Secular VIP of the Week: Hemant Mehta

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Hemant Mehta must be the coolest high school math teacher around, because he's also one of the most popular atheist bloggers in the secular community, and the author of The Young Atheist's Survival Guide. When he says that he won't harm a fly, he really means it. He spoke with Johnny Monsarrat for this Richard Dawkins Foundation interview about not harming bugs, his personal life, and his books exploring belief and non-belief.


RDF: You grew up as a Jain, a faith from South Asia, which seems pretty

harmless. What was the weirdest thing about growing up as a Jain?



Hemant Mehta: I actually agree with you that it is not that harmful of a

faith and the weirdest thing from of Jainism are really just their spiritual

belifs: they believe in reincarnation and karma and Heaven and Hell. Those

are the reasons I stopped believing at a young age. At one point I said, "I

don't think I could call myself a Jain anymore because I don't buy into all

of that."



Hemant Mehta: As for their philosophy, they stand for non violence — even

mentally speaking! Don't think bad thoughts! I think that's a good

philosophy, but when it comes to the supernatural aspect of it, I can't get

on board with that.



RDF: I'm only familiar with Karma as a bumper sticker, but in Jainism they

take it seriously.



Hemant Mehta: Yes, if you're good in this life you're going to be in a

better position in your next life. I was around 14 when I stopped calling

myself a Jain but I grew up thinking, "If there's a bug, you can't step on

it because that is going to be bad for you!" and I still sort of do it. If I

see a little bug I think "Ooookay, so I can't kill it —  what do I do?" so

I just try to move away from it or move it another place or something like

that. Even now my parents will often try to toss it outside if they see a

bug somewhere in the house.



RDF: Your students and their parents presumably know about your atheism?



Hemant Mehta: I don't talk about it and wouldn't want to, but I think my

students and their parents know what I do outside of school. The cool part

is it actually has never really affected me. I teach math and usually when

we're in class there's so much to do that we don't even have time to talk

about extracurricular things like that. The parents care way more about what

I teach their kids about math than what I may or may not believe privately

and I think they recognize I'm not trying to spread atheism in the

classroom. I've actually never gotten a complaint from parents but I have

received compliments.



RDF: Atheist do so much to support science educators. How can we get science

organizations to help us in return?



Hemant Mehta: I don't know if they'd want to, and I say that in a broad

sense. Neil deGrasse Tyson may be an atheist, he may not believe in God but

his goal is to communicate science, and religion is just a byproduct of

that. Science is promoting critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning,

so they're setting the path for people to use those same skills to tackle

religion. They just have to lead you to the water; they don't have to make

you drink.



Hemant Mehta: You may have seen the first episode of "Cosmos" and he even

makes a reference to Jesus and Mohammed at the end of the show. Again, his

goal is to communicate science and to try to get religious people to see

things the way scientists see them and you're probably not going to do that

if you're pushing them away by going after their religion in a direct way.



Hemant Mehta: I understand why they dance around the topic. It's because

it's a more effective technique, but personally I don't have to hold back. I

think there's a strategic reason to talk about atheism and critical thinking

and applying it to religion because I think that people are only going to

wake up if you're very blunt about these topics and they might not be

persuaded by this indirect approach.



Hemant Mehta: Science is not easy, it takes time to understand the process

and what it is and what is not. Creationism is pretty simple: God did it!

We're done! So I can understand why people want to believe in Creationism

because it doesn't take a lot of mental effort —  To understand science -

it sounds academic- it sounds like "Oh, I gotta go back to school and learn

this stuff" and people don't necessarily want to do that which is why I'm so

excited that "Cosmos" is on TV right now because it is entertaining but

people are actually learning something.



I love it when people tell me that they finally gave up religion because

they picked up one book! I read Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale" out of

nowhere, I just kind of picked it up one day, I'd never read one of his

books and I thought "Wow! This is so cool! How come I never learned this?!"

and of course the truth is I have learned about evolution but never really

understood it or cared about it; but then I read the book and it made me

want to learn more. And I think that's what people like Bill Nye and Neil

deGrasse Tyson achieve, they talk about science but don't make it sound like

it's a lecture when they're doing it; they actually make you feel like you

want to know more. And that's is kind of what we need: to pull religious

people into that world, you're not going to do it by insulting their

religion; you might get a few but not a lot. You're going to do it by

convincing them that there's a much cooler approach to this and if they

explore it they'll figure it out on their own.



RDF: It seems that you're okay if people who like your website but don't

really want to give up god, you kind of encourage them to slide over from

one religion to a possibly less mean religion. Is there a real benefit to

"sliding" rather than giving up religion?



Hemant Mehta: There's two aspects of this. One is: Do I want people to stop

believing in god? And the answer is Yes! Because I don't think that exists

and I hope you'll agree with me and I hope I can persuade you about that –

but that's not realistic. That's not going to happen for a lot of people so

the second aspect is, well, what do you do with all those people that are

still religious? I think we can benefit if we can convince them to take a

softer approach.



Hemant Mehta: The way a friend puts it: There's a big difference between

Fred Phelps, from the Westboro Baptist Church, and Fred Rogers from Mr.

Rogers' Neighborhood — They're both religious but I don't care if someone

is like Fred Rogers, that doesn't bother me even if they believe in god

because the reality is not everyone is going to give up their faith and I

would not care so much if I was surrounded by the Fred Rogers' type so there

is some progress in getting them to move to the lighter side of the spectre;

if they're willing to move an inch in the right direction they may end up

going a lot further.



RDF:  Are you one of the people who believes that religion/having faith is

fundamentally harmful, they are enablers of the worst religions? Or or do

you believe that more liberal religions are basically okay?



Hemant Mehta: I don't take Hitchen's vision that religion poisons

everything, because I was raised religious, I know my religious community,

and these are not bad people. I don't think religion has been a bad

influence on them. But I think the way of thinking in religion is not

effective in every situation. Is religion harmful? There's a lot of things

more harmful than religion but it is one of those things that if we can get

people to look at the world in a different way they would make more rational

decisions in so many areas of their life. Religion may not harm people in

most ways but  some ways of thinking do. To name something relatively

harmless: If they are praying in a bad situation that's not going to help

necessarily, but if they're taking action, faith is not going to help but if

you actually do something. That's going to be more powerful.



RDF: You're a big believer in charity and you're even on the board of The

Foundation Beyond Belief, which encourages non believers to give to

charities but these charities aren't necessarily showing or taking any

atheist approach to the people they benefit. What's the goal behind this?



Hemant Mehta: The point is just to do good. But along the way it'd be good

to show the people who are behind such actions.



RDF: If someone had a small budget and wanted to read one of the books

you've written, which should they start with?



Hemant Mehta: "The Young Atheist's Survival Guide" probably because it's the

one that's meant the most to me.

 

Go to amazon.com for The Young Atheist's Survival Guide, and find Hemant's website and blog, The Friendly Atheist, at www.FriendlyAtheist.org.

Written By: RDFRS

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Congratulations Hemant, and great interview! I willingly step around bugs because I think that it’s some sort of evidence that I’m not a bad person. If I have a reason though, the bug is dead.

  2. …all those people who are still religious? – softer approach – lighter side of the spectre

    Ironic, just read an article from ink-kc about Christian pastors (and rabbis) using the same idea. Ways to snare wayward, religious 20-somethings who are turned off by mega churches, proverbial dry sermons, et.al. Rather, they offer things such as coffee and donuts gatherings, community service,… On the surface, seems to be working. Almost as if they’re regressing to the days of ‘Godspell’.

    (atheist) charities, it’d be good to show the people who are behind such actions

    Agree! Devil is in the details. How to present atheism in a way they can sink their teeth into it – i.e., man, now I dig it!

  3. I was around 14 when I stopped calling
    myself a Jain but I grew up thinking, “If there’s a bug, you can’t step on
    it because that is going to be bad for you!” and I still sort of do it. If I
    see a little bug I think “Ooookay, so I can’t kill it — what do I do?” so
    I just try to move away from it or move it another place or something like that.
    Even now my parents will often try to toss it outside if they see a
    bug somewhere in the house.

    I do this with spiders. I’m seriously phobic but if I encounter one in my home I’m unable to just squish it. I have to get a glass and piece of cardboard and capture Charlotte before throwing her out a window. I then do the extended full-body shudder that any serious spiderphobe (the technical term) will be familiar with.

    It can’t just be down to a reluctance to deal with the hassle of cleaning mashed-in arachnid viscera from an expensive rug or nice wallpaper that stops me killing them – I could easily dispose of my araignée sous verre down the lavatory, eliminating the risk of my captive’s making her escape while I’m fiddling with the window latch; but I go out of my way to keep the dæmon alive.

    I’m not a hippy vegetarian, and have no problem with animals dying if it benefits me in any way.

    Put me out of my misery, Dear Abby, and tell me: am I a latent Jain?

    Sincerely, Confused in Budleigh Salterton

  4. If you are a believer then you would probably think the bug will go to heaven (or hell) if you step on it, so who cares! This is the fundamental floor with all religions because it cheapens and devalues this life if the believer thinks the next life will be better, so reality becomes obsolete. If you seriously believe in a next life then how could you possibly care about this one. Believers think this life is pointless and expendable so when it gets a bit tough or things are not going your way its easier to just kill yourself (and others if your a Muslim) because it can only get better in the next life.

  5. Well, it seems the best that can be said about religion, from an intellectual standpoint, is that it can make you wishy-washy. I don’t know if that adequately excuses it. The fact is, religion (not just a religion) has been found out. It’s an empty suit. That can be accepted and we can movie on, or we can engage in strenuous psychological denial of some sort or other so as to retain its “good parts”.

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