Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Good News about Atheists!: Hemant Mehta's I Sold My Soul on eBay

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."


Once Again... said...

Thank you for the review...i am excited to get my hands on a copy.
i guess you could call me one of your "christian" readers...even though i hate all the baggage that comes along with that word. i think i am sometimes even more disgusted by my fellow christians than any atheist. we are experts, many times, at missing the point.
there are many of "us" (i hate that word) who are starting to listen...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Once Again!!!

Glad my review was helpful!!!

JulieAnn said...

I liked this premise. Thank you for helping me become aware of the feelings many atheists have. I personally don't judge either way, but I hadn't really realized that many are vilified for their beliefs, or non-belief. But it makes sense in this "God forsaken" country! LOL


AnnM said...

Wow, you have believing readers! I must say, it was the American atheist ex-mormon living in France that grabbed my attention. Just like me. Used to be.

But friendly, not so much these days. But I'm working on it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey JulieAnn!!!

Yeah, it's tough being an atheist, but somebody's gotta do it... ;-)

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

Come on, I know you're friendly!!! You're not going to convince me otherwise. ;-)

Freckle Face Girl said...

That is all we need friendly atheists in this world! :) I actually know quite a few atheists and never really thought anything about it. I didn't know they were supposed to be hated. :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Freckle Face Girl!!!

Don't worry, it's not as though everybody's supposed to hate atheists. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your insightful review. Your three points at the end capture the benefits of Hemant's book for both believers and nonbelievers.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Ron!!!

vjack said...

Excellent review. A truly useful review should make the reader more or less likely to want to read the book reviewed. Yours made me less likely to read this book. Why? The idea of an atheist writing a book of "strategies for making their services more engaging" and "on what approaches appeal to non-Christians (and/or non-churchgoers)" holds little appeal. I understand that there is more to it than this, but I have to wonder what on earth would possess an atheist to write a book that would help Christians make their church services more palatable to atheists. Having read it, are you at all concerned that it will be misused by Christians hoping to convert atheists?

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Vjack!!!

To be honest that's one of the things I shoot for in a review. Not every book is interesting to everyone, so I try to highlight what is interesting and unique about a given book -- and give a feel for what it's like -- so you know whether you'll want to read it or not.

As far as Hemant's motives are concerned, I think it's his way of trying to open up a channel of positive communication and dialog with believers.

I'm sure that the believers who buy this book are probably hoping to use it to improve their ability to convert atheists into Christians. But you know very well that once you get a taste of reality, fairy tales -- even well-marketed ones -- are no longer convincing. So I'm not terribly worried about Hemant's book leading loads of atheists to Jesus. And besides, I don't really care about un-saving anybody's soul anyway -- if the myths help somebody feel good and they're not forcing their rules on others, then they can go right ahead and believe them all they want as far as I'm concerned. ;^)

Valhar2000 said...

How likely is it, anyway, that this book could help people convert atheists (who would not otherwise cave under the sheer amount of social pressure that exists in the US today)?

If anything, Hemant's book would help certain christians be less annoying in their efforts to spread "the good news", and that is always a good thing.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey valhar2000!!!

True, you'd be hard pressed to find an atheist in the U.S. who is unaware of the Christian "good news", hence it's not clear how useful this advice will be for converting people. Still, as you suggest, it may help Christians avoid some of the pitfalls that annoy people and drive them away...