Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta. Photo by Mark Palmer, 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 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.

12 Comments

  1. They say that atheists, like cats, are hard to herd.
    We are not well organized. Therefore it is difficult to create charities in the name of atheism.
    I agree that personal contact with atheists can make a huge difference. Our very Christian neighbors who know we are atheists, are very good friends.
    Where we agree is on humanistic values. There is reciprocity between us.
    I think our best bet is to join the humanistic groups.
    However we must keep fighting for the separation of church and state, even when that means supporting marginalized religious groups.

  2. Atheists are always trying to tell us how good they are and concerned about others and wanting to do more to help others. Why is that? Why do you have to tell us how “good” you are? The answer is obvious, because you are godless and God fearing people don’t trust you. And should they? That’s just the way it is. There is hope though. Stop rebelling against God and submit your life to Him. Then others will not judge you so quickly. But more importantly you will have peace in your life and the promise of everlasting life. God Bless

    • Mark…

      Nice sermon. Great witnessing. And a really great strawman fallacy too.

      You want to know the difference between atheist and Christian morality? It’s easy. Christians don’t have morality. They do good and have faith in the expectation of a reward. They believe if they don’t, they will get punished.

      This isn’t a form of morality, this is merely CYA.

      When an atheist does something good – he or she doesn’t expect a reward. Atheists do good because they think it is the right thing to do.

      • You are completely immoral, do you know why? Because you make up your own morality and reject the One from whom morality comes. We only know good and evil from God. Here we go again, you are telling everyone how good you are, how you are better than Christians, because you are good, and do good with no thought for reward. What you are is self-righteous. God makes one righteous, and only God is good. God speaks of rewards for those who serve Him. So if God tells us about them, then it is good to pursue what He has called good. You think you are more righteous than God, imagine that? You need to turn from your rebellion and ask forgiveness.

    • “The answer is obvious, because you are godless and God fearing people don’t trust you ”

      I thought? Christians were not supposed to be judgmental. Do unto others,as you would have them do unto you. Love thy neighbor. And so on

      Atheists are hated by Christians ,because Christians are extremely judgmental. And cannot even do, what their belief commands them to do

      So many Christians are frauds.Nasty people

      They be kind to people, if they think that doing it, may also help them to gain a place in eternity.

      When atheists do kind things. Its because they want to do it. Its because the golden rule is much about reciprocal protocol.

      While much about Christianity is based on gaining a place in eternity.

      • Its all about God amigo. You hate Him, we love Him. I for one, don’t want to do be around people who have no regard for God. Christians are to “judge rightly”. You don’t know the Bible and you are trying to quote it. You just know the atheist learned responses to criticism, I have heard them all and they are almost always used out of context. Here is another verse for you. “Bad company corrupts good morals”….Solomon There is nothing more immoral than blasphemy against God. That tops the list. Atheists do it everyday. So stop the mindless nonsense and turn to the Lord why you still have time. His peace and forgiveness is there for those who turn from their rebellion and come to Him for forgiveness.

  3. They say that atheists, like cats, are hard to herd. We are not well organized. Therefore it is difficult to create charities in the name of atheism. I agree that personal contact with atheists can make a huge difference. Our very Christian neighbors who know we are atheists, are very good friends. Where we agree is on humanistic values. There is reciprocity between us. I think our best bet is to join the humanistic groups. However we must keep fighting for the separation of church and state, even when that means supporting marginalized religious groups. – See more at: http://chrisstedman.religionnews.com/2014/06/27/friendly-atheist-stigma-churches/#sthash.dRnMzuHP.dpuf

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