IntroductionThe Question of Faith
There once was a town that was the envy of all who lived outside it. The people in the town were happy, their businesses did well, and everyone was in good health. New residents arrived constantly, knowing they would be building their lives in a wonderful place. God was watching over the town.
One summer, however, things changed. Monsoons drenched the area, and most of the crops were washed away. Animals couldn’t find shelter from the continual rain, and they were dying along with the crops. The people became depressed as they lost their sources of food and income—and watched their family members fall ill. The times were so bad that an atheist in the town went out one night and painted his credo on the side of a prominent building:G O D I S N O W H E R E
When the townspeople saw this, they wanted more than anything for the man to be proven wrong. But they struggled to mount a convincing counterargument. They had no reason to think God was still with them. If He were, wouldn’t the rain let up? They went on with their business, wading always through inches of water, thinking no one could help them. One day a wise monk visited the despondent community. He knew how beautiful the town had been, and he wondered what could have happened to
destroy everyone’s faith. He wanted to do something to restore the people’s hopeful outlook on life.
As the monk walked through the town, observing the devastation, he realized the difficulty of his task. He stopped townspeople and asked what they were thinking. They told him God had left their village, and there was no one who could help them. They had no choice but to succumb to the misery. The monk assured them their lives would get better, but his words were easy to dismiss.
Then the monk rounded a corner and saw the atheist’s message painted on the side of the building. Suddenly, he saw what had to be done. The next day, as the townspeople passed the building, they saw a slightly altered message. Only one diagonal line had been added, and yet it changed everything. The message now read:G O D I S N O W / H E R E
The change in the town was dramatic and immediate. When the people realized God was still with them, they became optimistic again. Maybe God had just been testing them, and for a while they may have failed the test. But now they knew they could withstand anything with God’s help. The people realized their future was being looked after and their prayers would be answered. In no time at all, the town became prosperous again and the residents spread the word of God to every newcomer.
This story served as my introduction to the world of other religions. At the age of five, I knew very little about religion or God. But I did know one thing: anyone who believed in a faith different from that of my family was wrong. I don’t remember being taught that, I just picked it up indirectly from my parents and other adults who shared our religious beliefs. When my mom told me the story of the once-prosperous village, I don’t think she intended to criticize other belief systems. She just wanted me to understand that God was great and if I said my prayers, according to our religious beliefs, I would be in His good graces.
I could understand the wonderful, sanguine message that the power and reach of God were incredible. But recalling the story now, almost twenty years later, I can’t help but ask a number of questions: Where was this town? Why didn’t they arrest the guy who vandalized the building? Wouldn’t the monsoon rain wash away the freshly applied paint? And are you telling me that just one slash mark really changed everyone’s thinking? Such is the nature of a skeptical person. We don’t put our confidence in fables that are meant only to inspire us. However, when my mom first told me that story, I thought it was true. She didn’t issue a disclaimer that identified the story as fiction. Only after I began asking questions did the story begin to lose its credibility. And as I grew up, I heard other parables like this one from other religions, stories meant to teach moral lessons. While I understood them to be just lively fairy tales, I found that even adults believed them to be literally true, without bothering to raise the types of questions I had.Why are people unwilling to examine and question their beliefs?
I wondered. But such questions reflect who I am today, not me as a child. When I heard of the attitude change brought about by a simple punctuation mark, I welcomed the wisdom God brought, and I hoped I would be as blessed as the townspeople were whenever I went through a rough period. How horrible it must be to think God isn’t around! If only the people had held on to their faith from the start, they would’ve been able to make it through the time of despair much more easily. And I was saddened to learn that whoever these atheists were, they didn’t believe in God. I guess the story produced its intended effect, since these thoughts stayed with me for years. Amazingly, even though my parents raised me in the Jain faith, I didn’t recall my mom mentioning our religion in the story. As I talked more with people who were religious, I discovered that many of them had heard similar stories about atheists. In fact, many of the stories portrayed atheists in a more malicious light. It took another ten years, after I had become a teenager, before I realized the extent to which such prejudices and stereotypes colored the reputations of nonreligious people.
I have lived on both sides of the religion divide—first as a devout religious believer and, since age fourteen, as a person without religion. I am an atheist, but I don’t fit the common stereotype held by so many in the religious community. I am not angry with God, and I don’t want to rid the world of religion. In this book, as we talk about matters of belief and nonbelief, I hope you will think of me not simply as an atheist, but rather as a person with questions about faith, an openness to evidence that might contradict my current beliefs, and a curiosity about Christianity and its message. Please don’t assume I am the enemy of religious belief. I’m not trying to tear down anyone’s religion, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers.
By way of introduction, my name is Hemant, and I’m a friendly atheist. I’m serious when I say that in this book I’m going to do my best to help improve the way churches present the Christian message. I suspect a number of questions have popped into your mind already. Is he so naive that he believes religious people care what people like him think about Christianity?
(I do think Christians care about how they present their message, and I would never consider that to be naiveté.) Why isn’t he capitalizing the words
(Because atheism is not a religion, and atheists do not adhere to any religion. So I don’t capitalize the word as I would Methodist or Presbyterian.) How is his name pronounced?
(I prefer HEH-mint.)
I agree that my assumption that committed Christians will listen to what a nonreligious person has to say about churches and the job they’re doing is a bit of a stretch. No athlete ever risks asking the opposing team’s captain for advice on running a particular play… Well, not unless there’s a hidden agenda,
Honestly, I have no ulterior motive. In fact, coming from a religious background myself, one I will describe in chapter 2, I know how important a place of worship can be. The religious culture that centered on my Jain temple was a positive force in my life, and I always see how profoundly and positively religious belief affects the people I love. At the same time, I understand why so many people have chosen a life of nonbelief. I’ve been an active atheist for many years, and I chair the board of directors of a national secular organization. From your vantage point, I’m playing for the other team. I know exactly what the other side thinks and feels. And you’d be surprised how far off the mark many Christians’ perceptions of atheists actually are.AT HOME WITH AN ATHEIST
I’m gazing at my bookshelf as I write this, and I’m convinced a stranger looking at my reading material wouldn’t be able to determine my loyalties. There’s a Bible that was given to me by a liberal high-school friend. There are enough pamphlets on Christianity, given to me during college, to last a lifetime. Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith
sits next to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos,
while Tim Lahaye’s Mind Siege
finds a place next to Sam Harris’s The End of Faith.
There’s a book by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek educational material from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and a slew of magazines ranging from Charisma
I mark my page in the Richard Dawkins book I am currently reading with a bookmark that has the Beatitudes written on it. (The bookmark was sent to me by a woman who read about my story in a newspaper.) Even my (religious, but not Christian) mom is working her way through Joel Osteen’s bestseller, Your Best Life Now.
The books aren’t sitting on my shelf to confuse people. I actually read them and enjoy them. And sometimes, dare I say it, I even disagree with what the scholars say.
But as I read Christian books, and as I spent months attending an amazing variety of churches in different parts of the country, I kept running across a consistent and troubling truth about American Christianity. It is clear that most churches have aligned themselves against nonreligious people. By adopting this stance, Christians have turned off the people I would think they want to connect with. The combative stance I’ve observed in many churches, and from many Christians on an individual level, is an approach that causes people to become apathetic—and even antagonistic—toward religion as a
whole. By displaying a negative attitude toward anyone outside the religious community, people of faith make enemies of those who don’t believe in the same God they do. My purpose in writing this book is not to convince you of the wrongness of your belief and the rightness of mine. I don’t expect to create any new atheists. But I do think religion/nonreligion is a significant issue that deserves our careful attention. If people are turned off by the confrontational attitude prevalent in many churches, they may be turned off to all religion. If this happens, atheism would be ignored as well. (This isn’t to say atheism is a religion, but it is a belief system, and like religion, it requires a large measure of introspection.)
Mounting controversy over religious differences could lead people to simply ignore religion, which could prevent them from seeking the truth that could lead to a fuller life. Apathy and indifference affect me—as a leader of an atheist group—as much as they affect you as a committed Christian.THE CHURCHGOING ATHEIST
In the past year, I’ve had a unique opportunity to visit a great number of church services, first as a result of my eBay auction and then as I did research for this book. I now have a strong sense of what works and what doesn’t in terms of drawing people like me, young and spiritually curious, to a church. A Barna poll might indicate that youth and young adults are leaving churches in greater and greater numbers. But surveys tend not to go below the surface, and they don’t provide practical solutions. I reside squarely in the demographic that churches want to reach. But based on what I have experienced, the things many churches are doing on Saturday night or Sunday morning are not the things that will pull in those who share my mind-set.
This book is unique in that I will share a perspective that many church leaders would never otherwise hear. If your church is interested in reaching out to non-Christians, you can discover workable solutions by listening closely to your target audience. I am a nonreligious young adult living in a major Midwestern city. I have many friends of various religious backgrounds, and I’m a leader among my secular peers. I am the type of person who would be an asset to your church.
I am not your enemy, and neither am I an apostate, since I never left Christianity. I don’t haul around a load of antichurch baggage based on having suffered through a stifling, overly narrow church upbringing. Neither do I wrestle with bitterness over having been wronged by the church. My own religious upbringing differed sharply from the Christian faith. So I come to this churchgoing experiment with an open mind and a deep well of curiosity. When I visit a church, I pay attention more carefully, I would think, than many who attend regularly. I can share honest opinions and fresh insights because all of this is largely new to me. Plus, I can express genuine feedback because I’m not a member of the church. Really, how many people would tell their own pastor that sitting through his sermons is akin to entering a thirtyminute coma?
In my initial church critiques, which were posted on a Christian Web site (www.off-the-map.org), I provided my candid reactions—both positive and negative—and the pastors listened. In many cases they appreciated my observations and suggestions. (I even received some thank-you e-mails.) Perhaps by considering a religious outsider’s impressions—and let’s face it, can you get any more extreme than an atheist?—pastors and other Christians can become more proficient at appealing to the people who have left the church with a similar disconnected feeling.
I’m aware of the good that churches can do. Churches can enrich people’s lives in ways that everyone, including atheists, can support. Why would anyone oppose something that helps people live the best life possible?
You may wonder: If he is serious about what he’s saying, then why is he an atheist? Wouldn’t it be disadvantageous to the atheist community if more people went to church?
Hardly. Yes, many church teachings conflict with atheists’ beliefs, but no one can dispute a church’s powerful potential to sustain a positive impact on a community. Atheists actually support many of the same values churches espouse. For example, we share the Christian ideal for people to live a moral, ethical life, even though we might have differences regarding where those boundaries are drawn. If people are going through problems, we
also want to lift their spirits. And even though I’m an atheist, I believe churches accomplish this better than any other organization or institution.
In the chapters that follow, I will talk about how I transitioned from being a religious person to being an atheist and how my life has changed (both for better and for worse) as a result. If you know where my beliefs come from, you will better understand my church critiques that begin in chapter 5.
And I hope that as you read my story, you will discover that the common stereotypes about atheists and other nonreligious people are not as accurate as you might think. We are not anti-Christ, anti-God, communists, worshipers of Satan, or liberal Democrats (well, not all of us, anyway).
You will also hear what goes on in the mind of an atheist who is curious about Christianity as I attend a wide range of church services, from smalltown parishes to megachurches with restaurants, bookstores, and escalators. I hope this book will encourage you to initiate discussions with the atheists and other nonreligious people you know—the ones who live in your neighborhood, repair your car, work at your company, attend class with you, and possibly even live in your home. It’s not hard to find us. Talk to us (without preaching to us), have a conversation with us about a broad range of topics (religion doesn’t dominate our thinking), and initiate a friendship. Don’t go through life overlooking your neighbors and co-workers who are not religious. I’ve come across too many people who claim they’ve never met an atheist, much less spoken to one. I find that hard to believe, since the atheists I know come from all over the country and from all walks of life. It’s time we started talking to one another.
When I started posting my church critiques on the Web, after I “sold my soul on eBay,” an amazing thing happened. Christians and atheists started dialoging in response to my posts. People who previously might not have spoken with people from the other side of the religious divide started spirited, candid, respectful conversations. And these conversations went on and on. In fact, they continue to this day on my blog at www.friendlyatheist.com. The views of the people involved in the dialogue did not necessarily change, but they gained new understanding of various points of view. And they had a chance to make their beliefs clear to an audience that otherwise might not have been exposed to the reasons behind a person’s faith commitment (or lack of faith). The conversation benefits everyone, believer and nonbeliever alike. I hope to enter into such a dialogue with you on my blog.
Before I take you to church with me, it’s vital that you know where I’m coming from, as well as how the news stories about my eBay auction propelled me into the public eye. If you get to know me and understand what motivates me, you’ll gain more benefit from my feedback on how Christians and churches are coming across to nonreligious people. I hope you’ll come away with the desire to talk to religious outsiders and learn where they really stand on the major questions dealing with faith. By dispelling the stereotypes we all have of those who believe differently than we do, we’ll be able to focus our energies on much more positive goals. We can become friends rather than antagonists.
I write as a curious atheist, one who is willing to consider any compelling evidence for the existence of God. Before this book is finished, I will have attended some of the best-known churches in the country, and I will have listened to many stories about the power of God. I’m eager to hear your responses to my commentary as I take this journey.2 And whether you are a believer or a person without religious belief, thank you for coming along with me.
Excerpted from I Sold My Soul on eBay by Hemant Mehta. Copyright © 2007 by Hemant Mehta. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.