Awe and Wonder and Oprah

In an interview with atheist distance swimmer Diana Nyad this week, Oprah claimed that atheists must not be able to feel a sense of awe and wonder. During the interview Nyad remarked, “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… So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.”

Oprah responded, “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. That is what God is. It’s not a bearded guy in the sky.”

While Oprah almost certainly meant to try to find common ground, she did something far too many religious individuals do without thinking: rather than actually seeking common ground (“we both feel a sense of awe and wonder, and attribute it to different things”), she forced atheists into her own religious paradigm. Atheists experience awe and wonder just like the religious do; we just don’t ascribe supernatural causes to what we observe. We marvel at science, and technology, and the human spirit, celebrating the many wonders of the world and its people, and grieving the many tragedies. We are humbled by the universe and our small place in it. And we value the one life we have on this planet, and we try to make it matter.

In response to Oprah’s comments, we asked our members and followers what gives them a sense of awe and wonder. We got some pretty awesome and wonderful responses, and we thought we’d share them. And check out SW member Heina Dadabhoy’s beautiful response on Skepchick too!

Space and the whole cosmic accident of our existence. – Carolee S.

Love has always left me in awe. The love I have felt from and for people, family and friends. – Charl L.

The beauty in nature. My son. Pizza is pretty awesome. – Katie W.

Sunrises/sunsets. Moon shadows. – Pat B.

A clear night sky, the smell of a baby, love. – Martha B.

My ability to create life and give birth. – Maureen O.

I AM in awe of Oprah's vicious delusional ignorance. – Elizabeth L.

How far away the nearest star is to Earth, and how long it would take to get there? – Josh H.

I'm in awe of the strength of children who grow up in foster care and –– even being three years from aging out of the system –– keep the hope that a family will choose THEM to love forever. – Melissa D.

OUTER SPACE, cadbury cream eggs, Tens units, consciousness, gymnasts, internal combustion engines, kittens, pineapple rum, my boyfriend looks like Thor, the fact that I'm still told I'm immoral because of my atheism (despite much evidence to the contrary). – Erin W.

Empathy. Intelligence in other species. Pretty much the entire universe. – Neffie M.

Galaxies. – Jaime Goswith

Negative awe….that I had a son and that cancer took him away. Positive awe….every time I go hiking. – Tamara M.

I am awed by the knowledge that I (and all things, really) are, ultimately, stardust. I think Oprah needs to read "The Universe Is A Green Dragon" by Brian Swimme. – Tracie H.

Chemistry and geology. A clear sky. A stormy sky. The unique personality of my cats. Depth of time, blood, the limitations and violence we impose on ourselves despite our intelligence, I could keep going. And not one plank of that would be supernatural. – Jen N.

Sunrises / Sunsets. They are everything! – Jeannie S.

Breath and consciousness! – Dana T.

How beautiful and athletic my daughter is and how beautiful and incredibly brilliant my son is. – Jessica S.

I feel awe about the power of humanity to do good works and work together. I feel awe when I look at nature and into the sky. I am awed by the power and findings and understanding that science has brought to our lives. I am awed by the possibilities for the future. – Kim R.

Nature. – Coreen G

The geology of the earth and the slow, implacable movements it makes that form the most amazing and beautiful mountains, rivers and plains. – Kelly L.

The stars at night when away from city lights. – Daryl C.

The strength and determination of the human spirit. – Michelle O.

Everything from a small lizard on my window eating insects to those galactic clusters… to the very fact that we now have the world's information in our pockets. – Rod E.

Yes, I don't believe in a creator or that all of the universe was created for us in some grand experiment of how we would conduct our lives. But that far from means that I have no awe and amazement in my life. In fact, my world and my love of humanity became especially technicolor the day I realized how utterly random and miraculous our very existence as a species is. Yes, it's difficult to deal with the fact that we are aging and everyone we know and love will die. But facing that fact head on gives me such a raw appreciation of each day on this earth, that I was one of the lucky ones, that I got a chance at this brief life, to be aware of this wonderful world and be glad that I was a part of a species that had evolved to the point that we could reflect on our own mortality. I will never trivialize the meaning of death by pretending it's anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we are alive and we are together is miraculous. And it makes me want to celebrate it every day. – Melinda N.

The beauty of the natural world. Looking into a non-human animal's face and seeing intelligence, curiosity, and trust. When I think about where we came from, and all the tiny steps we took over 3+ billion years to get here. – Rachel S.

Science. – Anna C.

Brain function!!! – Juliana K.

Biology. Being pregnant was pretty awesome. – Sara L.

Science. All of it! – @chelsnatx

How the universe is infinitely large. – @amadrianson

My beautiful children. That I made. – @MagHag

I am always awed by the cosmos and all its complexity as well as the lush diversity of Earth's flora & fauna. – @gevalien

The human brain. – @_ToParisAndBack

The vastness of the universe, and how small and lucky I am to experience it. – @birdgehrl

The human capacity to empathize with others and work toward a more just world. – @elsalroberts

The complexity, diversity, beauty, & weirdness of nature. And the amount of happiness a dog can exude. – @SassAndScience

The complexity created by simple things like wind, water, sun, and a few atoms of carbon. #atheist #wonder #awe – @SallyStrange

Everyday acts of reciprocity, empathy, and mutualism. – @WRKWR

I feel awe at the vast,complex system that our universe is. Even more,I feel awe at our own puny existence. – @McHappyBoxers

I visited Pike's Peak today. Those Rocky Mountains can cause a rather large amount of #awe. – @nicoleintrovert

My own existence; that I'm able to experience and understand the world around me. Afterlife cheapens life, imo. Oh, and taxonomy. And arthropods. Because seriously. #atheist – @loopnotdefined

The Fibonacci sequence. – @ExPedeHerculem

The human capacity for forgiveness, compassion, and yes, ignorance – @goldenthis

The music of Michael Jackson. – @StellaTex

Impressionist paintings. Baroque period music. I cry at a well done opera because of the splendor of the music. – @cultofthepug

I'm always in awe that everything that we are comes from exploded stars #Secular #atheism – @annaigaw

 I feel awe for seedlings as they gradually push their way up thru the soil. And I feel awe for the steady rhythm of waves washing upon the beach, then drifting back out. – @mztress_isis

I used to skydive, and that feeling of weightlessness combined with the miles of view all around you is amazing. For a borderline claustrophobic, it's like nothing else on earth. Pure triple-distilled awesome. – Jenny Walker-Liddell

You're not a bad atheist, or theist, or human, if you don't feel awe. Your response to the universe is as valid as anyone else's. – Marc David Barnhill