The ‘Friendly Atheist,’ and Other Lies They Tell Us

By Tom Gilson Published on March 23, 2023

He calls himself the “Friendly Atheist,” and he’s accusing The Stream’s Nancy Flory of lying in last week’s headline, “New Arizona School Board Member Says the District Should Not Hire Christian Teachers. I find it strange how he complains about one headline, when his whole online identity is dishonest.

I’ve been watching this self-described “friendly atheist,” Hemant Mehta, since at least the time of the atheist “Reason Rally” in Washington eleven years ago. In 2014 he took a rude, snarky shot at my co-edited book True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism. The Patheos.com pages where he did that — and where I answered him — have since been wiped, and the only remaining record is my own link to it.

Three times in two sentences I described his approach as “gracious.” Kind of overdoing it, in other words. Trying my best to be charitable.  Anyone who read the links at the time would have gotten the point, especially I put question marks after “gracious” two out of the three times. It was the best I could do, considering the shabby rudeness of his attack on me.

I’ll try being charitable here, too, but only as far as honesty allows. No sarcasm this time. There’s a point to this, by the way, and it isn’t attacking Hemant Mehta. It’s defending against atheist lies.

As Bad as Before

The full record of my interaction with him is gone, but Mehta continues on, cherry-picking topics and articles to present Christianity as negatively as he can. Four times in February alone, he featured articles about uber-extreme hateful Christian pastors. He may not come out and say we’re all like that, but that’s the impression you got on his page. It’s the only sort of Christianity he cares to pay attention to.

It’s ironic, too. Poke around his site long enough and you’ll find him standing up for science against religion (as he sees it). If he really believed in science, he’d also believe in taking representative samples to show what Christianity is like. No such luck here, though. He only picks the worst.

Sometimes his bias pops out in direct language, too, such as, “Nothing screams Christian love more than a preacher’s disturbing fantasies of God murdering gay people.” Or, “They will always find a way to defend abuse in the name of Jesus.” It’s nowhere near a fair and honest picture of what really happens in thousand upon thousands of churches, and millions of Christian homes. He keeps at it, though.

He’s adept at twisting Christians’ motives. For example: “In last year’s awful decision in Bremerton, the Supreme Court said that a public high school football coach’s post-game look-at-me-look-at-me-I’m-special prayers at midfield weren’t coercive.” You’re not seeing double. He put not just one, but two “look-at-mes” in that phrase!

How likely is it, really, that this coach went into those prayers thinking “look-at-me-look-at-me-I’m special”? Just guessing, I’d say probably zero. What are the chances Mehta could demonstrate what he said there? Just guessing again, but I’d put it at less than zero. He’s welcome to correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m thinking he made it up. For fun, I guess. Certainly not for accuracy.

Where “Friendly” Means Being as Uncharitable as He Cares to Be

He gave Nancy Flory’s article the identical motive-manipulating treatment. Its headline is “a lie,” he said, “for multiple reasons,” adding, “Working with student teachers has nothing to do with the hiring process. And at no point did the school board suggest they shouldn’t work with Christian teachers.” Therefore the explanation — the only possible explanation — is that she set out intentionally to lie. Nothing tentative here; no “you can correct me if I’m wrong.” Instead she’s “lying” because “apparently, nothing in her religion ever taught her that was wrong.”

Maybe no one in his atheist circles ever taught him that kind of language doesn’t come across as “friendly.”

Maybe no one in his atheist circles ever taught him that kind of language doesn’t come across as “friendly.”

With just the barest touch of charity, he might have realized his pronouncement might not be so infallible. If he’d even read his own page there, he might have noticed he quoted an unnamed board member who said the district should re-think “bringing in people whose mission — who have been told with their institution of education … is to influence people to be biblically minded. … that makes me feel like I could not be safe in this school district.”

Could he possibly have read that and failed to see it could apply to more than just those student teachers? Would that board member feel any more “safe” around a full-time Christian fifth-grade teacher? 

No, Mr. “Friendly Atheist,” This Attack Isn’t Only on Student Teachers

I’ll do anything I can to influence people to be biblically minded. Millions of other believers would say the same. The one limit on that is that we live biblically in the process, which comes down to following Jesus Christ with full integrity in the path He sets before each of us.

Now, integrity on the job means doing what one is paid to do, within reasonable moral and ethical guidelines. Therefore few Christian teachers actually try to evangelize at school. From what I’ve seen of this case, though, there’s no sign that the board cares what teachers (or student teachers) actually do on the job. Have they actually caught a student teacher breaking their rules? Has it happened often enough to merit cutting off an entire college for it? No, they’re not blacklisting them because of anything they’ve done. It’s because of who they are.

What that means, then, is that if the school district applies that principle consistently, they should place every believing Christian on its hiring black list. Or in other words, if Nancy Flory’s headline wasn’t accurate as a direct quote, it’s still a fair interpretation of the principle the district is expressing. It’s not dishonesty. It’s a reasonable application of a fair interpretive principle.

Who’s Being Dishonest Now?

Mehta can’t see it that way. Funny thing:  Some people accuse Christians of living in a black-white, good-bad moral reality, but if anything was ever black-and-white, his answer is. No room for charitable interpretations, no room for the possibility that this headline represents a reasonable interpretation of the facts. Even though it’s about a district’s policy from this point forward, the headline can’t be right unless it’s only about past events. Therefore she’s lying. Period.

I can’t think of any way to re-interpret his self-inflating title to make it remotely true.

I’ll bet he’s friendlier with his fellow atheists. Maybe it’s how he justifies his “friendly atheist” identity. If so, who cares? What’s there to brag about? Otherwise every article he’s ever posted under the “Friendly Atheist” identity has had a lie in the title. And unlike Nancy’s headline, I can’t think of any way to re-interpret his self-inflating title to make it remotely true.

What’s the Point?

So what’s the point of this? Do I have some need to beat up on an unfriendly atheist? No, actually I’d be happier just ignoring his snarkiness. Do I need to rush to a colleague’s defense? Again, no. If it was about correcting his error, Nancy would have taken care of it, not me. But we’re used to people disagreeing with us, we expect some of them will be rude about it, and we’re not surprised if some them lie. It’s no big deal, especially when it happens off in a corner like this.

I have history with Mehta, though, and with a lot of other New Atheists besides. Although maybe we can start calling them Old Atheists instead: The movement we once called “New Atheist” has crumbled and disappeared, leaving only a few last lonely bloggers to carry on its sorry tradition of sneering at religion under a false veneer of rationality.

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But New Atheism’s influence still remains. Hemant Mehta is still following Richard Dawkins’ lead, pitching their tainted view of a Christianity that’s cruel, abusive, unjust, and evil. That’s the same Dawkins who devoted an entire chapter of The God Delusion to the despicable, demonstrable nonsense that abusing a child sexually is kinder and better for him than raising him to believe in Jesus.

If that makes you angry, good. There’s no reason it shouldn’t. Just do the right thing with that anger. Above all, speak truth and teach truth. Guard yourself and your loved ones from accepting all forms of nonsense, but especially this kind. Because while the New Atheist movement has weakened, its lies live on.  Once in a while it’s worth reminding ourselves of their tactics — so we don’t get taken in, and our children don’t, either.

 

Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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