The Atheist Who Went to Church

Curious and open to Christianity, Hemant Mehta became the “eBay atheist” when he posted his soul on eBay and began accepting bids to visit churches and then share his thoughts. Some 30 church services later, he’s still an atheist. He tells us why, what he does believe in and what Christians should consider when talking to someone with different beliefs.

I, like many others, first learned of “the eBay atheist” in a Wall Street Journal article last year. Hemant Mehta had posted his “soul” on eBay, the article read. He told eBay patrons: “While I don’t believe in God, I firmly believe I would immediately change those views if presented with evidence to the contrary. And at age 22, this is possibly the best chance anyone has of changing me.”

To that end, he proposed visiting one hour of church for every $10 of the final bid. One week, 41 bids and more than 10,000 eBay hits later, the winning bid of $504 was made by Off the Map, a Christian organization trying to make evangelism practical for ordinary Christians. A deal was made. Hemant would visit 10 to 15 churches selected by Off the Map, and then write about his experiences for the organization. 

What has transpired is much more than he bargained for—national secular and religious media coverage, a popular blog, and a book deal. All this because an atheist said he’d go to church.   

I wanted to hear more. So a few months ago, I e-mailed Hemant to ask if he’d be willing to chat with me. His quick e-mail response (within minutes) was my first clue—we’ve got stuff in common. He lives off his computer too! He congenially agreed to talk, but only after he finished his exams. He was completing a master’s program in math education at DePaul University.

When we finally talked, more likenesses emerged. Both at the edge of the millennial generation (born in the early ’80s) with new college degrees under our belts, we’ve secured places in the work force and desperately want our jobs to mean something. Each has one younger sibling, and we were raised by both parents in loving, devout households. Mine, however, was Christian. His was Jain. Enter our differences. I am managing editor of Outreach, trying to equip pastors and church leaders to spread Christianity. He is a voting member of Secular Coalition for America, a Washington, D.C., organization lobbying for the rights of atheists and non-religious people.

Nevertheless, we laughed and challenged each other in our conversation. This type of friendly dialog between a Christian and an atheist is exactly what Hemant believes would help the Church’s cause, as he explains in his new book I Sold My Soul on eBay (WaterBrook)—a title he laughs at because after all, atheists don’t believe in souls, but it’s catchy. As a self-proclaimed “friendly atheist,” he shares in his book his thoughts on the churches he visited: everything from why some churches focus on the “quantity of conversions” rather than the quality of the help they provide, to why some pastors consider him “lost”—because he doesn’t feel lost. 

Hemant’s views have not changed. He is still an atheist, but some of his assumptions about church and Christianity were wrong, he says. In the next few pages, he tells me what those were. He also tells me the questions he thinks Christians should be asking and why. I invite you to not only meet him, but join our conversation.