Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I Sold My Soul on eBay

I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through An Atheist's Eyes
© 2007 Hemant Mehta
210 pages, with discussion-group guide.


"If Christianity is right in saying God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then God is the ultimate judge of my character and my life. So I don't understand why some Christian groups seek to fulfill that role in [the United States]". - p. 168

Recent years have witnessed the rise of "The New Atheism", promulgated by books by authors like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, as well as blogs. One of the more popular blogs is that of The Friendly Atheist*, maintained by celebrity skeptic Hemant Mehta. Mehta is such because he offered his time on eBay to the religious: they could bid and send him to whatever church they wanted, for however long they wanted, providing they were willing to pay. The proceeds went to a skeptical foundation. The winning bid was made by one Jim Henderson, who asked Mehta to attend a variety of different churches and comment on his experience -- what churches did right, what they did wrong, -- and on the Christianity presented there in general.

I Sold My Soul on eBay is Mehta's attempt to organized his thoughts hermetically. After introducing himself as a Jain-turned-atheist who has his doubts about religion but is willing to confront any evidence against his beliefs, he begins commenting on his period of regular church attendance. The first three chapters in this section of the book focus on similarities Mehta noticed in similarly-sized churches -- small, mid-sized, and large or enormous. The fourth chapter pays special attention to three churches Mehta visited and particularly enjoyed. One of them was Joel Osteen's church, which surprised me: I harbored a bit of prejudice against the man because of his appearance and rumored reputation, thinking him just another televangelist. Mehta believes him to be sincere and views his approach -- dismissed by other Christian pastors as "pop psychology wrapped in bible verses" --more relevant to the lives of people than biblical ideology. The last chapters fulfill Mehta's job in pinpointing what churches are doing right (community outreach, relevant lessons, ministers who know how to speak) and what they're doing wrong -- indulging in overly lengthy song sessions, being aggressive and intolerant of those with different opinions, and so on. With this list is, Mehta focuses more on what the congregations themselves are doing -- coming to church late and not taking it seriously when they do arrive. "If you don't like church, then don't go to church," he says.

What makes the book interesting beyond the novelty of an atheist and an author alien to Christian culture immersing himself in it and offering candid opinions is that it seems to have truly been written in he spirit of creating a dialogue. The book has a forward from one of the ministers who Mehta befriended, and a guide for the reader seemingly intended for small church groups who want to discuss and use the book to improve their ministries finishes it off. Mehta manages to be candid and civil without being obnoxious or patronizing. Some nonreligious readers may find it entertaining, whole the religious who want to make their religions more viable could benefit from it.

* The copyright mark in this book proves how faulty memory can be. When putting my memories together, I thought that I started reading Friendly Atheist in 2006, the year I became a skeptic -- but, if the book itself was only released in 2007, I must not have started reading there until later.

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