Barbara Ehrenreich has written 14 books, many of them on the economic difficulties of average Americans or the role of women in history, and I’ve read (and enjoyed) two of them: Nickled and Dimed and (especially) Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. She’s always seemed to me rational and level-headed, but that was until her latest book came out, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything. Judging from her prepublication interviews, and now a personal interview with Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic, it looks as if this is her attempt to become the Thomas Nagel of autobiography: an affirmation that there is Something Out There beyond naturalism.
In a previous post, I described Ehrenreich’s mystical moment that she experienced as a teenager (the subject of a piece she wrote for The New York Times), seeing the whole world suddenly take on a lovely flame-like appearance. Rather than attribute it to the exhaustion and hypoglycemia she had from skiing, she chose to see it as something numinous—a reflection of a higher plane of reality and consciousness. And that’s the theme she’s pursuing in her new book. Its summary on Amazon includes this:
Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the most important thinkers of our time. Educated as a scientist, she is an author, journalist, activist, and advocate for social justice. In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, she recounts her quest-beginning in childhood-to find “the Truth” about the universe and everything else: What’s really going on? Why are we here? In middle age, she rediscovered the journal she had kept during her tumultuous adolescence, which records an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that she had never, in all the intervening years, written or spoken about it to anyone. It was the kind of event that people call a “mystical experience”-and, to a steadfast atheist and rationalist, nothing less than shattering.
In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, Ehrenreich reconstructs her childhood mission, bringing an older woman’s wry and erudite perspective to a young girl’s impassioned obsession with the questions that, at one point or another, torment us all. The result is both deeply personal and cosmically sweeping-a searing memoir and a profound reflection on science, religion, and the human condition. . . .
It sounds bizarre, as did her NYT piece, and my suspicions that all is not well are reinforced by yesterday’s interview of Ehrenreich by Isaac Chotiner, “Barbara Ehrenrich: I’m an atheist, but don’t rule out ‘mystical experiences’.” Go read it: it’s short, very strange, and, at times, almost incoherent on Ehrenreich’s part. The strange thing is that, as an atheist, she is absolutely sure that there is no God, yet at the same time she’s convinced that her personal experience with the numinous points not to some glitch in her brain (as she thinks the religious have), but to something real about the universe beyond the ken of science. A brief excerpt will suffice:
IC: It’s interesting that you call yourself an atheist rather than an agnostic.
BE: I am insistent on atheist. If we are talking about a monotheistic, benevolent God, I know there is no such thing.
IC: How do you know that there is no benevolent God when you think there might be spirits talking to me?
BE: It depends on what I have experienced. I have many areas of experience which show there is no giant benevolent force.
IC: But some people claim to experience a monotheistic God.
BE: That is not my experience.
IC: But we don’t make these grand judgments based on our own experience. [Pause] Do we?
IC: We do?
BE: To an extent. Where is the evidence for a benevolent God?
IC: I agree with you. But there isn’t evidence for spiritual figures in the room either.
BE: Well, we need to find out.
Granted, this was a phone interview, and perhaps Ehrenreich wasn’t at her most eloquent. Nevertheless, the fact that she’d write a book on this—one that reminds me a bit of Marilynne Robinson’s strange antimaterialistic and pro-religious Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self —is just weird. I don’t know what to make of it, but if anyone reads it, send a report.
Oh, and one more thing. If Ehrenreich is an atheist, why does she sneak the word “God” into the title? I suppose that that, combined with an atheist’s claim for the transcendent, will help the book sell briskly.