“One of the most awkward faith-based conversations you’ll ever hear.” That’s how Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta is describing a recent interview between talk show maven Oprah Winfrey and record-breaking swimmer Diana Nyad.
While this characterization may be a bit of an overreach, the conversation, which focused, in part, on faith and Nyad’s self-professed atheism, is worth exploring — especially if you have an interest in theological matters. The discussion was, at moments, odd, but it remained respectful on all fronts.
The 64-year-old swimmer who recently broke records by being the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage, told Oprah that she’s a non-believer who finds herself “in awe.”
But the OWN founder and host seemed perplexed that Nyad would call herself an atheist, while claiming she’s so overtly enamored by her surroundings. Nyad, of course, sees no such conflict.
“I don’t understand why anybody would find a contradiction in that,” the swimmer said. “I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew … and weep at the beauty of this universe.”
Rather than embracing a theological construct that includes a “god” who oversees, directs or has an omnipresence, Nyad simply believes that “God is humanity” and the collective “love of humanity.”
After she made these proclamations about the almighty, Oprah attempted to tell the swimming phenom that she might not be an atheist after all.
“I don’t call you an atheist, then,” the host responded. “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery that that is what God is … God is not the bearded guy in the sky.”
Nyad, though, didn’t really embrace this interpretation, however she did say she has no ill will against religious people. And rather than possessing a rigid secular view, she seemed entirely open to possibly being wrong on the matter (Oprah quipped that the swimmer might have an “oh wow” moment if she dies and realizes she’s been wrong all along).
“What do you think happens when we die?” the host later asked.
“I think that the soul lives on, because we have created so much energy and when we display courage and hope, it lives on,” Nyad responded. “But I do believe the body goes back to ash and it is never more.”
The athlete’s answer was a bit confusing, especially considering her use of the word “soul,” however it’s clear that she does not believe the human body continues living postmortem (then again, almost everyone is in agreement on this latter sentiment).
Watch this portion of the interview, below:
Theological disagreement aside, based on Nyad’s tweets following her exchange with Oprah, it’s clear she has a deep respect for the talk show queen. The conversation apparently didn’t put any sort of visible wedge between the two women.
Whether it truly was one of “the most awkward faith-based conversations” ever — well that’s up to the eye of the beholder.