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Don't Tell an Atheist She's Not an Atheist

Winfrey disputes Diana Nyad's atheism—and she's the one who's wrong.

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Even if Oprah seems to have pushed her into saying it, Nyad can call herself “spiritual” if she wants. It doesn’t have to mean the same thing it means to someone who practices a religion. It’s her word and her interpretation of it. And no atheist on the planet needs a believer to tell her that she is wrong, or that she secretly clings to the concept of God after all. Here’s a tip, whether you’re a talk show host or just a person having a conversation with another person: If someone says she’s an atheist, the appropriate response is, “Fine by me.” That doesn’t mean you can’t continue to have a conversation and ask questions – as Winfrey and Nyad did. It doesn’t mean the conversation will be easy or conclusive – as Winfrey’s and Nyad’s was surely not. It just means we’re all capable of finding common ground if we choose to. It means that what Nyad calls “the love of humanity” belongs to all of us. And we can argue over who has a greater claim to it, or we can stand together on the shore and share in it.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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