How does a dedicated religious nonbeliever make sense of recurring, “strange” episodes of altered consciousness in her life, episodes similar to those of mystics and believers? In her latest book, Barbara Ehrenreich tracks back through her interesting life story, confronting these unusual experiences head-on and attempting to make sense of them.
Living with a Wild God arrives as something of a surprise to fans of Ehrenreich, a muckraking political writer (Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch) and social activist who has called herself “a fourth-generation atheist.” Yet an awareness of mystical-seeming experiences goes back many decades in her life. Early in adolescence, Ehrenreich began to experience anomalous moments both at home and school; at seventeen these climaxed in a “cataclysmic” event that occurred on an outing in the California desert. Awaking tired and hungry in the predawn, a groggy Ehrenreich stumbled into town, seeking a store to buy food. Suddenly, without warning, “the world flamed into life.... Something poured into me and I poured out into it.” She found herself engulfed in a fiery and “furious encounter with a living substance.” It was ineffable and overwhelming, an ecstasy more violent than euphoric.
Stunned by what had happened, Barbara nevertheless carried on meeting the daily demands of life at home, in school, and at her summer job. She confided in no one. Who would listen? Isolated and depressed, she feared she was going crazy. She had already rejected any and all claims of religious faith, and in her view the only rational explanation of what had happened to her lay in some pathological psychiatric diagnosis such as schizophrenia.
Though she didn’t yet grasp it, Ehrenreich was poised atop a personal dilemma. Raised to reject religion, she was nonetheless a precociously intellectual adolescent, one who had declared herself to be “on a mission to discover the purpose of life.” She read everything she could find that might help her discover “the point of our brief existence.” What are we doing here, she wondered obsessively, and to what end? Her family, proud of their working-class atheism, derided such questions. Their outlook was formed in the tough life of the mining town of Butte, Montana. All authorities were to be distrusted; the defiant mantra, Ehrenreich recalls, was “We don’t take crap from anyone, never have and never will.”
Ehrenreich’s young parents possessed sufficient energy and ambition to battle their way up and out, eventually gaining a foothold in the middle class. Her handsome and driven father was a copper miner who won a college scholarship and ultimately rose to be a senior executive at Gillette. Moving around the country, following his career assignments, Barbara’s mother obtained neither the education nor the status that she craved. Both parents had endured deprived childhoods, and carried wounds that created marital misery, misery abetted by alcohol abuse. It is a familiar story. The adored but absent father was unreliable and unfaithful. The angry mother took out her bitterness on her academically gifted eldest daughter. After the predictable divorce, the downward course quickened, and lives dissolved in a welter of depression, alcoholism, suicide attempts, and finally dementia. “What a sodden mess they made of their lives,” Ehrenreich writes ruefully.
From these unpromising conditions arises a tale of success. Young Barbara escapes to Reed College, where she studies science—per her father’s wishes—and wins a prestigious fellowship for graduate study at Columbia. There, she becomes disillusioned with big-time lab science. She is bored by the labors assigned to lowly assistants, and the hierarchical, competitive environment sparks her native defiance and mistrust of authority. At this critical moment the protest movement against the Vietnam War erupts. Awakening to politics, she quits the lab and throws herself wholeheartedly into the fray. Her formidable energy and intelligence are engaged. Her talent for effective organization emerges, as does her skill at writing. Barbara Ehrenreich finds her calling.
During the turbulent decades that follow, an unexpected career develops, as Ehrenreich becomes a feisty and eloquent activist for peace, civil rights, social justice, and feminist causes. Lectures, articles, and several acclaimed books proclaim the values of social democracy and offer no-holds-barred critiques of America’s indignities and failures. Throughout, Ehrenreich upholds science and scientific method as the rationally verified path to truth. Animus toward religion and a public adherence to atheism remain her creed, pronounced with supreme confidence. Since God does not exist, only humans can relieve the suffering of the world. It is to promote this relief that Ehrenreich spends her career “taking sides” for the good.
THEN, UNEXPECTEDLY, converging circumstances return her in middle age to her teenage quest for the meaning of existence. A request from a university library to donate her collected papers prompts a long look back over her life. At the same time a diagnosis of breast cancer precipitates a struggle to fight off death. Ehrenreich turns both backward and inward. Her life takes on new directions. Recovering from cancer, she makes a dash to the Florida Keys and acquires a new boyfriend. The two move to a remote, shabby house, beautifully situated on the shore, where Ehrenreich experiences a dramatic immersion in a wild natural world. Sudden thunderstorms, awesome lightning bolts, beautiful sunrises and moonrises are on display, along with teeming tropical flora and fauna.
Encounters with awesome forces bring home both the beauty of nature and its indifference to human life. As if in proof, a violent storm floods the first floor of Ehrenreich’s house and wipes out all print and digital records. Everything is gone—except, by chance, her battered adolescent journal, kept by chance on the second floor and thus saved from ruin. Now Ehrenreich determines to revisit the girl she once was, examining her transcendental experiences, both past and present, and seeking a scientific meaning for them. She vows to undertake this inquiry as a “rationalist, an atheist, a scientist by training.”
What Ehrenreich discovers is a vast and growing scientific literature devoted to investigations of religious experiences. Embarking on the quest, she is impressed with the genius of William James and his classic work, Varieties of Religious Experience. She goes on to pursue other works in search of support for the intuition that “mystic experiences” can be accepted as normal, natural, scientifically supported aspects of human life.
Oddly enough, she misses much of the current news in the field. Today, Freudian-based models of religious experience have lost their authority, and the consensus in the American psychological community is that anomalous experiences cannot be identified as mental illness. Some such “mystic experiences” do overlap with psychotic symptoms, but others are accepted as normal and indeed often contribute positively to human development. New neurological investigations of mystic states point to high-functioning creative persons. The psychiatric experts on hallucinations, hearing voices, ineffable bliss, and moments of union with nature no longer automatically diagnose them as pathology. Reports of “peak experiences” and “flow” are positive signs. Highly sensitive, intelligent young persons, searching for ultimate meaning, can be understood to undergo “spiritual emergencies”—a label that could be well applied to the young Ehrenreich.
Religion is universal, Ehrenreich finds, because of the psychobiologically unique way human brains, bodies, and social groups have evolved. The “faith instinct” persists, and religion does not wither away. In fact, a new cognitive analysis of religious belief sees it as inevitable, part of an invariant capacity that marks the human ability to think. Humans innately possess “a theory of mind” that infers that other humans have minds with intentions, wishes, and desires like themselves. Minds are invisible, intangible entities, and yet intensely real and important for human functioning. Thus from necessary beliefs in the invisible, rational deductions arise about other aspects of invisible reality. Other minds can exist—as even infants know. If other invisible minds can exist, why not a divine mind?
It is a question the young Barbara once presciently argued with her atheist father. If other persons’ minds exist, doesn’t that open the way for God? It seems that the young Barbara had taken refuge from the implications of this question in a kind of solipsism, perhaps in order to protect herself from the pain other people inflict. Somewhat improbably, she claims that she only came to fully believe in the inner reality of other people when she “fell in love” with her children and discovered empathy. The discovery of love enlarges her worldview and makes it appropriate to include autobiographical materials as well as scientific information in her book. Her challenge is to integrate these diverse themes and materials into a coherent whole.
Ehrenreich is a skilled and engaging writer who will captivate even those who disagree with her conclusions. Her story is told in a wry, self-deprecating, occasionally arrogant but always intelligent voice. You want to keep following. Ehrenreich skims over her various career accomplishments, and much of her crowded personal life is also just glimpsed; references appear to boyfriends, lovers, two husbands (and divorces), two abortions, one depression, one major political disappointment, and those two beloved children, who never disappoint but rather are a constant source of joy.
SO IN THE END, how does the quest for understanding turn out—for her, and for her readers? Ehrenreich’s inclusion of her family’s story enlarges the effort to understand her confrontations with anomalous experiences, and her commitment to rationality, science, and research both broadens and deepens her treatment of the subject. Unfortunately, the terrain of scientific material is so vast that this book’s quick and partial survey doesn’t—can’t—do the job.
One limitation to deeper understanding arises from the constraints imposed by Ehrenreich’s commitment to the atheistic faith of her father. Her easy acceptance of popular atheistic assumptions and dismissals of traditional theistic religion betrays her critical intelligence and cuts her off from hugely important intellectual resources. Religious believers have developed sophisticated strategies to detect and counter their own tendencies to self-deceit. Psychological acuteness can be found in the traditional investigations of authentic and inauthentic religious experiences. Believers analyze doubt as well as faith.
By contrast Ehrenreich embraces the science fiction she loved as a young person, finding insights in the imaginary speculations of her favorite authors. Is it because they too are atheists, they too pay tribute to faith in science and readily acknowledge the mysterious powers of Nature with a capital N? Perhaps science-fiction narratives fit well with atheism, dealing as they do in unknown, invisible powers that are not necessarily either good or benign. In considering a worst-case scenario of the ultimate meaning of reality, Ehrenreich floats the ominous possibility that invisible alien forces may use human beings for prey. After all, when she was young and went to Mass a few times, she concluded that Catholicism was a cannibalistic religion. And her reading of Meister Eckhart suggests that he saw God as using humans to effect new births of divinity.
Any Other or Others that Ehrenreich can imagine from science fiction might or might not be predators, but they would have to be “living, breathing” beings whose existence is subject to scientific proof. She asserts her credentials as an atheist by denying scientifically unfounded beliefs, yet she can still envisage the possibility of mysterious forces and beings in the universe beyond our present ability to detect. This embrace of science, fiction, and the possibility of unknown, wild, and threatening forces sounds a familiar note in popular American culture—think of the popularity of such TV series as Lost. Undemanding ambiguity is central to the appeal of the genre. But there is little ambiguity in Ehrenreich’s rejection of traditional theistic religions. She and others who share her view are certain that they already know what Christianity is. Without a doubt.
Yet no one, nonbelievers included, seems to be able to do without a pious hope for their creed. A version of the hope for a scientific and atheistic revelation can be found in the closing words of Living with a Wild God. Does Ehrenreich believe, finally, in the possibility of some kind of Other? Indeed. “I have the impression,” she concludes, “growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that it may be seeking us out.”