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

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Members Speak Up About Ron Lindsay’s Actions

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Ron Lindsay, CEO of Center for Inquiry, opened his organization’s Women in Secularism2 conference, with an unwelcoming message. When faced with criticism, he did not act with grace and apologize. Quite the opposite.

Yesterday, we released our Statement of Objection to Center for Inquiry CEO Ron Lindsay’s Actions Regarding Feminism wherein Secular Woman outlined the conclusions we are forced to draw from the lack of apology or retractions concerning Lindsay’s statements and actions during Women in Secularism2. Today, our members are speaking up.


While some of the most notorious harassers and misogynists on the internet are rallying behind Ron Lindsay’s words, CFI’s supporters and donors, as well as the most of the organizers of this WiS–arguably the most successful and important thing CFI does all year–are furious and hurt; many donors are severing ties with the organization. As a former CFI employee I am ashamed and shocked. Until this weekend, Lindsay had ties with many of the most brilliant feminist thinkers in the movement. I fear his dismissive response to deserved criticism has ruined that. I hope Lindsay takes a look at the intellectual company he’s now keeping, and if that doesn’t concern him, it should concern anyone who wants to ensure CFI has a viable future as a relevant and truly progressive organization.

Julia Burke


“How disappointing to see Mr. Lindsay exploit an otherwise positive event for and about secular women. We looked for leadership and instead found divisiveness and arrogance – again.”



mr. lindsay, the reason many people took offense to your comments was because they were dismissive of the experiences of women.

this conference has a special focus on women.

if i and other people of colour are having a discussion about racism, and a white person pipes up with, “but latinos can be racist too!”, they are basically dismissing the experiences that we have had.

but the fact that a mexican kid picked on him in middle school pales in comparison to the persecution that people of colour in your country have endured.

when an event geared particularly towards women has a male speaker does the same thing by pointing fingers at women who have been meanies to a man, he is diminishing the experience of women who have received rape threats, death threats, outlandish sexual harassment and other attempts to chase them off from the movement that they have every right to be a part of.

i have found that when i shut up and listen is when i learn.

that is when i am more easily able to try and put myself in the shoes of someone else and gain the empathy that i need to work with them on any matter of social justice.

don’t get me wrong, i have also been told to shut up and listen.

but i can certainly understand the frustration that would lead someone to take such a stance, and i have found that by doing so, and when i say doing so, i don’t mean just shutting my mouth as i think of what to say next, but actually listening to the other person, the doors of communication have been opened on both sides.

Rogelio Tavera


Ron Lindsey-please re-read your opening remarks and think about whether you would have addressed a conference of African American humanists that way.

“Shut up and listen” does not threaten the free speech of white upper class men. Those men-men like you-have a disproportionate share of attention. You do not have to fight to be heard. You said on Friday that you had no problem with “listen”-your problem was with “shut up.” Lindsey-you can’t listen while you’re talking. How about you take “shut up and listen” as the ADVICE that it is.

Stacey Kennedy


I wasn’t at the conference, and I am hoping that perhaps next year I will be able to go. I look forward to meeting some of the folks that I have only interacted with online. I hear that it was a great time.

However, I saw that some attendees were “put off” by your opening speech. The focus, especially in context, was problematic. A few mentioned that they should discuss it with you. A couple wrote tweets or blog posts that they were disappointed in it, and engaged with what you said.

I felt that all of it was healthy discussion, until I read your subsequent blog-posts responding to the criticism which profoundly misstated the stances of the people you were responding to and were inappropriate in tone, especially considering your position. They read as extraordinarily defensive.

That was not a smart move.

Unfortunately, from my perspective as someone who engages primarily online, this situation seem eerily similar to other disagreements that have been allowed to escalate well beyond necessity, for all the world to see.

I request, with all sincerity, that you are introspective about what has happened in the last few days and take the time to charitably consider how others may have perceived your comments.

M.A. Melby


“Betrayed” is the only thing to come to mind, but I have Disnomia. It’s unfortunate how an otherwise awesome lineup of women was bookended with two speakers who made me regret spending the money to come here.



As someone who values CFI in many ways, I am trying to be charitable in how I understood your opening remarks. But your subsequent defenses make it impossible for me to do so. Dragging your critics into the hole you’re digging simply won’t help.

Please understand that there’s a difference between being told to shut up forever and being told to keep quiet long enough to listen with humility and compassion.

Michael Cluff