But first, two notes of disclosure. Most importantly, I know Mehta as a friend-of-a-friend; we spent two years in middle school together (in 1996-97), and I found out about this book through that mutual friend. Mehta was generous enough to send me an advance copy for this Slashdot book review. Secondly, I am not his target audience. Surprisingly, this atheist-penned book is published by a Christian publisher and intended for a Christian audience. The auction winner's influence shows here: like Henderson's work, Sold My Soul is really intended to show Christians how to better deliver their message to the ears of non-believers. I think it does more than that, however. Mehta's overarching theme is better understanding and dialogue between the various factions, none of whom plan to give up or disappear any time soon. If we're going to live with one another, Mehta reasons, why don't we learn from each other and learn to respect each other? (This is a stark contrast to the last book on religion that I read: Sam Harris's The End of Faith calls for the total removal of religion from society.)
At this point, you're likely wondering why this review appears on Slashdot. Religion is a frequent topic on this forum, and the responses people get are not always friendly. For one, I believe there are a large number of non-theist (or at least questioning) individuals here, and any book which calmly and dispassionately discusses non-theistic beliefs can help us better understand our own journeys with spirituality. On the other hand, a significant fraction of Slashdotters are probably religious to some extent, and the intelligent members of that category are really Mehta's target audience. <sarcasm>Everyone on Slashdot is brilliant, right?<sarcasm> Given that these two populations make up most of the readership here, Slashdot runneth over with the very people who ought to see Mehta's book.
Explanation aside, the book is a great, quick read for anyone with even a passing interest in religion and society. Mehta's friendly, conversational style makes it easy to understand his arguments, and his structure provides for a compelling read. He begins the book with a description of his own religious upbringing (his parents are Jainist immigrants from India), followed by his discovery of atheism in middle school, and a quick overview of the now-famous eBay auction. The next four chapters give Mehta's accounts of four classes of Christian churches: small, medium, large, and so-called mega-churches. Chapter 9 discusses what, in Mehta's eyes, works and doesn't work at church services (works: performing community service; doesn't work: an hour of music before the sermon begins). For chapter 10, Mehta outlines the conditions which would need to be fulfilled for him to believe in God and discusses a debate on faith he had with Pastor Tim Harlow as part of Rev. Harlow's sermon one weekend. The book closes with a discussion guide written by Ron R. Lee for church groups to use in "get[ting] more from this book."
Make no mistake: although Mehta is the Friendly Atheist, he pulls no punches when describing his experiences at church. For instance, he only enjoyed one of the four small churches he attended, and says so very plainly (even naming names):
As the message went on, I found I wasn't enjoying myself in the same way I had in other churches. And it wasn't because I preferred sermons that were sugarcoated. Instead, I was put off by the lack of humor and the formality of Pastor Brad's presentation.
Most of Mehta's candid points make sense and should be eye-opening for some Christians (and other religious people). However, there are areas where he comes across as hopelessly naive. For instance, he doesn't seem to understand what evangelical Christians mean when they use words like "saved". He asks what Christians believe they are saving him from. Nearly any evangelical tract or website gives a fairly concrete answer to what Christians believe they are saving non-believers from. Coming from an individual as smart as Mehta clearly is, I almost wonder if this naivete is intentional: a rhetorical device rather than a true misunderstanding.
Quibbles about Mehta's knowledge of Christian tenets aside, this is a fascinating read for people on both sides of the belief debate. The author's call for more dialogue and less misunderstanding is timely and sorely needed. Whether you are Christian, another religion, or non-religious, I believe you'll enjoy viewing faith through an atheist's eyes. Did Mehta become a Christian because of his church visits? No, but he did learn something, and you will, too."