Hemant Mehta, best known as The Friendly Atheist or The eBay Atheist, recently paid a visit to the Secular Student Alliance at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New Yok. Hemant’s original claim to fame was an eBay auction where he offered to go to the religious service of the buyer’s choice for one day per $10 spent. The media spun this as Hemant “selling his soul,” and after he tipped off a few key blogs and local media organizations, his auction quickly made the international news. Atheists and Christians squared off in a bidding war over the deal, and Hemant fielded dozens of questions in response, both off-the-wall and serious.
The winner of the auction, a former evangelical minister from Seattle named Jim Henderson, tweaked the deal a bit and offered to send Hemant to several different churches around the country, from tiny home churches to Ted Haggard‘s massive megachurch. Henderson runs an organization called Off the Map which (at the time – the focus has now changed) hired non-churchgoers to attend local churches and write up critiques of their experiences. Jim asked Hemant to do the same, and to post them online. The result surprised both Jim and Hemant: People from all along the religious/irreligious spectrum responded almost entirely positively, often finding common ground in their recognition of parts of what Hemant articulated.
In his talk at RPI, Hemant went into great detail about this project, its aftermath, and what he has been doing since then. Hemant is now chair of the Board of Directors for the SSA, a role which lets him play an active role in supporting secular student groups across the country. He is also a math teacher in the Chicago suburbs, a role which led to his coming under attack as a “dangerous influence” for kids from a extreme conservative Christian group called the Illinois Family Institute. Hemant described how that came about and how his life has changed (or not) as a result of it.
I recorded the entirety of Hemant’s talk and posted it to YouTube here. The first seven minutes or so are audio-only, but the rest is both video and audio. Several members of our local atheist/agnostic meetup group attended the talk. I got a photo with Hemant, which was met on his website with shock at our size differences 🙂