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Religion: The Atheist Who Went to Church

Hemant Mehta on his new book, I Sold My Soul on eBay

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Hemant Mehta

WHEN Tue 4/17, 7:30 PM

WHERE Barbara's Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted

INFO 312-413-2665 or barbarasbookstore.com

Hemant Mehta hasn't believed in God since he was 14. Richard Dawkins, best-selling author of The God Delusion, is one of his heroes. He chairs the board of the Secular Student Alliance, a national umbrella group for nonbelieving high school and college students. He's disturbed by the biblical verse "Every knee shall bow" and flabbergasted by Christians who maintain silence while extreme fundamentalists say God visits disasters upon unbelievers.

But Mehta, a 24-year-old high school math teacher, uses a beatitudes bookmark. He blogs as the "Friendly Atheist" at friendlyatheist.com, and the Christian blog awaitingrain.com includes him on its blogroll. When he met prosperity-gospel preacher Joel Osteen (Your Best Life Now) at a book signing he gushed, "Joel, I'm an atheist, and my mom, well, she's not a Christian, but we're huge fans!" His own first book, I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist's Eyes, is being published by Waterbrook, an evangelical Christian division of Random House.

Some militant commentators on his blog have accused him of "cozy[ing] up with the delusional." Mehta says they should think more strategically: "The best way to convince the majority of people that living without religion is even possible," he replies, "is to show them that atheists are kind, happy, and approachable--we're not the bogeymen we've been made out to be for so long. If that happens, the logical reasoning behind atheism will follow."

Mehta was born a Jain, a largely Indian religion that's not evangelical. Jains believe that the universe has always existed, as have all souls, and that reincarnations are largely based on karma accumulated in previous lives. Good karma comes from following the five vows of nonviolence, truth telling, "nonstealing," chastity, and nonpossessiveness. Jains are vegetarians, and the most devout wear masks and sweep the street ahead of them as they walk so as not to injure any other life-form.

Mehta's deconversion from this religion was both intellectual and moral. On the intellectual side, well, science doesn't square with Jain theology: the widely accepted big bang theory says the universe began about 14 billion years ago, and obviously there are more people (and thus presumably more souls) now than there used to be.

On the moral side, as a young teenager about to start high school Mehta confronted what Christian apologists call the problem of evil. His life was disrupted by the family's job-related move from Tennessee to Chicago. "I had to leave my old friends and start over somewhere else," he recalls in his blog. "At the time, I thought this was the worst thing to ever happen to anyone. Which is obviously not true. (In hindsight, a religious person could say that God did this for a reason. In fact, I loved my high school and I credit any success I've had academically or otherwise to my years there.) But the seed of doubt was planted in my head, and I began to think that maybe God didn't exist."

The seed sprouted not long after, when Mehta's 11-year-old sister wanted to undertake a water-only eight-day fast as part of Paryushana, the holiest part of the Jain year. Mehta felt she was endangering her health. "But no one discouraged her from fasting," he writes in I Sold My Soul. "Quite the opposite: a celebration was planned." The episode killed Mehta's faith.

He wasn't sure how to start being an atheist--"there was no induction ceremony"--so one night he simply went to bed without saying his prayers. The next morning "nothing had changed except my thoughts," he writes. It was some years before he "came out" to his family. They didn't shun him, though his parents encourage him to tell his friends at atheist gatherings that Jainism is the best religion.

As a sophomore at UIC in 2002 Mehta helped found SWORD (Students Without Religious Dogma) to encourage discussion among people with different views. Besides agnostics and atheists, attendees included two regulars from the Moody Bible Institute and a leader in the campus Catholic group. They brought in speakers like Michael Newdow (who tried to get the words "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance) and staged a debate between an atheist lawyer and a Catholic professor that drew an audience in the hundreds. "I didn't care if people were being won over to 'my side,'" Mehta writes in his book. "I just loved giving people an opportunity to discuss the controversial subject of religion openly and enthusiastically."

Today he represents the Secular Student Alliance in the lobbying group Secular Coalition for America, which was behind the recent survey that helped California congressman Fortney "Pete" Stark come out as the nation's highest "nontheistic" elected official. He likes the University of Florida group that offered "free hugs from atheists" to publicize an upcoming event, and he's on board with secular groups from Los Angeles and Little Rock that plan to observe May 3 as a National Day of Reason (rather than a National Day of Prayer) by organizing blood drives.

His attitude may owe something to his origins. The philosopher Bertrand Russell once remarked that Protestants and Catholics who lose their faith still retain distinctive conceptions of virtue. Likewise, Mehta lost his Jain faith without losing his strict vegetarianism. Having emerged from a nonevangelical tradition, he has neither the evangelical impulse nor the defensive belligerence against it that often animates alumni of crusading monotheisms. Still, he likes spreading the word.

In January last year, when he realized that he'd never seen the inside of a Christian church, he didn't just drop in at Old Saint Pat's on West Adams. He set up an eBay auction: "Send an Atheist to his local Church!"

"Everytime I come home," he wrote, "I pass this old Irish church. I promise to go into that church every day--for a certain number of days--for at least an hour each visit. For every $10 you bid, I will go to the Church for 1 day. . . . Will I become religious? Well, I don't know. I really do have an open mind, but no one has convinced me to change my mind so far."

The auction drew 41 bids from 13 bidders; the winner, at $504, was Jim Henderson of Seattle, a former evangelical preacher who now writes books to convince Christians to get out of "the religion business" and back to the business of being like Jesus. They agreed that Mehta would attend 15 different churches in four states--Old Saint Pat's was first on the list--and post his reactions on Henderson's blog, off-the-map.org. Mehta donated the auction proceeds to the Secular Student Alliance.

The auction and blog posts drew so much attention, including a feature in the Wall Street Journal and a Sun-Times piece headlined "He sold his soul--for just $504," that Mehta was soon juggling book deals. Although Waterbrook is a Christian publisher, it never asked him to change his atheist tune.

The book is a straightforward account of his adventures at churches small and large, from Chicago's LaSalle Street Church to suburban megachurches like Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington. Mehta blends personal beefs--songs go on too long, congregants perform rituals without knowing why, and often there's little chance to ask questions or get acquainted--along with criticisms from Unbelief 101: "I wanted to know why a 'success' meant God was working on our side, but failure was not blamed on God."

Ultimately, he serves both sides of the debate. In the foreword to I Sold My Soul, Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, writes, "Hemant's work as an atheist will ultimately inspire people to live better lives in harmony with a God he doesn't believe in."

Mehta's cool with that--as long as their lives really are better, and as long as they'll live and let live. Unlike more famous atheists like Sam Harris, he thinks moderate believers do a lot of good and pose no threat to nonbelievers. In a March 11 blog post he addressed the moderates: "If your religious beliefs (illogical as they may be) are doing something positive for our community and our world, and in the process, you're not trying to stop scientific progress, impede promising research, hurt my gay friends, control another woman's body, force your beliefs upon anyone else, ask the government to give you special privileges, or make me fear coming out as an atheist in public, why should I be attacking you?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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