I have blogged thoughts about atheism from time to time, and as someone who has spent some serious time thinking about whether God exists, I was very interested to find out what this "Hemant" guy had to say (by the way, according to the book, he likes to pronounce it "HE-mint"). I picked up a copy of the book and started to read.I ran across Hemant Mehta's book I Sold My Soul on eBay recently by chance when searching the Web for something else. The subtitle, "Viewing Faith Through an Atheist's Eyes" piqued my interest. Over the years
First of all, if you are a Christian who is afraid to read books by atheists because you think you will feel attacked and ridiculed for your beliefs, don't be afraid of this book. Hemant (the book is so informal and conversational that it would feel weird to call him by his last name) is very respectful of religion in general and Christians in particular. He does not back down from what he believes, but neither does he make fun of people who believe something different. He truly comes across as someone you might sit down and have a conversation with, and he invites you to do just that on his blog, FriendlyAtheist.com (his blog posts, though still quite civil, seem to be a little bit more confrontational than the book; then again, on the blog he's discussing current events and can't be expected to not take a side, especially when things get a little crazy). I enjoyed the book immensely; it gave me lots to think about, and it's just an enjoyable read. I think Hemant makes some terrific points, but I think there are a few places where his reasoning falls disappointingly short of the mark.
Hemant's basic story is this: he was raised in a devoutly religious family, although the religion was not Christianity. Around the age of 14, he began to question some of the beliefs he was taught as a child, and eventually decided or realized that he no longer believed in the teachings of his religion and began to consider himself an atheist. After an initial "what does this mean to me?" period, Hemant became something of an atheism activist, starting/participating in/leading a number of atheist organizations. But one day when he was in his early twenties, he began to wonder if there might be something to this Christianity thing; as a person with a very inquisitive mind, he decided to "auction his soul" on eBay, meaning that the winning bidder would get to send him to whatever church the bidder wanted to, for a length of time dependent on the amount of the winning bid. (Proceeds were donated to a charity of Hemant's choice.) The winning bidder sent him to fifteen different churches of varying sizes all over the United States, with a promise to post Hemant's reactions to the church services on the Web site now known as OffTheMap.com. Those church visits became the basis for Hemant's book.
The layout of the book is fairly simple; in the first few chapters Hemant tells the story you just read (obviously, in much better detail than I've provided above) and gives a little background about his beliefs. The next several chapters are descriptions of some of his church visits, starting with some very small churches and ending with some huge megachurches, relating what he saw and heard and felt and providing his personal reactions. At the end, there is a chapter summarizing the good and bad points overall of the churches he visited, and then a chapter entitled "What It Would Take To Convert Me." After Hemant's last chapter there is a "discussion guide" written by another author for any groups who might want to use the book in that fashion.
I enjoyed the book very much. As a complete outsider to Christian churches (at least when he started his church visits) who is also carefully observant and quite intellectual, he has a lot of valuable observations to make about church services in general. Sometimes his comments are funny without being disrespectful... for example, his description of different ways people stand during worship (arms down, one arm up, both arms up, hands clenched, hands open, hands pointing skyward...) gave me a chuckle. Some things he observed have more complex explanations than he seems to realize: he mentions, for example, that most churches have a pretty homogenous racial makeup; I think he's right to wonder if all races would be equally comfortable in those services, but I think there's more to the picture than he realized (I'll go into that in more detail in part 2 of this review tomorrow). Hemant also seems perplexed at the strong degree of animosity that the Christian world seems to have toward the atheist world in general, and I think the reasons for that are even more complicated than the ones for the racial mix in individual churches (again, more detail in part 2). But this is a fairly small book we're talking about, not a detailed scholarly work, and I don't think a full analysis of every side of every issue is the point. I think the point is to give Christian churchgoers a glimpse at what their service might look like to someone who walked in off the street with no prior exposure to Christianity. I think it succeeds admirably at that.
I think the biggest and most valuable takeaway from Hemant's book is to realize that for the most part, Christians don't think very much about what they do or believe, They don't think about how what they do in their services might look to an outsider, and they don't often explain why they do things, even to their own children. I don't think it's the church's job to compromise the messages of the Bible in any way, and I think that churchgoers should feel welcome to express themselves before God in worship in pretty much any way they see fit (well, maybe not folks who endanger others, like those people who play with the snakes). But I also think that churchgoers should be sensitive to how what they do looks to others, and be prepared to provide an explanation for people who have questions about something. In order to do that, Christians are going to have to understand their own rituals and traditions and Theology a lot better than many of them do now! If you are a churchgoing Christian and don't understand something that is done at your church, please speak to your minister and find out the reasons. Hopefully, the explanation will do nothing but deepen your worship experience! And then if a Hemant comes across your path, maybe you can be the one that helps him understand what's going on.
Tomorrow I'll be posting the other half of this book review. I've tried to focus mostly on the book itself in this part; in the other part I'll address some things about Christianity and religion that Hemant touches on in the book that I think merit a closer look. After tomorrow, every Friday for the next several weeks I'll be blogging about various misconceptions about Christianity that occurred to me as I was reading. I hope you come back and enjoy the trip!