Book Review: I Sold My Soul on eBay, by Hemant Mehta
If you had told me a month ago that someone could write a book about religion that could be read by both Christians and atheists, and that they could both enjoy it, be challenged by it, and draw a positive message from it without feeling attacked, I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet, this is exactly what Hemant Mehta has managed to achieve.
Hemant (I will take the liberty of referring to the author by his first name rather than his last, as we have exchanged one or two emails previously) is the author of the blog Friendly Atheist. After many years of atheism, he realised that he had never been to church or really been exposed to Christianity in any way. Being open minded, he wanted to challenge his beliefs and see what Christianity, and other religions had to offer. He held an auction on eBay, offering to visit the place, or places of worship of the winning bidder, and write about his experiences. The auction was won by Jim Henderson with a winning bid of $504. This book is Hemant’s account of his journey to atheism, the auction, and the visits he made to various churches.
The major theme of the book, is the question of how Christianity presents itself to non-believers. Rather than just criticising their shortcomings, however, Hemant adopts the task of helping them to understand them and improve on them, as well as giving credit for their successes. And all from an atheist’s point of view.
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. (p7)
Underlying this main theme however, is a more subtle question: how do non-believers present themselves to Christianity? Hemant does deal with this issue openly in his third and fourth chapters, Getting to Know an Atheist and What the Nonreligious Believe respectively.
To help dispel the false stereotypes many religious people have of atheists, it’s important to understand the way atheists think and what we believe. (p57)
Hemant goes on to outline what atheism is and, more importantly, what it is not. By doing this, he clearly answers the question of how atheists portray themselves to theists. But he also does it in a deeper, more subtle way. The very existence of his book answers the question. By taking the time to visit churches, praise Christianity for its good work, and then offer constructive criticism in a civil and polite way, Hemant is making an invaluable contribution to the destruction of the stereotypes that surround non-belief. Many atheists have written about the myths about atheists, and thoroughly refuted them. I can’t help feeling, however, that in the context of this book, there is a lot more chance of the message being heard and understood.
Away from the deeper issues, I Sold My Soul on eBay is simply an enjoyable read, regardless of your standpoint on the question of God and religion. Hemant shows why his reputation as the Friendly Atheist is well deserved. The tales of his childhood in a Jain family are touching and endearing. I often felt more like I was reading an email from a friend to me personally, rather than a published book. Such is Hemant’s personality, which always seems to flow through his writing. During the account of his visit to Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, where he saw a pastor he and his mother had admired for many years, Joel Osteen, this part at the end made me laugh out loud.
Afterward, visitors to Lakewood were encouraged to meet Joel and Victoria outside in the lobby, and I got there as fast as I could. I was far back in the line, but I held on to a copy of his book ‘Your Best Life Now’. I knew we wouldn’t have much time to talk, so when he finally came to me, I let it all out:
“Joel, I’m an atheist, and my mom, well, she’s not Christian, but we’re huge fans!” (p127)
The bulk of the second half of the book is dedicated to Hemant’s visits to various churches around America. This was particularly interesting for me. I often visited a local Catholic church with my mother as a small child, which was very modest in size. It was fascinating for me to learn about what churches in America are like. The megachurches, in particular, intrigued me. The idea of thousands of people crowding into an arena for a church sermon, is something that is alien to the United Kingdom where I live.
My only concern approaching this section of the book, was that maybe Hemant would not be forthright enough in his criticism. I needn’t have worried. His complaints about the various churches were always constructive, but firm and from the point of view of an atheist, which meant that to a Christian the effect would be two fold. First and foremost, it would help them to see what would appeal to a non-believer. Secondly, it would make them understand better the point from which a non-believer argues.
An assertion that comes up again and again in churches is the idea that non-Christians are lost. I really would like to hear an explanation to back up that statement. I don’t feel lost; in fact, I’ve felt found ever since I became an atheist. So I’d like to hear a pastor tell me why he’s convinced I am lost. (p87)
This is how many atheists, including this one, feel. Christians, both pastors and church goers need to hear this. I am very pleased that this book has been written – I only hope that it is read by the right people.
One very clever aspect of this book is the study guide at the end. Written as an appendix by Ron R. Lee, it offers a number of questions about the book for Christians to discuss in groups or alone. For example, in the notes to chapter 5, The View from a Smaller Pew:
Did the author point out anything about these churches that surprised you, concerned you, or challenged you? If so, which observations elicited such a response – and why?
I think that the study guide was a master stroke. It will, I hope, prevent Christians from just letting the book wash over them and instead, really force them to confront the issues Hemant raises.
As I said, the book examines two questions, how Christians appear to non-believers, and how non-believers appear to Christians. The interesting thing, is that both of these questions can, and have been answered incorrectly by both Christians and non-believers. So, ultimately, Hemant addresses four questions! Each one from two different sides.
The way the questions are answered from the atheists’ side, while playing second fiddle in the book, cannot be underestimated. At a time when passions are so high and the issue of religion is so hotly debated in society, Hemant’s book is as timely as anything else. The divide between believers and atheists is strong. Books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and The End of Faith by Sam Harris were works that needed to be written, and said what needed to be said. At the same time, they were always going to be received with hostility by devout believers, and that is exactly what has happened.
I Sold My Soul on eBay is a priceless contribution to the effort of breaking down the divide between atheists and Christians, by bridging the gaps between us. In the heat of battle, Hemant has walked calmly on to the field between the warring groups, and shown us what we have in common, and what we should be fighting on the same side towards. He has shown Christians that we can accept them if certain adaptations can be made, including tolerance towards non-Christians. And, not through words, but by example, he has shown atheists that a more diplomatic approach, at least to complement the more outspoken words of Dawkins and Harris, has a vital role to play in the saga.
At the beginning of chapter 3, Getting to Know an Atheist, Hemant relates a story to illustrate the difference between forcing a belief on someone, and being persuasive. The Wind and the Sun have a wager to see who can get a girl to take off her jacket. After a concerted effort of trying to physically blow the jacket off the girl, the Wind fails. The Sun simply shines brighter, and hotter, gently, until the girl naturally takes off her jacket of her own accord. I think that this offers a lesson that many Christians, but also some atheists, can take something from.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this book. Not just to Christians, but also atheists, people of other religions, and just about anyone else. I think everyone can take a valuable message from it – I know I certainly did. Personally, I don’t believe that the liberal, harmless side of religion can ever exist without the dangerous, fundamentalist side hiding behind it in the shadows. I happen to think that the world would be a better, happier place full of happier people, if everyone were an atheist (provided, of course, that everyone had chosen that view freely of their own choice). However, there is next to no chance that I will see that happen in my life time. In practical terms, the best we can do at the moment is to look for common ground and encourage religious believers to see us for what we really are – human beings who want peace and happiness like they do. I think Hemant has contributed vital work to that goal – I thank him for that, and for drawing people’s attention to its importance.