I’ve posted several times about Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything (e.g.,here, here [on Isaac Chotiner’s interview with Ehrenreich], and here [on the New York Times review of the book]). The reason the book deserves scrutiny is because Ehrenreich is a great author who’s written many absorbing books on diverse topics, and is also a prominent atheist. But her new book is largely about a numinous experience she had (famished and tired, she had a hallucination or something like one in Lone Pine, California), and her attempts to make sense of it.
Sadly, she sees in that hallucination something Bigger, something Out There. It’s not God, for she’s still an atheist, but it seems to be something paranormal. I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t, but I’ve read her take on it, and some excerpts. I’ll let Anthony Grayling give his take on it from the Los Angeles Review of Books. His review is mixed. He praises her autobiographical insights, and her prescient take on philosophy at age 12, but also chastises her for the Big Something Out There Part:
Ehrenreich’s chief experience of a transcendent Otherness, an experience which has had a large impact on her life, occurred when she was eighteen. Returning from a skiing trip, hungry and tired after a sleepless night in the car, following a long day of exercise on the slopes, she was wandering in the dawn’s rising sunlight along the main street of a town called Lone Pine when suddenly everything around her seemed to catch fire, to burst out into an effulgence of radiance: “the world flamed into life … Something poured into me and I poured into it … It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all the things at once.” Every mundane object in the street and the shop windows around her gave off a blinding glow. She had no sense of being different from the effulgence — she was it and it was she. The “only condition was overflow. ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria.”
. . . But alas, as her book approaches its end, Ehrenreich departs from rational ways of understanding her own experiences, and begins to sketch a view to the effect that there is indeed Something — she calls it the Other. She says that this is what she had encountered in her dissociative experiences. Ehrenreich disavows thinking of it as a personal deity or as anything monotheistic. Instead, she describes it in pantheistic or animistic terms, like a Life Force or something such. She is retrospectively even inclined to attribute anomalous results in the experiments she performed for her undergraduate science thesis to the presence of “something else” in her lab.
Ehrenreich is well known for her atheism as well as her other publicly-avowed stances. As a highly talented writer and a powerful advocate for social justice causes, she has a standing in American life that will make this spiritual — or quasi-religious — turn a subject for debate. The explanation she gives of what she means by her “animism” is only sketchily offered, for the reason mentioned: the difficulty of expressing the inexpressible. All those who report having the kind of experiences she has had have had to resort to poetry, allusion, hand-waving, or metaphor to convey what these experiences are like.
No doubt having such experiences powerfully inclines one to project their cause to something outside the mind. We do not tolerate anomaly very well and need to give it a name and an explanation in order to cope. But the merest respect for economy of explanation should be a bulwark against externalizing the source of anomalous experiences before all the more likely explanations are exhausted. We should always remember that the mind is a great player of tricks: one can induce Ehrenreich-type experiences in the lab, or by popping certain kinds of pills, no Other and no Mystery required. It is accordingly a surprise and — let it be confessed — a disappointment to find so doughty a heroine of her causes sliding away from Athens to — well, if not to Jerusalem than to some other Eastern locus of the ineffable, the unnamable, and the smoky.
I repeat: it is a disappointment when a rational person’s thinking about the unusual, the unexpected, the extraordinary, the amazing experiences of transcendence and unity that many of us have at heightened moments of life, suffers a declension into quasi-religious or supernaturalistic vagueness. The human brain is complicated enough to produce all these experiences from its own resources; we need no fairies in the garden to explain how roses bloom.
Indeed, the fact that it is the brain, and nothing mysterious outside it, that produces these experiences, is to me far more interesting and spectacular than the invocation of some vaguely hinted meaningful mist sneaking around reality’s backyard.
He takes back with one hand, but gives with the other, for the review (much longer than the excerpt above) ends like this:
That disappointment registered, my admiration for Barbara Ehrenreich the author and campaigner remains, as it does for the book itself: it is so beautifully written, so full of pungent insights on matters other than a putative Other, and so fascinating as a portrait of an intense and hypersensitive mind, especially in its youth, that it must surely count as one of the best reads of the year.
Perhaps, but I still won’t be reading it. I’ve immersed my self far too long in Other Ways of Knowing over the last 2.5 years, and I’d like to read some nonfiction for a change.