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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 ...

American writer Barbara Ehrenreich got a PhD in cell biology before she became an anti-war activist and journalist. Her 14 books include Nickle and Dimed, about working in low-paying jobs, and Bright Sided, warning against the promotion of positive thinking.

Her latest is a memoir, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. In it, she returns to a diary she wrote as an isolated, intellectual teenager and finally struggles to understand a cataclysmic event that she had never spoken about to anyone.

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She was already experiencing “disassociative episodes” in which the names and meanings of things suddenly melted away, when on this occasion during a ski trip in 1959, she saw the world and herself on fire, with flame erupting out of every material thing.

In her book, the researcher and scientist homes in on the biggest question of all: What’s really going on here?

The word God with a capital G appears in your title, but you come from a long line of proud atheists. Would you still, at this point in your life, use the word atheist to describe yourself?

Oh yes. I have taken some heat for that title. I always thought of God a little metaphorically, as in “Oh my God.” No, no backsliding here.

Still, in the final pages of the book, you raise the notion of an Other, a presence, or perhaps plural others. You would not elevate that to God?

No, when we say God, we mean a powerful being; we are usually monotheistic about it, a single being who is usually seen as good and caring, and this has nothing to do with that.

When looking at your proto-mystical experience, how much weight would you give to the circumstances that you describe: you hadn’t eaten much, you hadn’t slept properly, you were badly sunburned?

Yeah. That’s all there. That is what the Plains Indians did when they went on vision quests. That had something to do with it. I can think of very materialist explanations for just about everything. But also I am left with the raw experience: This is it, this is what happened. It was stupendous beyond anything else that ever happened to me, with the possible exception of having babies. I can’t fold it into a materialist explanation and be satisfied, because what happened is so real to me.

And you remember it clearly?

All my life. The struggle was to be able to put it into words. I had been recalling it over many decades. I put it aside but it didn’t go away: late-night musings.

When I read about that young woman who wrote the diary, I felt pained by her circumstances. You describe her as a solipsist, someone who only believes in the existence of her own consciousness, but I would also describe her as emotionally abused by her alcoholic parents, and in great need of affection and counsel. You are sometimes quite sharp about her adolescent indulgences. I wondered if you felt sorrow or pity looking back?

In all the time that has lapsed since I was 17, I became a mother, and a grandmother now. I will admit that there is part of me that does sometimes see her [my younger self] in a maternal way and says, “Oh my god, why wasn’t anyone noticing what was going on with her?” I want to avoid the notion of abuse, because that opens up the possibility of an abuse narrative, the unhappy childhood and all that, and that becomes normal or something.

My mother was harsher than most other mothers, but remember children were not the same thing in the 1940s and 50s. You were supposed to take care of yourself, stay out of trouble, stay out of the way. Nobody saw a child as some kind of artisanal project. It just horrifies me now we have gone so far in the other direction. Let them find out a few things for themselves. Not that I am not a very involved and caring grandma.

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.

But there is one image, handed down over the centuries, that seems to apply, and that is the image of fire, as in the “burning bush.” At some point in my predawn walk – not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time – the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experiences is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.

I stopped at some point in front of a secondhand store, transfixed by the blinding glow of the most mundane objects, teacups and toasters. I could not contain it, this onrush: The dream in my uncle’s house had been right about that. Nothing could contain it. Everywhere, “inside” and out, 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, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.

From Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything

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