One night, walking on a beach, Mike McHargue saw through this world, through the veil of reality onto the eternal glory of God.
His epiphany was unexpected, as most are, but it came at an opportune time. He’d just left a conference on faith and creativity hosted by megachurch pastor and author Rob Bell. And a day before, in front of 50 or so strangers—most of them pastors—he’d outed himself as what he now calls “a closet submarine atheist.”
For more than two years, he’d tried to hide his loss of faith from his Southern Baptist friends and family—even from his wife and two young daughters. He served as a deacon, played bass in the church’s worship band, and taught Sunday school. “I taught the best lessons of my life as an atheist,” he says jovially. He’d grown up as a lifelong believer in Tallahassee, Florida, and even as he adapted his lessons to accommodate his newfound humanist worldview, few suspected he no longer believed in God. Mike McHargue had a secret.
That’s how he found himself, in May 2012, at an intimate gathering in Laguna Beach, California, asking an impertinent question. When he lost his faith, he turned to science. “If I can’t enjoy the rapture of my creator or creation, I can at least enjoy the majesty of reality,” he says. Cosmology secretly became his “Jesus methadone.”
Some of Bell’s comments struck McHargue as unfair, particularly about the relationship between science and religion. “He said atheists can’t tell you why something is beautiful or why they love their wives,” McHargue says. “He made a joke that evolution was great for telling you why you don’t have a tail, but terrible at telling you why you find that interesting. I thought ‘No, curiosity is an evolutionary byproduct of an organism that’s learned to anticipate the future.’” As Bell continued to riff, McHargue began to despair. “I was in a room with some of the most open minds in Christianity,” he later wrote, “and I was hearing the same trite truisms that I had heard everywhere else.” If before he wavered, tempted to return to the faithful fold, Bell’s casual dismissal of science threatened to permanently settle McHargue’s questions.
In his Florida accent, McHargue carefully took Bell to task. He revealed himself as a Sunday school-teaching atheist who’d hidden his unbelief from everyone but his wife and mother because he didn’t want to hurt anyone. He said he believed religion was on its way to obsolescence, to be replaced by a better moral system—one based on science and, most importantly, based in intellectual honesty. “So, Rob,” he recalls concluding, “how can a person like me, who knows what I know about how the universe came to be, ever believe in any God?”
Cosmology secretly became his “Jesus methadone.”
His question changed the tenor of the room, but McHargue remembers everyone supporting him, wanting to help. Bell thanked him. Then he offered some advice, which McHargue remembers as: “Your mind is seriously dialed-in. You are used to mastering things by categorizing them, but here is this bucket that doesn’t fit in your categories. Maybe you should take those questions and put them in that bucket, and call that bucket ‘God.’” He told McHargue that maybe his faith—and his struggle—were enough.
McHargue listened. He took in the rest of the event as a believer. When it came time to conclude the next day with a communion, though, he felt cynicism returning. It seemed too pat to him, like how counselors might wrap up a week of church camp, but he did it anyway. Then something happened which, even in McHargue’s own words, is “crazy.” He heard the voice of Jesus speak to him, saying, “I was here when you were 8, and I’m here now.”
He started to cry. ”I had to leave because I was bawling,” he says. He left the Pacific Edge Hotel, headed out to the beach, and stood at the lip of the Pacific itself. The ocean was dark to the horizon, and he prayed.
“Time stood still, and I lost all awareness of where I was,” he says. “When you were a kid, did you ever pull your sheet over your head to hide, only to find the the taut sheet allowed a hazy image of the outside world through it? That evening on the beach, reality did that. What I saw on the other side I can only call the Glory of God.” He said the name of Christ, and a wave broke and washed over his feet, reminding him of Jesus washing the feet of his followers. He felt the presence of God return to his life.
The next day, he returned to the beach, and found where he’d stood. He saw a circle of smooth sand where he’d stood, as though the ocean had reached out to him.
A miracle, he thought.
• • •
Mike McHargue didn’t set out to become a secret atheist. In 2010, he was in his early 30s, happily married with two young children, and working as the chief technology officer of an advertising firm. But then he learned his father, a music minister and also deeply conservative, had had an affair and planned to leave his family.
McHargue took the news hard—didn’t his father understand God’s plan for marriage? And he turned to his religion for guidance. “I offered to take him to some Bible study so he could reconcile his relationship with God and my mother,” McHargue says. He began his own study, eventually reading the Bible four times in one year.
Ironically, that close study didn’t strengthen his faith, but challenged it. He’d already accepted some Biblical claims as metaphorical, but repeated readings challenged his ability to reconcile what he saw as contradictions. “In Genesis 1,” he says, “it’s telling me that trees were made before stars. There’s no way. Then in Genesis 2, it lists the creation story again, only now it happens in a different order.”
“The whole time, it feels like your faith is changing, not dying. Then the last pillar falls. It feels sudden, but it takes months and months.”
Questions about lesser claims led gradually to questions about the most fundamental claims made in the Bible. Cracks in the foundation of his belief led the whole structure to fall. “The whole time, it feels like your faith is changing, not dying,” McHargue says. “Then the last pillar falls. It feels sudden, but it takes months and months.”
He tried to hide that slow-motion demolition from everyone who knew him. A member of the Tallahassee Astronomical Society, McHargue once invited some friends to observe the night sky through his telescope. “I messed up while showing everyone Andromeda,” he says. “One of our church staff asked how far away it was, and I said, ‘The light coming through the telescope left that galaxy 2.5 million years ago.’” He had to quickly backtrack, reaffirming his belief in a biblically defined 6,000-year-old universe.
His wife discovered McHargue’s wavering belief through what he calls “the most basic dumb-husband trap.” He remembers a conversation on the couch with his wife, Jenny, going like this:
JENNY: What’s wrong?
JENNY: Is it me?
JENNY: So it’s something.
MIKE: It’s no big deal; I’m just not sure God is real.
“She’d have been less shocked if slapped her across the face,” he says. “She only said that I needed to get right, and then she was off to pray for God to move so undeniably in my life that I’d come back.”
When a mutual friend invited him to Rob Bell’s smaller-than-usual event, held near the pastor’s California home, McHargue was ambivalent. Bell’s “religious gobbledygook” held no appeal for him, but the conference focused on creativity and inspiration, and McHargue saw Bell as excelling at both. “As an ad guy who constantly worries that his next idea is his last, I wanted that playbook,” he says.
And so he found himself in California, confessing his atheism to a room full of strangers. And then, later, he heard Jesus speak to him, and found God alone on the beach.
• • •
Seeing God changed things for McHargue. He started blogging about science and spirituality on his website, where today he describes himself as a “nerd” and a “spiritual skeptic.” The front page informs visitors: “I have walked the road of doubt, and I have watched God die in the face of modern enlightenment. But, I’ve also held His hand as he returned to me in the waves of the Pacific Ocean.” His mission statement? “I help people know God in an age of incredible scientific insight.”
He also began co-hosting a podcast called The Liturgists, about science, art, and faith. He then struck cross-promotional gold in a guest appearance on a podcast called You Made It Weird, hosted by comedian Pete Holmes. For the first several minutes of the episode, he discusses the minutiae of neuroscience research, then tells his own story of losing his faith and recovering it; Holmes’s spiritually curious audience loved it. “Pete put me on the map with a whole new audience that was not evangelical or even inside the church at all,” he says.
“I help people know God in an age of incredible scientific insight.”
That led him to launch his own podcast, Ask Science Mike, in January 2015. He’s now produced 34 episodes, each one almost entirely listener-directed. (His “Science Mike” moniker started as a joke, but then it stuck.) His audience supplies the questions, and McHargue answers from both his understanding of science and/or his personal faith. Topics range from God’s gender to the Biblical concept of demons to what Fibonacci numbers tell us about the universe.
Nine months after he started, Mike pulls in a little more than $2,000 a month via crowdsourcing site Patreon from 134 paying listeners. Though he hoped for small donations from many users, he says a small number of especially generous patrons make his work possible. He also gives in-person presentations about science and faith, and he’s recently begun taping Ask Science Mike episodes in front of live audiences. Next year, Convergent Books will publish his memoir. “There’s going to be a ton of explanation about how science and faith are hand-in-glove partners in describing the human experience,” he says.
Being Science Mike now provides his family’s entire income. “My wife is a full-time mom,” he says. “We are economical-lifestyle people. We always have been, and it’s probably made this transition easier.” Patreon has helped make full-time podcasting practical, he says, but it’s not a guarantee. Health insurance, for example, is a consideration; for the next 18 months, McHargue says, his family will be on COBRA supplemental insurance. “We’ll ultimately hit the healthcare exchange through Obamacare,” he says. “People may knock it, but I’m excited.”
McHargue’s journey from fundamentalist Christian to humanist atheist to spiritual skeptic has been a dramatic and circuitous one. Through the Internet, he’s making a living talking with an audience of restless seekers: people like himself.
“I talk to the spiritually homeless and frustrated people who struggle with faith but want to believe,” he says. “My work would be impossible without the Internet. There’s no scale in traditional radio or television capacity. Without the Internet to curate and develop relationships, all my opportunities would be impossible.”
Illustration by J. Longo