Friday, May 21, 2010

I Sold My Soul on eBay – viewing faith through an atheist’s eyes

Hemant Mehta became a self-proclaimed atheist at the age of fourteen, after rejecting his family’s belief in Jainism, an ancient Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. Focusing on reason, he decided that he could be just as moral as the next man in spite of having no belief in God, or gods.

Nevertheless, Mehta has remained a man who thinks a good deal about religion and spirituality. Still only in his twenties, he continues to think seriously about truth.

In 2006 he hit upon a novel way of testing out religious belief. He offered himself as a prize on eBay: he would visit any church, temple, mosque or other religious building for an hour each week for every $10 he received in his auction. To his surprise he became something of a celebrity, and his auction finally closed at just over $500.

The person who ‘bought’ Mehta, Jim Henderson, was a Christian minister who suggested that rather than go to the same church every Sunday for the next year, he could go as a kind of ‘secret shopper’ to some 15 churches in the surrounding region. He would fill out a report and write about his visits on Henderson’s website.

Henderson wasn’t out to convert Mehta; in fact, he often paid people to visit his own church to see how, from an outsider’s point of view, things could be improved for those curious enough to attend. Mehta went to small, large and mega churches. He was invited to spend one weekend discussing his point of view with another minister in a large evangelical church. And ultimately he wrote this book which is published by a Christian publishing house.

Unlike many of the ‘new atheists’ who write vitriolic diatribes against Christianity, Mehta is fair: critical where necessary, praising frequently. He puzzles over Christians who come to church late seemingly in order to miss the music; he expresses hurt that many Christians have a them/us mentality; he sees many rituals as pointless mostly because those doing them don’t seem to have any heart for them; he finds it strange that there doesn’t seem to be a way of asking questions after the service in order to clarify issues.

He meets more than a few ministers who impress him greatly with their preaching, or in face-to-face encounters.

Throughout he maintains an evenness of tone, carefully avoiding mention of the darker side of atheism (the Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris school, for example); the innumerable atheist blogs that mock Christianity; the secularist and often amoral attitude that prevails in many countries (perhaps not so much in North America). He’s an atheist with good morals, a sense of social justice, and a concern for those worse off than he is. But by promoting reason and science as his guiding lights, he downplays the possibilities of faith.

The section of the book that I found most interesting is where he discusses in some detail his visits to the various churches. His insight in these chapters is clear and sharp. In other parts of the book there’s an occasional naiveté not so much about what he’s seen, but about life in general. It’s a young man’s book; it would be interesting to see how he viewed some things in another decade or two. He blogs at
Published by Waterbrook Press 2007 NZ price $27.99

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