I have set out on a mission of my own, if you will, to show the world the friendly face of atheism. I would love to meet more friendly Christians. And so would every atheist I know.-- Hemant Mehta
Hemant Mehta isn't just a friendly atheist, he's the friendly atheist. And since he snagged the title of "friendly atheist" first, all of the other friendly atheists have to be more specific when choosing their own titles (for example I'm "the friendly American exmormon atheist mom living in France," whew! and I hope there won't be too many people fighting me for this coveted position!). I thought about challenging Hemant to a duel over the title "the friendly atheist." Just for the irony of doing it. Then I thought "Nah, I'll just review his book instead."
I Sold My Soul on eBay isn't quite what I was expecting when I first picked it up. The title -- though catchy -- is a little misleading. I'd assumed Hemant had actually auctioned off his soul as a stunt along the lines of "the blasphemy challenge" or like the ex-Mormons who have attempted to sell temple secrets on eBay. But from following Hemant's blog, I should have realized that sort of thing is the opposite of his style.
What Hemant actually auctioned off was the opportunity to send him to church. Like many atheists, he was curious to learn more about religion rather than just dismissing it out of hand, and he figured an eBay auction would be a fun way to get in contact with someone who's motivated to introduce religion to an atheist. This book is the distillation of what Hemant learned from about a year's worth of church attendance at a variety of Christian churches as a result of his eBay auction.
I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist's Eyes is a book addressed to Christians, full of constructive critiques and strategies for making their services more engaging, especially for young adults who don't normally attend church. It has lots of helpful advice on what approaches appeal to non-Christians (and/or non-churchgoers) instead of putting them off.
The book covers the large-to-mega church category more thoroughly than any other type, and I must confess that it was a bit of a challenge to me to generate a whole lot of enthusiasm for them, even given Hemant's lively analysis. I felt a little like how I'd feel if a market researcher showed me a row of giant, gas-guzzling S.U.V.'s and asked me which ones had the most pleasing shape or most comfy ergonomic interior when I'd really rather be discussing strategies for improving public transportation. That probably sounds pretty rich coming from someone who's an avid supporter of Mormon literature (including giving serious advice to LDS authors for making faith-promoting works more effective). But at least with the Mormon lit community, I can claim I'm rooting for a legitimate underdog. Reading about these stadium-sized churches with tens of thousands of members situated on beautiful multi-building campuses, I kept thinking "Sheesh, these guys are the last people on the planet who need help with their marketing..." But that's how friendly Hemant Mehta is -- he's interested in helping out wherever he sees room for improvement.
Hemant's advice seems quite sound, and will likely be useful to those pastors who read his book. My main critique of his critique is that (aside from a few remarks about charity work) Hemant's focus is almost entirely on the church service itself, so of course the biggest churches with the resources to put on a fantastic show come off the best. Yet when he talks about his childhood faith (Jain), most of his positive associations revolve around the fact that his family was part of a small group of families who shared a long-term bond, meeting in each other's houses until they had built up enough members and resources to build their own temple. Hemant doesn't really discuss whether small churches might be more effective than mega-churches at creating this type of community bond and/or creating a sense of community with the local neighborhood. However, when comparing a large number of different churches, it's very difficult to compare what it might be like to be a long-term member of each one. In terms of what is reasonable to cover in such a survey (namely what sorts of things will inspire a one-time visitor to want to come back) he's got a lot of great ideas.
Hemant also helps Christians with their outreach by explaining the atheist's perspective. When approaching an unfamiliar person, nothing is more of a turn-off than making it clear that you're mentally squeezing that person into some wrong and insulting stereotype. Hemant gives a clear and friendly explanation of how the atheist's perspective contrasts with the Christian perspective. In my opinion, this is where the book really shines -- you can see that Hemant is sincere about wanting to foster understanding and dialog, so he takes the Christian point of view seriously and approaches it respectfully when explaining how his point of view is different.
I would definitely recommend this book for any Christian who is serious about wanting to reach out to atheists by understanding the atheist's point of view. But since I probably have more atheist readers than Christian in readers, I'll bet many of you are asking yourselves "Okay, but what's in it for the atheist reader?" For the atheist reader there are three things:
1. Every time I've visited a service of an unfamiliar religion I've learned something from it. Even though Hemant isn't addressing you, you can learn something from looking over his shoulder (so to speak) as he's attending these services.
2. We've all heard about how atheists are the most hated and mistrusted minority in America. Well, what are we going to do about it? We're going to get out there and say to our friends and neighbors "Hi, I'm so-and-so, and I'm a member of your community and an ordinary person -- not the sort of bogeyman you might imagine atheists to be..." Hemant Mehta sets a great example of how to keep your tone positive and constructive when talking to Christians so you can help people see the friendly face of atheism.
3. You can use this book itself in your bridge-building efforts. How many of you have gotten a gift from a (well-meaning) Christian friend or relative that was a Bible or other devotional materials? Or one of those books that tries to poke holes in evolutionary theory so that you'll be convinced that a supernatural explanation is more likely than a natural one? All of you, right? ;^) Well, rather than getting pissed-off because they just don't get it, help them to get it by giving this book as a return gift. Or proactively send it to family members if you're one of the many atheists who has Christian relatives who don't understand you.
This is the one book I would recommend for atheists to give as a gift to Christian friends and relatives. It's a friendly message from an atheist to a Christian that doesn't say "Here's why I'm right and you're wrong," but instead says "Here's how we can understand each other and get along."