39: Science Mike McHargue - Anger and hope
Mike McHargue (aka Science Mike) sits down with Nate and Tim to talk about sexual assault, the Bible, why so many people are over church, finding hope amidst cynicism, and much more. The conversation happened on the heels of a long and emotional week relating to how our society and the church treats women and victims of sexual assault in light of Christine Beasley Ford's testimony at Brett Kavanaugh's hearing. It made for a raw and honest discussion.
Nate: Welcome to Almost Heretical. We’re going to play our interview with Science Mike here, but I just wanted to say, he’s absolutely wonderful. He hosts or co-hosts two podcasts, the Liturgists podcast and Ask Science Mike. He also wrote a book about his journey from Southern Baptist church elder to atheist to Christian again called Finding God in the Waves. You can check all that out at mikemchargue.com. If you’ve never listened to Almost Heretical before, welcome! We are two former pastors that started to rethink the theology we were teaching. One of us quit and the other got fired from the churches we were a part of. There’s a lot there, and we get into that on the show, but that led us to discovering a whole community of just millions of people who are also rethinking theology, spirituality and the Bible, and aren’t ready to give up on all of that. We do this show because the Bible and the church have so often been used as weapons to hurt people. We are close to many of those people, we’ve met a lot more of those people by doing this show, and we love the Bible and we want to give it back to you by showing that the biblical writers may have been saying the complete opposite of what we always thought. So we hope to deweaponize it for you. And if that’s you, then welcome. We just finished a series about gender roles, women pastors, Paul. If you’re up for giving Paul another chance when it comes to his views on women, we’d love it if you’d go back and listen to that series, started at episode 30. And we’d also love to connect, so you can reach us at almostheretical.com. Okay, but without further ado, here’s the chat with Mike.
Nate: We’re just really excited to have you on today, and it’s been kind of a crazy week with all of the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh, sexual assault, all that kind of stuff. How are you doing?
Mike McHargue: Oh boy. Well first, I almost didn’t accept the invitation for a show called Almost Heretical, because I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of being almost heretical. I think I’m more in the fully heretical group.
Nate: Someone wrote a review on our podcast and said, “Remove the word almost and you know everything you need to know about this show,” or something like that.
Mike: Okay, then I fit right in.
Nate: Perfect. Welcome!
Mike: Yeah, whenever I get a 1-star iTunes review, it’s, “This is a man who denies God’s truth about the Bible.” Okay. Bringing someone assumptions into the space. Um, yeah, I’m okay today, mainly because I’ve just not been thinking about anything. I decided I’d earned a little mental vacation. So I guess I still found some time to throw a little fire on Twitter this morning. It’s been a tough week, for sure. I think it’s been a tough week for everybody. It’s been fascinating to watch. I’ve suspected for a while that there were some fundamentally different value systems happening in America, and that is readily apparent now. So I have no doubt that it’s been a bad week for everyone. That conservatives are bewildered and confused as well. But for me as a progressive person and as a survivor of sexual assault, this has been a really activating, traumatizing kind of week. Because for sexual assault survivors it’s like, “This is a ridiculous question, of how important is it that this person gets nominated to the Supreme Court.” We had a very similar dynamic when Trump was elected. I get that there’s political needs and that politics matter, but to see men so broadly and widely accused of sexual assault sail into positions of power with really broad support by one of America’s two major political parties makes people who’ve experienced sexual assault feel really unvalued, unknown, uncared for. So it’s like, “What really matters is getting our tax rate secured and our political positions, and if that means we have to put someone in office who has been credibly accused of raping or assaulting another person, that’s fine. That’s a secondary or tertiary concern.” And so I’ve been really wrestling with, because I actually try to hold a really gracious fundamental posture towards all people, understanding that most people are basically good, most people are products of their upbringing, most people are just trying to make it through the week. But what I actually have found this week is 52% of Republicans and 48% of white evangelicals say that even if all the allegations against Kavanaugh are true, that he should still be confirmed to the Supreme Court. And that’s a stunning figure that’s been validated by multiple polling sources, and one that makes me questions my assumptions of goodness and decency among folks across the logical and political spectrums.
Tim: Yeah, totally, can we just talk about that for a few minutes? I’m not a victim of sexual assault. I have people very close to me who are, and that exasperated my feelings of rage over the last few days. And I think it brought me to a place yesterday—so this is Saturday, so this is just coming the day after the meeting to confirm him and all the Flake drama and all that—I felt probably more despair toward the future of American society and whatever the church is within the society than I’ve felt in a long time, at least that I can remember feeling. And I know that women and people of color have been telling us how bad it is for generations, right, and we, many of us have been trying to listen. For me it’s been just the last few years in life that I’ve realized how badly I need to listen to those voices. And still yesterday and the days leading up to it felt like I was watching something worse than I even could imagine. It really felt like the evil was televised and exposed for what is was, and then the church was just like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” That 48% statistic that you just quoted of white evangelicals saying, “Even if the worst scenario is true, we just don’t care. We just don’t care about women’s bodies, women’s rights, sexual assault, abuse victims, all that.” For me, that led me to a place of deep cynicism, really been hard to muster a lot of hope over the last 48 hours or so. But it’s also just brought my attention to, like you were saying, these really are opposing values. Not just two political parties that happen to have different sets of economic ideologies or a progressive church and a right-leaning church. These are like opposite sides that seem to me everyday to be growing further apart, and more and more like morally we’re on opposite sides of a battle that I just don’t see ending ever, or anytime soon.
Mike: Well, they’re fundamentally different neurological orientations. One thing we’ve seen and found and discovered among brain imaging studies is that conservative brains are functionally different. They have a really elevated fear response and a really elevated disgust response compared to more progressive brains. So some of this really does come down to a neurological orientation in how people find security. So actually, your propensity to try new types of food that you haven’t before is an excellent predictor of your political orientation. So we might have this feeling that we’re rationally choosing our political orientations, but there’s at least a reasonable narrative with some evidence behind it that our political beliefs are formed at the intersection of our social conditioning and our brain orientation. And so I think one thing you’re seeing happen, this deepening of an intense partisan divide, is brains which are fundamentally, deeply change-averse and feel frightened and insecure in the face of social change, you’re seeing a collective panic response. So this all-in on Donald Trump, this all-in on nominees is because these brains, that if you serve any of them, would never try eating a grasshopper for example, or could never eat steak if they see it under a green light. These aren’t choices they’re making. And so they’re seeing changes in marriage; they’re seeing changes in family structure; they’re seeing rapid societal change, and their brains are panicking. And in their communities, they talk about the change; they have a theological framework that says the change is dangerous and will bring forth the end of the world, and that creates an incentive structure to justify actions that ten years ago would have been unjustifiable. I actually believe ten years ago a Donald Trump-like figure would not have had a chance of winning evangelical votes. I actually believe that ten years ago, credible accusations, this many credible accusations of sexual assault would have not had such broad based support. Now don’t hear me wrong: I know about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill and certainly saw that sail through as well. But I think it’s possible that what we’re seeing is a widespread panic among conservatives matched by the top coming off the pressure cooker for really justifiable anger among marginalized groups in the progressive coalition. So if you’re a black American whose parents grew up in the Jim Crow South who lives in the new Jim Crow South, where there’s been this outward proclamation of progress but you look at incarceration rates, you look at the way prisoners are turned into very cheap labor forces in for-profit prisons. You look at every time almost without fail an unarmed black man is killed by a police officer, that no justice is served; and at some point you’ve had enough, and the discomfort of change-averse brains is not enough to get you to be quiet anymore. If you’re Hispanic or Latinx in America, and you watch what’s happening on the border, and you’re watching not only undocumented people be deported, but American citizens who’ve been naturalized having their citizenship revoked and they’re deported, that puts you in a similarly fearful state. So you’re seeing the coping mechanisms, I think, on the right turn into actions that invite an equally survival-oriented response among the progressive coalition. And then you tie into that great machine minds that are using genetic algorithms and evolutionary algorithms to try to optimize what we see in our social media feeds so that companies can make more profit. And these machines figured out really quick that the most bankable emotion, the thing that will raise the share price the highest and increase the chance of that algorithm surviving another generation is moral outrage. You can take moral outrage to the bank if you’re a social media company. And so if you’re an unthinking machine who only wants people to look as much as possible, you learn from billions of data points that the best way to hold people’s attention is to show them passionate angry messages that they already agree with and occasionally a view that oppositional to their own that will also evoke moral outrage. And none of that moves us toward consensus. None of that moves us towards solutions. That moves us towards a line in the sand that we dare the other to cross. And don’t hear me critiquing people’s anger, especially marginalized people’s; their anger is super justified. Their life experiences are measurably different in the data than those of protestant white Americans, men especially, straight men especially. But the problem is, there are just a lot of white people in America, and if justifiable anger from marginalized people creates a more cohesive white voting bloc, everybody loses. So that’s why I think it’s important for some people to try to provoke empathy and mutual understanding. Because we are finding that when any decent percentage of white progressives shows up in coalition with marginalized people, change happens and change happens quickly. The problem is that act of liberation will often deepen that moral collective panic on the right. So we’re watching what happens when primates event language, culture, and the internet. And I actually find great comfort watching footage of chimps and gorillas and other close relatives of our species, because if you would imagine chimpanzees had twitter, well gosh, they’d be doing exactly what we’re doing. So I am a person of faith. I love to think about us as bearers of the image of God, whatever that means, but when I think of us from an evolutionary standpoint, I actually find some comfort because this is not behavior that is out of the design specifications for the family of animals we call primates. I talk a lot! I’m so sorry, I just start ranting.
Tim: It’s great.
Nate: Yeah, I’m fascinated by, you brought up a number of things there at the beginning for the reasons why, let’s just say conservatives, politically conservative people would be making some of the decisions or justifying some of the decisions that they’re making. One of those reasons that you said was the Bible, their theological framework that they’re viewing the world through. I mean, that’s a large reason why we do this show. We talk a lot, Brian Zahnd has this line, he said it on the show, of making Christianity possible for his grandchildren is how he phrased that. And we’ve kind of latched onto that, yeah, that’s really what we want to do, is make Christianity possible instead of holding onto things that aren’t necessary to hold onto or interpretations of the Bible that probably are just wrong and are causing a lot harm, and using love and what actually brings goodness into the world as a hermeneutic, a way to read the Bible. Anyway, I guess I just wanted to jam on that for a little bit. What do you—I don’t know if there’s a question here or not, but what do you do with the Bible now? And what would you say to your—I don’t know how old you were when you were an elder in the Southern Baptist church, but what would you say to that Mike about the Bible and how to approach the Bible? What do you do with this thing?
Mike: I wouldn’t try to get twenty-something me to change their approach to the Bible at all. I would know that would be a fool’s errand, that no amount of passionate discussion, no amount of presentation of evidence would have moved my views a centimeter. I would have emphasized values I thought were important from within the hermeneutic I held at the time. I’m not really into changing people’s worldviews. It doesn’t work. I’m actually, I’m in the middle of writing a book right now, and one of the things I’m talking about is cognitive biases, and I’m aware of things like the backfire effect. The harder I try to change someone’s views, the more that they will trench in and hold them deeper. So if you listen to my work, I’m really careful to be like, “Yeah, what you believe is great!” I validate their frame, and then sneakily place their frame within a larger frame. So I’m like, “Your frame is great, but what we all agree on is that people have dignity and worthy of love.” And people go, “That’s right.” So then if I know you’re in this evangelical frame, then I’ll say, “You know even, no matter how you read the Bible, it’s there in black and white that we’ve been called to reach out and minister to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant. That’s right in the prophets. That’s echoed in the words of Christ and even in the words of Paul, right?” So I don’t try to change their frame. I try to place their frame within another frame more compatible with mine and then use my understanding of their frame to create a shift in action without changing a shift in view. I try to call people to health wherever they’re at. I don’t want to change people’s views about the Bible. I want them to understand that there are things they do in their life everyday that furthers the institution of white supremacy and that white supremacy is not compatible with their view of Christianity. Forget my view of the Bible. It’s not compatible with their view. So I can call attention to that in that frame of everyone is worthy of dignity and love and then kind of reveal the degree to which they have a hermeneutic that’s been influenced by some uniquely American ideas. And if I can just introduce the ideas, not that your ideas are wrong, but that your theological ideas contain elements of politics, that they contain some democratic republic hyper-individualism elements. I don’t need you to change it; I just need to be aware of it and to see the way that. Okay, so you’re an evangelical and you think America’s a great nation, even God’s chosen nation because of these values that we have of freedom and opportunity? And then we can examine, if it’s true that our country’s about freedom and opportunity, why does it seem that that opportunity isn’t producing similar results across different people groups? And I’ll ask questions. I’ll get you to explain it to me. I won’t stand on my high horse and just quote data, although I can, but I know that’s going to provoke the backfire effect. So as much as possible, especially in the podcasts, I try to invite people into conversation and into discussion. Now that’s not the strategy I always use on social media, because I understand that the environment is different. Often all I do on social media is offer solidarity with people, and then occasionally as possible, I’ll flip the script a little bit and push back against whatever the zeitgeist is that day. But to me it’s not about what would I tell a person in any particular reference frame. I see shortcomings and I see advantages to every reference frame that I know of. It’s more, how can I try to people in reference frames to love, acceptance, and mutual understanding?
Tim: I love that, Mike, and you used the word action within a system of values. The language I use in thinking about this and wanting to talk to you is the word ethics. And something that’s fascinated me, I’ve always been fascinated with the Liturgists, not just because it’s a great podcast and you guys do a great job, but I think it was kind of a revelation to me, just from the outside watching over the past few years, I think realizing that there was this whole segment of society that I knew existed in some part. I don’t think I realized how large the segment of society is. And I know you could try to explain who you think is in this segment. The way I’ve kind of construed it is some people that have one foot in the church, one foot out, aren’t content with just stamping the label of Christian and have a messier, more complicated relationship, but also aren’t content with giving up on any form of spirituality, or even engaging in theological conversation. That’s at least from my vantage point how I’ve pictured this. But one thing that’s fascinating is from the conservative church side, like I went to a pretty conservative seminary, and as I’m sure you’ve heard, the Liturgists to them represented this bastion of the threatening slippery slope. And yet what’s fascinating is, even while you say that you have really come to be more open-handed and don’t need to go evangelize your worldview on everybody around you, that doesn’t mean you don’t make strong ethical stances. And actually the Liturgists podcasts is doing ethics, and it’s kind of revealed to me that there’s a whole segment of the population that the conservative church thinks is like this immoral or amoral portion of society that doesn’t care about the Bible because they don’t want anyone to put any authority over their lives. And yet there’s a massive portion of society that feels, it seems, like the church is no longer holding the moral high ground and actually is functioning in many ways as an agent of immorality in our society. And you realize then that there are lots and lots and lots of people, whether they look to religion, church, spirituality, science, that want ethics. That was kind of something that I didn’t really expect a few years ago, is just to see that especially young people are not trying to live an ethics-free life. They’re actually hungry for a good, just way to treat people well and lovingly and to make a more beautiful society. So I’m just, can you speak to that a little bit, in terms of how you even approach ethical conversations, how you even build your own system of ethics and your own take, because this is just me as an outsider sort of observing, but what your own take has been on this whole realm of spiritual nomads?
Mike: So some of our best numbers and downloads are at conservative seminaries and colleges, Christian colleges. That’s where our numbers are off the charts. And so there’s this coalition I call the nones and the dones. Nones mean, “I have no religious affiliation,” usually, “anymore.” Most people aren’t born nones, they become nones through faith transition. And dones are people who are like, “You know what? I still believe in Jesus, I still believe in Christianity, I still value the Bible, but I’m done with the church.” And that’s kind of the coalition that forms the Liturgists podcast. By the way, a segment of the nones are agnostics and atheists, of which we have significant numbers listening. And so that’s the coalition. And because that’s the coalition, the same institutions that often publicly denounce me privately invite me in and pay me money to come and talk to them about how to talk to millennials and post-millennials, because I’m great at it and they’re terrible at it. And so as part of that presentation I’ve given so many times to really big well-known conservative religious institutions, I basically run through a lot of data that shows that millennials and post-millennials have incredibly permissive and open stances on social issues in terms of policy. Millennials overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage; they overwhelmingly support the legalization of marijuana; you go point by point by point by point, it’s not close. But then when you dig into their actual behavior, millennials smoke less marijuana than Generation X or the boomers did at their age or currently. So more boomers, who are on paper so much more religious, are more likely to be marijuana users, they just feel guilty about it, than millennials are. Millennials have fewer sex partners, they have sex less often, they wait longer to have sex for the first time, they have lower rates of teen pregnancy, and because of that, even though they are a few percentage points more accomodating of abortion being legal, they are far less likely to either have an abortion personally or say they would have an abortion personally. So what we’re seeing with millennials is they’re just, they don’t show up for bullshit. They have no tolerance for institutions to claim one stance and then do something else. So if you’re a church that reads from the Bible and the Bible talks about caring for the poor, but you have a beautiful campus in a middle class suburb and you don’t let homeless people in the front door, millennials go, “[sniff] This smells like bullshit. I’m out.” And that’s what’s happening. So yes, of course the Liturgists podcast talks about morality and ethics, because we know our listeners are interested in that. They are interested in figuring out how to live in the world in a just manner. There are so many white listeners of The Liturgists podcast who say, “I’ve become aware that white supremacy is a problem in our country, but I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t even know where to start my research to figure out what to do.” And so we try to create the space and the venue for those conversations and those discussions. And so what amazes these seminaries is that so many millennials listen to us that really disagree with us on theological issues. They really disagree with us on how we read the Bible. They may really even disagree with our specific ethical and moral stances. But why do they listen? Because they know that every host of The Liturgists podcast will put into practice what we say. So if I say I’m against something, they don’t have to worry it’s going to come out in the news that I’ve been doing it in private. They’re not going to get betrayed by me that way. If I’ll do something, anything, I’ll say it in a microphone and let millions of people hear that I did it. And I’ll invite their judgment and their condemnation or whatever, but I don’t receive it, because the north star for these people is honesty. Because America and American media and American social and civic institutions have been so dishonest for so long. And millennials grew up in an environment where all those chickens came home to roost. Millennials survived the highest divorce rates in American history; millennials survived some of the greatest economic collapse in history; millennials grew up in an era where there was great economic growth and prosperity that they didn’t get any of. They’ve watched as corporations make all they money and they can’t get good jobs, they can’t pay student loans, they were told that they needed to survive and get a good job, and they’re done with the lies. And so, I actually have a lot of sympathy for churches and colleges who say that The Liturgists are very dangerous to them because we are. And we’re dangerous because we validate this fire burning in people’s hearts that it’s not okay to say one thing and to do another. And that’s why I figured out that we have such a broad diversity and viewpoints in our audience, is because what the progressive lesbian, and the conservative evangelical millennial have in common is their respect that what we say and what we do lines up.
Nate: I guess I’m still curious about the Bible piece for you, for you personally. Why do you care? Because I know, I’ve been listening to the Christian episodes. If you haven’t listened to that Liturgists - Christianity, it’s been really, really interesting and helpful. But I’m just curious, why do you specifically care about the Bible? I think the reason I ask this, is because I know I have friends, I come from a pretty conservative background, I was planting churches in a very conservative denomination, and so some friends from that world would say that their biggest fear is that the Bible just becomes another book, another good historical book. That’s the biggest fear that they’re trying to protect against, and so it needs to stay, it’s very important that it’s divinely inspired and it’s without error, and all these things. And I know that a lot of that you don’t necessarily hold to, or it might mean something very different. Why are you still interested in the Bible? Why do you care what the Bible says? Yeah, I’m just curious I guess.
Mike: I talk about that a ton in my first book, Finding God about the Wav—Finding God About the Waves!?
Nate: I was like, “Yeah, that’s interesting, that’s not the one I read.”
Mike: [laughing] That’s not the title of my book. Finding God in the Waves is the title of my book. I think the chapter’s called The Good Book. Basically, we’re storytelling animals, and something that can actually provoke us to change our behaviors and find social cohesion is navigating mythology, stories we all know. How many millennials and post-millennials can meet and really understand each other in five minutes just by talking about which Hogwarts house they belong to? There’s a tremendous value in that because everyone read this giant tome of books that had a navigating mythology. We wonder why are the Parkland students, these teenagers, willing to face down United States senators and presidents and say, “I will not yield!” Because they grew up reading Harry Potter and the Hunger Games. These navigating mythologies really influence the way that they interact with the world. And so the Bible is a collection of phenomenal navigating mythologies. Western civilization was incredibly influenced by this tome of books. The mark of that ancient literature is indelible on the basic philosophies and structures of the society in which we live. Ignore it at your own peril. So I have so much familiarity with the Bible; I’m so fascinated by the stories of people who, like me, tried to figure out who in the hell God is and what God wants and if God is even real. And if God is real, what are the implications for me today? There’s a whole tome of writings exploring that, and then there’s a massive universe of other people unpacking that and writing it down, too. So when I read the Bible, I enter into a multi-millennial discussion encompassing countless not just voices but cultures, and cultures at different points in history. I place myself inside a massive stream of exploration of this question, “Who is God and what does God want?” So I love the Bible. I read the Bible every day. And I find it of course to be divinely inspired, if that’s a thing. Without error? That’s a tough standard to place on anything. I mean, I guess I could say maybe a proton is without error, they always do what protons are supposed to. But if I get much past that, I’m going to find a lot of errors in this universe. But it’s a weird way to look at a book. Nobody in the era in which the Bible was oral tradition or when it was written down would have understood a notion of infallibility. That is such a strange, post-enlightenment, even modernist projection to put onto ancient literature. It’s just not how people thought. And so I’ve let go of those assumptions, and doing so has allowed me to really immerse myself. I mean, I don’t know if you can see on the shelf behind me, I have a lot of Bibles and a lot of Bible commentaries and a lot of extra canon resources from different streams of the Christian tradition, because I enjoy wrestling not just with the text but the historical context of the text, the way the text is so often a Rorschach ink blot that reveals more about the reader than the text itself, and watching that unfold through history. And all these Christians claiming that, “Yes, I have the one right and proper view of this ancient literature.” Which I enjoy primarily because it’s hysterical. And I just try to avoid falling into that trap and realize the great thing about the Bible, is the Bible, when you engage with it in sincerity, will become the book you need it to be today. And it’s precisely because it is so deep and so broad and so culturally significant.
Tim: And I actually think that’s much of what the metaphor of the scriptures as living was always supposed to entail. You know, the connection you make to the Hunger Games and Harry Potter is perfect, because for generations many people at least have remembered and appreciated the Bible as resistance literature, written by refugees and prisoners and slaves, that in each new generation lives on to inspire hope and perseverance and faithfulness in the midst of trials and suffering and all that. Part of my own personal faith crisis over the last few years and in the last two days is just seeing how so much of American Christianity has used it in the exact opposite way, as a source of preserving the status quo and preserving the power structures that exist in our society. And like you said, it’s a Rorschach test. I saw Dr. Ford over the last two days facing that room of kings, of white men in power. I saw a beautiful, courageous, self-sacrificial, Christ-like action. And in my biblically-shaped, Bible-shaped imagination, I correlated her action with Jesus. But I know, and I saw on Twitter, that just as many if not more Christians were conflating Brett Kavanaugh being accused of sexual assault and the possibility that he might not get his promotion to a Supreme Court seat as him being a Christ-figure experiencing suffering because the forces of God’s enemies were coming against him. And they also looked to the same text, to the same biblical metaphors, biblical stories to put themselves in the messiah position. And it just leads to this situation where, if we both in this growing divide we’ve talked about, and you mention is reacting potentially in more and more volatile ways to the other, if in our American society that’s been so shaped by Christendom and a kind of Christianity as the state religion of sorts, and both sides see themselves as the Jesus, that’s where I just get... How does this not end up—not to be bleak or like the apocalypse guy, but how does this not lead to a kind of civil war, if both sides believe that their calling is actually to keep going, and everytime that the other side disagrees with them or pushes back on them, it’s them experiencing persecution and them fulfilling the church’s duty of suffering in the face of hostility. That’s the sense where it’s like, if the Bible is functioning to support each of our individual positions, where does this go?
Mike: What you’re describing is why I’m so happy that I was an atheist for many years, and why I hold still many atheistic assumptions. I think there’s great danger when people over-spiritualize the Bible and over-spiritualize their narrative as some continuation of a thing that happened in the Bible. Because we have, as you say, great historical evidence, that when two groups have been reassured by a sacred text that they are the good and right one, all sorts of crazy things become justifiable. So I don’t see myself as a modern Jesus figure. I see myself as someone trying to learn from the teachings and the examples of Jesus. But as I say fairly often, if I climb up on a cross and am crucified, it won’t do anybody any good. So I always try to inform my faith by sociology and anthropology and secular ethics and behavioral economics, and try to have a more clear-eyed, nuanced perspective on my place in the world. And if there’s a navigating mythology that I find especially helpful in the Bible to avoid a call to arms, it’s the depiction of a good neighbor being one who will cross a boundary of being despised to help one in need. So according to the Bible, I’m never more Christ-like than when I reach out to someone who is unclean in my group’s estimation and help them. And so that means… queer folks are super marginalized in society, even in progressive circles. People might say that they’re affirming, but they’re actually very uncomfortable with the actual presence of actual queer people. And so when I reach out in solidarity to a queer person in need and serve them, I understand the Bible, I’m doing a very biblical thing. In the same way, because I’m quite progressive, if I see a conservative evangelical bloodied on the side of the road, and I cross over as people screech, “Unclean! Unclean,” and help that person, those are the moments that I’m doing, according to Jesus as recorded in the gospels, the summation of everything the Bible narrative stands for. The biblical narratives. There is no single Bible narrative. So we check ourselves, we check our motives. I think at the best, the Bible calls us to humility and questions self-righteousness. Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments, frequent moments, where prophets cry out, “Stop saying, ‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace!” I think Martin Luther King embodied that well. “Stop looking for a negative peace with the absence of conflict, but a positive peace with the presence of justice.” These are things that kind of push and pull, and push and pull, and done well, I think our faith should draw us to examine ourselves and our motives and whether or not we are truly seeking peace or not. And that does mean, for me, sometimes taking sides. I tend to stand with the marginalized because of my read on liberation theology and how compelling I find it. But even amongst that, I think I’m called to offer grace and offer space and offer understanding to people who are just beginning to walk a path that I began walking many years ago. And that’s a good role for me. That is how I am a good neighbor. And with that focus, you don’t see me escalating people towards civil war. And in fact, I would work very hard to avoid such a thing. I don’t know if that helps or not.
Tim: Yeah, it’s helpful. Do you, on a personal level do you, or how often do you identify with some of the cynicism and despair that at least today I’m feeling and articulating? Is it easy for you to maintain hope, maintain a posture of wanting to be a peacemaker, or is it a battle for you when you get up each day?
Mike: Oh, I struggle with cynicism all the time. And I just tell myself, “There’s good reasons you’re cynical. That’s an understandable impulse. Is your cynicism today helping or hurting?” If it’s not helping, then I counteract it. I meditate, I look for signs of goodness and love in people who I’m frustrated with. But I get super cynical. I get cynical about everybody. It’s not just conservatives. I mean, everybody says they’re justice oriented. Their carbon footprints aren’t really measurably different from conservative people. Not in any significant degree. I get very frustrated that we are pretty thoughtless animals. And as beautiful as it is, kind of all life is that way. The pattern of all life, everywhere we’ve seen it, is to expand as much as possible until all their resources are gone, and then to have its population crash. So that can make me cynical. Or I can just open myself up and say, “Well, that’s just how life keeps on living, and so how can I, with an understanding of that overall arc of organisms, show up in solidarity, show up to confront suffering, show up to promote empathy and understanding?” And I understand based on neuroscience, that the more I focus on helping others, the less cynical I will be, the more I will get the happiness trifecta of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin that produces a sense of ongoing peace and joy. I find that not when I ponder in isolation the problems facing the world, but when I show up in a concrete way in action to demonstrate love, help, and support for others. That’s my off ramp from cynicism.
Nate: I’m thinking about the tweet that you made, I think it was yesterday, or you were up late. You were tweeting late.
Mike: I was pretty keyed up. Pretty keyed up yesterday.
Nate: You were talking about pastors. The tweet is, “If your pastor and other church leaders have been silent about sexual assault this week, then they’ve told you where they stand.” And you went on to clarify that because people were having—
Nate: Yeah. And I’ve seen you say that about other topics too, like, “Listen for this on Sunday, are they talking about this? If they’re not, is this the church for me, do I need to go somewhere else because of this?” I feel like there’s a lot, the term is good Bible-believing or Bible-teaching churches, right, in America? We were always told, you need to find a good Bible-teaching church. And I just looked on twitter this week, and I didn’t see them saying anything about anything. They were largely talking about “the gospel,” “We’re going to keep preaching the gospel.” You know, we pick on John Piper a lot on this show, but he’s talking about Proverbs. It had nothing to with—he said one thing about, I want to read the John Piper tweet now. What was it? It was very in the middle. So I can’t say he was completely silent about it. It was, “Oh Lord, knower of all hearts, ruler of all governments, don’t let a good man be destroyed by lies, and don’t let a liar on the supreme court.”
Mike: I’m no John Piper fan. That’s actually a pretty great tweet. John Piper just passed the threshold of what I’m asking faith leaders to do. That is, and I might catch some heat on Twitter, but that seems masterfully done. He didn’t pass judgment, which I can see how it frustrates some people, but he left open if this guy is lying, he doesn’t belong on the Supreme Court. Which shows solidarity with victims of sexual assault. And I say that as a victim of sexual assault myself. But then he’s saying, if these accusations are false, don’t let someone be destroyed. I don’t think false accusations of sexual assault are terribly common.
Nate: What’d you say, 2-8% on your latest episode of Ask Science Mike?
Mike: Depending on the study, it’s anywhere from 2-10%. Most experts would say 4.5% is about the highest reasonable number. But yeah, so he spoke up, he spoke out and he held a door open from a very conservative perspective for survivors. It’s tough! I understand churches don’t want to be partisan. They shouldn’t be partisan. But every church says something when a city is flooded by a natural disaster. Every church says something, it’s not like churches never speak to current events. When there’s a lot of broken bodies and blood on the ground, churches say something to address the suffering. How many churches said nothing the Sunday after September 11th? None! None! Every church talked about death and dying and tragedy that Sunday. My point is this Kavanaugh hearing is a natural disaster-level event for sexual assault survivors, so say something of comfort and solidarity for them. I’m not saying you have to pass judgment on Kavanaugh or talk about Kavanaugh at all. I don’t give two shits if you talk about Kavanaugh from the pulpit or your social media feed. What you need to say is, “A lot of people have been deeply hurt by sexual assault, and we know people in this church have been hurt by sexual assault, and we hear you and we believe you and we validate your experiences.” And anybody who tries to move the ball to some other place from there is missing what I’m talking about and missing an opportunity to help people. They’re dragging in some other political assumption that I don’t care about. I’m speaking as a survivor of sexual assault offering consulting for free for church leaders that if you want to know how your silence is interpreted by us, guess what? It’s complicity. It’s participation in a culture that allowed us to be assaulted and ashamed in the first place, and frankly, shame on you, if after hearing that, you still continue to be quiet.
Tim: In a way it feels to me, Mike, the silence let alone the support of, like you quoted the 48% that wanted to push him through even if it was all true, is—we talk on this show a lot about power, and it really seems to me that power is at the heart of all of our biggest troubles, our conversations, our theological takes on things. And this just felt to me, as someone who has experienced abuse of power in a church and been burned by it and now sees a lot of life through that lens, it was like, “Oh yeah, that’s just our whole society.” The de facto position is, “We’re just going to trust and uphold the guy in power, and no matter who comes against him, no matter what the validity of the case or the seriousness and the tragedy of the case, that’s a threat to the status quo and we’re going to stand against it.” And I just can’t, I’m sure some people think I’m just riding my hobby horse, but I really can’t see how power isn’t central to these issues. So I’ve been spending the last year or so trying to study and learn as much as I can about power dynamics at social levels, interrelational levels, all that. Can you just kind of go Science Mike for a little bit on power and the role of power in these kinds of situations?
Mike: Every critique that atheists have about religion… “Every” is a strong word, I’m trying to make sure I can still stand by it. I think every substantive critique that atheists and antitheists have about religion is when religion is co-opted by authoritarianism. Authoritarianism plus religious is an especially toxic mix. And when you elevate the needs of the organization and standing by the leader of an organization over the physical, emotional, and economic of the people that actually create the organization you have authoritarianism, and that justifies really toxic, really damaging things. It’s authoritarianism in the Catholic church that justifies covering up sex crimes involving children to protect the reputation of the church. Right? That’s an authoritarian move. And so what we have in America right now is a broad coalition of authoritarians. And they’re authoritarians in the public sphere, and they’re authoritarians in their churches. And they have perfectly legitimate and valid psychological motivations for being authoritarians. Right, I understand the seeds of the authoritarianism and where it comes from. But when we allow those groups to dictate the terms of the conversation and allow them… very few churches in America have a majority of authoritarians in the pews. So what happens, is a number of authoritarians, let’s say between 10-30%, create a culture of authoritarian empowerment for leadership, and the much larger passive coalition of non-authoritarians simply goes along with the flow, often with discomfort. What does a non-authoritarian look like? Jeff Flake looks like a non-authoritarian, a frustrated non-authoritarian in a very authoritarian Republican party right now. So what does he do? Sometimes he shakes his head and goes, “Boy, I’m concerned.” But then there’s no further action. So the only way to stop authoritarianism is for the larger bloc of non-authoritarians in organizations to say, “Hey, this isn’t okay.” And that’s actually happening, but instead of confronting their institutions, non-authoritarians are just leaving. And that’s one of the reasons so many churches are closing; that’s one of the reasons more churches close every year than year than start; that’s the reason more Christian colleges close every year, is because people are going, “I’m out.” And so although I understand right now we’re very concerned with the movement of authoritarianism, I think if you look at socioeconomic trends, the future isn’t bright for institutions like that. Because people are voting with their feet and with their dollars, and well, that’s why No religious affiliation is the fastest growing religious group in America and is soon to be the largest.
Tim: Can you just add to that? What’s your definition, you used Jeff Flake as an example, but how would you define an authoritarian, especially if you take it out of the realm of senators and into the life of a more average person?
Mike: How would I describe an authoritarian? Let’s see. Authoritarians are all about strict conformity and obedience to authority. They like a strongman. And that obedience comes at the cost of personal freedom or expression. So if you think obedience is more important than personal expression and need a strong leader to maintain that, that’s authoritarianism. Now sociologists have kind of uncovered three distinct variants of authoritarianism that I probably can’t go into off the top of my head. But yeah, that’s what an authoritarian is. It’s strict personal obedience, limiting personal expression, as held by a powerful leader. That could be a pastor, that could be a president. And authoritarianism just tends to go to bad places. If you let authoritarianism keep growing, it gets to fascism pretty consistently. And that can happen in both right and left wing movements, by the way. An authoritarian left is a perfectly possible thing. It’s happened historically. I think sociologically, we can just say pretty safely, in the long run authoritarianism doesn’t play out well, and so it needs to be confronted before it becomes too powerful.
Nate: Yeah, on a bit of a different note here, I tweeted this the other day, that one of the only push backs we’ve gotten on this show—well, I guess there’s always the push back of, “This is heretical,” but we anticipated that response from certain groups, which is kind of why we titled the show what we did. But one of the push backs I’ve heard is the one of, “You sound angry,” essentially. It’s almost as if anger is this disqualifier or something to be avoided, is how it comes across. But one of the things I’ve appreciated about you, Mike, and for me, it’s always the most touching times in Ask Science Mike and The Liturgists podcasts are you getting angry with the marginalized at the ideas and groups that are hurting them. I mean, when I look at the state of the evangelical church in America, the way the marginalized are treated and how it’s the church oftentimes using their Bibles to justify or find the reasoning for those views. We quote James Cone a lot, and he has that quote talking about racism, “Isn’t it time theologians got upset?” Isn’t it time that people who love the Bible and think it’s being used as a weapon get angry at that and do the work to deweaponize the Bible? Anyway, I’m just curious, maybe if you could speak to anger a bit.
Mike: Yeah, what’s wrong with anger? Let’s examine where we got the idea that anger is bad? Why is that such a protestant value? Probably a Catholic value too, why is that such a modern Christian value that anger’s not okay? Where do we get that? And if you look historically, that’s coming from post feudal system. So if you were a serf, you couldn’t express anger to a noble. They’d kill you. And that was a control mechanism, this deference. And then we have this economic disruption with the industrial revolution where the working class starts to have more standing. And this is kind of tolerated, in fact embraced, by ruling classes because they got so much wealthier with this increase of productivity in working classes, but it means we created the notion of the gentleman and we started to engineer social structures that were basically designed to keep people in conformity with structures that didn’t necessarily benefit them. But it felt great if your grandfather worked in the mud but you work in a factory, and your boss calls you sir, too, that seems like great progress. So this social structure was born, this prohibition against anger is a way of preserving power structures. So if you’re in leadership, it’s really advantageous to have a widespread cultural prohibition against the expression of anger and to place that in the context of what God wants. Because people, they’ll really go along with God wants a lot more than what a ruling class wants. That’s a way to prevent social revolutions, right? How often are theological revelations required to create a social revolution? Almost every time. And so I’ve just kind of examined, why was I so upset when black people were angry? Why did that frighten me so much? Because I’d be like, “I understand what you’re saying, but do you have to be angry about it? Because if you’re angry you’re not reasonable,” and I went, “Oh my gosh! My prohibition against anger is how empathetic white people are kept in support of white supremacy! Holy cow, this is a dangerous idea that anger’s not okay!” Can anger be unhealthy? Absolutely! Absolutely. Can anger be dangerous? Of course, of course it can. But so can electricity. Electricity can power your home or it can stop your heart, but that doesn’t mean we have a prohibition against electricity. It means we have rituals and systems to make sure we use electricity in safe and healthy ways. And what has astounded me the last couple of years is to see the way that so many marginalized people have really healthy relationships with anger. They haven’t had the same culturalized prohibition on anger. Now, if you’re in the Jim Crow South as a black man, you’re not expressing anger in the presence of white people, but in the safety of your own community, you have rituals and systems and places where anger is allowed. It turns out that’s psychologically healthy. Anger can be motivating, anger can create solidarity. So I allow my anger when it moves me to action. I allow my anger when I have seen how helpful it is for women who’ve been sexually assaulted to hear that I don’t just believe them, but that I am angry about what happened to them. But that creates healing! That creates peace! But when my anger leads me to justify not seeing another person’s humanity, when my anger draws me towards some degree of violence towards other people, well that’s when I know my anger is crossing a line from healthy and productive to unproductive, and that’s when I examine my motivations, and that’s when I calm myself back down. But I show anger publicly on purpose to start tearing down this notion that anger is some universally destructive force or that conflict is always unhealthy. In fact, the absolute avoidance of conflict is one of the most unhealthy psychological relationship mechanisms possible.
Tim: I so appreciate that. And I see all the connections, right, to talking about churches being silent on the conversation around sexual assault. If anger is identified as an okay and appropriate and even in the Christian-ese terms of a righteous response to injustice, then of course the church would be a place where you gather and minister to one another in the context of that anger, right? But silence seems like it’s actually implicitly saying that this isn’t the realm of the gospel, it’s not an appropriate response, that response isn’t actually going to be valid in this space. And that’s why actually I’ve probably taken your lead in Mike in ways that I may now just be thinking about. Since we started our podcast in January of this year, I’m one who struggles with unhealthy anger and also has a strong justice streak that wants to advocate when there needs to be someone to advocate. And I’ve wrestled with this feedback as being some who hosts a podcast. And I’ve come to terms with realizing that actually, as a white man who’s doing public theology, I really see it as a responsibility that I have in part of my ongoing repentance from white Christianity and white supremacy and in part my solidarity with hurting people is to actually express appropriate levels of anger at things that are not right in the world, in part so that people who are scared to express their anger can feel just a little bit less alone. I mean, one of the things I noticed on Twitter following the hearings yesterday morning, or actually it was following Kavanaugh’s speech or his defense, was how many black men on Twitter pointed out that if they were ever to display that amount of anger in their facial expressions on their job they would be fired immediately. And it just brought attention to even the disparity in the kinds of emotions we’re allowed to show in our faces based on the different status markers we have in this society. So in that way, Kavanaugh’s anger was kind of a symbol for what he’s allowed and what I would be allowed that so many aren’t. But I think on the flipside, there’s responsibility for those of us that have been given a platform or that have made a platform for ourselves to express solidarity with hurting people. So I just want to say personally, Mike, just realizing now from listening to The Liturgists for years and thinking about podcasting for a while, I’ve probably learned a lot from you in that. So thanks for setting a good example.
Mike: Thank you. You’ll never hear me at a loss for words unless you say something nice about me, at which point I’m like [whispering] “Oh, what do I do?” [laughing]
Tim: Okay, so to wrap up, I want to throw you the question. You’ve been a public speaker and a podcaster and an author now for what, four or five years, is that about right?
Mike: Seems good to me.
Tim: Okay. So however long that goes, at the end of your life as a public speaker in various formats, what do you most want to be known for?
Mike: Every time something bad happens, a quote goes around the internet. It’s from a public service announcement that Fred Rogers gave about how to help children through times of crisis. And Fred Rogers shares that his mom always told him when things are bad, to look for the helpers, that you’d always find people even in the scariest moments who are helping. And more than anything else, I want people to remember me as a helper.
Tim: Beautiful. Well, thanks for being that over the past few years. I mean I’ve learned a lot from you and I know tons and tons of people have found new possibilities of faith, of existence in the world, of treating one another from conversations that came for you guys at a risk. So thanks for being that.
Nate: Yeah, I just want to say that as well. Thank you so much. And friends, I don’t share that the work Mike is doing has an audience of millions to build him up at all. I really don’t care about that kind of stuff. I say that The Liturgists and Science Mike have millions of listeners because I’ve heard from some people that have no clue why a show like this, ours or theirs, would need to exist and feel like there’s not an audience at all. So I say you have millions of listeners, and we have thousands of listeners, to say no, there are so many people in this same boat. So many who the theology and picture of God they held and taught is no longer working anymore, who are done with lots of the experiences of church they’ve had, who’ve had the Bible used as a weapon against them, millions of millions of people. It’s as you said, Mike, it’s the fastest growing religion in the U.S. And to those people that would say there’s not an audience, they don’t see all the emails and the stories we receive and the pain and the loss that so many people are feeling. So take comfort in that, friends. The reason we do this show is to help you not be alone anymore, to not feel crazy and to give you courage to keep going. Even though it’s hard, and even though you’ll probably receive push back and possibly be called a heretic. We often say that we’re here with you and we’re here for you. And we want to help give the Bible and God back to you. So Mike, you’ve done that for me, and I just want to thank you for your work and thank you for chatting with us today.
Mike: Thank you. And thanks for having me on your program today. It was an honor to be here with you.