Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist

I just finished reading Hemant Mehta’s book I Sold My Soul on eBay, thanks to my own friendly atheist, Mike (is that enough links for one sentence?). Overall, it’s a very good book, and I would strongly encourage any church leader or “friendly Christian” to read it.

For those of you who may not know of Mehta, he is a young former Jain turned atheist. A while ago he decided to put himself up for bid on eBay, agreeing to visit whatever church the highest bidder wanted him to attend. The winner was Jim Henderson, a former pastor and now head of Off the Map, a group dedicated to “doable evangelism” and making Christians more educated about the non-Christian world. Jim is known for inviting atheists off the street to talk at his conferences, and now for buying atheists off eBay.

Mehta sounds like an incredibly likable guy. He’s intelligent, witty, sensitive (that’s where the “friendly” comes in) and a reasonably good writer. I believe he’s now a math teacher (or that’s his goal), and I’m sure he’s a good one. Hemant visited a number of churches of varying sizes and shapes, and in a few different cities, to try to get a feel for what Christianity is all about. He has some very interesting observations, and also demonstrates several misconceptions people have about Christianity and “church.” Unfortunately, many Christians seem to share some of these misconceptions, which makes the book that much more relevant to Christians.

One his misconceptions is that a church worship service should be understandable to visitors. This is, of course, the “seeker-sensiitive” approach to church services that has become the rage in evangelicalism. Now, if this is a a particular church’s goal, it is certainly fair to judge how well they are doing in that area. However, for the majority of churches, the purpose of the Sunday morning service is to simply “be” the Church, joined in a corporate worship experience. Here, of course, it is fair for Hemant to comment on whether or not he had a clue what was going on, but this probably isn’t a fair basis to evaluate that church, such as suggesting that they don’t sing so many songs, or cut down on the standing, kneeling & sitting. He also suggests cutting down on “distracting” behaviors such as raising hands, and so on. This may be a distraction, but only if you are looking at the service as a performance; however, worship is in fact a group activity, and each group has their own cultural idiosyncrasies.

I have heard this analogy: Suppose a visitor from a very foreign country came to American and went to a baseball game. Certainly he wouldn’t expect that they would take the time to explain the rules so he could understand it, and probably wouldn’t complain that people kept standing and shouting, which of course can be very distracting. A visitor, knowing he is going somewhere he will not understand, should take the time to either go with someone who can “interpret” or spend a few minutes on wikipedia to familiarize himself with the game. Or, simply watch and ask questions later. Of course, baseball is not an evangelical activity; but, neither are most church services. The stated purpose is for the church to come together to focus on God. The liturgy, the songs, and whatever else they do has a meaning for the members, and it is not necessarily designed to act as an advertisement to the secular world. Christians, by the way, have the same problem if they visit a different church tradition, especially for those visiting a liturgical church for the first time. Often the first visit begins a discovery process into what is very much a whole new culture. Not that I’m finding fault with Hemant here, I’m just pointing out this misconception that many people have.

Another common misconception shown in the book is the definition of faith. It is presumed that faith is something apart from reason, when faith, in the Christian sense, is not unreasonable. If I have faith that a certain chair will hold my weight when I sit on it, it is not without reason; however, I do not test the weight-bearing capacity of every chair I sit in, but my experience tells me that the chances are very good that it will, so I put my faith in that chair. The Christian version of faith is not unlike this, although you will find Christians whose faith would fall more under the definition of superstition. However, this is not what the Bible talks about as faith.

It is also interesting that the author feels his minority status, even mentioning the lack of atheists on TV. This comment will be somewhat shocking to most any Christian, who sees TV populated with “unbelievers,” although they may not identified as atheists. And, unfortunately, the majority of Christians you see on the cable channels are very poor representations of Christianity. My beliefs are not typically represented at all.

Hemant does, however, make many good points in his observations of the various churches he visits. One that I particularly agreed with is the quality of the preaching found in many churches. Personally, I disagree that the sermon should be the focal point of the worship service. Basically, I tend to think that if you can’t make your point in 15 minutes, just give up. However, if someone is going to try to speak to me for 45 minutes, they’d better be interesting, informed, and have put some effort into the message. It shows a complete lack of respect for the congregation to bore them to death every week, just so the pastor can justify his salary. (Yes, it’s a pet peeve of mine.)

He also makes a good point about community outreach. Many churches seem to have an ulterior motive for whatever good works that they do. This, of course, comes from a goal of evangelism, but it turns out to be somewhat manipulative (what is sometimes called “Amway evangelism”). Jesus, of course, healed the sick with no strings attached, although he sometimes tossed in a little advice. Mehta’s point is made: if you really love people as you claim, help them. On the other hand, Mehta’s perspective is somewhat skewed as he presumes a material-only world; he does not take into consideration how the existence of Heaven (and Hell) will change some priorities.

Now, I am not pointing out these misconceptions to speak negatively about the book, just to point out that his comments need to be understood in both the context of what “church” is, as well as Mehta’s own point of view. If these are considered, it’s a very good, informative and enjoyable book. And, of course, one cannot invalidate Hemant’s impressions of the churches he visited; they are what they are, and I thank him for being willing to share these impressions. Besides pointing out issues with various church practices, the book also highlighted some of the misunderstood issues of Christianity, as I’ve pointed out.

Bottom line, I heartily recommend that you add this book to your reading list.

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One Response to Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist

  1. Hey Alden,

    I read Hemant’s blog but I have not read his book. I’ve found his blog less than friendly on occasion but generally a good place to witness current atheist thinking in progress.

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