Hemant Mehta was raised in the Jain faith (a religious tradition rooted in India), but became an atheist as a teen. Now in his twenties and a high school math teacher near Chicago, he is active in many groups that promote secularism.
In early 2006, Mehta auctioned himself off on eBay to a Protestant minister, agreeing to attend a variety of church services and remain open to their messages. Mehta spoke with Beliefnet recently about his book, which describes his impressions of those churches, and why he's still an atheist.
Your book, I Sold My Soul on eBay, tells the story of how you agreed to visit numerous churches even though you’re an atheist. What were you "bought" to do?
No one actually bought my soul. I offered to go to a church or temple or mosque saying that I've really never been to any of those places outside my own Jain faith, and I really am curious about what it's like.
The auction I put up on eBay said, ”I am an atheist. You can bid on where I go to church or a temple or a mosque, etc.”
It came down to Christians bidding that I go to a particular church and atheists bidding that I don't go to church.
I work with a college atheist group called the Secular Student Alliance. I didn't want to be put in the position where a Christian with, say, $1 million has the opportunity to win this auction. So [I said] that the money will be donated to the secular group I work with.
That way, if a Christian was bidding that much money, at least I know it's going to a cause I really support.
How much money was paid?
$504 was the winning bid.
The person that won was Jim Henderson, a former pastor from Seattle, Washington. He thought, "Wow, this is the kind of thing I like to see--getting an impression of church from a non-believer's perspective."
Based on what I had written in the auction, I owed Jim 50 Sundays’ worth of church. Jim saw that and he said, "You know what? Why don't you go to say 10 or 15 churches in Chicago where I'm from and write about them on his ministry's website, called Off the Map."
What was the agreement - that you would go to a different church once a week for a year?
I ended up going to close to 10 churches around Chicago for Jim. A publisher saw what I was doing for Jim's site and had the idea, "Why don't we send you to more churches across the country, and then compile those into the book?"
What would you do at each church?
I wasn't wearing a big sign that said "I'm an atheist" or something. The churches did not know I was coming. I would go there with a notebook. A couple of times, I brought some people with me.
But I would just go, usually by myself, and sit somewhere in the auditorium or the gymnasium.
I would listen, take notes on what other people were doing, how they were reacting, what the sermon was like, the atmosphere and just whatever stood out to me. I tried to keep the focus on: Are they really doing something that would reach out to me?
Or if the pastor said something that I found incredibly offensive that they thought was just normal talk, I would jot that down.
What surprised you about the different churches?
I had a lot of stereotypes that church was very Simpsons-esque: a very boring pastor, a bunch of people who were sleeping in the pews, things like that.
When I started going to the churches, I was very shocked to see that a lot of them, especially the bigger ones, were so far removed from that.
But I did go to some churches where it was the pastor says a line, the congregation repeats or says the next line, and they go back and forth. There's no emotion. It's like a bunch of students reciting the Gettysburg Address in class. You're just saying it because you have to.
I was so surprised. If you really wanted to be moved by what they were saying, that's not the way it was going to happen.
You seemed open to going to these churches, but sort of puzzled by what draws people to them.
Some of the pastors I heard, especially at larger churches, were wonderful speakers. They said something--and I know this sounds cheesy--but it really touched me, even though I didn't buy into the supernatural, godly aspect of it.