Well, now you have. Mike McHargue, better known as Science Mike, was a Christian fundamentalist who secretly became an atheist in young adulthood, only to become a progressive Christian two years later. Somehow, Mike’s entire story, told in his new book Finding God in the Waves (also available in audiobook format), is even more bizarre than its highlights.
The Death of God
What happens when a good, committed Evangelical Christian stumbles upon New Atheists (including Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion)? If he happens to also be a science nerd like Science Mike, then he does what Mike did: he admits that he has no good evidence for the existence of God, and so he becomes an atheist.
That part of the story is easy for me to understand. Skeptics like Dawkins make short work of the notions of God tossed around many Christian circles.
But here’s the odd part: Science Mike came back to faith two years later. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, then-atheist Mike heard the voice of a Jesus he didn’t believe in speaking directly to him. In response, Mike eventually created his own alternative to both atheism and what he calls “orthodox” Christian theology.
What is God “about”?
If Mike’s new account of faith is anything, it’s experiential and pragmatic. Despite his doubts, Mike can pray to God because there is good evidence that prayer has concrete benefits, regardless of whether God really exists or not. Even among atheists, prayer has been shown to increase the brain’s capacity for compassion and empathy. Mike constructed a bare-bones notion of God that he could honestly believe in, and then dove right back into prayer.
Conservative believers might object, insisting that “true” Christians must accept a fixed definition of God, perhaps found in Scripture or a creed. But Science Mike has neuroscience on his side. Evidently, brain scans show that for believers, their notion of God has more to do with nonverbal experiences than a set of beliefs.
What about the absence of God?
I have struggled with the absence of God throughout my life, as I have shared before. When I first encountered serious doubts about my faith, I felt that God instantly vanished, right when I needed God most. Why was that?
St. John of the Cross has his own answer to this question, but Science Mike has another. According to Mike, studies show that our experience of God has a lot to do with what we associate with God. When we associate God with love through the regular practice of prayer, we prime our brains for meaningful spiritual experiences. Yet when we associate God with the more logical, reasoning side of our brain, the opposite can happen.
God disappeared when I encountered intellectual doubts. According to Science Mike, this was probably not a coincidence. Rather, my anxieties over competing beliefs gradually shifted my notion of God from experience to articulated ideas. If Mike is correct, in order to experience the closeness of God again, I must re-wire my brain by consistently investing time in prayer and meditation.
My only beef with Mike is that, although he seems to be doing the work of a Christian theologian – that is, interpreting the meaning of God, Jesus, faith, church, and Bible for our current context – Science Mike, as his name suggests, seems to be far more acquainted with recent neuroscientists and astronomers than other theologians. Even so, Science Mike’s Finding God in the Waves is easy to read, hard to put down, and full of insights into the intersection of God, science, and day-to-day faith.