by Fred Peatross
May - June, 2008
In February 2006 Hemant Mehta posted an unusual item on eBay. The DePaul University graduate student promised the winner that for each $10 of the final bid, he would attend an hour of church services. The 23-year-old Mehta is an atheist, but he says he suspected he had been missing out on something.
When the auction stopped on Feb. 3 after 41 bids, the buyer was Jim Henderson, provocateur, creator of Off The Map and a spiritual entrepreneur from Seattle, whose $504 bid triumphed over all others.
Days after the auction, Henderson flew to Chicago to see Mehta, who is studying to be a math teacher. The two met in a bar, where they sealed a deal a little different from the one the student had proffered. Instead of the 50 hours of church attendance that he was entitled to for his $504, Henderson asked that Mehta attend 10 to 15 services of Henderson’s choosing and then write about it.
Hemant Mehta fulfilled his eBay obligations with Jim and says that although he is no closer to believing he does admire churches for the communities they create.
quoted from the article eBay Atheist Sells His Soul by Suzanne Sataline of the Wall Street Journal:
Copyright 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. © All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.
Hemant has written an insightful book about the pros and cons of Christian churches.
Fred: Hemant, I don't think I have met a true, pure atheist. Is this a fair characterization of you?
Hemant: Yes Fred, I am a true, pure atheist! Believe it. I don't believe in a god, the supernatural, superstitions, horoscopes, psychics, etc. And I haven't since I was 14. I'm actually surprised you would say you haven't met one. My guess is you've probably met many atheists without even realizing it. We come from various backgrounds and work in all different places. Sometimes, atheists feel scared to "come out" because of the stigma attached to the word. I'm hoping that will change in the future.
Fred: I have to follow with this question. Just what do you believe in? How does this all fit into the ultimate truth about life—death?
Hemant: I believe in the goodness of people. We all want to survive and the best way for this to happen is to live peacefully with other people and help them (I've heard religious people criticize this because it seems to go against the idea of "survival of the fittest," but any research on the benefits of altruism can explain why this is good for us.)
I also believe that the only life we have is this one. Death is a natural part of life. Once we die, only our legacy will carry on, so we should spend our lives creating memories and making the world a better place for our descendants.
Ultimately, we give our lives meaning. It's not written down for us and we don't live for the goal of getting in a heaven.
Fred: I understand that after Jim Henderson won the bidding war for you on eBay you agreed to attend 10-15 churches of his choosing. What did you discover about Christians and Christian worship?
Hemant: I found that while most every church I visited was open and inviting to me, none of them gave me reason to dismiss my own logic and rationality. They wanted me to believe in the Biblical God, and they tried to tug at my emotions to do this. They told me personal stories of how God has helped them. But none of those constitute proof of anything. I would've been more satisfied hearing someone tell me why using my brain is the wrong way to go, but I didn't hear that. I also didn't hear anyone trying to prove why the word of the Bible is true. Granted, the pastors were speaking to a group of believers; however, I still didn't get the feeling that the various congregations were going to question anything the pastors said.
On a brighter note, many of these churches do amazing outreach to their community. I'm not talking about controversial issues such as teaching Intelligent Design or doing missionary work. Rather, some churches made sure all students in their community were getting a proper education. They made sure people were not going hungry around them. They built homes and centers. It was very powerful. It doesn't convince me there is a God, but it does make me think that a Church can be a force for good, which is a concept many atheists may disagree with.
Fred: In the weeks of exposure to American style Christianity how serious did the people who professed faith in Christ appear to you? Serious enough to die for their faith? Or maybe you observed church goers driven more via entertainment and consumerism (people shopping for a church that fits or people leaving a church because it doesn't fit)?
Hemant: I rarely met anyone who didn't take their faith seriously. They were undoubtedly sincere. Are they so serious that they would die for their faith? I would hope there would be a better reason to die than that... but I could see many of the pastors and churchgoers dedicating their lives to do the work of God as they see it. Even if people went to a church because it "looked nice" or offered more than a smaller church could, they were searching only because they wanted to find the best place to feel connected to God.
Fred: What impact, if any, did this have on you?
Hemant: I was shocked because I rarely saw critical thinking going on. I thought the churches would emphasize the reasons for believing a lot more than they actually did.
A lot of times, it seemed that people needed hope more than anything. They wanted to know that everything would be ok in their lives and the church re-energized them each week.
Were they all really putting serious thought into whether the claims of the Bible are true or if God exists? It didn't seem like it.
I would receive a lot of emails and questions that I thought were so obvious if one just thought about it. For example, if I'm an atheist, why do I have morals? I would hope through our own experience, we've come to realize we all have the same right to live our life as we wish, and we shouldn't stop others from doing the same. It's the Golden Rule in a nutshell. Do we need a Book to tell us not to steal, lie, or kill? I hope not.
The point is, I was never being asked to think these types of questions through. Most of the churches asked people to repeat Bible verses or pray, but not to question authority or credibility of the sources. That was disappointing.
I took the phrase "Bible Study" much more literally than I should have. There was very little questioning of whether we should believe everything we read, and much more of "The Bible says it so it must be true." I'm sure Christians would become stronger in their faith with more of the former...
Fred: Okay Hemant, critical thinking. For just a minute consider the factors necessary to have a functional planet for any kind of life by chance alone.
|VARIABLE||ODDS||RIGHT KIND OF GALAXY|| 1:15||RIGHT PLACE IN GALAXY||1:10,000||RIGHT KIND OF STAR||1:1000||RIGHT DISTANCE OF PLANET||1:40||RIGHT SIZED PLANET ||1:10||RIGHT SPIN OF PLANET|| 1:5||NOT NEAR A BLACK HOLE||1:100||PROPER MAGNETIC FIELD||1:10||HIGH COMPOSITION OF CARBON||1:1000||HIGH WATER CONTENT||1:1000|
1Earth offers conditions critical to our survival. Any kind of life will have to have the right kind of planet. The distance to the Sun is critical to the existence of water or any other compound needed for life. The size of the planet determines its atmospheric make-up. The rotation rate, the existence of a magnetic field, the structure of the atmosphere and a myriad of other factors are all critical for the existence of any kind of life. In addition to all these factors, we have to consider the odds of being in the right place in space. If a black bole was located in the neighborhood of the earth or any other life—supporting planet, it would make life a total impossibility and would be likely to destroy both the planet and its sun. Chemical problems also exist in the development of any kind of life. The existence of water is critical for life to exist. It seems there are literally hundreds of conditions that have to be “just right” for any kind of life to exist anywhere.
Let’s suppose that I were to hold out a deck of well-shuffled playing cards to you and ask you to draw a single card blindfolded. What would be the mathematical odds of drawing the ace of spades? One in 52 is the correct answer. Now suppose that I told you to draw twice and to draw the ace of spades each time. What would be the odds of successfully doing that? If you are familiar with the mathematics of this situation, you know that the odds are 1 out of 52 times 1 out of 52.
When you have two events and both must be successful to obtain a desired result, you multiply the probabilities of each event. To draw the ace of spades out of a shuffled deck four times in a row back to back would be:
In other words, the total probability increases logarithmically as we increase the number of variables that have to be considered for a successful conclusion.
The application of this mathematics to the above chart should be obvious. It does no good to be in the right kind of galaxy if you are in the wrong place in that galaxy. It does no good to be in the right kind of galaxy and in the right place in that galaxy if you are going around the wrong kind of star or are too close or too far from that star. In other words, every one of the conditions in the chart would have to be right. What you have to do then is to multiply the parameters listed in the chart plus the hundreds that have not been included. Just using the numbers in the chart (conservative and very incomplete though they are) we would get:
All of this is to get a planet in the right place. We would have to multiply this number by the odds of life occurring by chance alone! Scientists and mathematicians like Murray Eden of MIT, Fred Hoyle of Cambridge, Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) and others have shown that the odds of getting life by chance according to the models of Stanley Miller, Sidney Fox and others are in the order of 10 to the one thousandth power. Imagine that!
So my question: Is it logical to think we are products of chance?
1credit John Clayton "Does God Exit?" for the math example
Hemant: Essentially, if the odds are as spectacular as you say. But there are an astronomical number of planets in the solar system and when you think of how many possible places there are where our planet's environment could have happened, it's not hard to believe somewhere, there would be a planet that could sustain life. And as far as we know, we are living on that planet. Maybe there are more-- no one knows yet. But we wouldn't be around if we weren't : )
Fred: Your book, can you tell us a little about it?
Hemant: The book is called "I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist's Eyes" published by WaterBrook Press, a Christian publisher. The book is split into two parts. The first part covers the story of how I became an atheist in the first place (even though I was raised with a religious background), what happened with the "eBay auction" and the media attention that ensued, and what it really means to be an atheist. Hopefully, I can dispel some common stereotypes in this section.
The second part is about what I observed when I visited small, large, and mega churches across the country. There is a lot of praise and a lot of criticism. I hope that Christians will agree with a lot of what I have to say.
The hope is that people will understand where I'm coming from and learn how to reach out to non-religious people like me. It won't happen by trying to convert me. However, religious and non-religious people share many similar goals and we can work together to achieve them even if we have different reasons for doing so.
Jim Henderson's Evangelism Without Additives
Hemant's The Friendly Atheist Blog
Fred Peatross lives, works, romances his wife and exudes deep feelings of love, awe, and admiration for his Creator while living in the heart of Appalachia. For over two decades Fred has resided in Huntington, West Virginia where he has been a leader in the traditional church. He has been a deacon, a shepherd, and a pulpit minister. But his greatest love is Missio Dei.
Long before thousands of missionaries poured into the former Soviet Union Fred, in a combined effort with a Christ follower from Alabama planted a church in Dneprodzerhinsk, Ukraine. Today Fred lives as a missionary to America daily praying behind the back of his friends as he journeys and explores life alongside them. [Fred Peatross' book Missio Dei: In the Crisis of Christianity, reviewed in New Wineskins]. He blogs at [Abductive Columns].