We’re iPhone carrying apes from Mars,” Mike McHargue said to a crowded church auditorium in Denver on a warm September evening. The sweaty crowd laughed, and McHargue smiled from beneath his red beard.
In the past two years, McHargue has emerged as an unlikely pied piper for young Christians questioning their faith. An evangelical-turned-atheist-turned-Christian-once-again, McHargue, better known as Science Mike, has turned reconciling science and faith into a career. He hosts two podcasts, Ask Science Mike and The Liturgists, which together have hundreds of thousands of followers. His new memoir, Finding God in the Waves, outlines how he went from devout Christianity to atheism to something you might describe as scientific faith.
McHargue has a new book and a growing audience, but the question is how effectively his approach can speak to young people who feel uncomfortable with the church.
Raised Southern Baptist, the church was central to McHargue’s life, and so was tinkering with technology. When he was eight years old he disassembled a VCR and, using found items, built a model of the proton packs used in Ghostbusters. In school, he taught himself basic programming by modifying educational computer games.
Eventually, McHargue told his wife that he was an atheist. In the memoir, he writes about how she tried “to evangelize me,” sure it would bring him back to God. But it didn’t. That night, McHargue writes, “a rift opened up between us.”
This is a classic narrative for an era of disaffiliation. But McHargue took an unexpected turn, establishing an understanding of God that, he says, allows his scientific and spiritual minds to coexist. He came to know God “through the lenses of cosmology and neurology,” as he described it to RD in an interview.
McHargue’s religious experience came after a serendipitous weekend that began with a visit to NASA and ended at a Rob Bell event where McHargue, for the first time, told a room of believers that he was an atheist. The crowd was welcoming and he felt inspired by Bell, so McHargue chose to take communion there anyway. It was after communion that he took a walk along the beach and started speaking to the waves about his tumultuous faith.
The waves responded, McHargue says, when he spoke Jesus’ name.
“Time stopped. The waves seemed to stand still, as if an unseen hand had pressed pause on the universe’s remote,” writes McHargue. “I felt God with me, in me, and through me.”
But even after hearing God, his scientific mind struggled with his reemerging faith. “I would doubt my own faith. Like, I had this mystical experience, and I got a CAT scan, because I thought I had a brain tumor. That was my first most likely explanation of how I met God,” McHargue told RD. “I had this crazy skepticism. But I valued that moment on the beach.”
McHargue turned back to science to help him understand his re-emergent faith. He explored cosmology to develop a new understanding of God. He read about how the brain processes spiritual experiences. Drawing from both his mystical experience and scientific exploration McHargue tried to create a kind of system of faith⎯ten “axioms about Christian faith” that, he has written, form “a fence” against his doubt.
Scientific faith for the 21st century
Over the past two years, McHargue has developed this peculiar blend of geekiness, rationalized faith, and evangelical Christianity into a brand. In a typical episode of “Ask Science Mike” he might discuss the neuroscience behind repentance or the impact of cows on climate change; listeners sometimes call in with personal problems and the show is reminiscent of an advice column.
At its best, the show resembles a college classroom focused on critical thinking. The space exists to discuss, to explore, and to question. In one episode, a listener asks whether a human can survive in a fish’s stomach, as happens in the biblical story of Jonah. “Purely scientifically,” McHargue answers, “the story of Jonah is completely non-plausible.” But then McHargue explores the story of Jonah from the stance that God exists and can influence the world. “God could literally do anything,” McHargue said. “God could create a one-off fish whose only job is to swallow Jonah and have an oxygen rich environment for him to breathe for three days before vomiting him up somewhere. It’s plausible. But only because literally anything is plausible when you introduce an all-powerful actor.”
This is a very particular way to use science⎯as a way to understand a physical world, but also to experience wonder and reckon with faith. “Sometimes religion makes fact claims that are unscientific. Sometimes people have been taught those for so long that they feel they have to choose between science and God,” McHargue said. “But for people who have this longing to both accept a scientific view of reality and to experience historic Christianity, that’s what my work’s about. It’s not for everybody.”
There’s a long tradition of those who favor a more metaphorical approach to scripture, and that it’s possible to see God’s hand in the world without denying scientific discoveries. McHargue, who has a penchant for clichés (“Science gives us fact. Faith gives us meaning”), is hardly a trailblazer int his respect. So what, if anything, is different about Ask Science Mike?
According to McHargue, his work is uniquely suited to a digital world. “We’re this work for the Internet age,” McHargue said. “In a world where every idea is a Google search away and there’s too much information to create a coherent narrative, how do we help people adapt to that world at the intersection of science, faith and art?”
“We’re using the Internet as a response to the Internet. The Internet is what’s knocking the boxes upside down,” he said.
But people have been questioning and doubting their faith since long before the Internet. More importantly perhaps, is that the Internet is revealing anxiety and doubt faster, more publicly, and to more remote spaces than we’ve seen in previous eras.
The increase in the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones,” population in the United States over the last decade has led some to conclude that the American public is becoming less religious. The Pew Research Center published data in 2015 showing that the religiously unaffiliated comprise 23 percent of the American public and much higher rates among Millennials. More recently, Pew reported that over half of the nones have a low or medium religious commitment.
But does this mean the religiously unaffiliated are not religious? Or does it just mean we need to readjust our definition of religious commitment?
The term none “becomes a catch-all for a lot of different people,” says RD contributor Kaya Oakes, author of the The Nones Are Alright, pointing out that the term was constructed by polling firms.
Surveys conducted by Pew or the Public Religion Research Institute do not provide options that would explain the diversity of religious commitment in the United States. Public knowledge about the nones remains limited when we use a polling term that overlooks people who may identify with multiple religions or still believe in religious ideas, but do not want to belong to an institution.
In her research for The Nones Are Alright, Oakes says she encountered folks who identified with a Christian identity, but did not go to church. This is the population McHargue and Gungor belong to and seek to speak to through The Liturgists.
“It is a mass disaffiliation movement. It is not a secularization movement,” McHargue said about the rising number of religiously unaffiliated. “Why? Because the church was an abusive uncle for a long time and it’s reaping what it has sown.”
Oakes stresses there needs to be an understanding that disaffiliation “has become normative.” Religious affiliation is not always a transition from one religion to another. People are “curating and assembling an identity” outside religious institutions that can be permanent, Oakes said.
At least in theory, that’s the space where McHargue works with his Ask Science Mike podcast, and also in his collaboration with Michael Gungor, The Liturgists. In the re-configuration of religious practice in a digital society, why can’t a podcast be a church? The Liturgists produce “liturgies,” albums of musical meditation and prayer. The Liturgists podcast can function as the sermon, offering insights on suffering, art, and the Christian celebrity.
Like much else in the postmodern religious landscape, though, this is hard to define.
“It’s so cliché. We don’t label ourselves, man,” McHargue says, laughing. “We’re a meta-religious community? A meta-religious meta community? A loose affiliation community around religious ideas probably.”
The confusion around how to define The Liturgists extends to how McHargue and Gungor’s fans describe their religious identity. In September, I spent two days at a Liturgist gathering in Denver, where about a hundred people had come together for discussion and worship.
One woman in the audience described herself as post-Christian. Another man asked if it were possible to be a Christian atheist.
Elena Fouch-Watson, a white, 24-year-old graduate of a conservative Christian college, described herself as an “agnostic Christian.” While Fouch-Watson doubts the existence of God, she still identifies with aspects of Christianity.
Jasper Peters, a 32-year-old African-American pastor who still identifies with Christianity, described a key moment of connection that he had during the event. A young woman had asked on the second day of the Gathering where she could find a welcoming spiritual community or if it were possible to create her own, because she felt she didn’t belong in the options available to her.
“She’s saying where can I find a home? Where can I belong,” Peters said. “It was this amazing me too moment!”
Peters said he came to the Gathering to hear stories from people who had felt similarly “exiled.” The common “experience of not fitting in or feeling conflicted” was “unifying,” he said.
In that, he was not alone. Fouch-Watson called the Gathering “really encouraging.” After feeling “hurt and disenchanted” upon graduating from her Christian college, Fouch-Watson said the work McHargue and Gungor do “makes you feel not alone and not feel crazy.”
“This disaffiliation has been fueled by personal hurt and trauma. And all we’re trying to do is help people heal from it. That’s what the podcast is about, that’s what the book is about and, frankly, that’s what my life is about,” says McHargue.
‘Advocate of equality and justice’
Even though The Liturgists and Ask Science Mike focus on science and faith, McHargue doesn’t avoid the political. During the Gathering in Denver, McHargue connected the liturgical reading of Jeremiah 4:11-12 with contemporary events. He tied the passage’s description of barrenness and destruction to Flint’s water crisis and to Ferguson. McHargue also challenged the concept of the post-racial during the Gathering, explaining that many white Americans believe we live in a post-racial society because they can forget about their race. He and Gungor released a two-hour episode of The Liturgists dedicated to the experiences of LGBTQ persons in the church, in addition to episodes on racism in America and sexism.
McHargue acknowledges that podcast listeners have expressed discontent about the white, male viewpoint presented. People have tweeted about the lack of diverse voices on The Liturgists. An overwhelmingly white audience attended the event in Denver.
Certainly, though, the vibe of the Liturgist event was distinctive, if not always universally appreciated.
Merri Metcalf, a white, 27-year-old woman who recently moved to Colorado, said that the Kyrie (the repetition of “Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy”) reminded her of her old church. It triggered the “disconnect” she used to feel at church, she says.
“What I was taught didn’t line up with my experience of being human,” she says of her religious upbringing. Just because the Gathering liturgy brought up old feelings of hurt, Metcalfe isn’t upset with McHargue and Gungor. She’s “thankful,” she said.
“We’re trying to reinvent and re-contextualize the liturgy for the age of the Internet skeptic. So a lot of what we’re doing is blending ancient liturgy, evangelical liturgy, culture, and science. Put it in a blender and see what comes out. Sometimes it tastes terrible. We fail at it sometimes,” admits McHargue, referring to the rituals of the Gathering.
Indeed, the liturgy incorporated meditation and a drum circle. Gungor led everyone in prayer during which people assumed different physical positions⎯seated, standing and kneeling. He then engaged the room in reflection on the connection between body and spirit, questioning how everyone felt their prayer transform in each pose.
“A liturgy is just a ritual designed to help people meet God,” McHargue says. “It’s trying to evoke a feeling in you.”
You could feel the well of emotions opened by the Gathering as the crowd chanted shalom in unison and silently served each other the Eucharist before leaving the Church for the last time.
In the middle of this moment of mutual reflection a few heads were bowed, not in contemplation, but to examine their phones.