In search of an identity other than that which was instilled upon him at birth, Hemant Mehta became an atheist.
The 24-year-old University of Illinois at Chicago alumnus (Mathematics, Biology '04) has been involved in atheist advocacy work since his years at UIC, and has just published a book recounting his experiences doing something seemingly contradictory: going to church.
Mehta was raised in Jainism, a primarily Indian religion that advocates nonviolence and compassion for all life as well as non-possessiveness and self-control. However, Jainism is a faith that also believes in the ideas of heaven and hell, karma and reincarnation.
Mehta became an atheist at the age of 14. The idea that the world always existed was backed by his studies in biology and math; core principles of Jainism contradicted that of his passions and what he believed to be true.
"When I started thinking about that stuff, it didn't make logical sense," he said. "One night in high school I didn't pray before going to bed and I woke up and-I guess I'm an atheist."
When Mehta started attending UIC in 2000, he was surprised to find a variety of religious student groups, but none for atheists. He decided to start his own group, and, together with another student, he formed the still-active student group SWORD, or Students Without Religious Dogma.
Last January, after working with several atheists who were former Christians, Mehta came to a realization: he'd never seen the inside of a church.
"I wanted to go and see what it was like," he explained.
He believed visiting a church would give him insight to a religion he had not previously explored. Wanting to document his new experience and share it with the world, he created a blog, friendlyathiest.com. However, it wasn't until a religious eBay auction that he actually seriously questioned his thought; curiosity stemmed.
It was the grilled cheese that bore resemblence to the Virgin Mary, auctioned on eBay, that gave him the idea to put himself up on the auction site. "Send an Atheist to his local Church!" offered a chance for someone, somewhere to have a say in Mehta's religion.
"Everytime I come home, I pass this old Irish church. I promise to go into that church every day-for a certain number of days-for at least an hour each visit," he wrote. "For every $10 you bid, I will go to the church for one day."
The winner of the $504 auction (proceeds donated to an atheist group) was a pastor and author from Seattle, Jim Henderson, who ran a website that paid people to go to church. Henderson and Mehta made an agreement and Metha vowed to attend 15 different churches, and submit his experiences to Henderson's website.
The Outcome: "I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through an Athiest's Eyes"
Mehta was featured on the cover of the Wall Street Journal, in the Daily Southtown, the Seattle Times, the Sun-Times and on Fox News. People from all over the country wanted to know about "the eBay atheist."
As the situation and the blog posts garnered more attention, a Christian publisher, Waterbrook, contacted Mehta and asked if he would turn his experiences into a book.
"[Writing the book] was crazy-because I'd never written more than a class essay in my life," he said. "I just tried to write it the best way I knew how."
The book was written in under a year, and Mehta is realistic, yet hopeful about it.
"Now, more than ever, I think people are curious," he said. "I hope people can see this and think 'Oh, he's kind of normal' and they can hopefully understand athiesm better.
Mehta will be reading at the release of the book at Barbara's Bookstore, located at 1218 S. Halsted St., Chicago, on Tuesday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m.
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