A Kinder, Gentler Atheism?

For those who are turned off by the style of atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, there are a few new books that have a quieter, less combative style.

Hemant Mehta, otherwise known as The Friendly Atheist, is the author of one such book: I Sold My Soul On eBay. Hemant put his soul up for sale on eBay. At least that’s what everyone seems to think. What he really did was put up an auction where he offered to go to church once for each $10 that was bid. This book his the story of his auction results and his evaluation, as an atheist, of the churches he visited. He also includes some background about his upbringing in the Jain religion and his own path to unbelief.

Because I’m an ex-Christian, I was very interested in reading about Hemant’s experiences visiting different kinds of churches and I had some questions for him about whether Christians and atheists can ever, truly, understand one another.

Skepchick: You visited many different types of churches during your project and at one point you wrote, “I found that because I was an atheist, I was seen as the enemy.” Did you find that the reaction to your atheism was different in the traditional or liberal churches than it was in the evangelical or conservative churches? Or were you treated as an outsider or enemy equally in all churches?

Mehta: Most churches had no idea I was even visiting, so I never faced any direct reactions to my atheism. But through my interaction with people, the more liberal churches (like house churches) were willing to engage in a dialogue with me. They disliked the fundamentalist Christians as much as I did. They were eager to share their belief with me, but not to the point that I would feel unwelcome or annoyed. The more evangelical churches often made broad assumptions about every group that disagreed with their theology and that was a tremendous turnoff.

Skepchick: You wrote about the positive aspects of many Christian communities and churches. There are many atheists who doubt that religion has anything positive to contribute to society. What do you see as the positive aspects of religion in general, and Christianity specifically.

Mehta: For one, the people I’ve seen who attend churches are far better at giving to charity and doing charitable works than just about every atheist group I’ve ever known. I’m not talking about missionaries who proselytize to people. I mean honest-to-goodness charity work–no credit given to them, just a bunch of people doing good deeds. It was a habit for them. And while atheists certainly donate time and money, we’re much more likely to sit around and debate some issue at a meeting than we are getting out there and helping our communities. That needs to change. Speaking of the money, we know many Christians tithe and give 10% of their income to the church. That’s not so noble if they’re being forced to do it. But so many Christians give more. Not only that, giving to the church is a part of their budget. If atheists want to grow in number, they need to be supporting the national groups that are out there. Many groups have to beg their members to renew their yearly membership. If atheists everywhere gave $5 a month to at least one atheist organization, it would go such a long way in helping the national organizations get their message out to the public.

Skepchick: I’m tempted to make a joke about Ted Haggard because you visited his church and wrote about it in chapter 7, but I actually feel bad for Haggard because he was raised in a repressive religious environment, so he has never been given a chance to be himself. Now he has gone to Christian counseling and claims that he is “totally
straight.” I don’t think people like Pastor Ted can find real help within the church. In fact, I don’t think Christianity has anything to offer to anyone who needs help, and that people with problems would be unequivocally better off seeing a therapist than going to church, praying, or becoming a Christian. What are your feelings about this?

Mehta: As for Ted Haggard, I share your thoughts. He deserves the negative attention not just for what he did, but because he’s still sticking to the church doctrine that says he’s not really gay. He just had a lapse in judgment. He sinned. He’s now cured of his homosexuality. Can you imagine how powerful it would be if Haggard came out and just said he was gay and he was tired of trying to hide that? In terms of prayer, churches can offer mental consolation. And for many people, that’s all they need. They need hope. Reality can be too harsh for them. Churches can offer guidance (albeit in a wrong direction), and in many cases, they can support people through building shelters and schools. I know one church that offered free tutoring to every child that shared the church’s zip code. Churches can help. But it’s nothing that a secular community can’t provide if we had the resources. A tight-knit community of friends can also help just as much as the church, if not moreso.

Skepchick: In the reading-group section by Ron R. Lee in the back of the book, many of the questions seem to be set up for Christians to answer with the down-pat answers that I memorized when I used to be a Christian. I was also amused to see that in the very last question, Lee does not seem to consider the miracle of a limb regrowing to be “watertight empirical evidence,” and he is surprised that you would be impressed by a miracle, perhaps more than by a rational argument. It seems to me that Lee has no idea what the words “evidence” and “rational” mean. Do you think the many of the Christian readers of your book will “get it,” or do you think most will miss the point completely?

Mehta: The questions were written for a Christian small group for the purpose of dialogue, and yes, there will inevitably be some people who don’t give the questions much thought. However, based on the responses I’ve received from Christians who have read the book, many of them would be able to make a real discussion out of the questions, not just giving the standard “boilerplate” answers. They would play devil’s advocate if the conversation wasn’t going anywhere. I’m optimistic about the book in general, that it will make Christians think critically when they hear certain phrases or see certain actions in church. Will it work every time? No. But I think those Christians who can see churches through the lenses I provide will be able to get the most out of the book.

Skepchick: In several chapters of I Sold My Soul on eBay you mention that you are uncomfortable being referred to as “lost” and you also noticed that many Christians seemed to come to their faith because they were “down, lonely, or desperate.” As a former evangelical Christian, I have to tell you that the whole premise of Biblical Christianity (at least to those who take the Bible literally) is that we are all sinners and that we need to receive salvation through Jesus Christ to be able to have fellowship with God and to go to heaven, being spared the eternal torment of hell. Do you think the Christians you visited and the readers of your book will think that you “get it,” or will they conclude that you have completely missed the point of Christianity?

Mehta: There are people who have written to me saying that if I want to find God, I can’t find it in church. I just have to “open my heart,” whatever that means. But if church can’t give me a positive outlook on Christian faith and an opening to find God, I’m not sure what else will. I mean, it’s sad if going to church draws me away from Christianity, right? I feel like I understand where Christians (Evangelical, Fundamentalist, etc.) are coming from even if I don’t believe what they do. Many of these churches, though, specifically try to reach out to “unbelievers” like myself, and in the book, I highlight several cases of why their methods end up backfiring. So far, the feedback has suggested I do understand the Christian mindset.

Skepchick: Do you think that atheists and liberal Christians can and should work together to promote the separation of church and state and other shared
values? If so, what would you suggest as a first step?

Mehta: I think atheists and liberal Christians should work together to promote separation of church and state and other shared values. The first steps are similar for each side. Atheists need to understand that there are Christians out there who share our beliefs about issues like stem-cell research, gay marriage, etc. And the Christians need to help quell the negative stereotypes about atheists that so many people get from their churches or through Christian leaders. We have to be willing to talk to each other, and without those walls coming down, that’s not likely to happen.

Skepchick: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your book our your journey to explore Christianity?

Mehta: I am hoping churches will open the doors to dialogue with atheists as a result of the book. It’s a lofty goal, but one church did this and I document in the book how that went. If atheists can correct the misconceptions about us, it’ll be much harder for churches to be as antagonistic toward us. The church youth I’ve met are definitely interested in having these conversations even if the church itself shies away from it.

Editor’s note: I agree with Hement’s desire to work with liberal and moderate religious folks on projects we can agree on, such as preserving the separation of church and state in the US. And I applaud his attempt to understand those around him and to try to have a useful dialog. But in the end, I don’t really think Hemant “gets” the Christians or that most of them “get” him, even after reading his book and his responses to my questions.

The fact is, that born-again Christians will always think that those who disagree with them are “lost” and in need of “salvation” because that’s what the Bible tells them. No matter how many friendly discussions I have with my mother or in-laws, they will continue to pray for my poor, backslidden soul, and worry about me burning in hell forever because I’ve rejected Jesus. Even if some Christians change their public act to make their church services more palateable to unbelievers, I seriously doubt that their core doctrine and beliefs will change.

And, to be frank, atheists just think that the Christian God is, well, not real and the Bible says, “The fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God’.” Sometimes when I think about all of this, all I can come up with is “and never the twain shall meet.” Sorry to be so negative today, especially in light of reading about such an interesting and hopeful book. I wanted to post a nice commentary on how I agree with Hemant and that I think religion bashing is useless and counter-productive. On some days I believe these things and am more hopeful that we can learn to play nice together. But I guess today is not one of those days.

Either way, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to peek inside Christian churches without physically attending a church service, and to those who, like me, want to find a less combative way to talk to the believers in our lives and to try, even if it often seems impossible, to find a way to communicate when we sometimes seem to speak different languages. Hemant’s goals are lofty and commendable.

Later this week we’ll hear from Nica Lalli, author of Nothing: Something to Believe In for another look inside the life of a kinder, gentler atheist.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. "I wanted to post a nice commentary on how I agree with Hemant and that I think religion bashing is useless and counter-productive."

    I see it more a case of managing the balance of how often we can collaborate and how often we cant. I think theres sometimes a tendency to focus overmuch on the 'never the twain' aspects.

    This might be ebcause fo my experience with various religious institutions in Australia. While Im very clearly non religious personally, Ive been quite struck by how much in common I had with people in some of the more liberal ones. Sometimes it seems to me like even 'liberal' or progressive churches in the US are still much more conservative than some of the ones Ive encountered here.


  2. Sure, I agree. It's easy to talk about extremes and even falce dichotomies. But the complexity of anything real is so much more difficult to explain.

    I have some liberal Christian friends, too. My brother-in-law even once told me that he no longer believes that everyone who is not born-again is wrong. He doesn't think that his religion is the only way to salvation (although he still seems to think some sort of salvation is needed).

    He said the older folks at his church think he's going to hell for his inclusive beliefs. Sad.

  3. Nice website, I liked the interview format to discuss this issue. I think we might want to start some kind of blogswarm-like initiative to stimulate the atheist/agnostic blogosphere to suggest how atheism could be promoted in a positive way.

    I think Dawkins is doing a great job at stirring the waters, but if atheism is to be accepted a one-man show will not be enough. I have made a few suggestions over at my blog – feel free to check it out, and let me know what you think about this kind of initiative.

  4. steppen wolf, that's a lot of good information you've put on your blog. Thanks for taking the time to think and write about these topics.

    I posted a topic about coming out of the closet a week or so ago and it spurred some very interesting discussion. It's very sad that so many unbelievers are afraid to come out, and that they are often justified in their fears — particularly regarding discrimination at work.

    I personally think that since the religious extremists started a "culture war," then let's give one to them. The "new atheism" of Dawkins, Harris, etc., is a direct response to religious fundamentalism and the intrusion of religion into the political realm as well as the attempts of religious extremists to try to force everyone else to follow their rules. I, for one, am not willing to sit back and let them shove their dogma in my face.

  5. Thanks for the compliment – I really do try to have content on that blog, who knows that something positive will come out of it!

    I agree with you on the culture war. But we also have to be aware that many of the preachers/priests/imams/others really preach to the choir – which means, there is a large section of the population, in Western countries and even more in Eastern/Southern countries, that finds it easy to accept such preaching of hatred because these preachers are simply reiterating and justifying current opinions – that gays are dirty, atheists immoral, etc.

    This also means that, when Dawkins comes on TV talking about the truth, and how he cares for logical and rational thinking, he might be listened to by a small proportion of the population, but largely ignored or despised by the rest.

    When trying to change culture, it is important to have strong positions (Dawkins, PZ, etc) but also more moderate positions – because, eventually, the "allies" are the ones who sit on Congress/Parliament/Duma/etc. and who will make it clear that the fact that atheists do not get elected is a form of discrimination.

    This also means that, while keeping rational and logical thinking in mind, we have to accept the fact that humans often do not care at all for logic – we need to appeal to their instinctual morals, their emotions, their cultur(al frame), and finally, their reason.

    Why don't you try to get on the Atheist Blogroll – I think at some point I will send out a blogswarm proposal out. We know that Congressmen – or at least, parties – monitor Technorati in the US, and this could be a way of starting to promote grassroot initiatives for change – framing atheism in a positive, understandable way, while keeping the issue in the face of theocratic opponents.

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