Interview with Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist: Guest Post by Susan Gerbic
March 24, 2017
Guest Post by Susan Gerbic
Hemant Mehta is best known for his blog on Patheos, Friendly Atheist; he also has a podcast of the same name and has written about selling his soul on eBay. He has two other books, The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide and The Friendly Atheist: Thoughts on the Role of Religion in Politics and Media.
Susan Gerbic: Hello Hemant, so glad we are catching up. I’ve known of you for a few years; my son Stirling seemed to be quoting something from your blog daily. Finally, I subscribed and now receive a daily email digest. Sometimes I manage to read it before Stirling. For people who don’t know you, I would suggest they read your awesome Wikipedia page, but in case people don’t trust that, can you please tell readers more about yourself?
Hemant Mehta: I began working with the Secular Student Alliance in college, did an internship with the Center for Inquiry (CFI), and got to know a lot of the national organizations and leaders in those years. After a silly stunt in which I visited several churches went viral, I had the opportunity to write a book that became I Sold My Soul on eBay. That led me to start a blog to talk about atheism. I enjoyed the feedback that came from writing about my church visits and hearing people share their own experiences, but strangely enough, the blog soon became my main outlet for activism.
During all this, I taught high school math for seven years, but I decided to take a risk a few years ago and run the blog full time. I miss teaching, but I feel like I’m still educating people in a different way now. And the school kept me on as the head coach of our Speech Team (competitive public speaking), which I absolutely love to do. In the past few years, we’ve had four State Champions and several students who came very close. If you want to get me talking for hours, that’s the topic.
Gerbic: You have been a public figure in the blogosphere since 2006. When you were at the University of Illinois, you started a secular student group, “Students WithOut Religious Dogma” (SWORD), and then worked with the Secular Student Alliance and the Foundation Beyond Belief organization. What did you learn from this experience that you would advise others about?
Mehta: When I was running SWORD with a friend of mine, we had very little guidance. The SSA’s handbook for student leaders hadn’t been published and their resources were slim, so if there was an idea we had, we ran with it. It forced us to be creative, work with religious groups on campus, and to reach out directly to speakers we wanted to bring to campus. There’s something very exciting about hearing back from speakers without going through an intermediary. Even with more resources available now, I would encourage student leaders to try different things to begin conversations on campus—and take pictures! What you’re doing on your campus could become a national story, especially if there’s documentation of it.
Gerbic: You seem to be pretty successful using social media to promote Friendly Atheist. You are so notable that you even have a Wikipedia page. What are your thoughts for people just starting out, or people who just can’t seem to find a way to get their name out there?
Mehta: I think a lot of people worry they’re just recreating the wheel. Why talk about why God doesn’t exist when so many people have done it already? But that’s the wrong attitude. There are people you can reach with your language and methods that Richard Dawkins never could. There are new technologies that older atheists have never used. We always need people willing to make old arguments in original voices. We need people willing to criticize bad ideas—including those of other atheists, when warranted. Keep in mind that the arguments for Christianity don’t really change, either, but they always seem to find new, hip, young people who can share the gospel on YouTube, over Twitter, on Instagram, etc. There’s no reason we can’t spread reason in the same way.
The most important thing you can do is put something out there (whether it’s a video or blog post). And then do it again. Don’t worry about who’s going to see it. Just make it. You’ll find an audience later.
Gerbic: My GSoW project relies on people like you for content we use on Wikipedia pages. One thing that many people don’t realize is that Wikipedia editors can’t use information from just anyone; we can’t really use blogs as a citation. But because you are notable (that means you have a Wikipedia page), we can quote you and use your articles as citations, as we have several times on Wikipedia. Camp Quest, Westboro Baptist Church, Aroup Chatterjee, Creation Museum, and Jerry Coyne are some. That must feel really strange.
Mehta: It’s a strange bit of power I never really think about. But it doesn’t change anything. I’ll keep publishing articles that I hope are smart, fact-based, and interesting. If it ends up being used in a Wikipedia article or anywhere else, that’s just neat, but it’s never the goal.
Gerbic: I personally learn a lot from your postings, and you have inspired the GSoW project to write Wikipedia pages for David Suhor and After School Satan. My favorite Mehta quote on the Suhor Wikipedia page is in the part about the Bayview Cross that is in a public park and the Freedom of Religion Foundation (FFRF) and the American Humanist Association (AHA) have sued for removal. The city says the cross is a memorial to war veterans; we quote you saying, "Somehow, a memorial to our veterans just happened to be built in the shape of a Christian cross. Don’t connect the dots because this is totally not about Jesus."
Mehta: I’m glad they’re getting the attention they deserve! It’s a neat project that really makes people question the idea of an open forum for ideas in a public school. Are they so eager to have a Christian club at school that they allow Satanists to have one, too?
Gerbic: One thing I really admire about you is that you support so many others in the community. People who are just getting started as well as fundraise for interesting causes. We are trying to grow our community and sometimes giving a helping hand to others is the way to do so. I don’t see it as competition and think you would agree; the choir might be a small group of people with limited time, but we still need to expand that choir as far as possible.
Who inspires you in our community?
Mehta: I’m always inspired by activists who are working for change. That means the writers/YouTubers/podcasters who spread our ideas, the attorneys who fight for church/state separation in court (and write those incredible legal briefs that give weight to our ideas), and the organizations’ leaders who have the power to bring together communities locally and nationally.
Gerbic: Personally, I know that a lot of people like you who do create so much content, seem tentative about asking for donations. It’s like an afterthought when mentioned on a podcast and I swear I can almost hear people saying, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” Listeners have become so used to free content when it comes to blogging and podcasts that they don’t seem to realize that for many people this isn’t a hobby, but a job. Netflix and HBO aren’t free: why do people not want to donate, and why are content creators so shy about asking for a few dollars?
Mehta: It’s always hard to get people to pay money for something they used to get for free … but if you listen to podcasts, or read blogs, or watch videos, and you have the ability to give something, you should consider it. It’s the same reason you should buy a subscription to a newspaper even if you read it online for free. If you want to keep it going, the money has to come from somewhere.
From the creators’ side, I think the most important thing we can do is create content that’s indispensable for other people. I cringe when I hear people asking for money when they’ve barely made a single podcast or just started a blog. It’s much smarter to me to do those things as a hobby—and get good at it—then ask for money later when you know you’re producing content that people find worthwhile. Personally, it’s irrelevant if people are doing this as a hobby or as a job. Do it because you love it and then figure out a way to monetize it if possible.
I don’t get upset with people who don’t pay anything. (I used to be one of those people who couldn’t!) But for those with the ability to donate, it shouldn’t be too hard to chip in a few bucks a month to the people whose work you admire.
Gerbic: You and I have talked about things that supporters can do that will really help that don’t involve donating money to the people creating content. Can you please explain?
Mehta: From a personal standpoint, people who share my articles on Facebook or retweet them on Twitter are incredibly important. Not just because it’s validation that I wrote something worthwhile, but because it puts my posts in front of new eyeballs and hopefully creates new fans who come back for more. As someone who is literally paid by pageviews, that matters.
Gerbic: So, what’s next for Hemant Mehta? You seem involved in so many different projects, it’s hard to imagine that you might have time for something else, but I’m sure you do have more things planned.
Mehta: I’ll keep coaching public speaking. J But in terms of atheism, I hope to continue making the blog more wide-reaching and relevant by bringing in new voices and covering topics in a way you can’t find anywhere else. I’m also working on a book project with one of my contributors that I hope to unveil soon. Depending on how that goes, we’ll see about other projects in the future!
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Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. You can contact her at SusanGerbic.com.