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How Not to Talk About the Beliefs of Others

10/28/2013 01:45 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2013
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Recently two celebrities offered us mirror textbook cases on how not to talk about the belief -- or lack thereof -- of another.

On a show that aired on Oct. 13, Oprah Winfrey hosted Diana Nyad who has recently completed a historic swim from Cuba to Florida. In the now famous exchange, Nyad, who is an atheist explained her beliefs to Oprah:

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 and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.

"Well, I don't call you an atheist then," Winfrey said. "I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It's not a bearded guy in the sky."

Oprah came under a heated attack by atheists who thought they deserved an apology for her lack of understanding.

In a similar exchange, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher made their own assessment of the beliefs of others in a conversation on Bill Maher's show Real Time. First, Bill Maher professed his belief that Pope Francis is 'secretly an atheist', then Dawkins responded by saying : "Like many people, I'm sure that [President Barack] Obama is an atheist."

While not shouting it from the mountain tops, Obama has consistently professed his Christian faith, goes to church, and even welcomed daily scripture reflections sent to him via email by Joshua Dubois who has recently published a collection of those in a book entitled The President's Devotional. And Pope Francis..

What is similar about these cases is that both Oprah and Maher/Dawkins are confronted with people whose values, intelligence, and world view they respect.

Oprah heard Nyad talk about the wonder she felt at the universe and her definition of 'God as humanity' and thought 'oh, I resonate with that... you are actually a theist.' Bill Maher/Richard Dawkins look with admiration at the work of Pope Francis and Barack Obama, and respect their intelligence and ethics and decree that they are actually atheists.

In both cases, Oprah and Dawkins/Maher are being simultaneously arrogant and complimentary. Arrogant, in that they assume that anyone who has a similar world view as they do is secretly 'one of them'; and complimentary, in that they are saying I admire you enough to claim you for my own belief system.

What we can learn from these two vivid examples is that we all have the right to decide how to identify ourselves in terms of religion or lack thereof. It is not for others to affix their identity upon us, or strip ours from us.

More positively, these exchanges reveal a truth that is uncomfortable for those who are most invested in the atheist vs religion fight -- no matter what religious or areligious identity we proclaim, many of our world views will overlap in the areas of wonder, ethics, intelligence and aesthetics in surprising and wonderful ways.

Instead of denying these similarities that exist between people of different faith traditions and those who have no faith tradition, let's celebrate what we share, even as we respect those variances that make us different. Ultimately, let's all work together on the most important project -- to make this world a more just, peaceful and beautiful place.

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This story appears in Issue 74 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Nov. 8 in the iTunes App store.