The San Antonio Express-News reports…
“Not many atheists spend their Sunday mornings at a Texas megachurch as the guest of honor.
And not many megachurches would extend the invitation — especially if the atheist wrote a book called “I Sold My Soul on eBay.”
But at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, senior minister Randy Frazee saw an opportunity to challenge his congregation by inviting Hemant Mehta, a self-described “friendly atheist” from Chicago, to speak with Frazee in front of thousands of Christians.
At four church services over the weekend that attracted about 8,000 people, the preacher and the atheist casually talked and laughed on the brightly lit stage at Oak Hills. Online videos of their talks were posted on the church’s website, which crashed Sunday morning from the demand of so many people trying to watch.
Clean-cut and courteous, Mehta could easily be mistaken for a church youth-group leader.
“Is there anything — anything — that might change your mind?” Frazee asked Mehta at one point.
“Unless I experience a miracle that I just can’t explain, unless something happens to me, I really don’t think I’m going to hear anything that’s going to change my mind,” the skeptic replied.
Frazee acknowledged such talk might make some in the congregation uncomfortable.
“We know we’re going to get push-back, and we’re OK with that,” Frazee said during a break between church services Sunday morning.
Mehta doubts the existence of God, Frazee said, yet he has much to teach any Christian about the importance of openly scrutinizing beliefs, asking tough questions and trying to live a virtuous life.
Many atheists are former Christians who wrestled with doubt, but they felt like their churches weren’t safe places to ask uncomfortable questions, Frazee said. So they simply abandoned their churches.
On Sunday, a few members of the congregation at Oak Hills didn’t want to listen to a nonbeliever and they left before Mehta was introduced, Frazee said. But most of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “I think it was healthy,” said church member Jim Robbins. Mehta’s words struck a chord with him because one of Robbins’ sons had been an atheist for many years. “I don’t have a problem with people asking questions.”
Mehta said he had no misgivings about coming to Oak Hills. He’s known Frazee for years and knew the minister wanted to have an open conversation about God and Christianity — not a debate.
“It’s not about scoring points,” said Mehta, a 30-year-old math teacher. “I wish more churches would do this.”
Mehta was raised in the Jain faith, an Indian religion that extols nonviolence. As he grew older, he started asking basic questions about religion and why bad things happen to good people. He became an atheist at the age of 14. In college, Mehta met many atheist friends who had left Christianity. Mehta was curious about Christianity, but he didn’t want to learn about it secondhand — he wanted to see it for himself.
So Mehta posted an auction on eBay, offering to visit the church of the winner’s choice once for every $10 raised. The unusual sale started a price war between Christians who wanted Mehta to visit their church and atheists who didn’t want Mehta to attend any church at all.
By the time the auction ended on Feb. 3, 2006, a minister named Jim Henderson had made the winning bid of $504. Henderson asked Mehta to attend a variety of churches and blog about what they did right and what they did wrong.
One of the churches Mehta critiqued was Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, where Frazee was preaching at the time, and the two men became friends. Mehta’s blog posts eventually grew into a book: “I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist’s Eyes.”
While Willow Creek was one of Mehta’s favorite churches, he didn’t like what many pastors had to say about nonbelievers — that they were immoral and needed God to be good. These were the very people churches were trying to bring to the fold.
“What I heard was pushing me away,” Mehta said. “It seemed to me these pastors hadn’t even talked to atheists.”
What happens, Frazee asked, if at the end of Mehta’s life, he suddenly realizes he was wrong about God?
“If I am wrong, I tried,” Mehta said. He challenged himself, tried to go where the facts took him and kept an open mind. He would hope God would respect his effort to find the truth.
Frazee encouraged his congregation to follow the friendly atheist’s inquisitive journey. It’s OK to doubt, he said. The deep questions Mehta wrestled with are the same questions many Christians are asking themselves privately — especially skeptical teenagers.
“They start asking questions,” Frazee said. “And if your home, or this church, is a place where we don’t allow that to happen, we’re going to lose our kids.”