Series 16: For the Love of Faith Groundbreakers | Episode 02
Can Faith Withstand Doubt? Mike McHargue’s Journey to Atheism and Back
When Mike McHargue, AKA Science Mike of The Liturgists Podcast, stopped by to visit with Jen, we knew we were in for some mind-bending stuff. After all, you don’t go from a Southern Baptist deacon to an atheist back to a follower of Jesus without gaining some wisdom along the way. But in our next installment of For the Love of Faith Groundbreakers, Science Mike helps us understand the kind of God we believe in, whether he is angry or loving, has a profound effect not only on the way we view the world, but the actual way our brain functions. *cue mind-blowing explosion* Along with his brilliant insights, Mike shares his faith journey and how he navigated the most difficult parts of his changing views—including why he stayed at church, despite his nonbelief—and how a trip to NASA and a night on the Pacific Ocean helped him re-meet God in a whole new way. Like Mike, so many of us have asked tough questions, and maybe have meandered through spaces of doubt and uncertainty. Mike reminds us we can be kind, conscientious people no matter where we find ourselves on our faith journeys, and we can have wandering seasons and still be okay.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people every week on this podcast. Thanks for listening! We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey, you guys. Jen Hatmaker here, host of For the Love Podcast. So glad that you’re here, welcome to the show.
We are in the middle of a series that you guys are just giving us so much buzz about. It’s called For the Love of Faith Groundbreakers. You may remember, if you’ve been listening for a while, last year we had another faith series that was so dynamite. It was twice as long as our normal series because there was just so much in it. And a ton of you requested another faith series, and so I was super happy to oblige because I live for this space, obviously, like, listening to wise teachers, asking some questions that don’t always have clear answers. These conversations are so good for my soul, but they also light a fire under me, and they convict me to want to know more and do better, and especially to listen to voices that have different experiences from my own, different perspectives, different interpretations.
Like, so every single one of the guests in this series has stepped outside whatever comfort zone exists for them in their subculture of faith, and have leaned in to new or challenging spaces, even uncomfortable and so, I think that’s how we grow. I think that is literally the definition of growth and courage, and I’m just happy to host some of these conversations on this podcast today.
I’m especially happy you’re here for today’s talk. So many of you already love him, my guest is literally one of the most thoughtful, brilliant—and I’m not dropping that word lightly—insightful people out there. He’s living in a really authentic way that you’re going to hear, and making a really, unique space for other people to think and to ask questions in a safe, safe way, which is needed right now. We need that.
And so, if you don’t know him, just to you wait, you’re really in for a treat. This whole conversation is wonderful. I mean, you are going to be locked in to this arc of his story. And it’s just an amazing, beautiful story of a really great guy.
You probably know Mike McHargue. You might know him as Science Mike, that’s really his moniker. He is an author, he’s a podcaster, he’s a speaker, he travels the whole world helping people understand the science behind life’s most profound experiences. And so, he hosts Ask Science Mike, it’s a weekly Q & A podcast that helps people explore questions they’ve always been afraid to ask. And he co-hosts The Liturgists Podcast with Michael Gungor, and William Matthews, and the very wonderful Hillary McBride, who we had on this show a few weeks ago, talking about body image and embodiment. And that conversation just rocked my world in the best possible way—yours too. We’re still getting emails on that episode. It was so, so special. And so, we’re going to talk about The Liturgists, because it’s a really special place for the spiritually homeless or the spiritually frustrated, and they’re really doing amazing work.
And so, he has gone through some pretty profound changes in his faith over the past decade. You’re going to hear him talk about that today. And he’s very transparent about all of it, which I told him later in that hour, I’m like, “That draws me to you, it does not push me away from you. What that communicates to me is you are trustworthy, and you’re genuine, and you’re sincere,” and he is all of those things. And so, I’m tickled he’s on the show today, and I think you’re going to love this one, you guys.
I’m very pleased to share my conversation with a very smart, very wonderful Mike McHargue.
Jen: All right. I am super happy to have my friend, Mike, on the podcast today. Welcome to the show.
Mike: Oh man, I’m like, “Pinch me!” I just can’t believe it.
Jen: Knock it off.
Listen, about a year ago, I was on The Liturgists, your podcast, which is just dynamo. I mean, it is just really dynamo. You guys are nailing it in, literally, every category. It’s one of the only podcasts that I listen to on the regular, and I loved being on it. I loved being on the show, thank you for inviting me on. I think a year ago or so, we were talking about the state of the evangelical church, which was just a simple little conversation. That’s real easy.
And I told you then, something that I even believe more so now, which is, I am grateful for you and your crew, and just the space you make. It feels like room is ever shrinking. Everybody’s just, it’s more comfortable and easy to be in silos and sort of cordoned off from one another, and you kind of do the opposite. You make room, and you hold the curtain back, and you invite a lot of chairs to the table, and I think that’s why people love you so much. So I really appreciate you being on here today. Thanks. Thanks for being awesome.
Mike: Thank you.
Jen: I’ve told our listeners a little bit about you. A lot of my podcast listeners are your podcast listeners too. But, as we take a deep dive into your life, I would love if you would give a little more context about your life to my listeners that are new to you, and how you have evolved into the person that I am talking to today. Because you’ve been through a lot, frankly, in the past 10, 12, years. This is your . . . I’ve heard you say this before, and it tickles me every time. That you’ve gone from a deacon in a Southern Baptist church, to an atheist, back to being a follower of Jesus, and that’s just interesting. This is interesting.
Mike: It certainly—the last part’s an unexpected twist.
Jen: And we’re going to get to it. And so, I would actually like for you to thread the needle a little bit for us and go back to the beginning, and then, we’ll pull the story through. Can you just tell everybody a little bit about growing up in Tallahassee, your childhood, what that was like for you?
Mike: Gosh, there’s maybe three things define my childhood. One, being in Tallahassee and its natural beauty and stifling humidity.
Jen: That’s fair. Fair assessment.
Mike: It’s a gorgeous place. but my word. If you better hang up a towel outside, it gets wetter, not dryer. And that would be one.
Two would probably be, I was a bullied child. I went through some pretty severe bullying as a child that I think it’s fair to say that I’m still dealing with the fallout of today.
And three would be that I was like a little Jesus kid. I mean, oh my gosh, more than most people.
Jen: Which is saying something.
Mike: Well, I think because for me, my relationship with Jesus, even as a child, was a matter of psychological survival. I didn’t feel like some guilt or pressure to pray. I didn’t have any friends, so Jesus was the only person who would talk to me as a kid. During recess, I would run away from the playground, because if I stayed on the playground, I got beat up, right?
Mike: And I would hide in the trees at the edge of the playground, and then, I would pray for like 22 minutes every single recess. And I’d ask Jesus about why he made me so fat, and why I didn’t know how to make friends, and why school was so hard for me. I got terrible grades as a child. But then, I would also just ask Jesus how butterflies could stay in the air.
Jen: Yeah, that’s how your mind works.
Mike: Right, and how trees can turn light into sugar. Those things fascinated me. And I developed this like really personal, genuine relationship with not only God the Creator, who in those days I would’ve called God the Father, but also explicitly with the person of Jesus Christ. And it would not be an overstretch for me to say that for most of my life, my childhood and into my adulthood, that Jesus was my best friend.
Jen: And so you grew up, what kind of church were you in at the time? What was your context for knowing Jesus?
Mike: Southern Baptist. So not just evangelical, but, like, evangelical evangelical.
Jen: That was my same.
Mike: But I loved it, I mean, I’m a straight white male.
Jen: Sure, that’s your context.
Mike: I have this experience, right?
Jen: You’re gonna thrive there.
Mike: Every time I would talk, I was told it was great and I should teach more. Every time I would quote from the Bible as a child, I received lots of affirmation. The other people my age at church did not beat me up.
Jen: Right, it was frowned up.
Mike: The adults, I was a stellar Sunday school student, even though, I was a poor school student. I received lots of encouragement and affirmation at the Baptist church.
And I also, and I think a lot of people experience this, one thing that’s so shocking for me about what’s happening in American politics and conservative religion today, is how truly and deeply apolitical the church of my childhood was, how consistently—how much I learned about being a decent person and caring for others from the evangelical church. I loved, absolutely loved my church. I only left the church that I grew up in when my parents did. And it wasn’t because there was a fall out, that was because my dad became the minister of music in another Baptist church in town.
I just had this, like, total love affair with the church. It wasn’t like a mega church, but it wasn’t a small church either. Probably about 800 people, which is just a really thriving size for a community. And I mean, the whole thing, from the hymns, to the potluck dinners, to the fact that when I accepted Jesus at age seven, I immediately was allowed to take the Lord’s Supper, this grown-up thing.
Jen: Oh my God. God, I could not wait for that.
Mike: And even vote in church business meetings.
Jen: Yes, true!
Mike: It all just felt so, so wonderful.
Jen: I grew up in a really similar environment. And one of my family’s funniest stories to tell is when I was probably seven or eight, very mature in my salvation—I mean, having at least logged two years of it. And my sister, who was five, and hadn’t yet walked in aisle and prayed with a deacon took communion during the Lord’s Supper one time, and I cried my eyes out. It was just all so wrong. How dare she? How dare she get to take communion before she had prayed with a deacon? I waited my turn, I waited. I mean, fury, absolute fury, I was devastated. So I’ve been this way for some time.
I appreciate the way you talk about your upbringing, because it is a really important backdrop to your adult story too.
Let’s move your needle forward a bit. It’s 2007. You’re married, you have two little girls. And as is expected, as would be the expected trajectory, you are a deacon in your grown-up church as an adult man.
Mike: Youngest deacon in the history of the church, by the way.
Jen: Congratulations! I mean, I hope you’re not unseated anytime soon.
And this is Southern Baptist, and so, of course, at the time, it’s 2007, you don’t exactly know that your world is about to blow up. And so, I wonder if you could talk about that year and how everything changed.
Mike: Yeah, everything was . . . I was convinced like I had figured life out, you know?
I’m in my early 30s, I got two kids. I’m not just a deacon, I also teach Sunday school. I play bass in the worship band. I am the kind of church member that gets called on to sub for the pastor when he’s out of town. I mean, really, really involved. And I just have to emphasize, over and over, genuinely involved. There was nothing performative about my faith.
And my dad, who was the minister of music at our church, and kind of like my spiritual hero. The person I tried to emulate that was my dad, which is weird because we’re so different. I’m like a nerd, computer programmer, and my dad’s like a former military, football player, steel and leather, clears timber in his spare time kind of person.
He calls this family meeting and says that he’s had an affair and falling in love and he’s leaving Mom. And I was really torn because I’m a beta male’s beta male, and this is my dad and he’s an alpha male and my dad. But what he’s talking about goes against my understanding of the Bible. His grounds for divorce was the heart wants what the heart wants, and I thought about what Jesus said about divorce, what Moses said about divorce, and neither of them ever mentioned “the heart wants what the heart wants.”
So I prayed about it in the moment, and in the most objective, non-biased way possible—’cause obviously, I’m completely objective about my parents—I say, “Dad, are you a Christian?”
And he says, “Sure,” and he’s obviously confused.
Then I say, “Then your life is not your own, it was bought with a price. And there’s no biblical grounds for you to get this divorce. However, there are biblical grounds for Mom to divorce you if she wants to.”
I said, “Mom do you want to get a divorce?”
And my mom starts crying and she says, “No.”
And I’m like, “Well, that settles it, dad your request for divorce is denied.”
And my dad’s like so confused, and I say, “Don’t worry, you and I are going to go through the Bible study together, we’re gonna kick the devil out of your life.” I literally said, “We’re gonna kick the devil out of your life.”
Jen: It’s so earnest, it’s so earnest and dear. “It’s that simple, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it. Devil, be gone.”
Mike: Devil’s gonna go, he’s gonna flee when confronted with the truth of the word. And then, I tell my dad I’m going to be his accountability partner, which is clearly brilliant, right?
Jen: Not at all inappropriate.
Mike: I had distance as his son, to be his accountability partner. And by the way, I also think accountability partners are really important thing at the time. That total depravity was really baked in.
Mike: It didn’t work at all. My dad was wrestling. I think I extended his struggle to be on a trajectory that actually did end in divorce anyway. But since I’m a nerd, I’m like, “I’ve got to be able to know all of the answers here.” But luckily, God put all of the answers to every question in a book called the Bible, which I’ve read a lot, but I need to like power lift right now.
So I read the Bible in like three months, cover to cover. And then, I read it again, and then, I read it again, and then, I read it again. But the first read-through was for Dad. The second read through was for the questions the first-read through went through. And the third read-through was just a desperate attempt to not become an atheist from reading the Bible.
Jen: Wow, gosh.
Mike: And a lot of people get upset when I say that, intense Bible study made me an atheist, but it’s true. More than anything else, it was an earnest desire to address a problem in my life and find an answer to that problem in the scripture that drove me away from God.
Jen: Can you talk more about that? Did you have some key tension points? Was it more generalized? If you could sort of, in retrospect, go back in and kind of undo that part for us. Can you talk a little bit more about that for you, what was going on inside your head?
Mike: Absolutely. As an evangelical, I understood that the important thing was that you read the Bible, and that you just read the Bible. People would talk about hermeneutic, I’d be like, “That’s ridiculous, you just read the Bible.”
Jen: It just says what it says. Yes, exactly. I’ve literally said that, I’ve written that in the book. I used to cling to that, and it was easier, I’ve missed those days.
Mike: It is easier, it really is easier. But that means, if the Bible just says what it says, anytime it speaks to matters in history, it’s right. Anytime it speaks to matter of science, it’s right. It’s not a history book or a science book, but if it talks about those things, the Bible reigns supreme as God’s word.
Then also, by the way, God wrote the Bible, the whole thing, every single letter. And I don’t mean from Paul. I mean a single element of text came from God. And that meant the Bible is free from contradiction and without err. So I would call the Bible in those days, infallible and inerrant.
So I started reading the Bible, and immediately, there are some problems. One, I know a lot about science, and it’s somewhat difficult to make Genesis 1 fit within a modern cosmological view of the universe.
Jen: Okay, fair.
Mike: For example, the idea of a firmament in the sky, which there isn’t one, we haven’t found one. I thought maybe it metaphorically talked about the great veil at the end of the observable universe, which is simply as far as light has been able to propagate since the Big Bang. But then it said that trees came before stars. And as a person of science, I understand that trees are actually made out of old, dead stars.
So that really confused me, but in this process, I would just ask God whenever I had questions. Because I tried to ask a friend or the pastor—
Jen: They’d panic.
Mike: They would panic. I just kept asking God about it, and God would say, “Well, I’m God and you’re just a person, so just trust me.” And I’d say “Okay.” That helped Genesis 1 for me. Then I read Genesis 2, and Genesis 2 tells a different story than Genesis one. Were on like the first day of my Bible plan, and it’s already going poorly. And that just kind of outlined my problems. One, I saw conflicts with science, I saw conflicts with history, but then I would find places where the Bible contradicted itself, and that was the point I couldn’t resolve. I could handle the other things as like, “Well, humans get it wrong, God has it right.”
But anytime it seemed like God was contradicting God, and that laid a foundation for me as I got deeper into the text and saw God taking moral actions I couldn’t condone. The genocide that’s recorded, for example, in the Torah, in the promised land, there were people living there already. And I could understand God is sending in these people to claim the land and even to fight enemy combatants. But when I get the passages where it says, “And make sure you kill the women and the children and burn all the livestock,” I’m like, “Wait, what?”
And then you get to the New Testament, and I really hate to use this phrase, but the scales are off my eyes at this point as I read the Bible. And I get to Paul, I’m like, “This guy is a nutbag. He’s a homophobic, anti-woman nutbag. What am I doing?”
And I started reading books by atheists and really got angry that their ideas offended me morally, but they made sense to my brain.
Mike: And it ended in a place where like, I was praying one day, my wife was out of town. And in the middle of my morning prayer, I said, “God, I don’t even know why I’m praying. You don’t exist.” And that was it.
Jen: Oh gosh, wow. I would love to hear how that went, because you were deeply embedded in your evangelical world deeply and sincerely up until that point.
And so, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how you managed this. Your wife and your mom knew, right? And I wonder if talking about, this is kind of where I’m at now, how did this affect your relationships with them? Were you scared? How were you managing this conflict between what you’d always had and known or believed, and then sort of this new space that you found yourself in? I’m real curious about that season.
Mike: Well, oddly enough, the tools of . . . you know, people talk about atheism, but atheism is not really a thing. Atheism just means you lack a belief in God or gods. That’s it, that’s all atheism is. It’s not a worldview, is not a philosophy.
So I learned pretty quickly that atheism alone couldn’t offer me any solutions to life’s problems, and you needed some kind of moral philosophy. And so I studied humanist thinking and humanist thought, and humanism actually became really helpful for me. It meant I could make my own choices. I didn’t make actions because of what God would think, because there was no God. I just made decisions to live a life that impacted the world. I wanted to see the world be impacted by.
And I really quickly decided I was not anti-God or anti-faith, because I saw so many people have tremendous, positive life impacts from religious community and spiritual practice. So I decided to literally become a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Jen: Wow, yes.
Mike: Without any judgment, I said, “Well, there’s no objective morality, it’s not morally wrong for me to pretend to be a Christian in a way that lets me protect my marriage and my relationship with my children, and avoid creating all the stress and anxiety for people in church.” So I started studying the Bible and the history of the Bible more than I ever had, so I could give the most compelling Sunday school lessons I had ever done.
Jen: So you’re still teaching?
Mike: I’m still teaching. And by the way, I should mention: for two years, my wife and my mom didn’t even know. It was just me, secret atheist. On the internet, anonymously, I would talk about how we need to transition to a post-faith world. But we as atheists need to be more understanding of people’s psychological needs that are met by religion.
Jen: That must have felt crazy.
Mike: Oh my God.
Jen: That had you felt crazy for you.
Mike: It did feel . . . yeah, I didn’t realize the toll it was having on me. What I didn’t realize, I was also in this grieving process about my parent’s marriage and the loss of God, so my head wasn’t screwed on straight to begin with. And it did, it had this perpetual toll on me. And then I felt . . . I didn’t think I was doing anything morally wrong, because there’s no such thing as subjective morality. But I did feel distant from all the people I cared about, because I couldn’t tell anyone what I most believed about the world. I gave great Sunday school lessons about why would we care for the poor, and people loved and it was the best lessons I’ve ever given and was when I didn’t believe in God. I led my oldest daughter to Christ as an atheist.
Jen: It’s just bananas.
Mike: Which was super conflicted for me.
Jen: I bet, I’m sure.
Mike: I cried when she got baptized for the wrong reasons. Eventually, I told my wife.
Jen: Was she really rattled?
Mike: Jenny? Oh my gosh. Jenny was so rattled. Like, existentially rattled.
Jen: I can imagine.
Mike: I mean, Jenny is, she’s a real person. I’m like this complicated, machine-like facsimile of a human being, but my wife is a human being.
Jen: She is.
Mike: And she’s less like, “Well, here’s this esoteric set of principles I’m working through, and they’re like, how do we eat? Do we have friends? The things that people do.” And so, all she sees is the potential for us to be completely exiled from our friends and family. That’s why she told my mom. And it wasn’t that she was like tattling on me, it’s that she was terrified.
My mom, of course, was completely unrattled.
Mike: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, my mom’s a hero of faith, like, a biblical hero of faith. My mom, she prays like 27 hours a day. I don’t know how it’s possible, you know what I mean?
Jen: She bends space and time for it.
Mike: Yes, so every verse in the Bible, she has on recall.
I’ve always said that she and my grandmother, they had like a red phone in their bedroom and they’d pick it up like, God on high picks up on the other and says, “What do you want to talk about today?”
Jen: That’s great. So, her faith, it just didn’t shake?
Mike: No, and I was afraid to tell people why I became an atheist, because I didn’t want to give them a mind virus that took their faith apart. Because I do, like, it’s strange if you’re a devout evangelical who becomes an atheist, because when evangelicals want to tell you about faith, you like, “Hey, I literally know all of this. The only difference between me and you is I know some things you don’t know.”
Jen: That’s right, I see.
Mike: And so, I didn’t want do that to my mom.
And my mom looks at me, and she goes, “You’re not gonna rattle my faith.” And I didn’t. I threw my best stuff at my mom.
Jen: I believe you.
Mike: And she said, “You just have an answer for everything, and the devil’s got a hold on you. That’s it.” And she said, “I’m going to pray that God moves in your life in a miraculous way, and you won’t be able to deny that it’s God.”
And I was like, “That’s great, I’m gonna ask Santa Claus for a pony. Whatever.”
But we entered this place where they knew I didn’t believe, they weren’t going to expose me. They were giving me the space to process and the space to do what I had to do.
Jen: And what did that look like? Did you step out of your church world at that point?
Mike: I should have, but I didn’t. It was a really pragmatic, ethical calculus. “I’m already lying, so, if I’m going to lie, which lie causes, in my estimation, the least harm?” It was a bad call, but it’s what I had at the time.
Jen: And so, how long did you stay the course like that?
Mike: Gosh, after Mom found out, it wasn’t very long. Because Mom started praying for a miracle, and then I got a phone call inviting me to go to NASA. And I mean, I’m a nerd, and nerds like technology and they like science. And NASA is like—
Jen: That’s your Mecca.
Mike: The king—yes, is totally Nerd Mecca. I had to fly all the way California, but I’m like, “Yes, I’m going to go to California to go to a NASA base that’s never been open to the public before. Where they rehearsed the Apollo landings! It’s insane!”
Jen: Right, this is special.
Mike: It’s super special. I go to NASA. But before I go, I also get invited to go to this conference about creativity hosted by Rob Bell. And I had liked Rob as a communicator. I was super suspicious of him because he was a pastor. But I was in advertising at the time. And I was, if you work in the ad business, people know you have this existential dread of, “Where do my ideas come from? And can I have 10 more by tomorrow?”
Jen: Right, it’s just ubiquitous.
Mike: This is 2012 now, and I go to this conference, and it was amazing. It really was about creativity. They didn’t over spiritualize things, they didn’t get preachy, God didn’t get mentioned that much. It was about like, theories of human consciousness and the processes that make creativity.
But then, somebody asked about atheism, and there was this weird energy shift in the room, where all these like progressive pastors and faith leaders looked insecure. And I didn’t like the direction the conversation in the room went because I felt like they mischaracterized atheism.
And there’s one thing that annoys me—two things, really. As a former Christian, I didn’t like it when atheist made cartoonish characterizations of Christians that weren’t accurate to the breadth and diversity of beliefs in the church. And frankly, how many Christians are genuinely, loving moral people who wants to make the world a better place.
But as a former atheist, and at that time current atheist, I get super annoyed in Christians who make cartoon characters of atheists, who are overwhelmingly moral loving people who want to leave the world a better place than they arrived to it.
Jen: It’s a great point.
Mike: And, so I stood up and introduced myself as a Southern Baptist atheist.
Jen: Oh man!
Mike: And then, I just went on this screed about why God was ridiculous. And I was like, “They’re gonna throw me out of their pastor party, but I’ve said it, it’s great.”
And that’s not what happened at all. Rob was super gracious, he leans forward on his chair, and Rob’s like 12 feet tall. So he leans forward on his chair, that he really leans forward. And he thanked me for being there and said they all needed to hear that. And that, whether I believed or not, it seemed like I was living the kind of life that Jesus approved of, and he just wanted to take a moment and celebrate that.
Jen: Wow, gosh.
Mike: And I think, yeah, how different is that from how we respond to people in times of crisis normally?
Jen: Opposite. Yeah, just opposite.
Mike: It’s opposite, yeah.
Jen: And so what happened? You’ve got NASA, you’ve got Rob, what’s going on?
Mike: Yeah, we kept doing the conference and I felt really good to, like . . . it felt cleansing to say to a room full of people I didn’t believe in God. It felt really good, it felt honest. Then I became aware of how much this dishonest cycle had been a pebble in my shoe and decided, “When I get home, I’m going to figure out how to step down from everything I do, and I’m going to figure out how to tell the world I don’t believe in God in a way that leaves the least blood on the floor of everybody.”
And we get to the end of the conference, they close it with the Eucharist. And I was like, “Come on, you gotta be kidding me. Is this youth group or is this a room of serious professionals?”
I hatched this brilliant plan to like, everyone’s supposed to come up and receive the Eucharist wherever they feel ready, and I feel like it’s rude if I just leave. I decided, I’m going to walk up but I’m going to point my thumb to this guy as I do. Like it’s very clear what handout give me the bread, thumb up, give me a handshake. My plan was to say like, “Good job, Rob, great weekend.” And instead, he holds out a piece of bread, and says, “This is the body of Christ broken for you.”
I said, “I can’t do this. If I eat this bread, they’re going to think I’ve come back to faith.”
So I leaned back on my heels to pivot and turn away. And what I did, I heard—I’m super self-conscious about this still, even though I wrote a book about it—I heard a voice, and the voice said, “I was there when you were eight, and I’m here right now.” And that was really powerful.
Jen: Yeah, it is.
Mike: So I took the Eucharist and I ran out of the room, I was crying. And then, a few hours later, I was standing on the beach, kind of screaming at a God I didn’t believe in, and I had a mystical experience. I saw a bright light in the air in front of me, just kind of cutting through the air in a very strange way. And it moved close to me, and as it did, I felt warm. And when the light touched me, all I could see was light. And I felt the divine presence, and it was beautiful.
Jen: Were you mad? Were you a little mad?
Mike: I was mad. I had kind of gotten the anger out, shouting. And at the other end of the anger, I admitted to God—I can’t believe it I still cry when I tell this—that I missed him. And I didn’t believe in Him, I sure missed Him. And that’s when the light showed up.
Jen: Lord. Lord, have mercy. Gosh, it’s just so powerful and wonderful, unexpected. I love that piece of your story so much.
And I tell you what I really love about you too, having sort of really looped through these massive tectonic shifts in your own beliefs: I love where it has landed you because you are . . . I learn a lot from you. I’ve listened to you talk about folks who are atheists and in such powerful ways like you kind of mentioned earlier, just this way to be human together and to be good neighbors to one another regardless.
Jen: It’s amazing to hear you talk about the way that believing in a loving God versus a vengeful God, it changes the way our brains work. This really, I’m dialed into this because I grew up in a similar environment as you. And so, can you talk for a minute about that? Because, I think it’s an important perspective to consider and, honestly, potentially life-changing for a lot of folks who were brought up with a notion of a God like keeping score in our lives, like, hard to please, weirdly arbitrary in the way he dispenses justice or favor. Really, really, like, good luck getting on His good side. Good luck staying on his good side.
And so, can you talk for a minute about how you understand a loving God versus a vengeful God?
Mike: When you believe that God is angry, it produces measurable impacts on your brain structure and your health. People who believe in God and believe that God is primarily angry or vengeful, their blood pressure is higher. Start there. They get increased activation in their amygdala, which is the part of your brain that coordinates fear and anger. So they get angry more easily, and that increased anger makes it hard for them to forgive themselves when they fail. And because they can’t forgive themselves, they can’t forgive other people either.
This constant fear that God is out to get us leaves marks on the brain and on the body in really terrifying ways. It creates xenophobia, it creates bias against what we call in sociology, any “out group” versus your “in group,” or your squad, basically. And it does actually provide really effective mitigation of impulse control issues in the short term. So if you think like a divine being is watching the cookie jar and will smite you if you take a cookie, that actually helps you fight impulse problems, which is why so many people going through substance abuse recovery find solace in fundamentalism.
Jen: Makes sense, sure.
Mike: The rigid structures and like God is the ultimate police officer image, helps them regulate their behaviors for a while, it’s not a permanent effect. But in the short term, it actually can be helpful.
But basically, belief in an angry God makes you a more angry, more fearful person who’s under chronic stress.
Mike: And when you look at someone instead who believes God’s primary attributes are love or mercy, a very different picture appears in brain imaging studies. One is that your blood pressure is lower, your stress levels do decrease. But there’s a couple of really fascinating structural changes in your brain. The first is that you get a thickening or richening of gray matter in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex, which is my favorite part of the brain because it’s where empathy and compassion emerge from. And then, the other thing you get is a richening and a thickening in your prefrontal cortexes, which is where willpower and agency live.
So people who believe in a loving God become more compassionate, more thoughtful and patient people, who are less fearful of people who are different than they are, and they find it easy to forgive themselves and forgive other people.
Jen: It’s just fascinating. Also, I love being on a phone call with my friend, who’s like, “Which is my favorite part of the brain.” I’m like, “Oh dear!”
Mike: It’s true though.
Jen: No, I know.
Mike: At some point, I’m gonna make a T-shirt that says, “Jesus lives in my anterior cingulate cortex.”
Jen: I’ll help you sell that!
That’s really profound to me. Neurology, biology has been an incredible instructor to me, I would say, over the last few years, all the ways that God has built in like biological rewards for wonderful behaviors, for connected behavior, for empathetic behavior. And it’s such a clarifier for me when I try to suss out, “God, what is actually your deal? What really is your deal?”
And I wonder if I can ask you, now, going back to your original tension point going through the Bible, “God, what is your deal? Are you a monster? Are you a literally a monster, a genocidal monster? Are you homophobic? Are you xenophobic? Are you a supremacist? Are you a misogynist?”
How do you now, at this point in your life, how do you make sense of the Bible now?
Mike: Oh, gosh. The Bible is amazing. There’s no one way in my opinion, to read the Bible. Sometimes, I use a historical critical lens, other times, I use a poetic lens. The Bible is harder to read than it used to be, because it means, to read it well, I have to read about what Bible scholars tell me about who the author was and what audiences they were writing to and why they were writing to that audience. Those are all really important things to get anything out of the text.
But I understand the Bible now, as this collection of documents—some of it art, some of it history, some of it poetry, some of it literally letters to other people about their experiences with God. And it’s so redemptive for me to understand that when I read the Bible, I see confusion, and I see uncertainty, and I see people who aren’t sure what God thinks about something or aren’t sure who God is at all or what God is like. And as someone who has been through so much doubt and so much questions about the nature and character of God, to see that an institution started by people who followed a guy named Jesus, it’s like the Now Music collection of spiritual writings for people in the Christian tradition, and I love them.
I literally read the Bible every day again. But now, as a source of solidarity, seeing how other people have struggled trying to follow God and wrote about it. Which means, actually, yes, the Bible is inspired by God. It’s inspired by people’s experiences with God, and it is beautiful, and it is irreplaceable as such a deep collection. Which, by the way, has there been any book with as much scholarship around it as the Bible?
Mike: There’s so many extra-biblical resources that help us get deeper into this text. And in doing so, not only understand God, but understand ourselves.
Jen: That’s great, that’s beautiful. That’s something that I’ve learned in the last decade too. It never occurred to me to read Scripture through the lens of genre, or literary devices, or human experience, or sort of ancient culture, and it is such a relief to do so.
And I’ve encountered the same as you, a lot of people who are like, “Well, if you are going to understand the Bible in a different way, then how can you know what’s true? How can you believe what’s real? What of it are you going to say, ‘Yes,’ and what of it you’re going to say, ‘No, that’s just human’s opinion or experience.’”
And I just find that’s not the way it’s played out in my life at all. It hasn’t given me a sliding scale of rules like people are, I guess, that’s what they’re asking. Like, “Which parts can be our handbook and which parts can’t?” And so, but rather, it feels much more alive and kind, and it’s kind of the story of God through mankind, and I love it. I love it again. It doesn’t scare me like it used to.
I’m want to talk for a minute about The Liturgists because I am just a such a fan, you have done a killer job of building a community for people to be curious, and to wonder, and to ask questions in a really, really safe place. And I would say that, I don’t find that incredibly easy to do. But the way that you and Mike and Hillary and William have just sort of built and maintained this base of yours is really inspiring.
And so, I wonder if you could talk about it for just a minute. How did it come into being? What was your aim here? I mean, you couldn’t have possibly known how wildly popular it was going to become.
Mike: Oh gosh, no.
Jen: No, you couldn’t have known it, or how many interesting tendrils it was going to spout off in a million new ways now. And then, what’s coming up for The Liturgists? What are you dreaming about for that space?
Mike: Okay, The Liturgists just came about because I met a guy named Michael Gungor, who was a worship leader and a bestselling Christian musician who didn’t believe in God anymore. And I had recently told the world that for a while, I didn’t believe in God, and now I did, but it was different. And he and I just became fast friends. And I think the reason why we came fast, the reason why we were both lonely. We had people in our lives who loved us and supported us, but nobody who had gone from profound and deep devotion to the Christian tradition to, “This is all made up.”
Jen: Right. That was a pretty big swing, to be fair.
Mike: And there are people who do that, but then do turn around and say, “But I still have some interest in this tradition.” Now that’s super weird.
I think that’s the genesis of The Liturgists is to not talk about answers but to honor questions. And we wanted to create a framework for people who had the same spiritual hunger that we did, where they could approach and practice spirituality without a bunch of communal expectations or expectations about belief. We said from the beginning, “Christians should feel welcomed and included here, but so should atheists. So should agnostics. And so should the largest, fastest growing group of people of faith in America: those who claim no religious identity whatsoever.
And at first, it failed spectacularly.
Jen: Did it?
Mike: As we deconstructed our faith, we started to deconstruct our politics, and our views on sexuality, and our views on social justice. And we became aware that if this conversation was gonna be worth listening to, it couldn’t be two men—and especially couldn’t be a white man and a mixed-race man who easily passes for being a white man.
So we said, “We’ve got to do better here,” so we started looking for who are some of the best voices that we could include? And that’s how we found Hillary and we found William. And of course, adding them to the program has been—
Jen: Yeah, monumental.
Mike: We see God more clearly when we bring the more fullness of humanity together.
Jen: It’s true. That’s exactly right, when we include their scholarship and experiences and communities.
And let me just say, Hillary is really something. She is something. We had her on the show a few weeks ago, and I mean, we are still, it is—everyone’s just buzzing about that episode with her. And plus her voice, I just wish she would speak to me all day. Just sit on the couch and say words to me, whatever they are. Her voice is so pretty.
Mike: Hillary is a singularly gifted person in so many ways. I’ve never met someone who is so intelligent and such a good communicator, while also being the best listener I’ve ever known.
Jen: And so, you rounded out the show. And I mean, talk about, you’re being modest, but, I mean, it just took flight. You’ve got a monster on your hands in a wonderful way.
Mike: I do all this because like, I know people hurt and they’re lonely. And so, those moments or times for me to connect with people and it’s really beautiful.
In season five, we’re still going to have four host but we’re expanding to a much larger cast of contributors.
Jen: I like this.
Mike: To get towards more inclusion, but also just to make the show better. And we, The Liturgists doesn’t exist to raise like me and Michael’s public profile. The Liturgists exist to create space and community, so we want to model that even in how the show is structured by having it involve more voices and more perspectives.
Jen: That’s exciting, I like that move. And I think your community will love it. Because you’re right, they come to you because they’re lonely and they have questions and they don’t know where it’s safe for them to ask them and to explore their own faith sort of trajectory. And so, I think that will be met with universal applause from your community.
Jen: And then also, just as we start to wrap it up here, I heard that you just finished your second book. Bravo! Congratulations!
Mike: I’ve finally sent something to the publisher, at least.
Jen: I mean, it’s just so monumental. Can you talk about it? Is it too soon? Can you tell us about it?
Mike: Oh, I can definitely tell you about it. The book is called You’re a Miracle (and a Pain in your Ass).
Jen: That is not the title, is it?
Mike: That is the title.
Jen: That is amazing!
Mike: It’s on Amazon right now You’re a Miracle (and a Pain in your Ass).
Jen: Oh, so fabulous.
Mike: Subtitle is Understanding the Hidden Forces That Make You You.
Jen: That’s so great, that’s so you. That is just so you that I just love it.
Mike: So like I talk about like in the book, and this might not make it. So this is a little gold just for you and your listeners.
Jen: For exclusive podcast bubble.
Mike: I talk about what anxiety is, how we actually understand anxiety in science, and how anxiety stands in as a way of helping us not experience less pleasant emotions.
While I’m writing the book, I said, “I’ll show you right now, I feel anxious right now, so what’s underneath this anxiety?” That took a moment. “Oh, fear. What am I afraid of right now? I’m afraid that because my book is late, my editor is not gonna like me anymore.” And what’s underneath that fear? Underneath that fear is a fear that, ‘I’m not a good writer. And if I’m not a good writer, then, I’m not worthy of love. And if I’m not worthy of love, it’s going to be like it was when I was a kid again, I’m just going to be all alone.”
Mike: And so, the way the book is structured is, me telling my stories and my listener stories of problems in their lives, and then, describing why those problems are actually amazing features of the human body that keep you alive.
Jen: That’s interesting.
Mike: But also how you can, according to both practices of faith and insights of science, how you can address some of those things in your life that make you a pain in your own ass.
Jen: Okay, that’s so great. That is so great. Let me ask you this quick question, we’re kind of asking everybody in this series this question. Let’s say, you could just have dinner with any, with a faith hero, somebody who’s just been really meaningful to you, who would it be?
Mike: Well, in my truly split-brain fashion, to honor my entire faith experience, it would have to be two people.
Jen: Okay, that’s fine.
Mike: The first would be Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer and astrophysicist. And the other would be probably James Cone, because Christianity started to make sense to me again, when I started to study it through the lens of people who did Christianity as a means of survival, and not a means of social acceptance or psychological coping.
Jen: That’s so good.
Mike: I wouldn’t have to talk at that dinner, I’d just listen to Carl Sagan talk to James Cone, I would probably learn a lot.
Jen: Yeah, I remember the first time I heard somebody say that in Western evangelicalism, what we have here is a group of privileged people in power trying to understand a sacred text written by people under oppression. And there’s just such a fundamental gap in how we can even understand their faith for survival, and God with them in trauma and in the margins and under brutal rule and in exile. It just doesn’t even make sense. And so, yeah, some of my leaders from the edges, from the uncentered communities, they’re also the ones that have just changed my life. I mean, I feel like, “Oh my gosh, I think I maybe understand this whole thing for the first time in my 40s.
Here’s the last one. You like Barbara Brown Taylor, as do I. We ask everybody this question in every series, whatever you can this literally your answer, however you want this answer to be, it can be absolutely serious or can be absolutely absurd. What is saving your life right now?
Mike: Trauma therapy.
Jen: Ahh. You’re in it right now?
Mike: I’m in it right now. And I’ve done a lot of therapy before, trauma therapy is different. I’ve been on a real journey even recently learning a lot about myself. I just found out last year that I’m an adult with autism spectrum disorder, which was pretty, pretty wild. And something about living this life where I’m open and vulnerable emotionally, and both my friends and the public that consumes my work are really supportive, has led a lot of stuff that was trapped in the basement get closer and closer to the surface.
I realized that, I didn’t realize, Hillary realized that I was exhibiting some symptoms of some pretty serious post trauma, and so I started going to trauma therapy. And that process of learning not only to process through some really, really intensely hurtful things of my past, also helped me become more present here.
Jen: Oh, that’s great, gosh.
Mike: I’ve learned my whole weird thing, the kind of not-subtle social awkwardness I have. That’s literally like the trauma circuits to my brain on constant alert for social rejection, which I never realized.
Jen: Gosh, this is some pretty heavy lifting you’re doing.
Mike: This is very heavy lifting, but it’s keeping me alive, literally.
Jen: Thank you for talking about that. I think that is not well understood, how our body carries trauma and it doesn’t forget. And so, I’ve people super close to me going through trauma therapy, and it’s interesting because it seems like for a minute, it feels like it gets a little worse before it gets better. Just because as you said, you open the door to the basement and, hell, it all comes out. But then, wow, the power in it, the power in setting your body and mind free. It’s a lot of work, but man, good for you. Good for you for doing that.
Can you just tell my listeners a little bit, we’ll have all this linked for sure, but where they can find you or what you’re working on?
Mike: Sure. Everything I do is on my website, which is mikemchargue.com. But since you can’t spell McHargue, don’t worry. Just go to asksciencemike.com, and that’ll get you to me and everything I’m doing.
Jen: That was so true.
I just appreciate you so much, I’m so happy that I know you. I’m so happy that our paths crossed. You actually snuck into our church last year and sat on the balcony with just some interesting characters, ’cause that’s what we have at our church. And it was just—you’ve just mattered to my community a lot, my church community a lot, and me personally.
Mike: Well, I have to say, being in your church community, which I did intentionally sneak in to like not be seen, was so redemptive for me.
Jen: That’s nice.
Mike: One of the high points of the last couple years, was seeing some of the forms of worship rituals I loved big attached to really profound scholarship and really beautiful theology. I go to churches all the time, and I’ve never been in an environment like that.
Jen: That is a really kind thing to say, thank you. It’s funny how in an environment just full of love and grace and scholarship in this really robust understanding of God is love how some of those old words, and old songs, and old practices, they just crackle with new meaning. It’s like they’re new again, and that’s been true for me too. Thank you for saying that, and thank you for coming.
Okay, that’s it, you’re the best.
Mike: Thanks, Jen.
Jen: Thanks, Mike.
Mike: Talk to you soon.
Jen: Okay, you guys, I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. Always fascinating, Mike is. Just always makes my brain stretch, really makes me think and ponder. He puts a lot of permission in to the world of spiritual conversations, and that just matters to me. If you’ve come from an environment where doubts or questions or new ideas are punished, right? Or that means you’re not a part anymore, or . . . then you can understand then how liberating it is to be surrounded by people who are like curious and willing to say, you know, that parts of God are mysterious and there’s hopefully way more to Him than we could ever even comprehend. As opposed to dialing them down into this easy formula. That’s one of the things that Mike has done for me, and I’m so grateful. Plus he’s absolutely hysterical, I mean, you picked up on that for sure.
But you’re going to want more of Mike in your life, will have everything linked over at jenhatmaker.com, underneath the transcript page. All of his socials, his podcasts, his books, everywhere where you can find him because, he’s just a really interesting and wonderful voice to have in your spiritual Rolodex.
So glad he was here, glad you were here. More to come in this amazing series, outstanding leaders just pressing and pressing and pulling and stretching. I love them, they’re heroes of mine. You’re going to want to come back next week for sure, we’re going to have more where that came from.
And you like it, share it. You like a podcast, throw it around on your socials, send it to people that you love. Thank you for bringing us new listeners all the time. Thanks for subscribing, that’s great for us. Reviewing and rating, you guys are the best listeners ever.
Okay, you guys, have a great one and I’ll see you next week.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!