Brad Kramer: In your story, the books of atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan dealt a sledgehammer blow to the faith of your Evangelical upbringing (in conjunction with traumatic events in your family). It almost seems, ironically, like this sort of religious upbringing made you more vulnerable to their arguments. Would you agree with this, and if so, can you explain how and why this happened?
Science Mike: I completely agree. One of the most beautiful aspects of conservative Evangelicalism is how certain it makes people feel about the nature and character of God. That approach to the Bible and theology offered me a very content life—I knew exactly what God wanted me to do. But the challenge with such a structural approach to faith is that the whole system falls down when something in your life undermines any part of your faith.
My understanding of God was robust, and had many supporting ideas: the inerrancy of the Bible, the way God answers prayer, my experiences with God, and the testimonies of others. The brilliance of modern skeptics is to take apart each component of your faith, piece-by-piece, until nothing remains. They use your certainty against you.
BK: The climax of the book involves (spoiler alert) connecting with God in the waves of the Pacific Ocean, through a very powerful mystical experience. Yet the subtitle of the book is “How I lost my faith and found it again through science.” Usually, science and mystical experiences aren’t mentioned in the same sentence. So what do you mean that you found your faith through science, and how does your experience at the ocean fit into that?
SM: For all the power of that moment, that mystical moment on the beach didn’t answer any of my questions about God. All the objections to a God who was powerful and who loved us were still at the top of my mind. That was true of the Bible as well–my objections to its authority weren’t magically resolved just because I had a profound experience.
So, in order to understand that moment I couldn’t turn to the kinds of resources I once did to understand experiences with God. Instead, I studied cosmology and biology in search of our creator. I turned to neuroscience to understand why God is so real and so profound to most people.
BK: Even among Christians who embrace mainstream science, there is a tendency to compartmentalize faith and science as separate ways of seeing the world. But one of the most striking features of your books is how it weaves crazily across the lanes of spirituality, neuroscience, sociology, and quantum physics, often without the least bit of concern about the jarring effects on the reader. Were you purposely trying to disorient people?
SM: Quite the opposite! I’m trying to help people knock down the boundaries in their thinking that creates cognitive dissonance and fertile soil for the kind of doubt that makes people miserable. I don’t have separate categories for “spiritual experiences” and “neuroscience,” nor do I see any difference between church history and anthropology. These are all ways we process a reality far larger and mysterious that the human brain is equipped to understand.
BK: Your book could almost be titled “Finding God in the Brain” for all its talk of neuroscience and faith. In fact, you reference a perspective called “neurotheology” at several points. Why the fascination with brain science in particular? Why thinking about the brain become such a helpful way for you to process your own doubts, when it’s so often used by skeptics as a way to support a materialistic view of the world?
SM: Neurotheology was a term coined by a few neuroscientists who study people of faith. I like to talk about brain science because it side steps a lot of the quagmire that is discussions of science and faith. Neurotheology doesn’t study God at all—it makes no claims about who or what God is, or even if God exists at all. Instead, the focus is on what different beliefs about God do to the brain, and how spiritual experiences change our health and behavior.
For someone like me who has wrestled with the works of atheists who say religion is bad for people and civilization, this pragmatic grounding is helpful. I have scientific backing that shows the way my faith can help me be a healthier, more helpful person.
BK: You hint in the book (and in other projects you’ve been involved in, like The New Copernicans) that the dichotomies between creation/evolution and sacred/secular that have driven the cultural perception of conflict between faith and science are being abandoned (or at least re-thought) by newer generations. Why is this happening, and does it explain the glaring omission of any detailed discussion of Genesis, evolution, or the age of the Earth in your book?
SM: Across most denominations, the church has been extremely focused on right belief, while being comparatively less engaged with how those beliefs work in the world. Churches have been so busy keeping the lights on and working for political power that the poor, the orphan, and the widow have been forgotten. Recent generations can’t stomach that. They don’t see the value in a walled-in culture when human suffering is everywhere.
For most young people, there is no debate: the Universe is old, and life appeared via evolution. And they aren’t going to engage with anyone on the subject who won’t also show up at a homeless shelter. My book is written with the basic assumption that science is correct when it speaks to issues of science, and that the Bible’s purpose was never to be a science book anyway. The Bible is meant to tell the stories of people trying to follow God.
BK: The second half of your book shifts from personal narrative to an exploration of Christian orthodoxy and practice, from the perspective of the doubter and skeptic. You put forward a number of “at least” statements that function as a “life raft for people who can’t get on board with the supernatural claims about God yet still want to be close to God” (178). This will strike some as creating a diet version of Christianity: You get the good feelings without actually committing to orthodoxy. What’s your response to that?
SM: I think that’s a really reasonable critique. Years back, I would have shared it. But, for anyone who has ever longed for God, but felt completely foolish for that longing, my “at least” statements are meant to be a scaffold that can support a people who’s doubt is much stronger than their faith. It’s a way to help science-minded folks feel like they aren’t wasting their time in prayer.
My beliefs have actually grown more orthodox over time, but I think that’s a result of the Wesleyan approach. Orthodoxy can bloom from a seed of orthopraxy.
BK: What do Christians—particularly Evangelicals—need to understand better about doubters and skeptics? What can we learn from them?
SM: Doubters don’t doubt because they’re in rebellion. They doubt because they are committed to seeking the truth. The same is true of skeptics. My doubt came from a completely genuine attempt to seek out God’s council via the Bible. More than anything else, reading the Bible led me to become an atheist.
I think both Christians and skeptics can learn from the doubting, because people who struggle in doubt have a sense of humility about what they know. Doubt calls into questions our most basic assumptions, and for many the road back to a haughty certainty is impossible. This humility is essential in having substantive discussions with people who disagree deeply–and I think our culture today testifies to a need for better conversations amidst disagreement.