Quick review: “Friendly atheist”: I cannot imagine a better name than that for this man.

It was a total accident that I happened to hear on the radio this morning about someone giving a lecture on campus this evening entitled “improving the atheist image”.  Wow, not only a talk about atheism, but about one aspect of atheism I really care about.  I was interested enough to look up the event and only then did I realize that it was the author of the Friendly Atheist blog, which I think is the only blog I read regularly that isn’t written by a friend of mine.  Woah!  I totally gotta go!

So, I went.  And I liked it. So much of what you hear from atheists is harsh, negative, religion-bashing, often mocking, scornful, and generally hateful.  I’ve been seeking a way to express pride in what I consider my religious beliefs in a way that doesn’t sound offensive to people, but rather just inspires their religious tolerance even if they suspect I’m a doomed heathen.

Mr. Mehta’s approach is not exactly what I’m seeking, but on reflection I have to wonder if it might be better than what I was hoping for.  Or, if not that, at least an added perspective that has its own merits.  And that is, basically, he just presents himself as an atheist, and otherwise just seeks to have fun and meaningful interactions with people.

His talk was largely about how he ascended to his current quasi-famous position, which was by conducting an eBay auction in which he promised to attend an hour of religious service for each $10 of the winning price, and the “buyer” got to decide which services he would attend.  In the end he wrote a book about the experience, which was published by a Christian publishing company (I hadn’t realized until tonight that the publisher had a religious bent). It’s a fun story.  It’s even kind of thought provoking.  But it’s nothing like a tretise on whether there’s a God or not, nor is it any kind of deep exploration of the spiritual, moral, or ethical issues that atheists tend to take so seriously.  It’s clear that he does take those things seriously, but he’s giving talks about his experiences, not about those things.

After sharing that story, he did start talking more generally about good things for atheists to do.  He clearly advocates for positive-spirited activities, such as the well-known “free hugs” stunt, or partnering with Christian organizations for charitable activities (a University of Illinois group apparently did some great post-Katrina clean-up in this way).  He spoke disparigingly of shock-jock-style approaches like insulting bibles, sometimes in disturbingly graphic ways.  And he spoke glowingly of this “Atheist Bus Campaign” which is paying to put the uncommonly playful denial of God’s existence pictured here on buses that feature advertising.  A lot of his blog is collecting things like this, and that’s a great service to readers like me who are way less hip to pop-culture than he is.

I was quite disappointed with the question and answer session.  That is, I found the questions, in general, to be disappointing; I thought his responses were very good, never straying from the Friendly Atheist position he’s put himself in.  And, I think that comes entirely naturally to him.  It’s not that he’s an atheist who’s decided to be friendly, I really think he really is by nature both friendly and an atheist.  Clearly an extrovert, he obviously enjoys meeting with people all over and engaging with them.

In some sense, his approach seems insufficient to me.  I have a feeling like “what, he’s just a friendly guy, talking about whatever, but not making any qualms about his lack-of-belief in supernatural”.  It seems like the focus should be more on the actual… like… substance… or something.  I still think there must be ways for me to talk about my beliefs that are honest but non-confrontational.  Hemant kind of seems like he just doesn’t really focus on the beliefs that much, and just focuses on engaging with people.  But, on the other hand, I feel like I have a very firm understanding of his beliefs, so he’s obviously talking about them somewhat, right?

And meanwhile, he’s definitely got the whole friendly thing down pat.  I’m usually uninspired to try to meet people after presentations/performances, in part out of shyness and in part because I legitimately don’t usually feel like I get much out of such brief interactions.  But, at the end of this talk, there was no question that I wanted to approach him, compliment him, and shake his hand.  Probably this is in part because he’s not a huge celebrity, probably in part because he seems like someone roughly “my age”, but largely I think it’s because it just seems so much like he likes people that it would feel like a meaningful interaction just to say a simple thank you.  And, indeed, it was.

I left the hall with a palpable desire to be nice to people.  I held a door open for someone, I stopped on my bike and waited for a crowd of pedestrians to figure out which path they’d walk, things like that.  I think I’m pretty nice in general, so it’s not like these actions were so unusual for me.  What was unusual was how satisfying they were; I felt totally relaxed and patient, it felt like an excellent use of 5-10 seconds to wait for some people to pass without anyone having to worry about which way I’d be pedalling.  You have to respect anyone who can make you feel that way, and if a substantial number of people start associating atheism and that kind of kindness, the world will definitely be a better place.  So, thank you, Hemant.  And keep up the good work.