Mike McHargue, also known as Science Mike, might sound familiar when you hear his voice. He is co-host of The Liturgists Podcast, and host of the Ask Science Mike podcast. In September, he released his first book, Finding God in the Waves, which tells the story of his tumultuous faith journey and explores the ways that science has deepened his Christian faith. Below you can listen to or read the conversation Cara Strickland had with Mike about his book.
Cara Strickland: Hi Mike, it’s so good to talk to you today.
Mike McHargue: Oh Cara, it’s my pleasure. I’m so excited to talk with you.
CS: Let’s get started. Tell me a little bit about your book.
MM: Well, Finding God in the Waves is my attempt to help people make peace with God in the context of modern science. That’s something more and more people have difficulty doing, at least if the kind of demographic data we see from survey houses is true. The whole point of my book is to convey that via really my own story, my own faith experience, which is a very common one. I grew up in the conservative Evangelical tradition, I started to doubt, I actually became an atheist as an adult, and then I had this really wild mystical experience where I felt like I was in the presence of God, which was a really confusing thing for an atheist. So I ended up kind of working through an understanding of God, starting, not from the scriptures and theology, but instead from cosmology, astrophysics, quantum physics, and neuroscience. Kind of in a nutshell, that’s what Finding God in the Waves is all about.
CS: Obviously you went through a very intense faith transition, I think that is something that many of our readers are also experiencing, what advice would you give for those who are also on that journey, as well as for those who love them and want to support them in the midst of that?
MM: Well, I’d probably give two pieces of advice, one for each group. For the people who are going through the period of doubt, you can feel very isolated and lonely, you might even feel like you’re the only one. Just understand that, statistically speaking, if you’re part of a faith gathering of any size, it’s very very likely that other people in your community are going through the same thing and are just as afraid to talk about it as you are. For your own health, your own well-being, it’s really important that you find people you can confide in, who you trust, who can listen, who can support you, and who can love you. That can help you avoid some of the darker emotional effects, from this feeling of loneliness and isolation.
Now for people who are on the other side, who love someone who is going through some kind of faith transition, your first instinct might be corrective teaching, might be to quote scripture, might be some other corrective action. That is generally the wrong response. The best thing you can do for a doubting person is to offer love and acceptance and affirmation. The first and best response may be a hug, and not to quote scripture. That’s because the tendency that people have to move to corrective action sends a message to the doubting person that the relationship is conditional upon their beliefs, which only increases that sense of loneliness and isolation. In my case, there’s no way I would have ever returned to Christianity if it weren’t for the very gracious and affirming responses of many Christians when talking about my doubts.
CS: I think that a lot of our readers will be able to relate to a fear of studying science or worrying that it might disprove their faith. Do you have any suggestions for those who are wanting to get started?
MM: Well, you know, it depends on where you’re starting with faith. I think some traditions of the Christian church have greater or less comfort with the claims of science. So, for example, if your take on Christianity is very dependent on six day creationism then some of that fear might be warranted. Most scientists are going to say that that’s not a really reasonable interpretation of scientific data. On the other hand, there are actually six-day creationists who are successful practicing scientists. So what you’ll find is that, no matter what your views theologically about different things in science, there are ways to approach science from that mindset that don’t put it at odds with your faith. So if you’re feeling really comfortable with where you are with God and you want to learn more about science, maybe start by studying the work and writings of scientists who have similar theological views to yourself as opposed to people who have very different views. As you grow more comfortable, through that process, with evaluating scientific claims for yourself, you can start to broaden your aperture and read people whose theological leanings may be increasingly different from your own, but whose scientific claims you can judge well. For example, here’s a great one, Richard Dawkins is really corrosive to read about theologically, when he writes about theology he basically dismisses theology as having any validity, but when Richard Dawkins speaks to evolutionary biology he is actually a world-renowned expert and extraordinarily helpful.
CS: Do you have any thoughts on how someone might discern whether somebody’s theological views match up with their own as they’re getting started on that process?
MM: There are organizations that almost vet or aggregate the work of scientists based on their theological positions. So Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, for people who are extraordinarily conservative theologically, can link to working scientists who back up that view. A, maybe a bit more accepted, in the broader realm of science, group would be a group like BioLogos whose work is all about helping Christians reconcile evolution with their faith and includes a number of Nobel Prize winners and practicing scientists amidst their organization. And so you just kind of find groups that speak well to that. The John Templeton Foundation is a great resource because they fund actual research that sits at the intersection of faith and science.
CS: Many people, I think, go through seasons of doubt or a paradigm shift from the faith of their youth, though perhaps not always as dramatic as yours. What would you tell your doubting or changing self now if you could speak to him?
MM: Well, statistically about 44% of Americans go through a faith transition at some point in their life, so that’s a very high number. If I were to go back and tell the 28-year old Southern Baptist version of myself what was about to happen, I would say: don’t worry about it so much. Don’t be so afraid. When our ideas about God start to lose traction it’s typically because we’re growing in some way. So I would say, enjoy the gift of new learnings and new insights, and be less afraid about where you may be going, or where the experience may take you. Doubt is only a corrosive force when it’s accompanied by fear. When doubt is coupled with wonder, it’s just a way to learn.
CS: What are some of your favorite intersections between faith and science?
MM: My absolute favorite is neurotheology. That’s where brain scientists study what the human brain does in response to beliefs about God, and it’s such an incredibly encouraging field of study because it reveals our faith practice is something that’s healthy and beneficial, not only for ourselves but for how we participate in society. I also particularly enjoy cosmology and quantum physics because we brush up against the edges of reality, the most fundamental and the most grand scales of material existence, and in those places I most readily see the work of God.
CS: Would you tell me a little about your work as a podcaster?
MM: Sure, it’s all completely accidental. My friend Michael Gungor and I started a collective called The Liturgists, basically with the goal of producing spiritual art for people who didn’t really have spiritual art that spoke to them because it was too overt, or failed to incorporate the learnings of science, or was too constrained by puritanical ethical considerations. We were trying to create these monthly releases and we got really tired, so we decided to slow down the releases and launch a podcast on the side. The Liturgists podcast ended up rapidly overtaking our primary work to the point, today, where it gets over a million downloads a month. The people who listen to The Liturgists podcast started messaging me on Twitter saying they would like to talk about science even more than we do on that show, and if we did that it would just be a science show, so I said we can’t do that. They said: well, what if you started another podcast where you just answer science questions? So I said okay, no one’s going to listen, but I’ll do that. So we launched as Science Mike and before the first episode came out we had 3500 subscribers, and today it’s good for a solid 350 to 450,000 downloads a month, all from something that was the audience’s idea, and frankly they host, I’m the guest every week on a show that’s hosted by the audience.
CS: As you’ve sent this book into the world this past month, who are you hoping will read it and what are you hoping they will take away?
MM: There’s really two groups I think of for the book. One is the person who feels spiritually homeless or frustrated, who feels like they don’t belong. They feel uncomfortable in the church and they feel uncomfortable outside of it. They aren’t sure what they believe about God, or maybe they don’t believe in God at all, but they have some longing for God. For those people I would hope that they would pick up the book and get two hundred and eighty eight pages of ‘me too, you’re not the only one.’
But what surprised me is how many people are reading the book who don’t belong in that group. there’s a lot of atheists reading the book, there’s a lot of Christians, including conservative evangelical Christians, reading the book. What they seem to want from it is an understanding of people on the other side of this atheist/theist divide or people who are at some point of transition in between it. I would hope those people can learn how kind, reasonable, thoughtful people can be either a Christian or an atheist. Maybe they can have a better conversation with each other for a better understanding of where those beliefs come from.