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I sold my soul on eBay


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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.


Departing ways


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.


An opportunity


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.


Overwhelming response


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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The idea that the world always existed was backed by his studies in biology and math


This is a very interesting concept. I met up with it first when reading Medieval Theologian...can't remember his name. The most famous Catholic theologican of all times after Augustine. Anyway....Thomas Aquinas--that's the name......he was making the argument for creation (I think) but he also posed arguments from opposing sides. One of these was that the world had always existed. It was a strange new idea for me and I rejected it.


In recent years, I struggled with the various concepts around God and evidence for god's existence. Many people here know my inadeptness with science and numbers. It seemed that in order to think through the creation-evolution controversy I absolutely had to master those impossible topics. I was also in contact with a highly educated man from a conservative Mennonite group who identied with ID beliefs. That was the most radical I had yet encountered at the time and because of our similar backgrounds I trusted him more than some other authorities.


In thinking back it seems that just knowing him (infrequent email contact) helped steady the conflict inside of myself. One day it occurred to me that I don't have to know the answers to these questions. I don't have to know how the world came into existence. Maybe the universe has always existed. The more I learn about it (in the primitive form I can handle) the more I think this to be within the range of possibilities. Recently I watched a local TV show where a local astronomer spoke and showed videos of the universe. She (prof) spoke in terms of multi-verses. That expanded my thinking considerably. Somehow, the universe is not small enough anymore to fit into god's hand, like the psalmist says. It is so large that it could have always existed.


I'm still trying to train my mind not to insist that there has to be an outside to "what's out there." I guess my fundy sisters would say that tv show was of the devil. They don't have to know about it. I am glad I happened to see it. It's awesome!

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And if I don't have to know how or whether the universe originated, maybe I don't have to know whether or not god exists. That leads easily to the idea presented on this forum by various atheists last fall that there is insufficient evidence of god's existence. Somehow, for me, that gives me the feeling of childlike trust that I don't have to control the Big Issues. That frees me up to concentrate on this life.


If only my sisters could know the freedom from bondage that is available to humans. If only they could be freed from their fear of a wrathful god. I would so love to help them find freedom. The only way I know is to live my life and let the chips fall where they will. Unfortunately, some of these chips are for them the absolute knowledge that I will burn in hell.

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