Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta. Photo by Steve Greiner, courtesy Mehta.

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.

28 Comments

  1. “Its just one of the ways christians are flat out better than atheists”

    Why “BETTER”? Maybe I am reading too much into it, but the use of better as a term implies a comparison is being made, as if in competition.

    Why can’t the mentality be that christians live their lives, and atheists live theirs?

    And why the strong desire for comprehensive sex education among public schools? Many don’t want public schools to do this, and the atheists have no divine mandate to do so. Public schools are funded by public money, sourced by the taxes of atheists and christians alike. So one cannot claim mandate over the other….unless one is intelectually arrogant.

    • Churches are better at charity because they have the advantage of being a community gathering place for centuries. They already have an infrastructure and common ground to bring people together. The atheist community is only starting to do that.

      Sex education is necessary in public schools because the data shows that when proper sex education isn’t part of the curriculum, teen pregnancy and STDs rates go up. There’s no reason that sex has to be so taboo. It is a normal part of life for everyone. By making it so mysterious and keeping it a secret, we’re doing our young adults a disservice.

      Surely we do respect the rights of Christians or anyone else to live their lives as they see fit, provided they are not trying to force others into living as they do. However, all too often this is the case. The only reason that marriage equality is even an issue is because of theists. The overwhelming majority of opposition to abortion rights is rooted firmly in religious beliefs. That’s why we cannot remain silent.

      • Rome also had community gathering places around the various pagan idol altars, as did most pre-christian civilizations. But only Christianity established charitable giving (independent of tribal ties and without expectation of quid pro quo) as a priority within western culture. As Plato said: “”A poor man who was no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die.” Republic 3.406d-410a.

        It’s interesting to see nonbelievers from Emperor Julian to 21st century evangelical atheists flamboyantly trying to catch up with Christianity in performance of an obligation which, but for Christianity, would never have been considered an obligation in the first place.

        • “But only Christianity established charitable giving (independent of tribal ties and without expectation of quid pro quo) as a priority within western culture.”

          More Christian revisionist nonsense.

          The “Law of Hospitality” is an ancient one common to early cultures possibly predating Judaic versions. Given the dangers of traveling and carrying business with people outside one’s family or tribe, hospitality was a necessary part of culture. One treated travelers well without expectation of reward. One made their bounties available to the public. [Hording grain was counterproductive as well]

          Violating such notions was one of the worst crimes possible.

          Ancient Rome had its version of “welfare” with artificially low priced grain, bread and staples (sometimes even free).

          The story of Sodom and Gommorah is a parable on violating the law of hospitality from subtle means (marked coins) to big ones (gang assaulting angels). Several Greek myths which survive today deal with the same subject (Procrustes and Theseus, Tantalus, Lycaon, Ixion, and a major theme in the Odyssey).

          Evidently you only read Leviticus for figuring out who to point fingers at? There are numerous sections on charitable giving without expectation of quid pro quo. Claiming it derived from Christianity is ridiculous revisionism. Charity, anonymous charity especially is considered one of the most revered acts Jewish people can do for others.

          This is a big difference from Christian forms of charity which try to coerce people into joining their faith or proudly proclaim who are the ones doing the giving.

          • “Ancient Rome had its version of “welfare” with artificially low priced grain, bread and staples (sometimes even free)”

            Sure they did. Ever find out WHY?:

            “Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause? Each of these things, I think, ought really to be practiced by us….I have just been devising a plan by which you will be able to get supplies. For I have ordered that every year throughout all Galatia 30,000 modii of grain and 60,000 pints of wine shall be provided. The fifth part of these I order to be expended on the poor who serve the priests, and the rest must be distributed from me to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us. Teach also those who profess the Greek religion to contribute to such services, and the villages of the Greek religion to offer the first-fruits to the gods. Accustom those of the Greek religion to such benevolence, teaching them that this has been our work from ancient times.” — Emperor Julian, “Letter to Arsacius, ca. AD 360.

            IOW, pretty much the same thing our subject is calling upon modern-day atheists to do. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

            “Charity, anonymous charity especially is considered one of the most revered acts Jewish people can do for others.”

            Of course, but once again this is why these values are called “Judeo-Christan,” i.e. originating in Judaism (which was not a missionary faith) but developed and taken to the world at large by Christianity, which WAS a missionary faith.

            And the duty of hospitality is related but not equivalent to the christian concept of charity. Hospitality involved quid pro quo and mutual responsibility.

          • “Of course, but once again this is why these values are called “Judeo-Christan,”

            But you said “But ONLY Christianity established charitable giving (independent of tribal ties and without expectation of quid pro quo) as a priority within western culture.” [empahsis added]

            ONLY Christianity. Not any other faiths, not even the people who were doing it centuries (millennia) of years before Christ’s birth.
            So you are merely revising and backtracking from what was clearly a ridiculous statement. :)

            In fact Jewish ideas of charity differ dramatically from Christian ones. They are not even closely related to each other. Christian charity always has strings attached. Usually done as a form of proselytizing.
            There is always a quid pro quo with Christian charity. One receives charitable donation but has to put up with those trying to steer the recipients towards belief in that version of Christ.

            The whole anonymous part which is considered most revered by Judaism is ignored in favor of grand pronouncements as to how Christ’s love is responsible for the betterment of those receiving it.
            Chalking it up to “Judeo-Christian” is insulting to Judaism but typical of revisionist Christians who want to ignore their existence and beliefs.

            You also ignored the whole ancient Law of Hospitality, which predates even “Judeo” in alleged Judeo-Christian ethics (even though Judaism and Christianity do not agree on what that means).

            You made an offhand, ignorant statement by saying it is somehow different. Yes it is different. The Law of Hospitality was much more beneficial than Christian charity and was not used as a tool to coerce belief.

          • Learn to read, Larry. I said ONLY because, again, as an insular rather than missionary faith Judaism’s concepts of charity did not carry over to surrounding cultures, any more than did their opposition to infanticide. It was Christianity that took it to the world.

            The custom of hospitality most certainly IS different from charity. It arose in a time and place when, quite obviously, travel was slow and difficult and numerous inns, restaurants and rest stops did not exist. People extended hospitality to travelers in the expectation that similar hospitality would be shown to them when needed. Appropriate behaviors were expected of guests, as well. Read the Odyssey to find out what disrespectful, unworthy guests might expect. On the other hand…”But I say to you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use and persecute you.”

            And of course, any duty of hospitality toward traveling strangers would have nothing to do with the plight of Plato’s poor man unable to work, or widows without means of support, or unwanted children, or plague victims who were allowed to die in the streets until the early Christians introduced the novel concept of (gasp!) nursing them. Your “beneficial” ancient world had a great many holes in it, my friend. Pity you can’t go back and sample its brutality for yourself.

            “Christian charity always has strings attached. Usually done as a form of proselytizing. There is always a quid pro quo with Christian charity.”

            Don’t be so gullible, Larry. Get out more and learn something about the real people you are trying to pigeonhole, and quit swallowing atheist propaganda and stereotypes. I’ve helped run a local food pantry for a number of years…do you REALLY believe we require those we assist to listen to a spiel? LOL!

            BTW, as far as “revisionism” goes, I’m afraid it’s you who is the revisionist here. More educated and level-headed atheists with no ideological ax to grind are quite aware of where the west’s concern for charity and human dignity come from, even if they do not accept the theology behind it.

        • Give me a break. The only reason Christianity has even become so widespread is because of conquest and allowing pagans to keep their traditions if they converted.

          Helping others with the expectation of divine reward for doing so is quite different from doing so because you understand that this is the only life we all get and we should make it as comfortable as possible if we can.

          • Christianity would never have been in any position to carry out any “conquest” of any kind had it not already become widespread through its followers’ reputation for generosity, mercy and integrity.

            And generosity with the expectation of divine reward is not a part of Christian theology. It is a misrepresentation commonly made by outsiders.

          • Christianity sold itself out by Constantine and that reputation you talked about never recovered. From there on, it was spread by force. Just like Islam.

          • Shawnie, you made a patently incorrect statement about Christian charity as being uniquely beneficial and now you just continue to make bad ignorant excuses to cover up.

            You are just digging the hole deeper and deeper with excuse heaped upon excuse. Somehow Judaism is of no consequence or impact, yet its scriptures and philosophy underpins Christianity (when it is convenient to acknowledge it).

            “Only Christianity” is now “judeo christian”. Big difference in those terms. Just keep moving those goalposts. :)

          • Never mind, Larry. You didn’t grasp my original post and you’re still floundering. Perhaps Twitter would be better suited to your reading comprehension skills.

            BTW, I’m flattered by your extremely persistent attentions but I’m taken, ‘kay?

    • Why? Because there’s a lot of fighting. When atheists try to teach science properly, the religious get up in arms. When religious people try to stone an innocent woman to death, atheists get up in arms.

      I see the problem as being with the religious people, and not with the atheists. Not at all. Does this answer your question?

    • Because Christians don’t let other people live their lives. They always want to have a say in what everyone else does. They even want civil laws to reflect their arrogance.

      “And why the strong desire for comprehensive sex education among public schools?”

      It serves a function that has become necessary. The unwillingness of many parents to handle the situation has already created a public health hazard. One that requires being addressed by public government due.

    • Frank, are you referring to atheism? How is it a “losing” world view, and why does being an atheist make one a “fool”?

      What other things do you accept as true with zero empirical evidence? The existence of Bigfoot? That maggots are generated by raw meat? That consciousness can exist without a physical brain?

      No? Then why do you claim that your deity exists without any evidence?

      • Let’s face it. Atheism IS a losing proposition, period. Why? Because it abandons rationality. Their claim that God does not exist, is rationally unsupported and unsupportable.

        At least a person can try to justify a belief in Bigfoot with a number of possibly “apelike” photographs, photographs of unusual footprints, and recorded animal-like sounds of unknown origin.

        In contrast, Atheists can offer NO rational support for atheism. Zero.

        In order to disprove God’s existence, you would need to show that you “have control over all potential avenues of knowing that God exists, and that all of them come up empty.” (hat tip to philosopher Winfried Corduan). But atheists cannot show that. They offer nothing.

        And that’s on top of the fact that, as atheist Hemant Mehta says, “Giving to charity is one of the ways that Christians are just flat-out better than atheists.”

        There just seems to be a lot of big problems with atheism these days. So why not do an upgrade? Abandon the atheism and switch to Jesus Christ, yes?

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  1. […] Yesterday I spoke with Mehta about what he’s learned by writing about atheist movement for eight years and how the movement has grown. Today, he tells me about his religious childhood, how his family and friends have responded to his activism, why he’s led efforts to raise money for churches, and how atheists can challenge anti-atheist bias. […]

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