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At the Table with “Science Mike” McHargue


Ever read a book and have that feeling that someone else is telling your story?  You find yourself saying over and over again “No way, me too!” or “I thought I was the only one who thought that!”  Mike McHargue’s brand-sparkly-new book Finding God in the Waves did that for me, and I’m sure does that same for those who long for a faith that has room to breathe in open air of science and mystery.

The first half of the book is Mike telling his story of losing his faith and finding it again.  He’s talked about this journey many times in various podcasts and other settings, but his book contains the expanded version with more detail and (often hilarious) side excursions.  Mike is also a fantastic storyteller, so I found myself enthralled and totally caught up in the story even though I knew what was coming up next.

In the second half of the book, Mike goes into detail on how he rebuilt (and is rebuilding) a faith that is firmly grounded in science while remaining open to mystery.  He describes how he built his axioms, how he approaches basic practices like prayer, the bible, and attending church.  This section was helpful and encouraging, especially the way he, as only Science Mike can do, lays out how far the latest scientific research can take us, and any steps he’s choosing to take beyond it.

Finding God in the Waves gives voice to a growing chorus of people in western religion.  People who want to question and pull at loose threads, see what stands up to scrutiny and what falls apart, but don’t want to turn their backs on faith completely.  If you’re disillusioned and deconstructed, this book is a beacon of encouragement.  If you’re not there, I’m sure you know someone who is, and this book will let you peer behind the curtain and see what’s going on in their minds and lives.  Pick up a copy, it’s available everywhere today!

One of the most beneficial things for me in the last couple years has been to just sit and listen to people share their stories and perspectives.  Scientifically, that’s the best way to realize lasting change, and it’s certainly changed me.  “At the Table” is an interview series on thePhilBritton designed to do just that: sit across the table from someone and let them tell you what the world looks like through their eyes.

I can’t think of a better person to kick this series off with than Mike McHargue.

Thanks for taking some time to answer a few questions, Mike! To set the context for people who may not be familiar with your story and your work, what is the elevator pitch for your upcoming book, Finding God in the Waves? What other projects are you involved in?

Finding God in the Waves is about how I lost my evangelical Christian faith and became an atheist, and ultimately found God again though a mystical faith based on neuroscience and cosmology.

How did you earn the nickname Science Mike?

I was at a party in Denver. My friends have a party game where they give me beer and then ask me science questions. My friend Sarah laughed and said, “look at Science Mike wowing the crowd.” From that day forward, all my friends called me Science Mike.

If I were browsing the shelves of a bookstore and saw your book, there’s a chance I’d label it another “had faith, lost faith, thankfully came back from my backslidden-ness” story. But you didn’t return to the same belief system you had before, it’s radically different. How would you describe your return to faith?

Other than an emphasis on Jesus, there is very little in common between the faith I have now and the faith I grew up with. I rely on science as the ultimate arbiter of facts about reality, while my faith is a personal, subjective exploration of that reality. This isn’t a simple “lost & found” testimony, but more what it means to wrestle with American protestant theology in an age where science has better answers for many of life’s grand questions.

You found God again through science. A common view in America, though, is that science is at odds with faith, or probably more specifically the bible. This is actually a pretty recent phenomenon, though, right? What caused this shift towards people of faith viewing science with suspicion?

Well, there has always been some tension between religious institutions and science, at least as long as “science” has been a thing. The tension comes when science makes an evidence-backed claim about reality, like “the sun is the center of the solar system” or “the diversity of life is the result of a natural process called evolution via natural selection” and then religious people reject the claim on theological grounds.

The scorecard in these battles is one sided–science wins. But this tension isn’t inevitable, if we learn to allow science to speak authoritatively on facts about physical reality, while allowing religion to inform our response to those facts.

“Deconstruction” is becoming something of a buzzword lately. What is deconstruction, and why is beginning to be talked about so much?

Deconstruction is the process of taking apart your assumptions and testing them via skepticism. I think people are talking about it a lot because we’re in a period of social and religious upheaval, and simple appeals to institutional authority aren’t enough to keep people like-minded. I think the Internet is fueling the trend–different perspectives are just a Google search away.

Some of the common feelings that accompany deconstruction are fear, disorientation, and a sense of emptiness. There also tends to be a lot of cognitive dissonance between entrenched beliefs and new information. What’s happening in the brain during an experience like this, and how did you move through it?

Well, it’s tough to answer this specifically–we’re in the early days of brain imaging, and I haven’t seen a study that specifically addresses the emotional components of deconstruction or doubt. But a few themes from neuroscience may be instructive.

First, our brain is made up of hundreds of structures that each have their own “goals” and “desires.” Our consciousness emerges from a messy process where all these systems build consensus based on how we process our sensory data. We experience this as a single, unified narrative, but it’s anything but.

One thing evolution has honed in us is a desire for certainty. When we make good predictions about the future, we have better survival odds. But deconstruction reveals that ideas we had a lot of confidence in may have been questionable, and this creates stress. The stress is amplified by fear of social consequences like shunning or rejection–a truly terrifying prospect for a social mammal.

I think there’s a tendency for people who’ve gone through a season like this to try to “evangelize” their friends and family, and get them to question and pull apart their beliefs, too. Likewise the opposite happens when their friends and family think they need to be “brought back.” What’s going on here psychologically, and what could healthy interactions look like between people on these different paths? What would a healthy community look like, one that embraces both of them?

We tend to build communities on points of affinity, and for a few hundred years–since the Enlightenment–that point of affinity has been “we agree on these ideas.” This is especially pronounced in modern Christian denominations–and most produced in the experimental religious incubator that is America. When people disagree, they start a new denomination and denounce everyone else as a heretic. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.

But it also destroys relationships. I think a healthier path my lie in finding new points of affinity. Instead of rallying around what we believe, perhaps a better point of affinity is what we want to do–how can we help address the pain and suffering in the world? From that perspective, each person’s journey may offer valuable insights, regardless of how much we “agree” with their beliefs.

I’m enough of a science nerd to sound smart to people who aren’t science nerds, so bear with me through a couple Ask Science Mike questions:

One of the things that’s exciting for me is the speed and frequency at which we are making new discoveries. What are some of the big science questions that you hope to see a breakthrough in during your lifetime?

I’d love to see a discovery that lets us grow our understanding of quantum mechanics beyond the standard model. What is the nature of gravity? Today, we don’t have a clue.

I’ve been fascinated by quantum physics since I was a kid. One line in the online description of your book reads “…how God is revealed…in subatomic particles…” Could you elaborate a bit?

That’s really tough to do in short form! I needed a whole chapter in the book. X-D

Anything else you’d like to add?

Not at all! Thanks for the questions!


Peace and Tenacity,