Continuing to prepare for our upcoming panel discussion, “LOST: a candid discussion with those outside the church about those inside the church,” I recently had the distinct pleasure of getting to ask some of our questions of atheist Hemant Mehta. Mehta received national attention, including being featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, for his work as the “eBay Atheist.” His blog can be read at Friendlyatheist.com and his book “I Sold My Soul on eBay” (WaterBrook Press) is now in bookstores everywhere. He currently works as a high school Math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago.
First off, I’d just like to thank you for being willing to take the time to answer some questions for us. Something I’d like to know is when you say, “I’m an atheist,” what do you mean? What is the core understanding or assumption behind your beliefs/non-beliefs?
It means I do not believe in God or Gods or the supernatural. I believe the scientific method and empirical observations are the best methods we have to find the truth, whatever it may be. So far, that truth has not found any evidence that God or the supernatural exist.
Okay. So, there’s no God in your belief system. Where does humanity derive its morality, then? Do you believe mankind is able to be moral without a belief in God? Why or why not?
We derive morality from our society and our evolutionary upbringing. We cannot survive as a species without helping each other out.
Most people come to the understanding on their own (without God) that we should all do what makes us happy as long as we don’t stop anyone else from doing the same.
I think Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg said it best: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
Those are very interesting beliefs about morality. Most people would just assume, “Oh. Atheist, huh? You’re just a morally bankrupt person.” I think your perspective helps dispel that idea a bit. What are your thoughts/beliefs about the historical/spiritual Jesus Christ and responses to his claims about himself?
From what I’ve read, I do believe he existed, though I don’t know if every story about his was actually about Jesus or an amalgamation of several different people. He seemed like a revolutionary guy, even though I have some problems with him (his patience with his followers, his dealings with his own family, etc.). And, of course, I don’t think there was anything truly divine about him. But he is a role model for everyone in many other ways. Anyone who can stand up against the status quo is someone we should admire.
What have been your experiences with Christians/the Church (the good, the bad, and the ugly)?
I occasionally get emails that are disturbing to read from Christians who want no conversation with me. They just want to do a “drive-by praying” and then walk away. I don’t get a lot of hate mail, though…
On the other hand, there are many Christians I’ve met who have praised my book and my approach. They say they appreciate someone who speaks honestly about what churches are doing wrong — they wish they could say it but that’s not always possible. They believe that separation of church and state is a good idea and they’re not putting a bulls-eye-of-conversion on my chest every time they see me. They enjoy the dialogue that arises between atheists and Christians and they want to see the church focusing more on community service than “saving souls at any cost.”
Atheists would have very little reason to complain if more Christians were like the latter group. To the best of my understanding, that latter group is closer to following Jesus, anyway.
I think it is a difficult balance to strike. On the one hand you have this vision of Jesus reaching out and helping the poor and downtrodden in society (community service)…on the other hand Christians have clear mandates given to tell others about what it is we believe about Jesus (saving souls at any cost). I think its really hard for many Christians to remember that while we can get out there and help the community, despite our best efforts, it is always up to God to save a soul. That being said, what do you find most attractive about the Church? Least attractive? Indifferent about?
Any church that encourages faith at the expense of critical thinking is going to be ignored (and should be ignored) by people like me. When churches use their money and power to help everyone, they stand to gain the respect of many people outside their faith. [However] When churches use the Bible as justification for their ignorant, hateful beliefs, they’re doing themselves a disservice. It’ll just bring more people to the “atheist side.” That’s why atheists love seeing someone like James Dobson or Pat Robertson in positions of power. They help us. I’m shocked Christians support guys like them instead of people like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Jim Wallis.
Ha! You and I think a lot alike on that one. I know many Christians who don’t feel well-represented by the Dobsons and Robertsons of the world. Many are dissatisfied with the “business-as-usual/highly politicized” version of Christianity we are often attacked for. People like Bell, McLaren, and Wallis are definitely new and exciting voices for the younger evangelicals.
One last question. As a Christian, if Jesus’ bones were found the jig would be up for Christianity and we would be forced to change our minds about what we believe. What, if anything, could change your mind from what you believe now to what Christians believe?
I said in my book it would take an actual, literal miracle. Since writing that, I’ve gotten far too many emails from people explaining their “miracle” stories to me. It was easy to explain their “miracle” in natural terms, though. I’m getting to the point where I’m not sure anything would change my mind.
Even if I don’t believe in God, Christians could very easily change my mind about their image. Right now, it’s all too easy to pigeonhole Christians into the conservative/Republican/anti-gay/anti-women bunch. When you hear a Christian speaking out against bigotry and for science, it’s a wake-up call to anyone who thinks Christians are monolithic in their thinking.
Thanks so much for being so candid with us, Hemant. I think you hit the nail on the head on a lot of different things you said and the Church needs to be willing to hear those things. We might not agree on the ultimate question of God and Jesus, but I think Christians will benefit greatly from some of the things you’ve helped make us aware of.
Photo courtesy of The Chicago Reader