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Interview: Mike McHargue, ‘Science Mike’

17 February 2017

‘I love science . . . it’s a lot of fun’

I grew up in the southern United States, the land of sweet tea and sticky-hot summers. I was an ima­ginative, nerdy kid who didn’t get along with any of my peers. My family was a refuge — which, oddly enough, remains true. Now that I travel so much with my work, my wife and kids are a calm refuge from a hectic tour schedule. We live in Tallahassee, Florida.

 

When I was seven, I felt God calling me to be saved. That’s strange lan­guage, but I don’t have anything better. Somehow I knew that I needed to know Jesus, and I wouldn’t feel at peace until I did; so I asked my Mom to pray with me.

 

I’m the kind of person who experi­ences God in everything. Despite my sceptical bent, I often laugh aloud because a given moment seems particularly beautiful and full of the divine.

 

It was reading the Bible that made me an atheist. No, seriously: a period of intense Bible study lead me to question everything I knew about God, until there was nothing left. My faith collapsed over a six-month period, and I spent two years as an atheist after that.

 

I heard Jesus speak to me in an audible voice, and saw a bright light that made me feel like I was in the presence of God. That’s not an ex­­perience an atheist expects; so I worried I had brain cancer or some­thing. But the CT scan came through clean; so I had to keep looking for the source of that ex­perience.

 

I love science. Science is the best means humans have for learning facts about the universe. On top of that, it’s a lot of fun (at least, when it isn’t endless repetition and bore­dom). My faith now is based on the insights of science.

 

Cosmology is an incredible spring­board into wonder and mystery. There I find a mechanistic descrip­tion of our Creator. Neuroscience reveals how belief in God affects our brains, and, in doing so, reveals how following a loving God makes us healthier, more peaceful people.

 

I’m a passionate fan of science, but I’m not a scientist. I studied physics at first to learn how micro­pro­­cessors work. My career before I was an author was in tech­­nology.

 

I host the podcast “Ask Science Mike”. It’s a weekly question-and-answer show where I answer ques­tions about science, faith, and life. I also co-host the Liturgists’ Podcast, which is a topical programme look­ing through the lenses of art, science, and faith.

 

The people who follow my work are the spiritually homeless and frus­trated. They’re Christians who feel uncomfortable in churches. They’re spiritual, but not religious. They’re atheists or agnostics who feel a long­ing to pray, but aren’t sure why. I get a lot of letters from scientists — including secularists — thanking me for my work.

 

I think it appeals to people who don’t go to church because I don’t speak to an audience with an agenda. I gather a community by creating a safe space that affirms people as they are. There are no questions that are off-limits, and no expectations other than mutual grace.

 

Science is amoral, not moral or immoral. Science can be used to treat cancer or build an atom bomb. Whatever moral philosophy drives scientists and the institutions they work for ultimately shapes what research is done, and to what ends.

 

Technology is another mixed bag. Large-scale agriculture feeds bil­lions, but our energy technologies are reverting the atmosphere to a state not seen in the age of humans. I’m encouraged by the potential of the internet to allow easy access to mankind’s stored knowledge, but I worry about the current trend in persuasive distraction that smart­phones and other devices offer. Chronic distraction isn’t good for our cognition or our emotional well-being.

 

We’re just starting to see the ramifications of the internet. The backbone of innovations for the next 20 years will still be based on the force multiplier of global light-speed conversations.

 

There are some things I would wish had not been invented. The atom bomb: the world would be better without nuclear weapons over the long term, even if nuclear deterrents contribute to short-term reduction in inter-state hostility.

 

I should have gone skydiving be­­fore I got married. That’s my only regret.

 

I love the sound of my wife’s breath as she falls asleep.

 

I’m an avid reader. I read all the time. It’s hard to cut down the list of my favourite books to fewer than a few dozen, but a few of my recent favourites are The Master and His Emissary, by Ian McGilchrist; The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk; How Not to Be Wrong: The power of mathematical thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg; Executing Grace, by Shane Claiborne; and The Divine Dance, by Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell.

 

What made me angry last? Donald Trump.

 

I’m happiest when our whole family sits down to eat together.

 

The most influential people in my life have been Steve Jobs, Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell — Steve Jobs because he reveals the power of vision and a refusal to submit to the status quo; Rachel Held Evans because she shows how faith com­pels us to stand up for all people, a lesson I need every day; and Rob Bell because he shows how to em­­brace mystery with joy.

 

Humans have an incredible capacity to love, and that’s what gives me hope for the future.

 

I pray to love as God loves.

 

If I was locked in a church for a few hours with anyone as my com­panion, I’d choose Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. He’s presented as a wise, flawed man who learned to make an uneasy truce with a difficult past so that he could live a life in service of others. I’d like to hear about his process integrating those things together.

 

Mike McHargue was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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