Monday, April 6, 2009

Hemant Mehta at UC Santa Cruz: The Friendly Atheist

I had the pleasure of meeting Hemant Mehta in my home town, Santa Cruz, California, where he spoke as an invited guest of the UCSC Secular Students Alliance.

Hemant's talk was a lot of fun and insightful. I was afraid it would be mostly a retelling of his great book, I Sold My Soul on EBay, and indeed, the first fifteen minutes or so of the hour were devoted to that story, for those who hadn't had the opportunity to read it. But even in the retelling, Hemant added new details, fun stories, newspaper clippings, and insights that weren't in the book.

Then he went on to talk about what's really on all of our minds: What can we do to make the world a better place, and to make atheism less stigmatized? Hemant's basic thesis is that atheists, agnostics, and most mainstream religious people have far more in common that the things that divide us. By working together, we could accomplish so much. He used some great "exercises" to illustrate these points: How do you feel about topics A, B, and C? And how do you think most religious people feel about these same topics? And indeed, when you enumerate all of the social issues that concern us, rather than just focusing on our differences, you find that the differences look pretty minor compared to the views we all share.

The reason we appear to be so divided on these issues is that the media love controversy. People who don't argue are not news. Hemant illustrated this earlier in the talk via the very title of his book: "I Sold My Soul on EBay," which is not what he did at all. But his publisher said, "That's OK, the title is catchy, and people will pick it up, read the back cover, and find out what you really did." Similarly, the media like to single out the most radical of each "side" of religion and present it as a "battle." That's what makes it news. Never mind that the vast majority of atheists and religious citizens actually agree on far more things than they disagree on.

Fight poverty? End child abuse? Help poor single mothers? Help Hurricane Katrina victims? Protect the environment? These, and many, many more issues — indeed, most issues — are things that almost all citizens agree on.

Hemant's message is a good one: We need to close the divide that separates us from Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths, and indeed, help them close the divide among their various groups, too. We have a lot to gain by accepting one another, and so much to lose if we don't.

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