and the word theist, which can mean either “God” or “one who believes in a personal God.” Put together, the prefix and word can mean either “no God” or “one who does not believe in a personal God.” So although some people use the word to reference a total lack of belief in any type of God, others would use it to convey a different meaning, primarily that they believe in God, but not a personal God.

It may be a surprise to many that not everyone who is religious believes in a personal God, and not every religion adheres to such a definition of God. Buddhism, for example, is sometimes referred to as an atheistic religion, as they do not generally believe in a personal, or theistic, God.

Even in the Christian tradition it is possible to find some who are atheists, or, to use the other definition of the word, non-theists. John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan, to name a few, have long argued from within the Christian tradition for a view of God that is nonpersonal. 

Nyad, in her interview with Winfrey, seemed to express this kind of nontheistic approach to God, rejecting a belief in a personal God while at the same time expressing a view that seemed to recognize some definition of the divine. It certainly shows, I think, that the use of the word atheist as a one-size-fits-all word is rather inadequate and that Winfrey had a point in her hesitation to use that word to describe Nyad’s beliefs.

Does any of this really matter? I think it does. If Nyad wants to call herself an atheist, that’s certainly her right and she should do so. But this also reminds us that the language we use when we talk about God – and whether or not God exists – is not always as simple as we think it is.


Dave Charlton is pastor of First Christian Church. His column will appear every other week. You can reach him at davidpaulcharlton@gmail.com.