God, I don’t even know why I’m praying. You aren’t real.”
Church Kid Mike
Mike McHargue was the quintessential church kid. He was going to church literally before he was even born. His dad was a worship leader in his evangelical Southern Baptist church, and like nearly all church kids, Mike grew up knowing at an early age he needed Jesus in his life. And he says it wasn’t just social conditioning or religious indoctrination; the playground wasn’t kind to Mike, so every day during recess he talked to the only person he knew would listen: Jesus. Mike and Jesus were best friends.
He survived grade school and happily grew up to check off all the boxes in his evangelical Southern Baptist plan: wife, kids, job, ministry—he was a Sunday school teacher and the youngest deacon in the history of his church.
That could have been the end of Mike’s story, and he says he would have been fine continuing with Plan A. But then you wouldn’t be reading his story here, would you?
Yes, Mike’s life was going according to plan—until his dad announced he was divorcing Mike’s mom because he was in love with another woman, and suddenly everything came crashing down.
Well, actually, it was more of a crumble, and somewhat less sudden. But it came down nonetheless.
Because Mike was a good evangelical Southern Baptist, he couldn’t just let his father—his spiritual mentor and his hero—go down by way of divorce without doing his best to stop it. He confronted his dad and planned a Bible study to help get him back on track. But, like a good Christian, Mike wanted to give God’s answers, not just his opinion. So in true nerd fashion, he started studying—and read the Bible four times through in one year.
But it didn’t help.
The more Mike read the Bible, the more uncomfortable he became with the hard questions in it—about science, about history and about the passages that seemed to contradict each other. And all the answers he found were unsatisfying.
Cue the crumble. Mike’s faith and his worldview were disassembled piece by piece.
He realized he had been praying his whole life to a God he no longer believed was real.
Mike McHargue—church kid, deacon and Sunday school teacher—was a Southern Baptist atheist.
But showing up to church saying, “Hey guys, I don’t think God is real,” didn’t seem like a good idea. And he truly didn’t want to shake anyone else’s faith, either. So while his Sunday school lessons were the best they had ever been, Mike kept his atheism in the closet for two years. He pretended to be a Christian—which he says was fatiguing, but he could do it.
But soon his wife figured out something was up. She confronted him and then told his mom, a deeply religious woman, who started praying for a miracle. Mike didn’t believe in miracles anymore, but he appreciated the sentiment.
Mike felt a new kind of lonely.
Shortly thereafter, Mike was invited to go to NASA—an item on his bucket list—and accepting the invitation was a no-brainer! He had already booked his flight to California when another invitation came randomly: A conference on creativity hosted by Rob Bell in the same part of the country was happening only two days after he planned to be at NASA. This also seemed like a no-brainer, but Mike was torn. His creative side was intrigued, and as a Christian, he appreciated Rob’s work. But then again, he wasn’t a Christian anymore.
Mike said the two invitations were a coincidence. His mom said it was God at work.
So he accepted both invitations, and after crossing NASA off his bucket list, he drove to the creativity conference. Mike found it helpful until someone asked a question about atheism. Mike says the whole energy of the room immediately changed. He could feel what he calls a “smug superiority that seemed to be masking insecurity.” Mike was frustrated because, having been both a Christian and an atheist, he hated the way atheists and Christians mischaracterized each other.
“I understood that Christians and atheists want to help others and make the world a better place,” he said.
So Mike stood up and told them he was a Southern Baptist atheist; he challenged nearly everything they had said about atheism. Instead of throwing him out, Rob Bell issued Mike his own challenge: Admit there are things in the universe you don’t understand; take all those things, put them in a bucket and label it “God.”
Just for a second, Mike had a profound, yet familiar feeling God was near him again, something he hadn’t felt in two years. But then it went away.
At the end of the conference, Mike was slightly annoyed when he walked into the room and saw the communion table. It seemed like an emotion-manipulating gimmick, but he gave Rob the benefit of the doubt—even though he didn’t believe in Jesus, he didn’t believe in the Eucharist, he didn’t believe in prayer, and he had no intention of participating: “I was about to turn on my heels and walk away, when I heard a voice audibly—in English not Aramaic—say, ‘I was here when you were eight, and I’m here now.’”
“In that moment I realized I couldn’t escape the fact that my lifelong best friend was a first-century Jewish rabbi.”
None of what Mike had just experienced answered any of his questions. It actually disturbed him. He had found a worldview that worked for him, and now that was crumbling, too.
So a conflicted Mike went out to the beach at two in the morning, where it was dark and the ocean was vast, and he had it out with God. He spewed all his uncertainties, even indictments against God, into the foggy blackness. But he realized he missed talking to God, so he made a deal with Him.
“I will do everything I can to be broken and poured out for the healing of the world if I can keep asking questions and You can just be present in my life,” Mike told God. “I don’t know what happened today, but all I know is that I met Jesus.”
The moment Jesus’ name left Mike’s lips, an ocean wave surged forward and completely soaked him. And though he knows it sounds weird, Mike says he literally, physically felt the hand of Jesus in that wave, affirming him and welcoming him.
Mike doesn’t really have any more answers today than when he started out to answer his dad’s divorce. But what he does have is that experience with God on Laguna Beach. He can’t explain it scientifically or logically or in any way really. But He knows it was God. And he knows Jesus, his best friend, loves him right where he is.
Since that night on the beach, Mike has been on a quest to understand scientifically what place there is for God. It was through neuroscience, cosmology and physics that he found the place—and perhaps the permission—to reconcile faith and science in a perfect tension.
“I found a way to both embrace the facts about the reality of science and the beautiful meaning and direction that accepting something greater than ourselves that we call God into our lives can provide,” he said.
Now Mike is somewhere between his Southern Baptist roots and his experience as an atheist—which admittedly elicits mixed reviews from some in his former faith community. While he doesn’t espouse many of the same doctrines and theology he was raised with, he does agree on one thing—Jesus. So Mike’s new life mission, as stated on his website, MikeMcHargue.com, is to “help people reconcile their faith with modern science.”
Anyone who talks to Mike can clearly see he’s one smart guy. He calls himself a nerd, but his unquenchable curiosity goes way beyond just a guy who likes to study. His mind works overtime on almost everything, and through that, he stands as a beacon of hope to spiritual skeptics. On his podcast, “Ask Science Mike,” he does his best to answer—or at least talk about—hard questions ranging from climate change to the presence of evil to photonic propulsion (whatever that is!).
Although Mike’s story isn’t what a quintessential church kid would consider Plan A, it’s more powerful now because of the questions he’s wrestled with. Now, Science Mike lives in the fulcrum between scientific understanding and the beauty and meaning of faith in God.
And he’s back to praying to God, who he knows is real.
Editor’s Note: The mention of Rob Bell as a character in Mike’s story is not an endorsement of Rob Bell’s theology, beliefs or practices. He is simply part of Mike’s story that could not be left out.