Note: I am quite aware that Oprah promotes some rather skeptically questionable (at best) people and products. This isn’t really about that, it’s about this and draws heavily on my nostalgia for my Oprah fandom. You understand.
I know that some atheists have expressed hostility and ire at you for your recent comments about atheism. I’ve seen some of them condescend to you and dismiss you. I, on the other hand, am writing to you as someone who not only is an atheist, but who spent her formative years religiously watching your show after school. Your candor about your struggle with body image, the Islam 101 episode you thoughtfully created and aired after 9-11, and your existence as a successful woman of color impacted me significantly during my rocky, lonely adolescence. Furthermore, you got my mother, who watched the show with me, to both begin reading and to converse with me in a more meaningful and adult way, something for which I will always be grateful.
I am writing to tell you about something rather magical that happened to me yesterday.
I was at work but had decided to take a walk outside. As I exited the building and sat at one of the outdoor benches, I spotted a tiny hummingbird sitting on the ground. Its beady eyes looked up at me as I looked down at it. Upon noticing that my shoe was comfortably settled less than a foot from the bird without its having flown away, I figured it was injured.
I’ve encountered injured birds before. Specifically in the case of hummingbirds, I once met a beautiful baby that bore a long, deep gash in its belly. Hoping that this one had a more treatable injury, I approached it cautiously so that I could examine its tiny feathered body for injuries. When I lightly stroked its soft green back with a single finger, it didn’t try to move away from me. After about a dozen passes of my finger, I attempted to pick it up.
To my surprise, it flew up, scolding me with high-pitched chirps! I was startled but caught myself before I frightened it by moving suddenly or exclaiming. The little bird moved over to the umbrella placed above one of the tables that accompanied the outdoor benches. I followed it quietly and then stood on the stone bench so that I could reach it. It let me pet it as I had before for maybe a minute before flitting up with a chirp. It hovered just above me for a second before flying to its nest in the trees above the tables. I looked up at the tree for a little bit before returning to work with a few new pictures on my phone, renewed vigor in my limbs, and a smile turning up the corners of my mouth.
I felt awe at getting to touch and interact with the bird. I felt wonder at how beautiful its green and brown feathers are, how lovely its chirp is, how rapidly its wings beat in flight. I felt a sense of mystery about how the little bird felt comfortable enough to trust me and give me the opportunity to enjoy its tiny company. Most importantly, I felt incredibly happy. I knew that from then on, every time I would walk in or out of the door to the office building, I’d look up at that tree, remember what happened, and smile at my bird friend in silent greeting.
I did not, however, turn into a believer in any deity or a follower of any religion. I remain the atheist that I have joyfully been since my deconversion from Islam seven years ago. Indeed, how I experienced the interaction with the hummingbird is in line with my experience of the world as someone without belief in the supernatural. I enjoy the minutiae of sensory experience all the more because I don’t unfavorably compare it to something better that I am allegedly to experience after I die. I savor every detail of every moment because I know that I am going to die someday and that this life is the only one that I know I have.
I am an atheist, and I feel a deep sense of awe, wonder, and mystery every day. Yesterday, I happened to have a rather unique experience with a hummingbird. Most days, my verbose self is moved to silence in appreciation for things as mundane as the invigorating crispness of the clean morning air and as humbling as my teenage brother’s deep wellspring of compassion for all humanity. What I find in this world is not only enough for me, it sometimes utterly overwhelms me with its beauty. To me, how often I experience awe, wonder, and mystery is a function of my atheism rather than something that proves I am not an atheist.
Your biggest atheist fan,