This post is a continuation of my reflections on Mike McHargue’s recent book “Finding God in the Waves” (see Part 1). With Part 2 I am engaging with the second half of the book – titled ‘God in Science’ – which presents the ideas upon which Mike has reconstructed his faith (which he would assure you is an ongoing process without a known end point). Unlike Part 1, my aim here is not to explore points of contact with my own story but rather to offer my honest assessment of the ideas and data that are presented.
God in Science
The second half of the book starts with a chapter bearing the tongue in cheek heading of “Happily Ever After”, and we soon see that Mike’s religious experience didn’t undo the skepticism that was cultivated in the preceding years. It’s a laudable demonstration of his integrity that, despite such a powerful experience, he did not dismiss all of the data that had influenced and sustained his period of unbelief but rather sought to integrate it with this new data point.
So what might you expect to find in a book section titled ‘God in Science’? If you’re hoping for a recapitulation of the modern refrain of evidential apologetics surrounding cosmology, DNA, etc.., then Science Mike is going to disappoint. He instead embraces the mystery and finds God hidden in plain sight. The following is my attempt to briefly summarize the data that is presented to lay the groundwork for the foundational axioms that he develops throughout this section:
- The cosmological data doesn’t favor any one particular type of “cause” for the big bang, but science does reveal a universe that originates in a mysterious singularity which became a framework of forces and energy that sustain the observable universe with an unfailing regularity.
- The brain is adept at creating a model of God and when that model is abstract and assigns God a loving and peaceful nature, the time spent attending to that model will encourage focus, compassion, empathy and result in lower stress and blood pressure.
- There is no good evidence for the effect of intercessory prayer except as a therapeutic effect for the person doing the praying. Contemplative prayer can also yield effects similar to those established for meditative practices, which generally improves focus, willpower and compassion and results in lower stress and blood pressure.
- It is historically probable that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual figure who was crucified in response to his claims and following, and whose influence inspired a persistent God-centered movement that became the largest such movement in history.
- Therapy can be effective because the impression left on the brain by past events can be altered when those memories are revisited, and revisiting the past in a safe environment will reduce the negative emotional impressions associated with those events.
- Humans are an innately social species and are most psychologically healthy when immersed in a cooperative and loving social context. This immersion will also reinforce and motivate dedication to the beliefs associated with that social context.
- The Bible is a collection of texts that were written, assembled and copied by human hands and these texts reflect the beliefs and cultural contexts of their authors.
I think these summaries do a pretty good job of fairly outlining the modest claims that Mike puts forth, and I don’t see anything obviously wrong or misleading in them. This data is the basis for a set of axioms that then serve as the foundation for his reconstructed faith. No discussion of Finding God in the Waves would be complete without a review of those axioms, but I should first note that the axioms are all structured as propositions of the form “X is AT LEAST … EVEN IF this is all X is, …”. The intention is to define X in a minimal sense, based only on the empirically grounded data above, and that this minimal definition is sufficient to arrive at a reasonable justification for integrating X into one’s beliefs and practices.
Axiom #1 – Faith
Faith is AT LEAST a way to contextualize the human need for spirituality and find meaning in the face of mortality. EVEN IF this is all faith is, spiritual practice can be beneficial to cognition, emotional states, and culture.
The subjectivity surrounding the words “spirituality” and “meaning” make this hard to analyze. But maybe that’s part of the point – that faith is a subjectively grounded perspective, in which case I accept that this could be a viable definition if “need for” is replaced with “tendency toward”. We’re still left with a lot of ambiguity and the observation that the outworking of this tendency yields so many divergent beliefs and behaviors that it’s not obvious how to untangle the association to any benefits. Having recently read Newberg’s “How God Changes Your Brain” (one of Mike’s favorite sources) I perceived that faith was used as a synonym for a general sense of hope and optimism. This axiom might have been more concrete if it aligned better with Newberg’s definition.
Axiom #2 – God
God is AT LEAST the natural forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial model in human brains that naturally emerges from innate biases. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace, and empathy for others.
There’s certainly precedent for this conception of God and though there is no way to objectively arbitrate between definitions of the divine, this clearly does not satisfy the profile for even basic theism, which is the benchmark for most definitions of God. But Mike is again presumably OK with this since he prefers the non-theist label as an alternative to the typical theist/atheist dichotomy.
Axiom #3 – Prayer
Prayer is AT LEAST a form of meditation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress, and can connect us to God. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.
Given the definition of ‘God’ above, it isn’t clear what is meant by saying that prayer “can connect us to God”. My best guess is that prayer can serve to reinforce the sense that the psychosocial model of God reflects reality. No argument there. I would contest, however, whether this definition of prayer is adequate to support the ‘EVEN IF’ conclusion, which assumes a particular form of prayer that isn’t clearly constrained in the definition and thus infers that anything one labels as prayer could fit into the claim. To clarify in Venn diagram form:
Incorporating these observations, I suggest that a more accurate axiom might be that “Prayer is AT LEAST an attempt to connect with God that, in a certain forms, can encourage healthy neurological development and lower stress. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits justify these forms of prayer as a religious discipline”.
Axiom #4 – Sin
Sin is AT LEAST volitional action or inaction that violates one’s own understanding of what is moral. Sin comes from the divergent impulses between our lower and higher brain functions and our evolution-driven tendency to do things that serve ourselves and our tribe. EVEN IF this is all sin is, it is destructive and threatens human flourishing.
It appears to me that this axiom is assuming that one’s own understanding of what is moral is neither destructive nor threatening to human flourishing. I don’t think there’s any doubt that people can cognitively accept moral perspectives that are destructive or threatening to human flourishing. So though I find the given definition to be a reasonable projection of the concept of sin onto a scientifically grounded view of human moral agency, the unstated assumptions underlying the conclusion are not certain, even if they often hold true. See the Moral Ontology post for a more thorough unpacking of my take on the nature of morality.
Axiom #5 – The Afterlife
The afterlife is AT LEAST the persistence of our physical matter in the ongoing life cycle on Earth, the memes we pass on to others with our lives, and the model of our unique neurological signature in the brains of those who knew us. EVEN IF this is all the afterlife is, the consequences of our actions persist beyond our death and our ethical considerations must consider a timeline beyond our death.
Axiom #6 – Salvation
Salvation is AT LEAST the means by which humanity overcomes sin to produce human flourishing. EVEN IF this is all salvation is, spiritual and religious actions and beliefs that promote salvation are good for humankind.
The issue I raised for the definition of sin – namely that a person’s notion of what it means to overcome sin is not guaranteed to produce human flourishing – spills over into this definition. That is, the pursuit of salvation is not guaranteed to produce goods for humankind. Even so, I agree that the underlying principle of practicing careful moral reflection to deliberately guide our actions is worth encouraging and generally yields outcomes which prove themselves to be preferable in the long run.
Axiom #7 – Jesus
Jesus is AT LEAST a man so connected to God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his teachings can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.
I want to start by first offering a proposed revision to this axiom: “Jesus is AT LEAST a man so
connected to associated with God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings persona. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his the socially relevant teachings attributed to him can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.”
That first change is just an attempt to clarify. I don’t know if Mike intended to identify a conceptual connection or a spiritual connection, but we can’t know anything about the latter, so I assume the former. Regardless, I also see that Christianity as a whole is more centered on the identity and nature of Jesus than on the words attributed to him. With regard to those teachings, I agree that there are many facets which can promote peace, empathy and moral behavior, but that does not apply to the entirety of the red letters. It is ultimately the persona of Jesus that we embrace which dictates the personal impact of those teachings as a whole.
Axiom #8 – The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is AT LEAST the psychological and neurological components of God that allow God to be experienced as a personal force or agent. EVEN IF this is all the Holy Spirit is, God is more relatable and neurologically actionable when experienced this way.
Axiom #9 – Church
The Church is AT LEAST the global community of people who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. EVEN IF this is all the church is, the Church is still the largest body of spiritual scholarship, community, and faith practice in the world – and this practice can improve people’s lives in real, measurable ways.
Much of what I said for Axiom #7 also applies to the definition here, with regard to the church’s relation to Jesus. I would also suggest that this axiom implies far more cohesion than actually exists, though I recognize that there is a core set of beliefs and practices in the Christian tradition which are embraced by the vast majority of the communities who claim the label. Nonetheless, this diversity also means that there are plenty of options to choose from and thus a good chance that you can find a community in which you are comfortable. This is one area where the secular world is lacking. I would not be at all surprised if, in practice, this particular aspect of the Christian tradition outweighs all others with respect to encouraging and retaining affiliation.
Axiom #10 – The Bible
The Bible is AT LEAST a collection of books and writings assembled by the Church that chronicle a people group’s experiences with, and understanding of, God over thousands of years. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of the Bible, study of scripture is warranted to understand our culture and the way in which people come to know God.
This definition is OK, though I think it somewhat overstates the period of authorship and centrality of God (especially as previously defined) in the biblical corpus. More significantly, I’m having trouble reconciling the conclusion. I can see that the study of scripture would be warranted for the purpose of understanding the authors’ cultures and the way in which they perceived God, but it isn’t clear to me how well this translates to a more generalized human culture and perception of God. I would think you would need to study a wide variety of religious texts and traditions to get a handle on that. Nor is it obvious why that should be considered a worthwhile pursuit.
In the end, I don’t have overwhelming objections to these axioms and can appreciate how they would serve the role for which they are intended – to provide a reasonable grounding for justifying the adoption of some form of Christianity. But I am also left feeling like several of them are playing semantic games that manipulate our sense of religious identity by establishing associations to Christian terminology for concepts which are not clearly rooted in that tradition. Mike might even agree with that assessment. He is a self-professed expert manipulator, after all.
Any Way You Want It
I am intrigued by Mike’s experience and appreciate his perspective and approach to faith, but this book doesn’t have the gravity to nudge my trajectory. As I see it, the primary obstacle lies in the way that the reasoning presented in the second half of the book struck me as a recipe for improving your life by creating God, rather than by finding God, as suggested by the title. The realization that the god I believed in could very well be my own creation, built upon the creations of generations of humans before me and evolving right along with my shifting beliefs, was a primary influence in my deconversion. Despite recognizing the possibility of a pragmatically grounded faith, it is difficult for me to countenance how that same creative process might restore me to some sort of religious faith. Interestingly, it’s possible that Mike wouldn’t deny that this is exactly what he’s doing. The first question at the Portland stop of his Q&A tour asked whether God would continue to exist if every sentient creature ceased to exist and he said “what I identify as God would no longer exist”, but immediately followed that up with a caveat about how the mystical and irrational side of the equation leads him to hope for a different answer.
That’s a Wrap
Science Mike will remain in my podcast rotation and has inspired me to spend more time exploring the “Pragmatic Christianity” investigation that I proposed a few years back. Even though I am not compelled to embrace the scaffolding upon which Mike has built his current worldview I respect the way that he engages with the evidence and I appreciate the environment he is working to cultivate. I think that most of us would prefer a world full of people who interact with the same kind of compassion, open-mindedness and respect that this community seeks. Here’s to hoping that the future of American Christianity looks more and more like the communities we find in the wake of the waves that are being made by Science Mike and his cohorts.