Barbara Ehrenreich, the best-selling author of Nickel and Dimed: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, is generally known for reportage on subjects such as the minimum wage and the rights of workers. But this month she has released a new book that is less a change of pace than a step in an entirely different direction.
Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliver’s Search for the Truth About Everything is Ehrenreich’s personal story of mystical experiences that she says first occurred when she was a girl. It is also a critique of science for failing to adequately investigate experiences like her own. The book has aroused controversy and discussion, in part because it comes from such an unexpected source.
Ehrenreich and I recently spoke on the phone about her problems with monotheism, why she can’t read Christopher Hitchens, and why she still insists on calling herself an atheist.
Isaac Chotiner: What are you arguing in this book?
Barbara Ehrenreich: This book is not an argument. It is a report.
IC: Tell us what you are reporting then.
BE: I think of it as a metaphysical thriller. The story starts when I am a child, around 12, and I start asking the questions, What is this all about? Why are we here? What is going on? My parents were atheists, strong atheists. I never got the answer “God.”
IC: Some things happen in the book that cause you to ask the questions differently.
BE: Right. When I was 13, I had some particular mental adventures. Perceptual adventures. I began to see things rather differently. It seemed like a layer peeled off the world, layers that contained all the meanings and words and significance. Everything we apply to the world. I didn’t find it frightening. It was fascinating.
Then when I was 17, I had an experience that I later learned could be called a “mystical experience.” It was almost violent. No faces, voices, nothing like that. It is like the world burst and flamed into life all around me. That is not a great image, but it is as good as I will ever do.
IC: At that age, what was your explanation?
BE: I had a sense that I had answered those questions from earlier. What is the world about? But there were no words for it. I knew it was an encounter with something, some being or beings. But I also knew or suspected that the rational or scientific explanation would be mental breakdown. And I decided to go with breakdown. And then I thought I got better. It was only in middle age I began to say, “No, that was a kind of encounter.”
IC: What caused the change?
BE: I became a student of the history of religion. I am fascinated by how religions often center on mystical experience, and in the Old Testament tradition you find flames, the burning bush. I was beginning to find that other people had experienced such things. And furthermore I became convinced that historically our kind of monotheism is a kind of aberration. Multiple dieities, animal deities, but not good and benevolent deities. We now have a strange and limited vision.
IC: Saying these experiences are real—that there are other spirits or consciousnesses out there—is very different from saying that maybe our brains just make us think that they are real?
BE: What do you mean? Our brains visually perceive the world if we are not blind. The world is real.
IC: So there is no difference between perceiving a spirit and perceiving a chair? I am confused.
BE: It takes work to even perceive the world that you and I share. Protons travel to my eyes but the brain has to do a lot of work to say, “desk, chair, table.”
IC: Yes but we both agree the desk I am leaning on exists. That it is real. It may take a lot to perceive but it is there.
BE: We are impelled to see the world as dead, without conscious agency. We are reductionists. We see the chair and know we can sit in it or lift it. But there are some things we experience that maybe do call for a different sort of explanation. And as a rational person with a scientific background I am putting that forward. And being called insane.
IC: I am not calling you insane. I still don’t know whether you think they are real or whether they are products of our brain. Those seem like hugely different claims and ideas and even subjects.
BE: As I say in the last paragraph of my book, it is all in my head. And yes, of course, it is.
IC: But it is not all in your head if there are other conscious beings floating about.
BE: Well, that’s what I would like to know. Here is one example. In the 19th century, most physicians would have said that contagious diseases were caused by mist in the air. If you had said, no, there are living things, you would have sounded insane because those things were invisible. There is a lesson in that. There may be invisible things that are still there.
IC: Well, there is no end to the number of things that might be there.
BE: That’s right.
IC: When you say “wired,” do you mean designed, like with intelligent design, or just some evolutionary reason?
BE: I wouldn’t even speculate. I have no theory of why natural selection would favor these sorts of experiences.
If there is something I am arguing, it is a critique of science. Science has consistently denied the existence of consciousness other than human. Only in the last 20 years do we have acknowledgement of animal feeling or culture or experience.
IC: No one considered the existence of animal feeling before 20 years ago?1
BE: Absolutely no! We know in our ordinary lives that our pets are conscious beings with feelings. But the doctrine was still Cartesian. These are little mechanisms or things. We are alone. That has been central to science, the denial of agency except in the case of humans and some hypothetical diety.
IC: Are you critiquing science or just saying science needs to get better? We know all this stuff because of science.
BE: I remain a scientific rationalist. I want science to look at these odder phenomena, and not rule out the possibility of mystical experiences with another kind of mind.
IC: Are scientists ruling it out, or saying these are not evidence for it?
BE: We need databases. William James kept one. But it is unexamined, the data that might be there. People are so afraid to talk about it. My book has gotten readers, and I have gotten friends to tell me that similar things happened but they were scared to talk about it. This is going to sound totally crazy to you but this is a public health issue! When people have a shattering type of experience and never say anything about it, it is time to investigate.
IC: The last five or ten years have seen the rise of what’s called the ‘New Atheism.’ How do you think about this, and about the use of the word atheism?
BE: I am an atheist. As for the ‘New Atheists,’ I am not that interested because I was raised on this. I couldn’t, delightful as he is, read Hitchens’s book. He sounded too much like my dad. I have heard it all. That is a tiny American working class tradition. Skepticism, free thought, atheism.
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.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
In The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote: "It is a significant fact, that the more the habits of any particular animal are studied by a naturalist, the more he attributes to reason, and the less to unlearnt instinct."