Saturday, April 2, 2011

An Atheist Walks into a Church—Hemant Mehta comes to UMBC

Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist (as opposed to the baby-eating sort of atheist), spoke on the topic "An Atheist Walks into a Church" at UMBC on Wednesday, April 30, sponsored by the UMBC Secular Student Alliance (UMBC SSA).

Hemant spoke to an audience of about 70, most of whom appeared to be students. While having a mostly-student audience at an event sponsored by a UMBC student organization is a good thing, it's a shame that more people from the community weren't there, both to hear Hemant and to meet a great group of students.

I wish I could report that there was a shockingly obscene inappropriate punchline to the title of the talk. There wasn't. What there was was a lighthearted and entertaining look at Hemant's journey on the way to writing I Sold My Soul on eBay, and what happened as a result of the book's publication.

I hadn't heard the story behind Hemant's book before, and it is both amusing and amazing. Some of it is told on his blog.

The short, oh-my-paper-is-due-tomorrow-so-I-need-to-read-a-summary-because-I-didn't-read-the-book recap is that Hemant, who knew little about any faith except his boyhood's Jainism, decided he wanted to learn more about other faiths, and thought a good way to learn might be by visiting Chicago area churches.

To publicize his Church-going project, he set up an eBay auction in which he promised to attend a church of the winner's choice for one day for each $10 bid.
Jim Henderson, an Evangelical Christian, former minister, and founder of Off the Map, posted the winning bid of $504 (to Hemant's horror, by the way—at 1 day of church for every $10 bid, that meant the winner could require him to go to church every week for almost a year).

Then, The Wall Street Journal picked up on the story and apparently decided an article could draw more readers if the headline read: "On eBay, an Atheist Puts His Own Soul On the Auction Block," rather than, say, "Atheist Offers to Go to Church for an Hour per $10 Bid." Hemant quipped that he didn't do that because he doesn't believe he has a soul. But publicity about his auction did take off, and eventually led to an offer to write a book about his church-going experiences.

What added to the pleasure of the evening was the audience's reaction to some of the highlights of Hemant's talk. It was nice to be with a large group of people who responded appropriately and rationally.

They groaned when Hemant mentioned he was invited to appear on Kirk Cameron's radio show, and he'd agreed to appear—before he checked into what Cameron was doing career-wise after the end of Growing Pains

The audience laughed when Hemant showed the infamous Ray Comfort-Kirk Cameron banana video, and again when Hemant mentioned that I Sold My Soul on eBay won a Christian book contest that was conducted online poll. (If you read PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula, you know what can happen.) 

And they laughed yet again when Hemant showed a photo of a cute baby in a bun, apparently ready to be eaten.

Although I saw some snacking by audience members, nary an actual baby—fresh, roasted, or fried, with or without a bun—was in sight.

1 comment:

  1. I just finished reading his book on my Kindle. It was very interesting to read about his takes on all sorts and sizes of churches.

    It would have been nice to hear him speak, since I visit his blog nearly daily. My first reaction to your review was, "What?!? Only 70 people!" I forget in my little blog world how others may not know all about our famous atheists. lol