Q & A with an atheist
Posted by Nancy Duke on November 11, 2009
(Editor’s note: Nancy Duke took time to do a question and answer section with Chicago Coalition for Reason member Hemant Mehta following yesterday’s article, “Can you be good without God? Yes?” The coalition is responsible for the “good without God” billboard campaign in Chicago. Mehta is a University of Illinois at Chicago alum and is currently earning a masters degree in math education at Depaul University. He is the chair of Secular Student Alliance Board of Directors.
You can read Mehta’s blog here, Friendly Atheist, which also features the writings of a Christian, humanist and lifelong atheist. Mehta also has a book, “I Sold My Soul on E-bay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist’s Eyes.”
Duke and Mehta discussed several issues, including squabbles between Christians and atheists and a Flying Spaghetti Monster.)
Nancy Duke: As an atheist, what scares you the most: Having your soul burn for eternity in a fiery lake? Or not being able to receive Christmas presents?
Hemant Mehta: Perhaps the ability to scare away a first date by mentioning the dreaded A-word. Strangely enough, I probably receive more Christmas presents as an atheist than I ever did when I was religious. Those non-religious types have an amusing sense of humor.
ND: How can an atheist celebrate Christmas, the holiday to recognize the birth of Baby Jesus?
HM: It’s also Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, ChriFSMas, and a variety of other holidays. Take your pick. It’s possible to get in the spirit of giving and receiving and helping others without celebrating a child’s birth in the process.
ND: What is ChriFSMas?
HM: Christmas for the Flying Spaghetti Monster followers.
ND: Are you equating Jesus to a Flying Spaghetti Monster? That doesn’t sound like a “Friendly Atheist.” In fact, it sounds a little mean.
HM: Well, the ChriFSMas thing is just a play on words, but there is a FSM movement where the argument is: There’s as much evidence for a Flying Spaghetti Monster as there is for any other God. So, why not worship the former and not the latter? It’s tongue-in-cheek, but I think it makes a good point. In any case, I think Christmas is a good time for everyone to give presents and spend time with loved ones. It’s not limited to Christians.
ND: Interesting. Let’s talk about the Chicago Coalition for Reason briefly. Who is involved and what is the message?
HM: The group consists of a number of local non-religious groups of all stripes — meetup groups, a secular Jewish group, a college student group, etc. Our memberships are all pretty different, but what we have in common is that we don’t believe in God. We want Chicagoans who think the same way to just be aware that there are others like us out there. No one should be ashamed of being an atheist and churches have done a good job in stigmatizing us. I should add that the message is not to denigrate religion. We’re reaching out to those who already agree with us.
ND: Do people assume that the campaign is to denigrate religion? Is there a way to promote the views of atheism without putting down Christianity or any other religion?
HM: Absolutely. The billboard says people can be good without God. To some, that means we’re religion bashers. I don’t get it. But if you look at the news articles that our billboard and others like it have generated, Christians not only get offended, they often put up counter-billboards to protest! It’s incredible what gets under their skin. We could’ve put up a billboard that was against religion, but we wanted to put out a positive message that connected with other atheists. The fact that it still generates controversy says more about the people getting offended than us, I think.
ND: True, but I’m sure atheists can get just as fired up about the same thing, whether it’s the free, state-sponsored “In God We Trust” license plates in Indiana or millions of taxpayer dollars in Illinois going to religious organizations via grant money. I’m sure a Christian would think it’s crazy for an atheist to be upset with that.
HM: I think the difference is that the “In God We Trust” license plates are government-issued and a violation of church/state separation. Whereas our billboards are privately funded. I don’t know any atheists groups that go after personally paid for Christian billboards in the same way they go after ours. Atheist groups have certainly never said Christian billboards should not be allowed to go up. We may critique or respond to the messages the billboards say, but we don’t protest them being up there in the first place.
ND: It seems that people get more upset if you deny God as opposed to saying He is real, no?
HM: People do get upset when they hear an atheist say they don’t believe in God. From experience, they seem to think non-belief in a God makes us bad or evil people. I don’t think atheists get upset when someone says they believe in God only because we’re just so used to it. We might not react in a “positive” way if they say they’re religious, but I doubt most of us make a disgusted face when we hear it.
ND: Why did you become an atheist? Were you always one? Or did you convert from some other religion?
MH: I became an atheist when I was 14 after questioning the beliefs I was raised with for the first time. It was scary because at the time I didn’t know anyone who didn’t believe in God. I was previously following Jainism, the religion of my parents.
ND: Was there a particular teaching you questioned or episode that made you start having skepticism about the existence of a God?
HM: The biggest factor was my family moving to another state the week before high school started. I went from having a group of friends to going to a school where I knew nobody. That was rough. I started questioning why God would ever do such a thing, and I questioned other beliefs I was raised with (reincarnation, the notions of heaven/hell). The more I thought about it and the more I researched it, it looked like there was no evidence for any of these ideas. People just passed on the beliefs generation after generation. So after a few weeks of intense soul-searching (pun intended), I lost my faith for good.
ND: That’s kind of a bummer of a story. How did your parents take that?
HM: I didn’t tell them for a few years. In college, I started a group for atheists with a friend of mine, and that’s how I began to get involved with the organized atheist community. Eventually, when I began traveling to conferences and going to board meetings for these groups, I told them. By that time, they already had a hunch so it wasn’t a major deal. Today, they’re fine with it. We just don’t talk about religion very much.
ND: Why does it have to be so awkward? Not to bring up the Flying Spaghetti Monster again, but why can’t it be just a discussion of a difference in tastes? Like I like my noodles al dente, and you like your noodles softer.
HM: I agree. It should be like that. Religion should be like politics where we have no problem pointing out the hypocrisy and faults with the other side. But for some reason, society has made it taboo to criticize peoples’ religious beliefs. We’re told to respect religion even when people believe patently absurd ideas (Jesus was born from a virgin mother, there’s some galactic overlord named Xenu, a communion wafer is literally the body of Christ). Out of context, these are things we expect from fiction writers or delusional people. But because they’re cloaked with “religion,” we’re taught to keep our mouths shut about these things.
I think religious beliefs should be open season for criticism. There’s plenty of problems with religion and we should be discussing them everywhere. That’s part of the reason atheists have been putting up billboards and why the publicity has come for books about atheism. For the first time, lots of people are criticizing religion, and we’re not backing down.
ND: One more question and then a few quick hits to wrap it up. You mentioned that after research, you couldn’t find evidence to support any of your previous religious ideas. But isn’t that the point? Isn’t faith supposed to be based in a belief of not needing evidence, not needing proof? It wouldn’t be faith if you needed evidence and facts, because that’s called science. So, why use science or atheism or anything else to debunk religion when religion is based on embracing something you cannot prove, i.e. faith?
HM: Yes, relying on faith is the opposite of relying on evidence. However, I was always taught my beliefs as if they were facts. I don’t know of any Christian churches that say, “We believe Jesus resurrected after three days but we don’t actually know that for sure.” No, they say it as if it were true and proven and factual.
I discovered at 14 that my beliefs, which I always believed were factual, were just ideas that people of my faith shared and there was no good reason to believe any of it was true. I guess I discovered that my faith was indeed faith. And I decided I wanted to rely on things that were evidence-based and actually factual. That led me to atheism. It doesn’t say that God doesn’t exist, but atheism says that there’s no good evidence for God’s existence, so why bother believing in one. To me, that’s honest.
ND: What is Christianity’s main flaw?
HM: The flaw in Christianity is the same as the flaw in other religions. They base their beliefs on unproven, inaccurate stories from thousands of years ago. They think those stories are based in fact when they are not. I should say that my major problem with Christianity is not their beliefs but rather the insistence that their beliefs ought to be accepted by others: Creationism in the classroom, faith-based initiatives by the government, gay marriage should be forbidden, etc.
ND: What is atheism’s main flaw?
HM: The flaw in atheism? I have issues with the approaches some atheists use to spread their beliefs. I find them rude and disengaging at times, but the underlying message is just honest.
ND: What is the goal of atheism? Is it simply not to believe? Or is there a greater good you and fellow atheists are aiming for?
HM: There’s no ultimate goal of atheism. There may be goals shared by many atheists or atheist organizations, though. We want people to rely on science and not religion. We want people to realize you can be good without a God. We want people to accept that we don’t have all the answers to the big questions in life and not seek out some religious-based mythology in place of it.
ND: What would an atheist say to me if I sneezed? Flying Spaghetti Monster bless you?
HM: Gesundheit! Or nothing, which makes it awkward for everyone.
ND: After this conversation, are you less or more afraid of spending eternity in a fiery lake?
HM: I’m not at all afraid of spending eternity in a fiery lake. Because there isn’t one. There’s no heaven either. Let’s just enjoy the life we have since it’s the only one we’re ever going to get.