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.
So I can understand why people would want to go there, especially when some of these churches are doing the type of community service they're doing. And it's not proselytizing. It's just “We're Christians. It's our duty to help our community.” Why wouldn't you be drawn to that?
But when you go to some of the other churches, it's just ritual after ritual and I'm falling asleep and I could see everyone else falling asleep listening to their pastor. I don’t know why they come back--and even worse, why they bring their kids.
Why do you think that is?
They don't really know any other way to raise children than with religion or to say, "You have to be good because you're going to hell otherwise," or "God wants you to be good."
They don't really know that there are any alternatives. One of my good friends, Dale McGowan, wrote a book called Parenting Beyond Belief with contributions from atheists about issues that atheist parents face, like, "Do you tell your kids about Santa Claus?" Some say you do. Some say, "No, that’s as bad as telling them that there's a God."
One example: How do you teach a kid to not steal? Well, just ask them questions. “How would you feel if someone stole from you?” “Well, I wouldn't like that.” Well, there you go. So don't treat the other person like that.
It's a very Socratic type of asking the kid questions, seeing what they come up with. Usually what they come up doesn't have to do with religion. It's following the Golden Rule sort of thing.
You're not a Hitchens-style atheist with a big axe to grind.
Right. And I'm not an anti-theist. I would love to see a world where religion doesn't play a role, but I don't see religion as this complete force for evil. I came from a religious family. Most of the people I know are religious people. And these are not bad people. These are people who think very rationally in just about every area of their life, but kind of suspend that when it comes to religion.
Religion in that sense doesn't bother me. It gets them through the day. It gives them hope. [But] I don't agree with the rationale for why it gives them hope.
Religion can do a lot of good things. It may not be because God exists, but because of the structure that's around it.
You say religion gets people through the day or gives them hope. What does that for you and other atheists?
If I'm ever sad or if something's going bad, I know I have friends I can talk to, people out there who will show me the love that I might need.
And I know if I'm in a jam or I do something wrong, no one else is going to fix my situation. I know that I have to do it myself and I have the power to do it myself.
Once you realize that you have the power to change a lot of things in your life, that does give you hope.
In the book, you say that you don't feel "lost" in the sense of being lonely, desperate and without hope. You ask, "Is being down and lonely a prerequisite to finding God?" and "Did I have to go through trauma and crisis to find something meaningful?"
Yeah. At one of the churches I went to, the pastor asked a number of her churchgoers to write on a sheet of paper what you felt like before and after you found God. She had a lot of these people read their "before and afters."
For just about all of the people that were up there, their “before” words were “I was lost, I was hopeless, I was depressed,” and afterwards they were "found" and happy and full of joy. It really seemed that the prerequisites for them finding God was that they were going through this miserable, horrible part of their life.
I'm just thinking, I'm not sad, I'm not depressed. So does that mean, oh, God's shut out of my life or there's no way I'm going to find God now because I'm a happy person?
It seemed just very strange to see so many people have those experiences. No one was saying, “I was fine before and I'm better now.” They were all saying, “I was hopeless and miserable. And now that I've found God, I'm much better.”
You also said that you rarely feel lonely or apathetic, and that being an atheist actually gives you confidence and more passion to help people than, for example, when you were being raised as a Jain.
When I was religious, if we knew a friend that was going through a rough time or we saw homeless people on the street, I would always hear, "You should pray for them," or be thankful that God didn't put you in that situation.
There was nothing, when I was growing up, about whether we should actually go out and make them lunch or build houses or something like that.
And once I became an atheist, it was very clear that I can do something for people who are less fortunate. No God is going to do it for them.
I need to get out and donate blood or donate money to causes that help those groups of people.
I'm not saying Christians wouldn't do that, but their reasoning for doing it is very different. I actually think the atheist reasoning--that we have to help them because God's not going to do it--is a more moral way than to say, “Pray for them” or “We should do it because God wants us to.”
There’s a stereotype that atheists don't volunteer that much or don't contribute to charities.
Unfortunately, from what I've seen, I agree with [it]. We don't do it nearly as much as we talk about it. I would love to see that change. There is a meeting every year of the heads of a lot of national atheist groups. One thing we discussed this past January is what sort of community service activity we can all do.
This is one of the places where religion really does do a much better job of community service than atheists do. Whatever their reasoning is, [religious people are] doing more of it and they're doing it a lot better than we are. We need to learn from their example.
There are exceptions. I know that one of the local groups in Chicago goes to the food depository every month with a big group of atheists. They go there and help out.
Did you put money in the collection plates at these churches?
Which churches did you like best and why?
There's a couple of churches that I really liked. I thought Joel Osteen's was really good. A lot of atheists make fun of me for that.
I know a lot of Christians disagree with me on that because they see him as “Christian lite.” But I thought his message was just one of optimism, even if it is the prosperity gospel.
He makes you feel good. And when I wake up on a Sunday, if I'm with my parents, Joel Osteen is on the TV because my mom likes listening to him. [He] just reaches out to people, whether or not you really believe in God. And he doesn't reference God or the Bible a lot. I think that's for good reason.
I've been to Willow Creek a few times. I really like that church. I love the sermons that they have. They do reference the Bible a lot more, but you walk out of there thinking about your life and what you can do better. I download their podcast. I download Mars Hill with Rob Bell sometimes. It's fun to listen to.
But I was listening to an older Willow Creek podcast [by] Bill Hybels about the myths of being gay. One of those myths was that being gay is not a choice. He was saying, "That's not true," basically--that it is a choice. I'm listening and thinking, this is one of the problems we have in this country and it's being propagated by this church.
And that depresses me. They also promote intelligent design--or many of their pastors do, anyway. I don't think they really seek out good scientific information on that stuff.
So on a lot of those issues, there are things I really disagree with.
There were a couple of smaller churches that I really liked, [such as] a house church in Yorkville, Illinois. [The pastor there] was trying to form another community. I have a Web site, friendlyatheist.com. He comments on there a lot and always has something good to say from a Christian perspective, so much so that I actually asked him if he would just kind of do a Q&A, like “Ask a Christian Pastor.” People submitted questions and he responded to every single one of them. Atheists said, "Wow, I didn't know there were Christians that thought like that."
And you had other people saying, "Oh, he's not a true Christian."
Which churches did you like least and why?
There was a church where they had the big-screen monitors everywhere--[it was] a high school gym, essentially. You don't need big-screen TVs to watch the pastor when he's not that far away from you.
The program we were given for the day basically had the outline of what [the pastor] was going to talk about with blanks written down. This is not what was written in there, but this is an example: God is ____. And then, during the sermon, he would say, “God is good. Write that down.” He actually said that.
And you would fill in the blank.
Yes. It was so childish.
You receive letters from people. Could you describe some?
I don’t get a lot of “You're going to hell” at all. That's very different from a lot of atheist authors.
I've gotten several letters from Christians, some [of whom are] pastors who are reading it in their church book club or something. And they said, "Our church is working to make sure that people that come to our church are not turned off and they know the reasons why we're doing things."
[But] some of them are just funny. I got a letter from one woman who said, “I know Satan is real because he left a message on my answering machine.” I wrote her back and said, “Did you star-69 the number or save the tape? Because I'm sure we could find an explanation for this.”
One person wrote, “I just want you to know, if you use physics, if you understand the laws of physics, bumblebees can't fly. They fly because God wants them to.”
I responded with, “Actually, here's a Wikipedia link to bumblebees and the section about how they do fly and here's another actual science Web page that explains why bumblebees fly despite that myth.”
She writes back and says she's not going to look at the link, she just has faith that God helps them fly.
That's so depressing. They don't even want to listen to what I have to say. But I really don't get a lot of those.
At the end of the book, you talk about what it would take to convince you or why you were not convinced.
I don't know any atheists that are saying, “There is no God, I will never pay attention to the evidence.” I don't know a single atheist that thinks that way, even though that's the stereotype. Atheists say, “I don't believe in God. But if you show me the evidence, I'll look at it, I'll think about it.”
One of the things that would convince me that there's maybe some supernatural power at work is a miracle. If I saw a real miracle that really had no explanation, I would have to second-guess my atheism.
I've gotten emails that said, "Here's a miracle." Every example they give has a perfectly logical explanation to it. You hear stories about people saying, "I have a friend of a friend who saw someone's amputated arm grow back." Of course, they were never there and I never saw that on YouTube. Someone get a video camera. That would be nice.
But if I actually saw that firsthand, that would go against everything I think is true about the world.