You know your life has taken a strange turn when you go to teach at a high school where you have substituted only two times before, and when you introduce yourself as Mr. Mehta, the students respond, “Wait, aren’t you the guy who sold his soul on eBay?”
Two thoughts immediately come to mind: Well, I didn’t actually sell my soul and This can’t be good for my teaching career. The students must have either seen me on the evening news in Chicago or on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times. I guess I had become something of a public figure, “the atheist who sold his soul on eBay.” But I didn’t initiate the Internet auction to generate publicity for myself. I don’t mind being known as an atheist, but I don’t aspire to poster-skeptic status. In fact, I have never tried to sever all personal ties with religion. In the years following my de-conversion, I maintained ties to my religious community.
I was raised in Jainism, and many of the immigrants with whom my Indian parents came to America shared the same faith. I may have left the God of my childhood, but my parents are still faithful Jains. Since becoming an atheist, I have noticed that as people grow older, they become much more reluctant to change. Atheists tend to remain atheists. The religious stay religious.
Occasionally, eleventh-hour conversions occur, but overall it seems that people fail to question beliefs that have become safe and comfortable. When you proclaim yourself an atheist at the age of fourteen, as I did, and remain an atheist with each passing year, you stop thinking about why you made this change in the first place. But at the age of twenty-two, while I was still confident in my nonbelief, I realized I had never been exposed to a Christian worship service…or a Muslim service…or any other non-Jain religious service, for that matter. In the interest of seeing what else was out there, I felt compelled to attend religious services. I didn’t want others to question the basis of my nonbelief:
“You’re an atheist only because you don’t know what Christianity is all about!”
I admit I knew relatively little about the Christian faith outside what I had read or could gather through pop culture. However, I had read parts of the Bible and listened to a large number of televangelists as well as religious leaders when they were interviewed in the news. (When a good speaker is on television, it’s hard for me to change the channel!) It’s much easier to pick up information about Christianity in the news media than it is to learn about atheism that way, since atheism is so rarely talked about. It turned out I heard about atheists more often from Christian preachers on television than from any other source.
As I started paying closer attention to the views of high profile Christians, I mentioned to some Christian friends that I was reading articles by Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, and my friends would cringe. I really did want to know what Christians were talking about, and I was learning that not all Christians agreed on which of their “representatives” I should be listening to. My Christian friends insisted that the high profile Christians most often quoted in the news were using religion to suit their own political agendas, and that most Christians were not as extreme when it came to issues such as gay rights and science education in public schools. They told me I should stop listening to the television preachers and start reading books such as Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. I didn’t understand how it was possible to gain a misconception of the Christian faith by listening to Christian leaders, especially when these men were said to represent major segments of the church.
More important, I rarely saw Christians use the media to point out that these men were wrong. I did realize, however, that the Christians I knew personally were less extreme in their political views. If there was such a diversity of viewpoints among Christians, how would I find out what Christianity is really about? The Christians I spoke to told me if I really wanted to gain insight into Christianity, I would need to go to a church for myself. Well, I did want to learn more about Christian theology and why people believed it. I knew that if it made more sense than my secular views, I would have to alter my beliefs. So I decided the best thing to do was expose myself to church.
The Decision to “Auction Off My Soul”
New Testament scholar (and atheist) Gerd Lüdemann delivered a speech at Middle Tennessee State University a few years ago. He lectured on the “hoax of the Resurrection.” The vast majority of the student population strongly opposed his appearance on campus. Yet the students who ran the school newspaper defended the decision to invite Lüdemann to speak. The newspaper’s editorial contended, “The reason we’re [in college] is to immerse ourselves in original, new ideas and subject ourselves to diverse arguments. Every student should attend at least one lecture that differs from his or her current beliefs; if those beliefs can’t stand under scrutiny, they aren’t worth believing.”
Although I agreed with that view, I had never followed the editorial’s advice myself. Many other atheists had been raised as Christians, so they knew what they were leaving. But I lacked that experience. I decided I would step inside a church. However, I knew this exploration would be pointless unless I could ask questions about the faith—the questions that had always troubled or confused me. Also, I wanted to document the journey so others could see what I was experiencing. If they were to comment on my experience, they needed to know what I was doing, so I had to find a way to publicize my idea. How do you manage to raise interest in a project that is so…unusual?
I thought about some of the stranger news stories I had read. There was the grilled-cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary on it and the opportunity offered to temporarily tattoo a man’s forehead with a company’s logo. Suddenly, I knew the answer: eBay! I would post my idea on the auction Web site and people could bid on where and how long I would attend church. Who cared about the money?—I just wanted people to hear about what I was doing and what I hoped to accomplish.
At the time, I lived next to Old Saint Patrick’s Church, a historical landmark that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Since Mass was held right next door, it seemed an ideal place to attend. However, I didn’t want to limit myself to attending just that one church. I knew that even churches of the same denomination could vary dramatically depending on location and the demographics of the congregation. More people would be interested in this project if they could decide where I should go to church. Certainly, if I wanted to learn about Christianity, I should listen to the people who knew the nuances between the different denominations.
In fact, I decided to go even further. Did it have to be a Christian place of worship? Nope. I figured I’d keep my options as wide open as possible. Whoever won the auction could decide where I would attend religious services.
I posted on eBay.com on a Friday night and labeled it: “Send an atheist to his local church!” I explained my proposal as follows:
I’m a 22-year-old atheist from Chicago. I stopped believing in God when I was 14. Currently, I am an active volunteer for a couple different national, secular organizations. For one of them, I am the editor of a newsletter that reaches over 1,000 Atheist/Agnostic college students. I have written several Letters to the Editor to newspapers in and around Chicago, espousing my atheistic beliefs when Church/State issues arose. My point being that I don’t take my non-belief lightly. However, 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.
So, here’s my proposal. Every time I come home, I pass this old Irish church. I promise to go into that church every day—for a certain number of days—for at least an hour each visit. For every $10 you bid, I will go to the Church for one day. For $50, you would have me going to mass every day for a week.
My promise: I will go willingly and with an open mind. I will not say/do anything inappropriate. I will respectfully participate in service[s], speak to priests, volunteer with the church if possible, do my best to learn about the religious beliefs of the churchgoers, and make conversation with anyone who is willing to talk. (Though I do reserve the right to ask the person questions about the faith.) I will record my visits through a journal, pictures, or whatever other method of proof you’d like—I will uphold my promise.
Will I become religious? Well, I don’t know. I really do have an open mind, but no one has convinced me to change my mind so far. Then again, I have also never attended a real church service. Perhaps being around a group of people who will show me “the way” could do what no one else has done before. If the Irish Church doesn’t work for you, we’ll just find some other place local to me. I’ll go to any place of worship—a Christian Church, a Catholic Church [revision: I realize a Catholic Church is a Christian Church…so let me rephrase. By Christian, I meant to differentiate Protestant from Catholic], a Mosque, a Synagogue, etc. They’re all nearby. Makes no difference to me, but perhaps it’s your faith that could change the mind of this atheist.
I also assure you that if you bid on this, I will write an article about my experiences in the newsletter mentioned earlier. The article would reach over 1,000 college students who share my current views. Even if you don’t end up changing my mind, perhaps you can change theirs. If you have any questions about this auction, I’d be glad to answer them.
I initially considered attending religious services for just one dollar per worship service, since the church was right down the street from me. But I reconsidered that idea when I realized anyone with an allowance could have the power to plan my schedule for the next several Sundays. I also considered the time and expense involved in traveling to various locations, and I still needed to deal with my graduate-school workload, so one dollar might be too low. I started with a ten-dollar-a-day minimum, and I anticipated the winning bid to be just that—ten dollars. I even planned out my day: I would go to a church on a Sunday morning and then see a movie that afternoon. However, as the eBay ad described, I was willing to explore churches for more than just one Sunday.
I knew that many people who stumbled across the auction would wonder if this was some type of get-rich-quick scheme. Since the money wasn’t the motivating factor, I later amended the auction, promising to donate the winning bid to a nonreligious group, the Secular Student Alliance. (I’m the chair of the SSA’s board of directors.) I committed to this donation aspect so that if a rich religious person wanted to send me to church for life, at least that person would know the money was going to a secular organization.
To spread the message of my journey, I sent e-mails to a few conservative bloggers, thinking they would get a kick out of this endeavor. I shared with them a little about who I was and what I was doing. I was willing to put myself out there if it meant people would hear about the concept and spread the word about what I was doing. In fact, several of them did blog about my efforts, and surprisingly, many painted it in a very positive light. I also sent press releases to local newspapers. The Chicago Tribune didn’t respond. Neither did the Chicago Sun-Times. But the Daily Southtown, upon learning that I had graduated from a local high school, called me and published a story a few days later—with the headline “Auction for Salvation”—on the front page.
Surprisingly, I received hardly any negative responses to my eBay post. I had assumed I would be receiving e-mails from religious people telling me hell had a spot reserved for me. But that wasn’t the case at all. They were genuinely curious how this auction would impact my life and whether it would produce a change.
The onslaught of publicity led to well over ten thousand hits on the eBay Web site in less than a week. All of a sudden, my personal mission was the hot topic of blogs everywhere. E-mails regarding the “eBay Atheist” were being circulated almost virally. Midway through the auction, as the bidding approached a staggering one hundred dollars, interest in the project grew even higher. Many potential bidders wrote to me to find out if I was serious about the possibility of going to a Christian church. From that, I gathered that it was mostly Christians who were entering bids. Other bids came from atheists who didn’t want me to step foot in any church whatsoever—they told me they wanted to “save me” from the Christians. I hoped people from other faiths would join the auction, in an attempt to assure that I was exposed to their religion. But the responses seemed limited to Christians and atheists.
Ambushed on the Radio
During the week of the bidding, I received an e-mail from a radio program hosted by actor Kirk Cameron (remember the old television show Growing Pains?). His co-host, Todd Friel, invited me to be a guest on their show, and I gladly accepted. I knew how conservative Cameron was and how opposite our views were, but I was excited to have the chance to speak with him.
Once I picked up the phone to do the radio interview, I realized the eBay auction was not very high on their list of discussion topics. The interview barely touched on the auction, allowing only a couple of minutes for discussion. The remainder of the forty-minute segment consisted of Cameron and Friel preaching that God made the world and that my belief in the Big Bang was countered by the Great Big Cosmic ‘Duh’—that God created the universe.
I tried to explain that atheists rely on logic and reason, rather than faith, in all matters that can’t be proven. Also, I pointed out that atheists don’t automatically condemn those who think differently. We don’t say, for instance, that nonatheists are eternally doomed because of what they believe. However, the radio-show hosts informed me over the airwaves that since I had not accepted Christ in my life, I was going to hell because I had committed sin. (I admitted in response to direct questions that I had lied before and I had used God’s name in vain as a figure of speech.)
I understand that Kirk Cameron needs to keep his radio show lively and interesting in order to attract listeners. But was insulting me really what it took to do that? Did all Christians feel that ridicule and condemnation were interesting and entertaining? I wasn’t expecting Cameron to be a Christian Howard Stern. Even beyond the question of attracting and entertaining listeners, are lack of kindness and comments meant to embarrass a guest really accurate representations of Christian compassion? What happened to the lovable Mike Seaver I had seen Cameron portray years ago on Growing Pains? I wondered if this was the sort of hostility I was about to step into for the next several weeks. What had I gotten myself into?
Even after I got off the line, the co-hosts of the radio show continued to emphasize what a fool I was for following atheism. Cameron was dissing me on national-broadcast and satellite radio. I could have gotten angry, but instead I was amused. Do you see the irony? Cameron helped prove my point that the atheistic outlook is less antagonistic than the religious view.
The same week I did the radio interview, an e-mail arrived from a reporter named Suzanne. She was curious about why I was doing the eBay auction. We began exchanging e-mails about my reasons. And meanwhile, the auction was heating up.
What Price for an Atheist’s Soul?
During the course of the week, the eBay bids started escalating rapidly. The one-hundred-dollar bid quickly blossomed to three hundred. And there were still two days left!
On the last night, I sat at my computer, continually refreshing the screen to see if anything new had happened. While each click of the Refresh button did not reveal a higher bid, each click showed an increased number of people viewing the auction, meaning every few seconds a new rush of people had logged on to the page. Anyone who has sold a product on eBay can tell you that the price of a popular item jumps dramatically in the last few seconds of an auction. Every bidder believes his or her bid will be the last one, but those who anticipate this onslaught bid higher than they normally would just to counter competing bidders. At this point, since the price was already at three hundred dollars, I didn’t imagine it would go much higher.
With just under three minutes left, I realized I would be spending thirty hours—perhaps an hour every day for a month—at church. But before that idea settled in, another click of the Refresh button revealed the price to be over four hundred dollars. With only a few seconds left before the auction ended, the price shot up once again, this time to five hundred dollars! And before I could even process what just happened, the price spiked one last time to five hundred four dollars.
I was stunned. All I could think about was how the final bid was a lot more than my initial prediction of a winning bid of ten dollars. And then it hit me. If the designated church held a weekly service that lasted an hour, I would be attending church for the next year.
Meeting the Minister
The winning bidder turned out to be Jim Henderson, a former minister from Seattle and author of Evangelism Without Additives. Jim and I had exchanged brief e-mails earlier in the week. He had asked if I would be willing to attend a variety of churches, and of course, I replied that I would. One night after the auction, we spoke on the phone, discussing where and when he envisioned me fulfilling my end of the deal. He revealed that his Web site had an unofficial slogan: “Helping Christians Be Normal.” It turned out that Jim and I had both had experiences with Christians that turned us off. Jim mentioned that his ministry paid nonreligious people to attend church services and fill out surveys reflecting their thoughts. These surveys were used to help churches tweak their services and do a better job of getting the Christian message across.
Jim’s motives for submitting the winning bid differed from what I had anticipated. I thought I would be sent to the winner’s choice of church every Sunday for the next year, and I would be preached to by the winner at every service. Jim, however, simply wanted me to go to church and write about it—not the same church for fifty weeks, though. Instead, he wanted me to go to no more than fifteen churches, fill out a survey for each one, and write about my visits on his Web site. In a sense, I would be a paid intern for his Web ministry. Between attending the churches, blogging, and doing media interviews (which I figured had already hit its peak), I would “earn” the money Jim had bid on eBay and fulfill my obligation.
My First Catholic Mass
Suzanne, the reporter who had been asking me questions via e-mail, said she wanted to observe me during my first church visit. She was writing for The Wall Street Journal, which meant my story would reach a nationwide audience. Since Jim was planning to join me, the three of us agreed to meet in Chicago the following Monday.
When I met Jim in person, I learned quite a bit about his efforts to improve how churches operate. In fact, I learned that he and I shared a core belief: churches can improve if they are willing to see themselves the way unchurched people see them. This has nothing to do with trying to change what churches teach but rather how they present the teachings of Christ. I knew I could identify a number of reasons nonreligious people were turned off by churches. And who knows, maybe something I would hear in church would cause me to reconsider the idea that God exists.
The next day, I attended a Catholic Mass with Jim and Suzanne at the church I lived next to—Old Saint Pat’s. The architecture inside this historic church was beautiful with stained glass images and statues of people I didn’t know high above the pews. I listened to the service and observed others at the noon Mass. They all kneeled and stood in unison, as if on cue. I tried to do everything I saw the congregation doing, except receive communion.
When the service ended, the three of us regrouped at a nearby coffee shop. I had so many questions! I shared my reactions, and Jim answered some of my questions, like who the statues represented and why we were going through certain motions. He also agreed with some of my criticisms—for example, the priest’s monotone voice caused me to drift away in thought. When I heard Jim’s explanation of the motions, such as why we were kneeling at specific times, I wondered if everyone else in the church knew the reasons. While I may have been a beat behind the rest, some churchgoers were a beat ahead. It was clear to me they were anticipating the next motion. They may have been genuine in their actions, but I was convinced some of them had repeated the same motions their entire lives without really thinking about what they were doing.
But perhaps I was wrong. Maybe they honored God by going through those motions.
The Convenience-Store Celebrity
Nearly a month after attending Old Saint Pat’s, Suzanne called me again. The story would be running in the Thursday edition of The Wall Street Journal, two days away! That morning, I woke up early and walked to a nearby convenience store to pick up a copy of the paper. On the front page of one of the most respected newspapers in the world, I saw the headline above the fold. It read: “On eBay, an Atheist Puts His Own Soul on the Auction Block.” Interesting choice of words, I thought. When I flipped the paper over to read the article, a hand-drawn portrait of me stared back.
No matter what else happened with this auction, it couldn’t possibly get more surreal than this. The man working the cash register must have noticed my shock. He asked what I was reading, and I showed him the picture.
“That’s me,” I stammered.
“No way… Really?” He picked up another copy of the paper and saw the similarities. As I walked out of the store, I glanced back to see him showing the paper to a co-worker and pointing at me.
I went back to my apartment, remembering I hadn’t even brushed my teeth or shaved. Normally, those tasks take me all of five minutes. This day, they took me nearly four hours. The phone would ring every time I lathered up. Radio stations, local television news, Fox News Channel, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper 360, a game show that needed a contestant with an interesting story, a movie studio, an agent…They all wanted to talk to “the atheist who was going to church.” It was immediately apparent that the concept of an atheist willing to question his own beliefs and discuss faith garnered tremendous interest.
The intrigue didn’t come only from mainstream media. People who had read The Wall Street Journal article e-mailed me, praising my efforts and asking me to visit their churches. Some atheists wrote to say they enjoyed reading a story about a fellow atheist that didn’t revolve around some legal issue or court case.
The Chicago Sun-Times (hey, maybe they found my press release!) also called, wanting to take my picture later that day inside a church. They were going to reprint The Wall Street Journal story and wanted something to add to it. Once again, Old Saint Pat’s came to my rescue.
The next morning, I woke up to an e-mail from a stranger who had seen me in the Sun-Times. She asked what it’s like to be famous. I wasn’t sure what she was referring to…I visited the same convenience store to pick up a copy of the newspaper. There I was, again, on the front page. It was me in the church balcony, with a headline underneath that read, “He Sold His Soul—for Just $504.” I went to buy the paper, and the cashier just looked at me.
“It’s you! Again! In the paper!”
“Yeah…” I still didn’t know how to respond.
Within a week, articles about the auction had appeared on the front page of five newspapers, and the story was highlighted on countless radio and television programs. Given this great opportunity, I documented the journey on Jim Henderson’s Web site (www.off-the-map.org) and made sure I took copious notes during each church visit. Readers started offering answers to the questions I was raising, just as I had hoped.
As my blogging for Jim’s Web site was coming to an end, I launched www.friendlyatheist.com as a place where I could continue to reflect on my churchgoing experiences as well as on issues that were important to me as an atheist. The name friendly atheist was appealing to me, since I rarely heard those two words used together. Perhaps a by-product of all the attention would be that the stereotypes so many people had about nonreligious people would be broken down.
An Atheist with Soul
Despite my attempts to be known publicly as “the friendly atheist,” I was still referred to in the media as “the guy who sold his soul.” Other atheists were quick to point out the obvious irony: as an atheist, I didn’t believe that an actual soul existed. But nevertheless, nearly every interview (often done alongside Jim Henderson) began with the question of why I decided to sell my soul, and every response I gave became an explanation of how I didn’t actually do that. Frequently, the next words from the interviewer would be:
“Uh-huh…So, Jim, how does it feel to own Hemant’s soul?”
A Web site that sells merchandise with secular slogans printed up items with the words: “Sold My Soul and All I Got Was Enough to Buy This Lousy T-Shirt.” It seemed even atheists were having fun with the idea. Since I obviously could not fight the misinterpretation, I went with it. If people wanted to talk to the guy who sold his soul, I welcomed them, and used the occasion to explain what I was actually doing.
By the time my original blog (the predecessor to www.friendlyatheist.com) finally went up, I had attended five church services and had written about them on Jim Henderson’s Web site. The feedback had been overwhelmingly positive even before the media picked up on the story. When I made comments on the blog about certain churches and what I experienced there, many of the pastors would log on to comment on my reaction to their sermons. One pastor actually thanked me for my critique. Another pastor, whose church I visited and wrote about on the Internet, later invited me to share the stage with him at all three of his weekend church services. He and I sat together in front of his congregation and discussed our respective views of faith, religion, and doubt. In front of hundreds of Christians at each service, we asked each other our most burning questions.
Now that the news articles started to circulate throughout the country, my posts were being read by a much larger audience. In the meantime, I still had several church services I needed to attend. I had many more questions to ask and more outsider observations to make. The adventure was just beginning.