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‘I become unstoppable, obsessed with a subject and that’s what I do,’ Barbara Ehrenreich. (Stephen Voss)
‘I become unstoppable, obsessed with a subject and that’s what I do,’ Barbara Ehrenreich. (Stephen Voss)

What happens when an atheist sees God? Add to ...

That made me wonder about love in your live. Despite your solipsism, you always had a boyfriend. In your isolation, how did you manage to find companionship with other adults?

Everything changed for me when I became involved in the anti-war movement in the sxities. That is really when I came out of the solipsism and began to be acutely aware of, or at least imagine, other people around me as centres of consciousness and feeling, just like myself. At that point, I became a little bit more like a normal person.

In Bright-Sided you exposed the danger of positive thinking, and the vacuousness of that trend. Most quest stories are Oprah-ish, the person goes through something difficult and comes out somewhere better. I wondered how you see where you are now?

Like is everything resolved and I have become a mature, responsible grown-up?

Yes.

No, I don’t think I have. I am in some ways extremely self-indulgent. I follow up things that interest me; I become unstoppable, obsessed with a subject and that’s what I do.

[Now] I am entertaining myself with a new line of research and speculation which takes me back to my brief tenure as a cell biologist. I am intrigued by the autonomy of individual cells in our bodies, the degree of autonomy some of them have; cancer cells would of course be the most autonomous.

Let me put it another way. How do you feel now the book has been published?

Quite a bit of anxiety. Also a feeling of, “Well, I had to do it and I did it.” I was not prepared to die without taking a crack at it.

I didn’t know what the response was going to be. There is a lot more interest than I had ever imagined. I just got a wonderful e-mail from a woman I know well and she said, “It happened to me.” She briefly describes some incident in her teenage years; I wrote back to her just thrilled. There is this coming-out feeling; it’s out there. I have no secrets left, which is terribly scary but also there is this possibility of finding others. People wave back and say “Yup,” and that’s what I want – to see that I was not alone in these things and understand this is a very

You write that there are always lots of materialist explanations used to explain God away, and yet American society seems very religious; people are always talking about God or praying. How do you react to that?

It helps that I have learned something about the varieties of religion in the last few decades. A big breakthrough for me was beginning to understand that not all religions require belief or faith. Twenty-five-hundred years ago, most religions were probably ecstatic religions where people engaged in rituals in which they did not believe in the deity or spirit, they experienced the deity or spirit. It took over them. They had direct contact. If you tell me you want me to believe in your deity, I say, “No way, I don’t do belief!” But if you tell me there is a deity that you can experience if you follow the following set of ritual procedures, I might be more interested. The whole idea of belief is wrong; don’t believe – find out, know.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Excerpt

In the next few minutes, on that empty street, I found whatever I had been looking for since the articulation of my quest, or perhaps, given my mental passivity at the moment, whatever had been looking for me. Here we leave the jurisdiction of language, where nothing is left but the vague gurgles of surrender expressed in words like “ineffable” and “transcendent.” For most of the intervening years, my general thought has been: If there are no words for it, then don’t say anything about it. Otherwise you risk slopping into “spirituality,” which is, in addition to being a crime against reason, of no more interest to other people than your dreams.

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