CHICAGO: "You can be an atheist and be friendly at the same time." With this motto Hemant Mehta has grown to become one of America's most famous atheist bloggers. Every month his blog The Friendly Atheist gets between 2.5 to 3 million hits. With such numbers, money also starts rolling in – to the extent that even a devoted mathematics teacher must begin considering how to spend his time.
– This summer, I realized that it was a better for me financially to work on the website full-time instead of teaching. It was a difficult decision, because I loved being in a classroom. But now I can finally spend all my time on the blog. It's a relief, says Hemant Mehta to Fritanke.no.
After the flow of money into The Friendly Atheist began to increase, Mehta has expanded. Now he also produces a podcast and submissions to the Youtube channel The Atheist Voice (which has over 100,000 subscribers). He also pays guest writers to write on the blog.
– The ads earn quite a lot of money for me, but most of it goes out again to create the best possible product. If I'm not working all the time to improve my product, I will lose readers, he says.
Just be friendly
There are many atheist bloggers out there that may seem aggressive in their attacks on religion. Hemant Mehta basic idea is to do the opposite, thus living up to the name of his blog. And the best way to achieve it, is simply to be friendly – in practice.
– Many religious Americans do not think atheists can have morals. They think we are unsympathetic, negative and judgmental. The best medicine is simply being a nice guy, while you are clear about being an atheist. Then people get to see in practice that their prejudices are not true, he says.
Last summer, Mehta for example attended a mega church in Texas. There, more than 8,000 believers heard him in conversation with pastor Randy Frazee about faith, doubt, atheism and belief in God.
– We had a calm and polite conversation down there, with an enormous numbers of listeners. It was very interesting. I showed all these people, who perhaps had never seen or heard an open atheist before, that we are just ordinary sympathetic people. I also think I got the message across that it is not only I who is friendly, but atheists in general.
He thinks Frazee did a courageous thing to invite.
– He had the same goal as me – that people should meet an atheist. I also know that he worked hard internally to gain acceptance for the idea to invite me. It is admirable. If all religious people had been like this, we would have more productive conversations, says Mehta.
Library wouldn't take his money
Something else he has done to give a clear signal in the same direction, is that in 2011 he raised money to get a church cleaned after a group of atheists (probably) had painted it down with slogans for the satirical "flying spaghetti monster".
– We raised lots of money. The church was cleaned and the rest of the money went to charity, he says.
Mehta has used the blog to raise money for good causes many times. The money has been given to the charity organization Foundation Beyond Belief, where he sits on the board, as well as to individual cases that come up. He has also raised money to help fund a drilling rig to bring clean water to Ethiopia. And here’s one more example of a church vandalism fundraiser that went to a women’s shelter.
Another example is the fundraiser to pay for Damon Fowler’s education. Fowler is a boy who protested against christian prayer during the closing ceremony at his school. He had strong negative reactions from his local community because of this. The public criticism of Fowler even came from one of the teachers at the school.
The recipients aren't always accepting his money. In Morton Grove, near Chicago, the city council and the board of the local library, refused to receive $3,000 from Mehta. They meant he represented "a hate group" and compared him to the Ku Klux Klan.
- I'm puzzled that giving money to a local library can be viewd as hatred. I guess it most of all says something about the strong and vibrant opposition to atheism in the United States, Mehta says.
Religion cannot deal with the Internet
When you have a blog with up to three million hits a month, it yields power. Hemant Mehta believes he has managed to influence. At least a little. When we ask if he has any examples, we get a story from Missouri.
– In the city of Ballwin, Missouri, they wanted to put up a sign with "In God we trust" in all public buildings. I wrote about the case and urged readers to send email to politicians in the city and protest against the proposal. A lot of emails from all over the United States were sent to small Ballwin the following days, and there was also some writing in the local media. Finally, the proposal was rejected. Of course I don’t know what would have happened if I had not picked up the case, but I like to believe that my blog post has had something to do with it, he says.
Another example is when he tried to donate money to a local city council, and they rejected it. Then he tried donating it to a local library. They rejected it, too.
– It highlighted the anti-atheist stigma that is still prevalent in America and made many national news stories, Mehta says.
He believes the internet is a huge political force, also for those involved to humanism, secularism and atheism.
– With the Internet, local issues like the one in Ballwin suddenly becomes national. Earlier, communities could engage with their stuff in peace. They can’t any longer. Everything will be visible to everyone if only the right people point to it.
He also mentions the case of Jessica Ahlquist. In 2012 she went to court against Christian murals at her school, and won.
– The American government, including schools, are not allowed to preach Christianity. The Constitution forbids it, and new violations constantly pop up. There are things I write a lot about, he says.
Mehta believes religion is slowly but surely starting to lose its power in the United States. There are many reasons for this, he thinks, but the most important reason is probably the internet.
– Religion has a hard time facing the internet. When people have more access to information and knowledge, they begin asking questions. Everyone who wants to control people is dependent on information control in one way or another, and the internet has made that much more difficult, Mehta says.
Nevertheless, a large majority of politicians in the United States are still religious, he emphasizes.
– We still have a long way to go. We're not there until we are represented by politicians who respect the Constitution's separation of state and religion, says Mehta.
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the US, is the reason that secularists tend to win court cases about Christian proselytizing in schools etc. Here the paragraph is engraved on the lobby wall of the Chicago Tribune. FOTO: Even Gran
– Do not interpret everything in the worst possible way
Hemant Mehta also has a friendly approach to another hot topic in the atheist world currently; how to deal with Richard Dawkins’ Twitter messages and other controversial one-liners from famous atheists.
He thinks people should check one more time before passing judgment.
– Too much people react too strongly to everything that can interpreted in the wrong direction. It's a good thing to be engaged, but you would avoid much unnecessary bickering if you check one more time to ensure that the controversial Twitter message really was meant the way you think. Often you will get a more nuanced answer, and then the statement isn’t quite as awful as you thought it was. Insensitive, perhaps, but certainly not intentionally malicious, he says.
Another thing is that it makes your opponent less likely to engage in debate.
– If you interpret in the worst sense and attack you opponent because of something that might be a misunderstanding, your opponent will probably go to the trenches. We saw this clearly in the recent issue with Richard Dawkins. What he wrote was not good, but when the others just flew in his throat, he began defending himself rather than admitting that he perhaps should have used different words, says Mehta.
– What do you think about his statements yourself?
– I agree with those who criticize him, but I think they choose the wrong strategy. You do not get to people that way. You will not get them to see your side of the story if you condemn them personally. Then people will start defending themselves. To use an American expression; it is better to say it with honey than to say it with vinegar.
Plays a role in people's lives
But what motivates one of America's leading atheist bloggers? Yes, it is the contact with the audience, and the feeling that you are actually making a difference.
– I get emails from people every day who say that my blog has helped them to come out as atheists, or that it has made them understand that they are not alone in their atheism. How can I stop doing this, when I notice that I do indeed play a role. It’s very engaging, he says.
– How has your blog changed since you started in 2006?
– When I started, I wrote a lot about why there is no God, why evolution is true and things like that. I write less about such things now, while I write more about keeping religion away from the public sector. I think things have matured quite a lot in the atheist movement since I started. If The God Delusion had come out today, I do not believe a lot would have happened. Times change, and atheists now talk more about how to live their lives as non-believers, and how society and the state should deal with the diversity of beliefs and lifestances. This is obviously reflected on my blog too.
This is an English translation of the original Norwegian version.