Can Atheists Still Be Spiritual? Oprah Prompts Debate

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Can an atheist still be a spiritual person? Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad posed the question on “Oprah” this month, telling the talk show host that while she doesn’t believe in God, she still finds wonder and awe in the universe. Oprah, however, wasn’t convinced that an atheist could believe in something more than the material. Most atheists, however, disagree.

“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,” Nyad told Oprah during an hour-long “Super Soul Sunday” interview. “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.”

Oprah, for her part, disagreed with Nyad, saying that such a connection to the beauty of the earth would necessarily make her a believer in some kind of God or spiritual figure.

“Well, I don’t call you an atheist then,” she said. “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”

The exchange prompted a heated discussion online, and the facts aren't exactly in Oprah's favor. Defining atheism may be difficult to pin down exactly, but despite what Oprah says, there are plenty of self-identified atheists who consider themselves spiritual people. Not only that, but there are more American atheists than ever.

Pew Research found that nonbelievers are the fastest-growing religious group in America. From 2007 to 2012, the percentage of Americans identifying as Christians fell 5 percent, while atheists, agonists and otherwise religiously unaffiliated Americans grew by 4.3 percent. Atheists alone grew 0.8 percent, making up 2.4 percent of all Americans in 2012.

Atheism is on the rise in America, but many atheists have more varied opinions than some might think. Though the formal definition of atheism refers to a person who does not believe that God exists, Pew found that 14 percent of self-identified atheists claim they believe in a God or universal spirit, including 5 percent who are “absolutely certain” of the existence of God.

Even more atheists say that they are spiritual people. Another 26 percent of atheists say they consider themselves spiritual people, while 3 percent go as far as claiming that they are religious. If, like Nyad, these atheists see spirituality as a connection with nature and their fellow humans, it makes sense that they would consider themselves spiritual.

No matter how they define their beliefs, the vast majority of atheists feel a deep connection to nature, just like Nyad. According to Pew, 82 percent of atheists say that they often or sometimes feel a connection to nature and the world around them.

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