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
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
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
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
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.
Written By: RDFRS