Hemant Mehta – I Sold My Soul on Ebay

May 04, 2007

Hemant Mehta is an honors graduate from the University of Illinois, and has been involved in secularist student activism for years. Early on, he attended one of CFI’s summer sessions on scholarship, becoming that year’s student volunteer president of CFI’s campus outreach program. He is now in graduate school at DePaul University. Mehta once held an unique auction on eBay wherein the highest bidder could send Mehta to a church of his or her choice. This led to his writing his new book, I Sold My Soul On Ebay.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Mehta talks about common misconceptions people (and especially atheists) have about Christians, his impressions of various churches he has visited in the process of researching his book, and details specific mega-churches such as Ted Haggard’s in Colorado Springs, and Joel Osteen’s in Houston, Texas. He also offers suggestions about how churches can be more effective at reaching out in dialogue with the skeptical community.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

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I sometimes get in trouble at home because I spend all day at work focusing on the religious right. Their agenda. The thread I think they pose to our secular democracy. And then I go home and enjoy watching the televangelists and faith healers on TV. I love watching the praise and worship services, the you know, the big tent shows almost. And my guest today enjoys that. Also, Hemmat made it is now an expert on going to church. Last year, he visited some of the best known churches in the United States, including Joel Osteen’s church in Houston and Ted Haggard’s church in Colorado Springs. And then he wrote a book about it. Here’s a little bit more about Hamit before we bring him on. He’s an honors graduate from the University of Illinois and has been involved in secularist student activism for many years. In fact, I first got to know him when we brought him to CFI for a summer and he became student volunteer president of our campus outreach program. He’s now in graduate school at DePaul University. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Hemant Mehta. 

Thank you, DJ Grothe. Glad to be here. Pleasure to be on the same Jim Underdown. 

Yeah. Glad you’re on the show. I’ve enjoyed your little book. I get a kick out of it. As I mentioned earlier, you know, because I love watching the televangelists and the faith healers and all this sort of stuff on TV. You visited all these churches, but you started that exploration of evangelical Christianity by selling your soul. What an outrageous idea that was. How’d you come up with the idea? 

Well, you know, it’s amazing to watch how it kind of gets spun in the media. But really, what I did, I put this auction up on eBay that basically said send an atheist to his local church. And that was basically it. And I I talked about my background in Athie ism at the time. I had been an atheist for about eight years. And I said, you know, my religion that I was brought up with, it’s called Jainism. It’s a small Indian religion. But I’d never really been exposed to Christianity throughout the whole the conversion process, if you will. But I know a lot of atheists who were Christian, who went to churches, and I really wanted to know firsthand what Christianity was like. So I put this offer on eBay that people of Chris Mooney Christian faith or really any faith could send me to the church or mosque or synagogue of their choice. 

So who is the highest bidder? 

Well, the highest bidder turned out to be this former Christian pastor named Jim Henderson from Seattle, Washington. And he won with five hundred and four dollar bid, which was which I donated. But, you know, at the time, I owed him about 50 hours of going to a church. And he said, you know what, I’m a pastor and I don’t want to go to 50 hours of a church. So he said we made a deal. And he said, why don’t you go to about ten or fifteen different churches around Chicago where I’m from. And instead of creating my own Web site at the time and writing about it, why don’t I write up my reviews or critiques on his online Christian ministry? 

Oh, I see. So that’s how visiting these mega churches that you went to, that’s where the idea came from. From this one auction. So let’s talk about some of the churches you went to. I’m especially interested in your attending Ted Haggard’s church in Colorado. He’s that minister who was recently in the news for his impressive hypocrisy. 

Right. Well, this was one of the churches I visited after I was done visiting churches for Jim. But in research for writing the book, I went to Ted Haggard’s church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And, you know, really at the time, all I knew about Ted Haggard had come from basically two things. I had seen him in Time magazine as one of the most influential evangelicals in the country. And I had also watched Richard Dawkins documentary, The Root of All Evil. And I’d seen an interaction between Dawkins and Haggard where, you know, they got into talking about evolution versus creationism. 

Right. It’s funny you mentioned that, because in one of Dawkins appearances on Point of Inquiry, we share a clip of that argument with Ted Haggard. That was before, of course, his ethical peccadilloes came out. 

Exactly. And when I visited, it was about a month before that snafu occurred. But one of the things that Haggard says in the clip, you know, he says the Dawkins who is, you know, talking about why scientists believe in evolution. Haggard says something like, If you only knew the scientists I knew, then you two could be great like me. So that sounded very smug. And I didn’t know if that was edited to be that way or taken out of context or whatnot. But we went to his church and, you know, let me say one good thing about his church. Of all of those large churches that I visited, most of the pastors would do their sermon and leave the stage. You would never see them again the rest of the day. Haggard. We went to go see the second sermon of the day on a Sunday morning and looking into that auditorium where he speak from the outside. He finished his first sermon of the morning, just stepped down from the podium and was just there smiling, talking to anyone that came up to him. So we went into the crowd of the old crowd was leaving. And after his sermon that I. You and I go into detail about what he spoke about in the book afterwards. He was again. He just stepped down. And anyone could go talk to him. So we figured, hey, well, why not give this a shot? Let’s go talk to him. And I went up to him and, you know, I asked him if he had seen that clip from The Root of All Evil. And we didn’t tell him about who I was or what I was doing and writing the book. It just just as a curious spectator, really. And I said, you know, was that edited? Were you taken out of context? And first he said that he had never seen the clip, which which was surprising to me, because I’ve seen it a number of times that, you know, through a bunch of different atheist gatherings because it’s a pretty well played documentary. But he’d never seen the clip. So I told him a little about that clip and what is said and how Haggard is portrayed. And the reaction that came from Haggard is just Dawkins is an idiot. And that was it. And it was very blunt and it seemed very unpasteurized to me on pastoral like but also kind of salt of the earth. 

Normal Joe as well. And that could be appreciated among his base, I can imagine. 

Right. And you know where he’s coming from, too. And it was about a month later that the whole scandal with Ted Haggard occurred. 

Yeah. The methamphetamines and the male prostitute. Right. 

I was almost afraid that after that scandal broke, we were going to have to take out that section of the book because he was no longer pastor of the church. But we were able to put a little disclaimer in there that, you know, we went there before that all occurred and it’s still reflected a pretty prominent pastor in his prime minister. 

Now, I can’t resist. Maybe I’ll get scolded for this, but his ethical snafu, I should say, for our listeners who are unfamiliar. Well, Ted Haggard was somehow involved or interested in methamphetamine. And there was a male prostitute. And, you know, all these details that are widely reported, it’s not just gossip on point of inquiry, but it was impressive hypocrisy. 

Right. And, you know, just the fact that he was kind of going around it saying that, you know, he bought the methamphetamines, but just, you know, flushed down the toilet, never actually used it. You know, it just left a bad taste in a lot of Christians mouths as well. You know, this is a pastor who is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. 

Tell me about a couple other churches you went to. You know, you went to Ted Haggard’s church. Here’s a megachurch. This massive, big popular figure. Did you go to the corner church, you know, where a bunch of well-meaning, hard working, sincere Christians get together and, you know, they’re really interested in making the world a better place? Or did you only go to these very glitzy entertainment like arenas of Christianity? 

You know, I actually went to a wide spectrum of churches. We didn’t want all mega churches because that’s not where all Christians go to. Let me tell you about two experiences in particular. One was a church I went to in DeKalb in northern Illinois. And in that city, I went to one church that was a very small building, you know, a very small room. But it seemed to me when I walked in there, you know, this has got to be a tight knit community. You know, there’s so few of them there that they all got to know each other. They must all be pretty happy with each other there. And yet I saw so many people walking in late as the music was going on, as the pastor was starting, which which seems kind of rude to me, because especially in a small community, you figure you must know who the singers are and who’s the band and who the pastor is. So to walk in late, that seemed kind of odd. But even more interesting, you I would have thought all those families would have been excited to see each other on a Sunday morning. And yet all the parents and all their children that they brought with them, they kind of sat in their own little world, separated by from all the other families, you know? And that was surprising to me. I didn’t expect to see, you know, that so much of a separation when I went to that small church. 

It’s interesting to hear your impressions of these experiences you’ve had in these churches. Did you come away from it concluding knew things about Christians or the sociology of Christianity or how churches work, why the good ones work as well as they do, why failing churches fail? I mean, did did you come out with a body of knowledge or like was this research or you just went for the experience? 

Well. Well, I did go for the experience, but I did come away with a lot of conclusions. And they write about them in the book, too. One of the one of the best things I saw in these churches, and this is the second type of church I was alluding to earlier, there were a number of churches I went to that were doing amazing, amazing community service. I mean, they were tutoring children in their area. They were helping people who needed help. And they weren’t proselytizing. They weren’t try to convert other people to Christianity. They just felt that, you know, they were Christian. They have to do something good. And they were out there doing it. And I support what they’re doing, even if I don’t agree with their belief as to why they might be doing it at the same time. There were a lot of churches that really put on that era of it’s us versus them. And everything that we see in the media, everything we see in culture is a threat to the. Which which which, you know, I, I don’t agree with at all. And it was kind of offensive, the things they were saying about atheists, about Muslims, about people who were just not of their fold. And when they kind of put up that dichotomy, it was just kind of striking because I was the other person in the room. I was the person that they were against. And I kind of felt excluded and kind of offended that they were saying these incorrect things about people like me. 

Here you are, an atheist with firsthand experiences of the cultural competitors that get your ire up. You know, you’re an atheist, but you’re in the lion’s den, so to speak. You’re with the Christians. If you were going to generalize, would you say they were all of one stripe or another stripe? Were they all of this us and them mentality, or were more of them concerned about social services and making the world a better place? Was any an even mixed? What’s your take? 

You know, there were so many different types of churches. I went to so many different types of Christians that I met. One of the interesting things is, you know, after I finish going to the churches for Jim Henderson, I started my own website friendly atheist dot com, which was a blog where I could talk about these issues and invite people to comment on what I’m writing. And the amazing thing is there are a lot of Christians that were really interested in joining that dialog and very different from a lot of the churches I went to. The people commenting on the site were very respectful about where atheists were coming from. They really wanted to know what people like me thought, and they wanted to kind of explain things that we may not understand coming from a non Christian perspective. And that’s a wonderful dialog. And this is not the type of thing I was seeing in a lot of the churches. So, I mean, to answer your question, they were coming from all over the place. They were not all dyed in the wool, you know, religious right type of Christians. There were plenty liberal Christians that want to see separation of church and state that support progressive causes. And and I don’t know why a lot of atheists feel like we should alienate them as well, because I don’t think I think we make a mistake sometimes as atheists of categorizing all Christians as the same type of fundamentalist. And that really is not the case. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Hammon’s book. I sold my soul on eBay viewing faith through an atheist. Sighs through our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. Another question about your impressions of Christianity in general, from your experience is hemin, as some sociologists of religion are now talking about how within these powerhouse churches that it’s it’s kind of a. credal. You don’t show up and have to sign on the dotted line that you believe in this, that and the other specific creed of this version of Christianity. Instead, it’s a lot about praise and worship. There’s heights of emotion, no clapping and singing and and tears and feelings of love and and, you know, the fellow feeling of kind of all being part of something bigger. Was that your impression, too, or or did you find that, in fact, pastors are demanding their parishioners believe specific things about the world? 

Well, you know, one of the one of the megachurches I went to was Willow Creek. And this is probably the I think it’s the number one megachurch in the country, according to some Christian magazine. But yet the largest one of its kind, really the spearhead of all the megachurches in the country. And, you know, I went there expecting to hear exactly what you just said, that that maybe they were going to make me sign on the dotted line, you know, and make me. And they were going to say during the sermon that here’s what we believe and gay marriage is wrong. And, you know, it just kind of spouting out those thoughts. And I didn’t hear that. I did hear a lot of the praise and worship. And there were there were very little stances on issues or anything like that. The interesting thing, though, was, you know, when I looked at their brochure and their pamphlets for what was going on during the course of the week, not on a Sunday, not on a weekend sermon, but during the course of the week, they did address a lot of these issues. And in those cases, for example, if you talk about evolution versus versus intelligent design, you know, they had a program one year called Who’s Your Daddy? Where, you know, they brought in someone to talk about intelligent design. And, you know, they don’t really bring in any evolutionary biologists to kind of counter what they’re saying. And I had a chance to ask one of the pastors why that was the case. When you have a church that big with the funding to be able to really bring in someone who’s an expert in the field, why didn’t they do that? And the pastor I spoke to at the time just kind of said, well, we do have time for rebuttal to what the person is saying. But really that came during the question and answer session. So, you know, they didn’t talk about it during the sermon itself, but during the programs they put into place during the week, it was pretty evident that, you know, there wasn’t room for that many different views on certain issues. 

One of my favorite TV preachers, and maybe he’s not one of my favorites because they’re all my favorites. I don’t know if I like Creflo Dollar or Benny Hinn about. I’m talking about right now is Joel Alstyne, yo yo, listen to one of his sermons and there’s not a lotta religion in it and maybe he’d take that as a compliment. There’s a lot of practical philosophy. Hey, everybody, how do you get along with your boss at work? Better. How do you be a better citizen? A better neighbor? How do you avoid those fights with your wife? How do you be a better parent? I think this is equally true for Joyce Meyer, who or maybe it’s Myers from St. Louis. These are practical philosophers. I don’t know that they’re teaching doctrinal Christianity as much as they’re just giving good advice for how to live a better life. I don’t know how good the advice is, incidentally, but I wanted your take on that. Did you find that the the message is, by and large, you got. Were to call it biblical Christianity? Or was it that Norman Vincent Peale kind of positive thinking live a better life now sort of stuff? 

Well, I did go to Joel Osteen church, and he he did preach what what a lot of people call the prosperity gospel, that your life can get better. And you’re right, there wasn’t a lot of religion in it. And he gets criticized by a lot of Christians for that. You know, they call him Christianity Light. But when I went there, you know, Joel Osteen is one of those pastors who I really enjoy watching and maybe for the same reasons you do. I think he’s a fabulous speaker. I like what he says. And I think if that was a religion that more Christians subscribe to his version of what Christianity should be. I don’t think we’d have as many divisive issues in politics in the world, things like that at the same time. I know it’s not heavy on biblical doctrine. I’m sort of a very different experience going from, you know, Ted Haggard to church to Joel Osteen church. I mean, you have huge differences there. But, you know, there were there were things to like about both of them. And I almost wish you could pick and choose some of those best parts of them from those sermons, because I think atheists and non Christians could learn a lot from what they have to say. But again, when they get into those really doctrinal issues, you come across a lot of problems with what they’re saying. But, you know, Joel, Joel managed to avoid that. And I kind of like that about him. 

You talked earlier about atheists and secularists, freethinkers and rationalists painting with too broad a brush, sometimes categorizing all Christians as fundamentalists. You call yourself the friendly atheist. Is that to draw a distinction between yourself and all those kind of Pisin vinegary atheists? 

You know, I didn’t actually come up with a name to separate myself from, you know, those quote unquote, angry atheists of the fundamentalist atheists. Really, when I when I had that name in mind, I was just thinking all the atheists, secular humanist I know are good kinds people. I mean, sure, there are some baggot bad eggs in the bunch. But by and large, we are good friendly people. And so I just wanted people to put those two words together, you know, friendly and atheist, because to me, that’s what everyone’s like. You know, I think Richard Dawkins is a friendly atheist. I think Sam Harris is a friendly atheist. And I know people might disagree with my take on that. But that wasn’t to separate me from other versions, if you will, of atheists or anything like that. That’s just what I think of pretty much all the atheists that I’ve met. 

Right. I’ve found Dawkins to be not just genteel, but gentle and kind and warm hearted. He’s the kind of Christian you want next door, except for though, you know, the Christian beliefs. Before we finish up, I want to talk to you really about why you’re doing this. You’re obviously an atheist. You know, you and I go way back. We. We know that each of us lacks belief in God, lacking belief in God, and then visiting churches to learn about the in quotes enemy. And maybe that’s up for grabs. Maybe they’re not the enemy by some lights. Doing what you’ve done is anti Christian. Are you hoping that your book will somehow expose Christianity? I mean, why why would a friendly atheist be interested in going to church? 

Well, you know, let let me say one thing. This book, the idea for this book actually came from a Christian book publisher. And I think it’s the first time that an atheist has written explicitly about an atheist viewpoint for a Christian publisher. 

So you’re not trying to stick it to the Christians by writing this book? 

No, I’m trying to help Christians understand that, you know, if they’re so intent on talking to nonbelievers about what they’re all about and what their church can do, look at all the things they’re doing that turn people like me off. 

Well, let me ask you, why are you helping the market better? 

Right. And it’s not about marketing better. I do think if they really you know, I do think they’re allowed to put their best foot forward. And it’s very easy to rip down people like Ted Haggard when they say things. If you, Fijis of Canberra, root of all evil. It’s very easy to rip it down. But I think if we really want to, you know, scrutinize our own beliefs or nonbelief, if you will, then we’ve got to see what their best give us what they’ve got. You know? The best of what they have. I’m not afraid of that cause I don’t think they have anything that’s gonna convince me there is a God. But I’m willing to see it. 

Are you open minded, by the way? Could you see yourself becoming a Christian someday? 

I’m open minded if I see the evidence. I haven’t seen it yet, but I think most atheists would say the exact same thing. But I should say, you know, I know a lot of people will criticize me for for writing a book geared towards Christians or saying, you know, this is how to make your church a better place. But really, the things I’m advising the churches to do. I sold my soul on eBay. It’s not saying, you know, condemn other people. It’s not saying, you know, you’re going to be right on the political issues or anything like that. 

Dare I say, Himmat, you’re suggesting that they be more humanistic. So you wrote this book for Christians, whether it’s to help them make their churches more inviting to atheists, give them a better sales pitch. I don’t know. But why should an atheist, why should a secularist, a humanist, be interested in reading this book? 

I think there’s a lot of material in there that atheists could find helpful in learning what these churches are about, what part of our own stereotypes. As you know, atheist reading the book, we have a lot of images of what churches are like, and a lot of those images really aren’t the case. And I think we could learn a lot by learning about what Christian churches are really like. The other really nice thing about it, you know, I’ve had a lot of Christian friends say you’ve got to read this book, you know, and they’ll give me a Leaf Straubel book or a C.S. Lewis book. They’ll say, you’ve got to read this book. And there was really nothing you could give them back in return. I guess now we have some books like The God Delusion that you could, but I think this is a book that Christians would not be afraid of reading. You know, an atheist could hand this to a Christian, and I hope they could say, look, this is where I’m coming from as an atheist. This is the mindset that I have. And if you want to understand me, better, read this book and I hope you enjoy it. 

Last question. Do you like Christians more now or less now after visiting so many of these churches? 

You know, there is a wide spectrum there. One of the nice things that this project did is it really put Christians on a big spectrum for me. I didn’t know there were so many liberal Christians out there that are just as upset with the religious right as I am as an atheist. At the same time, I didn’t really realize the extent that people could be fundamentalists. And I met a number of those, too. You know, I was on this Christian TV show that just aired recently. And as a result of that show airing, I got so many responses from Christians, a few of whom were actually interested in this dialog. And they started posting comments on my Web site, which is wonderful. 

At the same time, there were a lot of what I like to call a drive by praying on the Web by people who just send me email saying, I’m praying for you or just open your heart and Jesus will come in. But they’re not interested in hearing my response. 

I have my file of those and it grows over the years. And every now and then if you want to pick me up, just go through those and read them. And they laid a little more fire under your took us. Amin, thanks for joining me on point. Require a new look forward to having you back. 

Thank you for having me, T.J.. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.