Transcript - Get Your Spirit in Shape: How Science Led from Atheism to Faith
Listen to, download, and subscribe to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Joe Iovino: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
Today’s guest is Mike McHargue. Mike is known in the podcasting world as Science Mike. He’s the host of two very popular podcasts: Ask Science Mike and The Liturgist Podcast. Mike, a member of Good Samaritan United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, Florida, has also recently become an author, with the release of his first book, Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found it Again Through Science. In our phone conversation, we talk about his journey, doubt, practicing our faith, mystical experiences and the presence of God. Enjoy.
Mike McHargue: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Joe: As we begin, can you tell me a little bit about Good Samaritan United Methodist Church?
Mike: Yeah, it’s you know, it’s a very wonderful, I’m trying to think of the word I’m looking for here.
Joe: It’s okay.
Mike: Almost a weirdo church. I'm not saying anything about my congregation, but you know, today, the mainline is somewhat defined by a graying experience a little bit of maybe a homogenous experience, and our church is very age diverse, ethnically diverse, racially diverse, income diverse. It’s full of artists and scientist and it’s the kind of place that I really look forward to going every Sunday I’m in town. And we’ve really, you know, we didn’t join the Methodist Church because of an affinity for Wesleyan theology, although I’m prone to have one. It was the connection to a local congregation that drew us in to Methodism as our faith practice, our faith tradition in Christianity. I think Good Samaritan does a great job of highlighting the importance of the local church in bringing to life the larger institution.
Joe: Wow that’s a great testament to your congregation. I know you may not have been home much recently. You’ve been on an extensive book tour and doing some Ask Science Mike live episodes, meeting with fans of the podcasts and promoting Finding God in the Waves. And I’m really grateful that you’re taking the time to chat with me today. The subtitle of your book, “How I Lost My Faith and Found it Again Through Science,” kind of gives us a clue as to what the book is about. So okay, if we start there?
Joe: So to lose something, you have to have had it at one point. So what were your early experiences of faith?
Mike: I was a young, conservative, evangelical. And you know, today there’s a lot of ink about maybe antipathy that young people have towards those families of churches. But my experience was wonderful. I was a really nerdy kid. I got bullied a lot.
Mike: And the sense of grounding I got from evangelical theology was very helpful in helping me survive my childhood, including the idea that God is personal, personally involved in our lives, that I had my own relationship with Jesus. So I would pray during recess while I was hiding at the edge of the playground to avoid getting beat up. And it fostered like a lifelong prayer habit, where prayer became my go-to means for starting my day, ending my day, exploring the day as it happened, and had a constant line of communication open to God. And that came from that tradition. And also, for a kid who doesn’t have any friends at school, it was nice to go to church on Sunday and Wednesday, and sometimes on Tuesday, and have kids my age, if not outright accept me, at least not be antagonistic toward me. And in that way, our church sanctuary was literally a sanctuary for me.
Joe: That was the place where you found comfort and solace and all of those things?
Mike: Comfort and solace and meaning. I knew my life had a purpose. I was following and serving God and always open to where God might lead me. And even as a young child, that sense of direction, that sense of certainty about what life is about is a great comfort.
Joe: Yeah, I can relate. So then, at some point, you went through a challenge to your faith. What got you to that place of questioning that place of doubt, where you became an atheist, in your words?
Mike: Well, I made it all the way to my 30’s with a good, a good you know, walk with God. And then my dad was the music minister at our church, and he had an affair, and decided he was gonna leave my mom.
Joe: Oh, no. Yeah.
Mike: I didn’t like that. But I thought I didn’t like it on biblical grounds more than personal grounds. And so I decided to do some extensive Bible study so that I could correct my dad’s flawed interpretation of scripture and God’s commandments.
Mike: So and that’s a very nerdy thing, right? The only way we can win any kind of confrontation is to have better data. So I approached the Bible like an encyclopedia, and decided I could read it in three months, because I looked at an annual Bible reading plan, and one day’s worth of reading in the Bible isn’t that much reading, really.
Mike: So I read four days each day, and it was, it was easy to do. I did read the Bible in three months.
Mike: And then I wanted to kind of make sure that, as I read it, I had mastered the material so I committed to myself that I would read it four times that year, and I did. And you know, it didn’t quite go like I expected. I found all kinds of problems with the Bible’s text when I read it that closely. I’d always been a daily Bible study kind of person, but I had studied the Bible with a Sunday school curriculum, or a study guide, or some kind of guided tour. And this was my first time going cover to cover on my own.
Mike: And so I found problems. I found what seemed like contradictions in the scripture. I found contradictions with science, which is almost to be expected in a book that old. And I found things that I found morally troublesome about God’s behavior in the scriptures. And so I did what many people would do in this age, when they face some kind of problem like that. I asked Google, and Google would kind of tell me what apologists had to say on these topics consistently. But it also introduced me to the writings of skeptics and atheists. And what I found was that whatever atheists had to say about the Bible, was kind of offensive and fascinating.
Mike: So it would offend my sensibilities as a believer, but it would be intellectually gratifying in a way what apologists had to say was not. And that process just repeated over and over, until I lost you know, my basic beliefs and understanding of God, a piece at a time.
Mike: Until there was nothing left. And when I realized there was nothing else, I was actually in the middle of praying, and I told God that I didn’t know why I was praying, because you don’t exist. And you know, just like that, my faith was gone, my feeling of God’s presence was gone, and I realized I was an atheist.
Joe: Wow. Was that an emotionally painful ex-, I mean were there emotions attached to that, or was it simply a rational kind of it’s gone?
Mike: Well, I think for a lot of people, that insight ends up being liberating. It’s freeing. They outgrow whatever understanding of God they had, and no understanding of God kind of takes some binders off of them. There are things we can believe about God that ultimately hold us back or harm us, I believe that genuinely. But in the case of me, I didn’t feel liberated. I felt grieved.
Mike: I felt like a loved one had died. I mean if you pray every day, and genuinely believe God as listening, if God has been the most faithful companion in your life, I was closer to God than any person alive. And so I had a tremendous, tremendous immediate grief reaction, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, all complicated by the fact that I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it, because I was a Deacon and Sunday School teacher, and leader in my church, and I couldn’t imagine what it would do to my wife or the students I taught in high school, Sunday School, or my friends at church, even the clergy at our church, if I showed up and said, “I don’t believe in God anymore.” So I both felt very, very, very sad, and very isolated, which is a very tough combination.
Joe: Absolutely. I would venture to guess that maybe not to the level that you felt it, a lot of us have felt those seasons of challenge or doubt, and feel exactly the same way. So who did you find to talk to? Was there anybody that you could talk to?
Mike: No, not really. I talked to a lot of books.
Joe: Okay, yeah.
Mike: I read a lot, and when I ultimately had some things I just couldn’t find myself through research, I went to forums online,
Joe: Oh, wow.
Mike: where I could anonymously discuss how I was feeling and what I was thinking, ultimately, with atheists.
Mike: So I developed a pretty intense, in terms of time commitment, practice of going online and discussing skepticism and free thought a humanism...
Mike: on the internet, even to the point I started, maybe after a year, kind of grief counseling other people who were losing their faith and letting them know that it would be okay, and there was hope in humanism.
Mike: All while teaching Sunday School.
Joe: Wow. And how did you come to reveal this? I mean you had this internet life. How did it come out in the real world?
Mike: I’m not sure I ever would have.
Mike: I mean after a while, it was pretty tiring to pretend to believe, but my wife could tell I guess as I got more and more tired of lying all the time, really,
Mike: she confronted me about it one night. And I admitted to her that I didn’t believe anymore, and we had some really tough conversations. And she agreed to keep, I asked her to keep it a secret, cause I was worried about fallout, and I told her I’d been doing this two years, we could at least take some time to work through this together before we tell the world.
Joe: Right, right.
Mike: If we tell the world. I was perfectly comfortable you know, pretending forever, if that’s what helps our marriage. But
Mike: She ultimately told my mom, and yeah, cause well she couldn’t talk to me about it. She didn’t know who to talk to, and she knew she could trust my mom.
Joe: Oh yeah.
Mike: But once your wife and your mom are talking together about you, I mean your days are numbered.
Joe: You’re probably in trouble, yeah.
Mike: And that created a small circle of people in my life who knew I didn’t believe anymore, and it kind of created an uneasy truce and a lot of tough conversations with people trying to persuade me and win me back to faith. The problem was in the arguments they had, I’d already considered and had rebuttals for, which I was very hesitant to share, because the last thing I wanted to do was start them down their own road of doubt.
Joe: You didn’t take any joy in kind of coming to this conclusion. It was a relief, but it was not easy.
Mike: It wasn’t. And once I got to a place, and I did get to a place where I found a lot of meaning and hope in humanist philosophy, I lost my sense of you know, nihilism and I had a new way to derive ethics and morality, found new ways to find meaning and purpose, but one place I differed from other atheists was I didn’t have any antipathy towards faith. I understood what faith did for people and why it was beneficial, which by the way, having talked to a lot of atheists, most atheists don’t have problems with faith. They just want to be left alone about it. And there’s this like really vocal minority of atheists who are antagonistic towards religion. But they’re a minority that just happens to get most of the media attention, because it makes better news when someone says “religion should be banned” or you know, is an opiate for the masses, than someone who says “religion is just not for me.”
Joe: Right, right.
Mike: That’s not a good headline.
Mike: But I never had that feeling that religion was bad, because I remembered all the good things that faith had done for me. And the last thing I wanted to do was send someone needlessly down a journey towards skepticism. I did want to help people exercise their faith as healthy as possible, which is why I tended to speak in religious language still when I talked about social issues or poverty or whatever.
Joe: Sure, okay.
Mike: I was willing to use whatever language it took to get the intended result.
Joe: And then, at some point, do you have an experience that begins a journey back to faith? Is that a good way to describe that?
Mike: I guess it’s a good way to describe it. To avoid making this an incredibly long podcast, I’ll summarize this relatively briefly.
Mike: But I got invited to a conference about creativity, led by Rob Bell. It was a small conference, and for those who are listening who maybe aren’t familiar with Rob Bell, he’s a renowned pastor and author. And so I went to his conference. We talked about creativity, and it was lovely, and then the topic of skepticism came up, and I noticed that all the pastors in attendance, well, they didn’t speak kindly of atheism or atheists. And I found that very troublesome as someone who didn’t believe. And I stood up and said my peace in that environment, and including asking a question, “So how can anyone who understands how the universe works believe in God.”
Mike: And the room was incredibly gracious to this kind of tirade I went on.
Get Your Spirit in Shape
Mike: And actually thanked me for sharing from my heart and so they, there were things they all could learn from that, and I didn’t expect that. Christians don’t often respond graciously to people who express doubts about God, because if someone doubts God, there’s an implicit critique in your belief in God in their lack of belief. And our understandings of God, our religious beliefs are so closely tied to our sense of identity. We don’t like our identity to be challenged. But the way that they graciously responded to me, I think paved the way for everything that followed. To close up the conference, we took communion together, the Eucharist, and I felt very cynical about that. It seemed kind of like something a youth pastor would do with the youth group in a retreat, not something that professionals discussing creativity would do together. So I decided I would just go up and shake Rob’s hand to say thanks for our time, to be polite before I left. And when I went to go shake Rob’s hand, of course, he held out a piece of bread, which put me in a quandary. Do I pretend to take the Eucharist out of social pressure,
Mike: And if I do so, will all these pastors go back and tell their churches that they saw an atheist receive Christ, and then I become like an email forward that grandmothers send their nephews.
Joe: Did that really run through your head at that moment?
Mike: It really did.
Joe: That’s amazing. Okay.
Mike: Or do I just turn and leave, which is kind of rude, but doesn’t give the wrong impression?
Mike: And so I decided to turn and leave, and I kind of shifted my weight toward my heels, I heard a voice, which sounds pretty crazy because it is. And the voice said, “I was there when you were 8 and I’m here right now.”
Mike: And that reminded me of the playground, and praying during recess, and it reminded me of all the ways that talking to Jesus had helped me survive my childhood. And it’s not like in that moment I believed Jesus existed. I was frankly very bewildered by what I’d heard.
Mike: But I realized I hadn’t really honored what my faith had given to me, so I took the Eucharist, kind of in memory of the Jesus I knew.
Mike: But not believing that Jesus was alive for real. And it put me in a very unsettled place. I actually cried as I ran out of the room. And later that night, really early in the morning, like 3 o’clock, maybe 2:30, something like that, I went out on the beach to pray, to kind of figure out where I was with God. And my prayer was very accusatory. I told God about the logical impossibilities of God who intervenes in the world, the ethical problems,
Mike: very, very pointedly critiqued the God described by Christianity and all world faiths and expressed my total confusion. But also, my regret that we didn’t talk anymore, and that I didn’t feel God’s presence in my life anymore. And so I said, “What if we make a bargain? I commit to being broken and poured out for others, the way that folks here described Jesus as being...
Mike: for the rest of my life.
Mike: But you and I keep talking. I suspect I’ll have mostly questions.
Mike: And I said, “No matter what happened, I know tonight that I met Jesus again.” And when I said that, the waves rushed forward on the beach and I’d been standing past the wave line. I didn’t want to get my shoes wet. And it rushed forward and washed my feet off and when Rob had introduced the Eucharist, he said that Christ’s final act of service was to wash the feet of his followers. And I felt in that wave, that I was marked as one of the followers of Christ again, not even knowing what that means.
Joe: Right, right, okay.
Mike: And then I look up, and I say, “Is this real? Is this happening?” And then I had what scientists describe as a mystical experience. I saw an incredibly bright light that seemed to be shining through kind of reality itself, that ultimately enveloped me and I felt warmth, and I felt God’s love for me and God’s grace, and I felt that for everyone else. And time just kind of stopped and I was just in this other place.
Mike: Until I came back, standing in the middle of the night on the beach of the Pacific Ocean, across a continent from my home, with wet shoes, thinking what just happened.
Mike: And that’s not, it sounds like a movie. It sounds like happily ever after, but it wasn’t, because I still didn’t believe in God. I still had all the same questions. I had all the same inability to parse through the logic of God’s existence that I had had four hours ago. But what I had was this experience, which at first, I thought was probably brain cancer. I actually got a CT scan to make sure I didn’t have a brain tumor.
Mike: And when I didn’t have a brain tumor, that’s when I started saying, “Well, I have to figure out what that was and what it means.” And that’s how ultimately, I started studying cosmology and particle physics and neuroscience to understand you know, what we experience when we experience God, and what we’re talking about when we use the word “God.”
Joe: Yeah. Did you have a science background before this?
Mike: Well, I took six weeks at community college, so I’m not exactly an academic powerhouse.
Mike: I have always been a computer person.
Mike: And quite accomplished in that. I started several businesses based on that skill set.
Joe: Oh wow, okay.
Mike: And the engine that powers computing is physics, so if you want to learn enough about computers, ultimately, you have to get into physics to learn how …conductors work, how micro processors are manufactured.
Joe: Sure, okay.
Mike: And that was kind of my gateway as a child into the sciences, and it created a lifelong fascination with science and what science does. So I’ve always been good at self study, but I don’t have any kind of academic qualifications or credentials.
Joe: Right. But your deep dive happened after the mystical experience, that you really went into
Mike: Well, I had already done a deep dive as an atheist, because cosmology kind of became my new means of achieving awe.
Joe: Oh, okay.
Mike: So it wasn’t that in the beginning, God, I still wanted to know where we came from.
Mike: And that was cosmology, but now, after the mystical experience, this deep dive, in particular, was looking within what I understood about cosmology and directing further research into the edges of cosmology. Is there room for a God that creates and sustains the universe in physics? And then, when I found that you know, there’s something certainly there that we could call God in physics, but that God would be deeply impersonal, how is it that we experience this impersonal force so personally, and that’s what got me in ultimately to neuroscience and neuro theology where I found how we come to know and relate to God, and it was there that I found and empirical justification for the practice of Christian faith through neuroscience. And it’s through that practice, this is very Wesleyan, it’s through the practice of faith, ultimately, that theology started to open up for me, again. But I had to have that empirical grounding that I wasn’t wasting my time when I read the Bible, I wasn’t wasting my time when I prayed, and I wasn’t just deluding myself whenever I used the word “God.”
Joe: And I get the sense in your book, that you kind of hold these 2 things in tension. One is that you desire a theology that makes sense, but then you’ve also had this mystical experience that doesn’t quite fit into that. And one of my take-aways is that you kind of give us permission to be okay with that. Is that fair to say?
Mike: Absolutely. And if people are looking for like a definitive apologetic text, that’s not my book.
Mike: My book does help people who are doubting engage in the practice of faith, but it’s not even an attempt to answer all the questions. It’s a guide to asking better questions.
Joe: That was actually my next question for you. What role does doubt continue to play in your life of faith, or does doubt continue to play a role in your life of faith?
Mike: Well, on the one hand, like what is there for me to doubt, because I have such an open posture to faith. I don’t know what existential doubt would look like today. But I do doubt things all the time. The difference was when I went through my loss of faith, doubt was attached to fear and anxiety and shame, which made it very destructive. And now when doubt shows up, you know, we crack open a beer and I say, “What are you thinking today, buddy?” And I understand that doubt is just a way of testing ideas and learning, and I actually delight in it now, because I don’t hold my map of the world in such high regard. I’m much more trusting that the universe is God’s and not mine.
Mike: And what I get is this delightful journey where I get to discover all these things in the order of creation and the magic and mystery of creation. And sometimes, I’m gonna discover and I’m gonna be wrong, and I’ll figure that out later, and now I look with great anticipation and excitement every time I figure out I was wrong about something, that means I’m learning even more about God. And there’s always more to learn about God. It seems to me in the biblical narrative, that any time that people felt like they had this thing figured out, that’s when the wheels came off. And the exciting times in biblical history are the reclamation of faith or the rebuilding of the temple. Those are the times when the relationships between God and man seems most intimate and most healthy. So I say let’s just keep rebuilding. Let’s never assume that we’ve got everything figure out.
Joe: And so if you were talking to someone, and I’m wondering if you get this question on Ask Science Mike, “How do I continue to be a person of faith in the midst of my doubts?”—what kind of advice do you give people who are maybe wanting to stay away from church cause they feel like you did, like “I can’t talk about that here?”
Mike: Find some people that are interested in those questions. Find some people that aren’t afraid of questions. They exist. They absolutely exist. If you’re in a context where you living out in honesty a pursuit of faith, which is what doubt is, that’s not a healthy place for you. So go find people who want to have the conversations. You know, I’ve found that a lot of churches all are open to these conversations. A lot of even institutional denominational churches are happy to host a space and provide everything you need to engage this process, including an easy way to connect with other people.
Mike: But do this in community. Don’t exile yourself, and if you’re in a community that would exile you for it, that lets you know that’s not a healthy community for you.
Joe: Well said. Wow, well said. Thank you. Before we go today, I want to give you an opportunity to talk about your other podcasts. Can you tell me a little about The Liturgists Podcast?
Mike: Yeah, The Liturgists Podcast is something Michael Gungor and I started up, and we take a given topic, and we look at it through three perspectives – science, art, and faith, cause we found that, typically, in media at most, two of those perspectives were invited to the table. So our goal is to have artistically informed, scientifically informed, theologically informed, philosophically informed look at you know, the most pressing issues of our day and just weird stuff that we enjoy, like eschatology. We did a show on eschatology that was really popular, if you can imagine that.
Joe: Oh, cool, yeah.
Mike: So you can learn more at TheLiturgist.com/podcast. It is an extremely popular program, with over a million downloads per month. And The Liturgists is very much, if you listen to that program, whoever you are, you will be challenged.
Mike: But you’ll find that it is designed to be extremely open and almost to launch you into your own period of examination and research into a topic, as opposed to us providing you with a set of answers or viewpoints.
Joe: Yeah. And then, tell me a little bit about Ask Science Mike.
Mike: Ask Science Mike is a weekly question and answer program, where I answer literally any question sent in by the audience. It was originally designed to be a show where people of faith could ask science questions.
Mike: And skeptics could ask questions about faith, and although that still plays a role in the program, it has turned in also to kind of an advice show and people talking about things they’ve been afraid to ask in other contexts.
Mike: They ask questions they can’t ask anywhere else. You know, as I mentioned earlier in the program, I don’t have any qualifications to answer questions.
Mike: So my only commitment is to be very honest and authentic, and show my work. So when I research a question, I include links where you can go check my answer and do your own research. But the point of Ask Science Mike is not that I’m good at answering questions. The point of Ask Science Mike is all questions should be allowed.
Mike: That people shouldn’t be ashamed, and we shouldn’t fence people in with taboos when they are trying to learn. And that approach has led to, again, a really popular show. Like I’ve been going around the country and talking to sold out rooms every week for Ask Science Mike Live. So you can learn more about Ask Science Mike by going to asksciencemike.com.
Joe: And lastly, I need to ask you the question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape. What spiritual practice or exercise helps you connect with God? What would you recommend that we might try out if we’re not already doing it?
Mike: A daily practice of centering prayer. I try to do 30 minutes a day of centering prayer every day. It just it changes the way you relate to God. It changes the way you see the world, and it’s really a refuge. I mean think about today, the bombardment of social media constantly on your phone, the news cycle right now is horrifying and continuous. And centering prayer is such a refuge against the noise and chaos of our daily living. It’s time to just sit in the presence of God in silence and if it sounds boring, it’s actually maybe the most refreshing thing I do. And I would highly recommend you consider maybe a five minute a day practice or something, just to start and see if maybe that can play a role in your spiritual formation.
Joe: Can you just give us a little more of what that looks like? How is it different from other kinds of prayer?
Mike: In typical prayer, you’re going and you’re talking to God. And in centering prayer, you’re going in silence before God. You go, like I go in a specific chair in my house, and I shut the door, and I put phone on airplane mode, and my computer is off, and I start by closing my eyes and sitting up straight and focusing on my breath, just becoming aware of my breath, and then as I have like little thoughts or feelings pop in, I just kind of acknowledge them and dismiss them and then probably for me, I’ve done it a lot, so 30 seconds in, a minute in, I switch my focus away from my breath and towards a word or image related to God. And then I just keep my intention on that word or image for 30 minutes. It is not only refreshing, but incredibly neurologically beneficial, based on research.
Joe: That’s a great practice that I think we can experiment with. Thanks, Mike. It’s been great talking to you. I encourage people to go get the book Finding God in the Waves, and thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
Mike: Thanks so much. Have a good one.
Joe: Thanks. You, too.
That was Mike McHargue, Science Mike. He’s a podcast host, author of Finding God in the Waves – How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again through Science, and a member of Good Samaritan United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, Florida.
If you want to know more about Mike, his podcasts, or get his book, go to our website UMC.org/podcasts. Look for Get Your Spirit in Shape and then the page for this episode with Mike McHargue. There, we have posted links to where you can buy his book, directly to his podcasts and his website.
You’ll also find a link to my email address on the page where you can send me comments and ideas for future episodes of Get Your Spirit in Shape. In the coming months, we’ll have an episode on what we can learn in the hymns we sing during Lent and Easter with United Methodist Wesley scholar, Dr. Paul Chilcote, who I talked to for the Christmas episode. In another episode, I’ll interview a United Methodist pastor, blogger, podcast host and new author, Jason Michelli, who’s written a book called Cancer is Funny – Keeping Faith in Stage Serious Chemo. I’m looking forward to meeting him and having that conversation.
The best way to avoid missing any of these episodes is to go over to iTunes, GooglePlay or Stitcher and subscribe. We have links on UMC.org/podcasts to help you out.
Thanks again for listening. We’ll be back soon. Peace.