The Atheist Who Went to Church

HJ: Basically, it’s just about people wanting to feel comfortable and find community.  

HM: Right.

HJ: So how did your eBay bid fit into your work and beliefs?

HM: Having come from Jainism, I didn’t know what church was like. I had never even been inside a Christian church. I wanted to find a way to not just explore church, but to also go and ask people questions about it. I wanted to find out why [Christians] believe certain things, and I didn’t want anyone to be able to tell me that I was just an atheist because I had never even thought about Christianity.

That’s when the eBay idea came to mind. It wasn’t about the money; in fact, the money was donated to the SSA. I didn’t really think anything big would happen. I just thought it would be an interesting way to get people’s attention.

HJ: Now you’ve been inside many Christian churches. Tell me about the first time.

HM: I went to a Catholic church in Chicago near where I lived. My first observation was that while the people knew what the rituals were, they weren’t even thinking about them as they did them. The priest had a memorized script, but at one point, he talked about how we need to overcome obstacles. He shared about this time when he had smoked cigarettes and really wanted to quit. He prayed to God and then—cold turkey—he just stopped.

I thought that was a really great story, powerful stuff! You could tell he was emotional about it. But as soon as he finished the story, he went back into the monotonous scripted speech. I thought, Ah, you had me! I was listening, and then I got bored again.

HJ: You said you wanted to not only attend church—you’ve now visited nearly 30—but also ask questions. Have you been able to do this? 

HM: Yes, a few times. But at the bigger churches, the pastors were almost nowhere to be found, and at some of the smaller ones, where it was more solemn and formal, it just didn’t seem right to approach them.

But one, a local church outside of Chicago—Parkview Christian Church—invited me to come and talk onstage with their pastor, Tim Harlow, for all three services. He was doing a whole series on The Da Vinci Code, and the final week, he was basically preaching about how it’s OK to have doubts and that if you have doubts, the Church thinks it can help.

It was really cool. We got into evolution and some of the harder spiritual questions. This was a pastor who really believes in intelligent design, and yet he was talking to me who believes in evolution. Most importantly, the audience got to hear the discussion. Yes, it got heated at times, but when all was said and done, the pastor and I were still friends. We were still able to shake each other’s hand, and I genuinely liked that guy. Yes, I disagree with him about some very important issues, but the idea was, we can have a discussion. He didn’t try to convert me or tell me that everything I believe is wrong.

HJ: You said that it was important the church audience saw this, but what about other atheists? What did your atheist friends think?

HM: Some of my atheist friends said things like “Oh my god, I would love to be in your shoes. I would love to tell that pastor how wrong he is!” And I’m just thinking, That’s why you’re not invited! That is not what this is about, and that is why it worked.

HJ: Did you experience negative things while visiting these churches?

HM: I heard a lot of what I considered to be hate speech. Some churches led missionary trips with the intent to “convert Muslims,” as if that was the reason some countries were under-developed or impoverished.

Then, there were prayer services where people were asking God for things I figured they could just take care of themselves. You have a problem in your relationship? I think you should talk to the other person and work it out. You don’t like your job? Then work on finding one that suits your passions. I think atheists are a lot more confident than Christians in their own abilities to make things happen.

And a lot of people, because of this eBay thing, they were like, “You need to read such-and-such book,” and they’d send them to me. One of the titles someone sent me was I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. And it said something like, “If you are an atheist, you might as well be killing everyone you meet and robbing all these stores.” I’m thinking, Someone actually believes that?

HJ: Before you visited churches, what were some of your assumptions about them? Were they right or wrong?

HM: Before, I thought church was a boring place everyone was forced to go to on a Sunday morning and that there was absolutely no thinking involved. I was wrong on those points. The churches I saw knew how to bring people in and keep them there, and several times, I heard sermons that raised ideas I had hardly thought about. Of course, there were also sermons that put me to sleep, but not as often as I thought they would. The people in the church chose to be there, and so did many of their children.

HJ: You say in your book that your interactions with Christians, for the most part, have always been good, but they’re—we’re—not asking the right questions. What are some of those questions that Christians need to be asking when we’re talking to someone with different beliefs?

HM: You should ask: Are atheists really bad? Why do we think other religions are wrong? And not just “I’m right, so they’re inherently wrong,” but what really do they believe? Why do so many people believe these other things? Why do only certain people believe in Christianity? How do we know what’s divine? How do we know every single thing the Bible says is true? 

And I know some of these questions have been answered in apologetics books, but it would be great if more regular people, not just academics and authors, asked themselves these questions. I think that might make their faith stronger—or maybe it’d weaken it—but more than anything, it would get them thinking, to really distinguish what they believe.

HJ: Often, many Christians shut down because they’re afraid they may not have all the answers.  

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