Heather Johnson: Your parents are from India, and although you were born and raised in Chicago, you were brought up Jain. Can you briefly explain some of Jainism’s underlying beliefs?
Hemant Mehta: Well, Jainism is this ancient religion from India, and its main tenets include things like non-violence, non-possessiveness—things that I still try to live by. But Jains also believe in things like reincarnation, this idea that karma is going to stay with you and you can shed or gain it, and that the world’s time is divided into cycles of a couple of thousand years. These things really have no basis in reality. They’re nice ideas, so people believe in them.
HJ: When did you start thinking that what you believed in might be just a “nice idea”?
HM: When I was around 14, I started questioning for the first time. I just didn’t see any reason to believe in the supernatural aspect of it. No one I knew had any reason to believe in it either, other than it’s just what has been passed down.
So that’s really why I don’t call myself a Jain anymore. But I am still vegetarian, and I still try to live that non-possessiveness, non-materialistic type of life.
HJ: Did you verbalize any of these thoughts? I’m curious what your parents thought.
HM: I didn’t tell anyone. Late at night, I’d go online and try to look up what stuff meant. And basically everything kind of led to atheism—if you don’t believe in the supernatural and you don’t believe in God, then you’re an atheist. I didn’t know much about atheism, just that “it was bad.” The more I kept reading though, the more sense it made—that morals come not from a book, but from your learning and your daily interaction with people.
One night during my freshman year in high school, I just stopped praying before I went to bed. I woke up the next morning, and I was still alive, and I was like, OK, I guess this works. And that was it.
HJ: There’s something very scary about coming to a realization that goes against not only everything you’ve been taught but also against the beliefs of everyone you’re close to.
HM: Not to say that this is exactly like the gay movement, but having to tell my parents that I’d become an atheist really felt like I was coming out to them. Atheism is something so foreign to them. I thought it would cause more harm than anything, so I didn’t tell them until my second or third year at college. I was starting to work more and more with a lot of atheist groups. I had gotten a scholarship to go to an atheist conference, and I didn’t want to lie to my parents about where I’d be.
They had an idea this was happening, but they weren’t sure until I told them. They have slowly begun to understand that just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean that I’m off looting stores. I think they understand that I’m the good person they raised me to be. They feel a little better about it now, but I’m sure they’d be happier if I were more religious.
HJ: You went to the University of Illinois in Chicago for your undergraduate degree. Tell me about your experience there. Did you meet other atheists?
HM: My first year, I didn’t really do anything in terms of religion. My friends were kind of a mixture of everything—Hindu, Catholic, or they just didn’t care either way. By my second year, I still didn’t really know any atheists, yet I really wanted to meet some. So I started this group for atheists—Students WithOut Religious Dogma (SWORD)—with a girl I met in one of my English classes. We just wanted to meet other people and talk about issues that mattered to us.
People started coming to our meetings, having discussions with us about the afterlife and also taking God out of the pledge [of allegiance]—that was a big issue at the time. We soon affiliated SWORD with a larger national group called the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). I worked with them closely, and now I’m the chair of SSA. Through it, I’ve gotten involved with other atheist national groups, as well.
HJ: How do you work with these groups?
HM: We help students who are atheists or seeking to be atheists. They might come to us wanting to start a group on their campus, and we give them the necessary tools. We also do a newsletter that goes out to a couple thousand people about what’s going on in the youth/atheist movement.
Through the SSA, I’ve also worked with the Secular Coalition for America. I’m one of the seven voting members of the coalition—the first registered lobbying group in Washington. It’s specifically for atheist/non-religious people.
But I think these secular groups, more than anything, are about trying to get out the message that we’ve all been through the same thing—it’s hard to come out as an atheist in this country.