Eight years ago this month, Hemant Mehta—a high school math teacher, author of several books including The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide, and host of “The Atheist Voice” web series—launched a blog called The Friendly Atheist. Today, it’s one of the most widely read atheist websites in the world.
I spoke with Mehta about what he’s learned by writing about the nontheist movement for eight years, how the movement has changed, the challenge of pro-life atheists, and how atheists can catch up to Christians in charitable giving. In part two of our interview, which will go up tomorrow (Update: it’s here), Mehta discusses his religious childhood, how his family has responded to his activism, why he’s led efforts to raise money for churches, and how atheists can challenge anti-atheist bias.
Chris Stedman: What have you learned over the last eight years of writing about atheist, agnostic, and Humanist communities?
Hemant Mehta: I’ve seen those groups expand and diversify. Compared to several years ago, there is so much more involvement today from people of color, women, students, and parents. We’ve also moved beyond the simple question of “Does God exist?” Now we talk a lot more about what that means: How do we raise our children without faith? How can we become more effective as a voting bloc? None of that is to suggest we’re doing it perfectly, only that we’re doing better than we used to.
CS: What has kept you writing about this community for so many years?
HM: I’ve enjoyed writing about this community because I’ve seen the progress in real time. I used to write about any atheist mention in the media because there were relatively few of them—now I can barely keep up. The issues today also have broader implications, with federal lawsuits, Supreme Court cases, and an ever-growing nationwide network of local and campus groups. It’s not just about individual atheists raising a ruckus anymore. It’s about a bigger movement creating a lot of ripples.
CS: What do you love most about the nontheist community? Where do you think it can improve?
HM: I love how certain issues that are controversial everywhere else in the country, like marriage equality, comprehensive sex education, and science in schools, are almost non-issues within our community. Where can we improve? In many ways, we act like there’s an atheist orthodoxy everyone must follow. As the demographics shift and atheists increase in number, we have to realize we won’t always agree on every issue.
So how will be treat other atheists who happen to hold other controversial positions? There are atheists who are pro-life, Republican, gun owners, or home-schoolers. When I talk to them, they often tell me they feel unwelcome in both worlds—“I’m too atheist for the pro-life group, and too pro-life for the atheist group.” We have to ask ourselves: Are we united by our atheism or is it really more than that? Is it possible to be a rational thinker who holds contrary views on controversial issues? Will we allow ourselves to even have those sorts of debates or are they off-limits? Right now, those conversations are off-limits with many atheists and that’s a problem.
CS: You’re speaking at Foundation Beyond Belief’s first conference next month. Why are you passionate about nontheistic charitable giving?
HM: Giving to charity is one of the ways that Christians are just flat-out better than atheists. But is it because they’re more generous or because churches make it really easy to give away money? I believe it’s the latter, and Foundation Beyond Belief offers atheists a simple way to donate to wonderful causes. It’s a group that really steps away from the “Does God exist?” question and asks instead: “Okay, we’re atheists. Now what?” I’m proud to have been with Foundation Beyond Belief since the beginning and I plan to be a donor for a long time to come.
Update: click here for part two of our interview.