Barbara Ehrenreich: a non-believer in search of God

In 'Living with a Wild God,' Barbara Ehrenreich tells of the mystical experience she had as a teenager – an event that has baffled her ever since.

'As a rational, secular, scientific-minded person, I avoid “beliefs,”' says Ehrenreich. 'Show me the evidence!'

Barbara Ehrenreich is a self-described “myth buster,” a writer firmly grounded in a reliance on scientific evidence. Yet as a young woman she once had a mystical experience, an encounter with a presence she has never been able to explain or understand. Ehrenreich’s new memoir, Living with a Wild God, tells of her lifelong struggle to grasp what once happened to her during a few powerful moments on a California mountain. The following is an e-mail exchange Ehrenreich had with Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe. 

Q: The mystical encounter you write about could easily be traced to a physiological cause of some sort. Why has such an explanation never satisfied you?

I look forward to a scientific explanation, but I don’t think it will ever “explain” the subjective experience any more than any account involving, say, neurotransmitters will ever fully encompass the feeling of love.

Yes, the experience was all in my mind. But chemicals, atoms, electrons, and neurons are also “all in my mind” – mental constructions that I have derived from much study and reading. They are, from my subjective point of view, less “real” than what I actually experienced.

Q:  You have spent much of your life looking for answers in the physical sciences. Did you ever consider religion?

Sure. Years of thinking about religions and religious history went into the writing of this book. I am fascinated by the variety of religions and deities – multiple deities, animal deities, good deities and evil or indifferent ones. Monotheism and the belief in a single benevolent god are fairly recent innovations. I have been researching and writing about these issues for a couple of decades now.

Also, once I realized that other people had had apparently similar experiences and often called them “religious” experiences, I started reading the Christian mystics. Saint Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, and others are cited in my book.

Q:  What motivated this book?

For one thing, I rediscovered the journal I had kept as an adolescent. For another, I realized that if I didn’t do this now I would probably run out of time. I guess I felt an almost journalistic responsibility to report these uncanny experiences, especially when I realized that they were not unique to me.

Q: You seem to have spent much of your life – even as a child – looking for answers. Does that search seem even more urgent now, later in life?

I don’t think so. I was searching and still am, whether more or less urgently I can’t be sure. After all, I have learned a thing or two along the way.

Q:  How would you describe your current worldview/belief system?

As a rational, secular, scientific-minded person, I avoid “beliefs.” Show me the evidence!

I also have an acute sense of social responsibility, which is connected to my lack of belief in God or at least in a benevolent god. If there was such a being I could walk by a beggar or cross a picket line with a clear conscience, knowing that human suffering is all “part of God’s plan.” But since there is no such god, it is up to me to get involved or at least reach out a hand. All we have for sure is each other.

Q. Do you think your life would have been markedly different in some way had you never had the encounter you had that morning?

It would no doubt have been a lot less exciting.

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