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 web series “The Atheist Voice”—launched a blog called The Friendly Atheist. Today, it’s one of the most widely read atheist websites in the world.
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.
Chris Stedman: You were raised in a Jain household. Is there anything about Jainism that you still appreciate, or that’s informed your values?
Hemant Mehta: I still appreciate the Jain commitment to non-violence—physically and mentally—and I’m still a vegetarian to this day in part because of that. But when I lost faith in all the supernatural aspects of Jainism, I found that most of my values didn’t have to change at all. They were still grounded in reality. That, I think, speaks very highly of the faith.
CS: How have family and friends responded to the work that you do?
HM: I’ve been lucky in that atheism is just something we don’t talk about. It’s not a secret—everyone close to me knows about my activism—but it’s low on the list of things we talk about when we get together. As for my parents, it’s not something they brag about, but they also don’t hold it against me. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t lost contact with most of my close friends or relatives for being so outspoken. If anything, people have found it interesting, but not good or bad.
CS: You’ve spearheaded a number of high-profile and highly successful fundraising campaigns, such as when you raised money for a Christian minister who was attacked by a self-described “militant atheist.” Why?
HM: I only raise money in cases when I believe it will really resonate with my readers—where they’d love to help out. If it defeats some nasty stereotypes about atheists in the process, fantastic. With young atheists like Jessica Ahlquist and Damon Fowler, who courageously fought for First Amendment rights at their schools even if it damaged their own reputations and severed many friendships, we want to show them that they have a lot of support and admirers out there. People want to make sure their futures are at least a little more secure so they contributed a lot of money to scholarship funds in their honor.
In general, I think my readers oppose atheists who do something awful like tag a church with graffiti or punch a pastor. And they want to support people who defend atheism even if it means making a personal sacrifice. It doesn’t matter if the victims are religious or not. I hope that the faith groups we help understand why we’re doing it, and that they’d do the same if the situations were reversed, like when our billboards get vandalized or a student gets picked on for not standing up for the Pledge. Unfortunately, that support doesn’t come very often.
CS: Your fundraising efforts haven’t always been successful; a vandalized South Carolina church once refused to accept the donations you raised, and last year an Illinois library trustees board did the same, calling your blog a “hate group” after reading some blog comments. What have you learned from these experiences?
HM: The false stereotypes of atheists as angry and hateful are still widespread. Many groups don’t even want to accept money from atheists—no strings attached in the case of the library, I might add—because they fear what message that will send. It hasn’t hurt my desire to want to help those groups out when I can, but it shows that we still have a long way to go before we reverse anti-atheist stigma.
CS: How can atheists challenge this stigma?
HM: Two ways: Positive actions and coming out. When students at the high school I work at told me they wanted to start an atheist group, I worried that they’d only use the club as an opportunity to bash religion. Instead, they said they wanted to focus on community service and interfaith conversation. When strangers see atheists volunteering at homeless shelters and food pantries, they’re taken aback because they’re just not used to seeing that. It’s a game-changer every time.
On an individual level, we just have to start coming out as atheists to more people. It’s easy to demonize someone you don’t know; it’s easy to call atheists immoral or evil when you don’t know one. But we’re getting to the point where pretty much everyone knows an atheist personally. They know their atheist friends are kind and decent people, even if they disagree theologically. We need to keep that momentum going.