I might never have heard of Science Mike (Mike McHargue) had I not already been a faithful listener of the RELEVANT Podcast where he’s invited over now and then to help settle debates or make us all smarter in general. That was where I first learned about his book, too: Finding God in the Waves: How I lost my faith and found it again through science.
Right away I knew I needed to read this book.
Of course, I’ve never had a problem reconciling science and faith. After all, my dad’s a man of faith and a man of science. He even has some impressive credentials with his undergraduate degree from MIT where he studied aeronautics and engineering before switching to the left coast and studying engineering and computer science at Stanford. His Ph.D. in computer science comes from a less prestigious university, but the point is, his brain is hardwired for science. I can’t remember a time when our kitchen table didn’t have publications such as Science, Astronomy, ACM, MIT Technology Review, etc. spread across it. On top of that, he’s always admired and respected Carl Sagan and eagerly purchased the box set of Cosmos almost as soon as it came out on DVD (along with such nerd, sci-fi classics as Star Trek the Original Series, The Hellstrom Chronicle, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Contact).
My dad is also a man of faith and when I was growing up, he made sure we all went to church every Sunday. Granted he raised us in the Presbyterian church (PCUSA) which was one of the more “liberal” denominations where women could be ordained as ministers and doubts and questions were not discouraged. He spent many years as an elder or a deacon and frequently taught classes and/or led small groups.
Dad never saw the Bible and science as being at odds with one another because, as he put it, “If you want to learn about science, you read a science textbook. If you want to learn about God, you read the Bible.” He was an evolutionist as well. It wasn’t too much of a strain for him to believe the creation story wasn’t meant to be a literal account of how the world was made. And even now, if there is something he doesn’t know or understand, he isn’t afraid to say “I don’t know” and seek council from someone with more knowledge in the matter.
So when I first began learning about the New Atheist movement and meeting people who took real issue with anyone who claimed to be Christian but also claimed to believe in science, I was taken aback. What was so wrong with calling that which was beyond the realm of science God?
Unlike Mike, science didn’t kill my faith. Nonetheless, I had no trouble identifying with his loss of faith. Of course, my story is quite different and I’ve told it countless times over the years. I don’t think it needs to be told here (not yet at least).
When I publicly renounced my faith in 2006, I wrote an essay explaining why. I didn’t have a blog back then nor had I signed up for any sort of social media service. Instead I sent this to friends and family on my email list. It went something like this:
First and foremost I must send my apologies to the friends and family who strove for so long to guide me and mold me in the faith of their fathers. Although I know you did it with the best intentions, the time has arrived for me to move on, evolve, progress, and change. After careful consideration following years of indoctrination, I have at last come to the conclusion that I can no longer adhere to the old ways. That is to say, I can no longer call myself a Christian. Nor can I embrace any religion the world has to offer me. In the following discourse, I lay out the research and experiences that have led me to this conclusion.
I began my journey very pious in my faith. So much so, that I was certain only my beliefs were true and anything beyond them were of the devil. I observed the world from my comfortable certainty of a blissful afterlife and cried that so many would not be with me. My emotions, backed by a self-proclaimed loving church, drove me to tell others about what I had found, why I was so joyful, so blessed, and how they could be too. It saddened me to think that other religions had deceived their followers. It never occurred to me that I too had been deceived.
The problem was, I was lying even to myself. Truth be told, I had never experienced real joy as my parent church told me I would. Perhaps, I thought, that was coming in the afterlife. But even I couldn’t explain a loving God condemning his own creation to hell simply for not believing. I wondered, too, if that was where I should go.
Overtime I’ve been letting go of this black and white view of life and death. By and large, the people who have been the most caring in my world have been non-Christians. I remained pious as I transitioned from high school to university. That first year away from home I studied at a Christian school, but, as I moved on to a more liberal and secular university system, I came to understand that there was much more apprehension toward Christianity among those with a higher education than those without, sometimes stretching as far as anger.
I remember words of caution from my Christian friends as I told them I was transferring to a non-Christian school. They said my faith would be challenged as never before, so I must be ready to defend it. Don’t trust any source other than the Bible. Avoid taking courses on philosophy or religion at the university. Be well grounded in apologetics. Do not read material that is anti-Christian lest you give the devil a foothold.
That failed to strike me as odd until I began to branch out and encounter people with different faiths, cultures, and worldviews. All of a sudden it struck me that, if my faith were the one, true faith, then it should be able to withstand the onslaught of contradicting ideas. Oddly enough, I had pitied other religious groups for not reading literature that contradicted what they believed solely on the basis that they had been told anything written to bring down their church was bad. Now days I wonder how I ever did that without seeing how greatly I was contradicting myself.
Though my current train of thought can be largely attributed to discussions I’ve had with other people over the course of the past five years, there have been a few books recently that have also played a pivotal roll in shaping my worldview…
Contradictions between Christian churches also led me to dig deeper to unravel the secrets of the book and the religion that has shaped western civilization for nearly two millennia. It always boggled me how a religion that was supposedly peaceful still used words like “spiritual warfare” and “God’s army”. It also boggled me how a religion that was seemingly very attractive to women in the first century C.E. became one of the most oppressive religions the world has known.
I’m not angry for all those years of blind belief. However, the freedom I have now is far greater than the one promised to me by the church I was raised in. Therefore, I encourage everyone, no matter what your creed, to stop and question everything. Next time you partake of a sacrament or rise to sing a hymn, stop and ask yourself why you are doing so. Where did the words come from that you utter so mechanically during a service? If you were not raised in the your faith, would you still believe it?
As I look at world politics and the war on terror, I realize how quickly the world is decreasing in size. We can now contact someone on the other side of the world with the click of a mouse. The flow of information and ideas that we have access to now is unprecedented. I believe that is why fundamentalists are so frantic about guarding their way of life. However, change is on the horizon and no one can stop it.
… I want to thank all of you, because my way of thinking has been so deeply influenced by conversations with others, I can honestly say that there is not one among you who has not taught me something that has aided me in my journey. However, my journey is not over and hopefully neither is yours….
I obviously edited the above statement. I could’ve edited more but it felt so disrespectful to my younger-self to do so. She was really passionate when she wrote this. Of course, that was also a time when my tendency toward self-harm and suicide attempts was at its peak. Perhaps that’s why the following quote from Mike’s book struck me the way it did. He was responding to someone who was very critical of his return to faith and some of the things he’d been saying in public. Perhaps the person criticizing him felt betrayed in a way. Whatever the reason, Mike brought up an important point that I hadn’t thought of before but makes perfect sense to me.
“But if you follow my work, you know I’m not out to convince anyone of anything about God. My work is in response to suffering – there are people for whom the loss of God produces acute pain. Second, you’re right about everything you’ve said. My experience doesn’t prove anything to anyone – not even me.” (p. 139)
Two things stood out for me: the loss of God producing “acute pain” and a religious experience not being reliable proof for anyone, not even for the person who experienced it.
A few months ago I wrote a series of short monologues and one of them was about my desire to talk about Jesus. In the beginning of Mike’s book he writes about being a kind of social outcast (stereotypical “nerd” if you will) as a kid and God being like his friend, someone who was always there who he could talk to about anything.
That was how God was for me, too, especially when I entered my adolescence and didn’t feel like I could talk to my parents about most of the stuff going on inside of me. God was often my only friend and I could actually imagine him holding me while I wept because no one else was ever there to hold me. And this concept of God as my best friend carried over into my young adult years and played a crucial role in my first mental breakdown at age twenty-three, while I was studying abroad in France. Religious experience mixed with mania and psychosis if awfully hard to defend, especially if the experience was so impactful and so beautiful to you that you simply don’t want to chock it all up to some sort of brain malfunction. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In mid-summer this past summer, I wrote this:
…In fact, to make this easier on all of us, I won’t call myself a “Christian.” It’s not like I belong to a church anyway. Why would I tell you to do something I don’t even do?
Just go ahead and call Jesus my imaginary friend because to talk to someone you can’t see or hear requires a bit of imagination. Call me stupid, irrational, spineless, and childish if you wish but I’ve been trying to cope with being alone for a long time now. It’s not easy when you’ve never quite felt like you belonged anywhere. My closest friends, even my own family, don’t “get” me most of the time. But this Jesus fellow, he gets me. He knows me better than I know myself.
So why don’t you humor me a bit because I don’t have a close friend or a lover anymore. I don’t have someone in my life with whom I feel comfortable enough to share everything. But this Jesus guy, my “imaginary friend” if you will, is all of that and even though I can’t hear an audio voice or feel his physical arms around me when I need someone to comfort me, I still sometimes sense he’s there and it brings me peace.
That’s what I want to talk about, but I won’t because I love having you for a friend and I really don’t want to scare you away.
I did not realize it at the time but much of my “pain” when I abandoned my faith was directly linked to the loss of my best friend and, at times, my only friend: God.
Books fed my doubt when I turned away from my faith. But my return to faith was also fed by literature. I have a tendency to read a book and think the author and I could be best friends. Mike McHargue refers to Donald Miller and Rob Bell, two of the authors who helped me return to faith as well and both of whom I’ve also met. But, unlike Mike, I don’t know how to talk to people I admire when I meet them in real life. With both Bell and Miller I became completely tongue-tied and I think I said something really stupid. I met Rob Bell fairly recently so I can say for a fact that it all went downhill after I mumbled something along the lines of “I don’t know how to talk to celebrities.” But, at least my discomfort and embarrassment made him laugh. If Science Mike ever does a signing here in the Phoenix area, I’ll probably just write a note and hand it to him. It’s so much easier than actually talking.
By the way, I love Mike’s advice for how church people should handle doubt:
“If you’re a Christian who wonders what to do with someone who’s in doubt, consider these words carefully: Love and grace speak loudly. The first and best response to someone whose faith is unraveling is a hug. Apologetics aren’t helpful. Neither are Scripture references. The first thing a hurting person needs is to know they’re not alone.
“My path back to God was paved with grace by those who received my doubt in love.” (p. 119)
Returning to church has been a bit of a challenge for me. No offense to Mike, but I think it’s probably easier if you’re married with children. My quest for a church home is much more difficult when I’m searching alone. And then I have the mental illness thing plaguing me. I once tried to go to seminary but I was too afraid to tell them I had bipolar disorder. I was too afraid to tell them my experience with God was basically dismissed by everyone because it was mixed with mania and psychosis. Hyper-religiosity was the name the psychiatrists gave to it and ever since it happened, my life has been derailed. I was told I couldn’t live and serve in a developing nations if I was taking psyche medicine. I was told most missions or humanitarian organizations would reject me because I’m basically a liability. What a foolish idea to think that I could serve God or even encourage other people to serve God when I’m severely mentally ill!
But I miss being part of a faith community. I suppose I’ll have to drive farther than I’d like to find one but I love Mike McHargue’s list of what a church should be.
“When it comes to finding a congregation you can serve as part of, there are two things you have to look for: a church that is safe and a church that will challenge you. You should find a church that can share or accept your views on evolution, same-sex marriage, social justice, and environmental concerns; that’s part of what makes it safe. Your church should affirm you and accept you exactly as you are, should celebrate how you were made and how you’ve grown, and should tend to your wounds and love you as you heal. But it can’t stop there.
“Your church also has to challenge you to become all you can become. It should comfort you, but it shouldn’t let you get too comfortable. The people of your church should challenge rote thinking and decision making and prompt you to put your ideas into love action – to embody the Gospel with hands made dirty by work in the world. The congregation should empower you to serve the world with grace and to see that world with ever-more-loving eyes.
“I’d go so far as to say it should make you become more like Jesus, but don’t tell anyone I said that.” (p. 223)
Anyway, all this is to say, I thank God for Mike McHargue and I’m so glad he shared his story. I’m going to give my copy away, but not as an evangelical tool. I have more friends who are skeptics than I have friends who are believers but they’ve been handed books and tracts from so many well-meaning religious folk that they just don’t care anymore. They’ve heard hateful words from street-corner preachers and have had door-to-door salesmen hang religious flyers on their doorknobs or ring their doorbells in an attempt to force religious beliefs upon them face-to-face. Therefore, if a skeptic friend wants my copy of this book, he or she need only ask. I have only one copy but I will pay the postage to send this copy anywhere in the world. That’s how important I think it is.