Science, Faith, & Podcasting: A Match Made in Youth Ministry (an interview with Lulu Miller & Science Mike)

iym.001A few months ago I took part in a Templeton Foundation grant to promote a better relationship between science and youth ministry. My task was to work on an article that would address some aspect of how the arenas of science and youth ministry intersect. As part of my project I interviewed Lulu Miller, cohost of Invisibilia, and Science Mike, from The Liturgists, and Ask Science Mike podcasts. What follows is an excerpt from my article, which has been published at Princeton Seminary’s Institute for Youth Ministry blog. You can read the full article here:


 

Big, Juicy Questions

Our church youth group went on a retreat a few weeks ago. It was a three-hour drive to the retreat center, and each carload of kids was left to choose their own entertainment during the drive. Funny thing is, they all chose to do the same exact thing. They listened to podcasts. Not podcasts on spirituality or religion, they were mostly programs about science.

Podcasting is now a major cultural player, and the audience is young.

Who Listens to Podcasts?

According to Edison Research around 57 million Americans age twelve and up listen to podcasts every month. That’s 21% of the population. More than use Spotify, and roughly the same percentage that uses Twitter in the same time period, and this audience skews young. Twelve to twenty-four year olds make up about 20% of the population, but over 30% of the podcasting audience. Over 50% of podcast listeners are under the age of 34.

More and more young people are plugging into podcasts, and many of the top programs deal with the sciences in one way or another. Programs like How Stuff Works, Invisibilia, and The Hidden Brain are becoming influential parts of a cultural landscape that is hooked on science.

Podcasts, Science, and Curiosity

Radiolab, from WNYC public radio in New York City is one of the most popular podcasts in America. They draw over a million listeners each week, with nearly twice that downloading each episode. The hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, have created what they call “highly produced meditations on weird, obscure subjects involving chemistry and biology.”

Back in 2005, during its first official season, Radiolab wasn’t exactly well received. The first five episodes periodically displaced Fresh Air with Teri Gross, one of the more popular programs. Calls and emails flooded the station complaining, I hate this crap. Get it off the air. What is that? Bring back Teri Gross. Things looked pretty bleak.

Today Radiolab is a perpetual top-ten program on iTunes. What saved it? According to Abumrad, it was the interest of young people. “Our median audience was 17 when we started. It somehow made great sense to people who were in high school. I don’t know why.”

Reaching Youth Effectively

Why did Radiolab connect with this younger audience? Krulwich says the secret is, “It’s asking big, juicy questions again: where does the universe come from? Why are we here? Could there be more than one universe? Is there a simple explanation for everything we see, a set of rules, or a deep symmetry in nature? Is anyone out there? How will it end?” Abumrad and Krulwich are asking existential questions and audiences are lining up to hear it. “I think people want to think about this stuff,” Krulwich says, “and they reward the folks who give them the keys.”

Radiolab was tapping into a pre-existing appetite among young people for the big, juicy questions of life. Anyone willing to engage young people on a more-than-superficial level with those kinds of questions will be rewarded.

“When I was in college,” Krulwich says, “the books smart kids read were written by social activists; Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, George Orwell. Today, I think the finest prose stylists are Richard Dawkins, Oliver Sacks, Brian Greene, Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer, and what do they write about? Neuroscience, psychology, biology, cosmology.”

The perception is that science is where the smart stuff is happening in culture, and podcasting is the perfect delivery system.

The Self As Info-Source Editor

My generation grew up with four main media sources: newspapers, television, radio, and magazines. That world is gone.

Picture your favorite seventeen-year-old sitting at the head of a big conference table. Having grown up in a world flooded with information sources—YouTube, cable news, television, social media, Wikipedia, fake news, the Internet—they have needed to become an expert info-source editor. Seated around the table are the many sources they have convened as trustworthy to discuss the big, juicy questions of life. Typically there’s a chair for Mom and Dad, their friends, their teachers, and always there’s a chair for science. Religion? Maybe. The Bible, a youth leader, a religious tradition? Possibly. But science is always at the table, often with a team of experts from medicine, psychology, sociology, neuroscience, cosmology, and technology. Religion simply does not enjoy that kind of influence over the typical teenager. My question is why not?

Finding a Seat at the Table

Another one of the most popular podcasts going today is called Invisibilia. Latin for “invisible things,” Invisibilia is billed as a science show that explores the invisible forces shaping human behavior. When it debuted, the show went straight to number one on iTunes and parked there for most of its first season. Sixty-nine percent of the program’s listeners are under the age of 34, which skews young for other NPR programs.

Lulu Miller, co-creator of Invisibilia, agreed to talk with me about why science always gets a seat at the table and religion doesn’t. Miller confesses that her personal story drives much of her approach to the show’s production:

I came from a super-atheist background—dogmatically atheist. My dad is just like, “There’s no point. There’s no meaning. There’s no God.” I think I have largely accepted that, but I’ve always had a craving for meaning and explanation and even moral instruction… the things that I imagine you get when you go to church… my whole life’s game and journey has been, “Look, Dad, there IS magic, there IS meaning… but by your rules!” I swear that in every story, somewhere in there is a conversation where I am striking out into the universe for proof of magic in the molecules. I’m just serving it back to him on a platter by his rules. I think a lot of people are in that zone right now. It’s like they need that valid stamp.

Both in Miller’s life, as well as in the culture at large, science is the official validator.

Suspicious Motivations

For young adults who are looking for help in their role as info-source editor, science is seen as an indispensable conversation partner, in part because scientists are seen as impartial and objective. Religion doesn’t have that same reputation.

“I think people treat religion with this suspicion,” Miller said. “Are you just going to tell me how it should be? Are you going to just give me one answer?” Religion doesn’t always seem to play fair.

Young Christians want religious voices at the table, but only if they remain open to what science has to say. Whether it’s because science is seen as unbiased, or because it’s “agenda-free,” science is nearly always seen as a credible and sentient influence for anyone who chases the big, juicy questions of life.

Historically, Christians have been unabashed in their attempts to limit the voices at the table. In many ways, the homeschooling phenomenon can be seen as that kind of effort, even for well-meaning, faithful parents. But tipping the scales in favor of religion can backfire. Savvy info-source editors will view even parents and youth leaders with suspicion if they think they have an agenda. Unless you play by the same rules as everyone else, you are not a credible source.

Savvy info-source editors are looking for safe conversations that allow them to incorporate science into how they understand the big, juicy questions of life—even the religious questions.

Earning the Right to Be Heard

Young Christians want religious voices at the table, but only if they remain open to what science has to say. Whether it’s because science is seen as unbiased, or because it’s “agenda-free,” science is nearly always seen as a credible and sentient influence for anyone who chases the big, juicy questions of life.

“You can’t rip the craving for meaning or spirituality out of the person. No matter where we’ve shifted in culture there’s an ancient, deep craving,” Miller says. “Why doesn’t religion get a seat at the table? I don’t know. It’s almost like you have to sneak it in with a scientist’s costume.

You can read the rest of the article, including the interview with Science Mike here:

 

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