Did Atheist Author Barbara Ehrenreich Have a Pretty Brain Fart, or Did She Truly Experience ‘A Wild God’?

Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich‘s new book is about to be released. It’s a memoir — her first — called Living With a Wild God.

A “Wild God”? Isn’t Ehrenreich an avowed atheist?

This is in the publisher’s description over at Amazon:

In middle age, she rediscovered the journal she had kept during her tumultuous adolescence, which records an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that she had never, in all the intervening years, written or spoken about it to anyone. It was the kind of event that people call a “mystical experience” — and, to a steadfast atheist and rationalist, nothing less than shattering.

In an interview with the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Ehrenreich holds her cards close to her vest when asked to explain what the “cataclysmic event” was:

Q: In the book, you write about one experience in Lone Pine, Calif., that was particularly intense.

I didn’t see any creatures or hear any voices, but the whole world came to life, and the difference between myself and everything else dissolved — but not in a sweet, loving, New Agey way. That was a world flamed into life, is how I would put it.

Q: At the time, what did you think was happening to you?

I felt like I had been illuminated in some way, but also I felt shattered. I was a kid — I didn’t know what to do with this. I didn’t know how to interpret it. Even today, the word “spirituality” creeps me out. …

Q: You’ve written and spoken extensively about your atheism. Did you ever feel you were being deceitful because you’d had these experiences with a world beyond the rational?

I realized that whatever I experienced was not anything like a deity that I knew of. It certainly was not a good, caring God of Christianity. On the other hand, I knew it was way out of the reach of science, and I did feel uneasy.

I’ve requested a review copy of the book, but this scant description is all we have to go on for now.

Ehrenreich, it seems, experienced a head rush similar to the one that unexpectedly came over me about a dozen years ago, for about a minute, maybe two.

Perhaps my location had something to do with it — I was hiking up an ancient, windswept, rocky path on South Africa’s history-laden Cape of Good Hope. Or maybe I would have undergone the “mystical” experience anyway, even if I’d been in my own bed back in New York.

Whatever the case, after I scrambled up that path and and sat down on a rock overlooking the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, I instantly got lightheaded. A powerful feeling of connectedness swept over me. For the duration, “I” — my ego, my identity — ceased to exist. As did time.

“The difference between myself and everything else dissolved,” Ehrenreich writes. And that’s exactly how it was for me. Without needing language to form my thoughts, I realized I was no different from — and somehow completely bonded to — the rocks, the waves, the vastness of the atmosphere, and to all that lives. The screaming gulls and the oweni beetles were as close to me, as much a part of me (and I of them) as the Dutch ancestors and the Khoikhoi tribesmen and the homo erectus skeletons that I assumed lay buried in the countryside all around me.

There were no physical boundaries.

It was an astonishing sensation, as close to a (ahem) spiritual epiphany as I’ve ever come, or will likely come again.

But as potent and pleasurable as it was, not for a moment did I think “God.” Or “Jesus.” Or Baal, Ra, Allah, or Shiva, for that matter.

And I never felt that I’d received a message from beyond.

The notion of molecular-level interconnectedness as a religious tenet is found in certain schools of Buddhism and Jainism, so if I had to direct my seeking anywhere, I suppose it’d have to be in that direction.

But I won’t, as I have no doubt that the human brain itself is capable of inducing these states of mind. What happened to me was most probably the result of any number of physiological and/or mental factors.

For instance, the lightheadedness (from climbing?) might have triggered the feeling of universal connection, rather than being a part of the same process. Something I ate that morning — were there wild mushrooms in my omelette? — could have been responsible, too. Although I don’t meditate, it’s possible that in a relaxed state of mind, soothed by the vastness and the stillness all around me, I entered the same we-are-all-one mind-space that serious meditators access daily with relatively little effort. Or my neurons might have fired a few echoes from when, many years earlier, I infrequently used subtly mind-expanding substances like hashish and XTC. Especially XTC is chemically very capable of — and famous for — inducing feelings of love and oneness.

Ehrenreich’s reference to the “Wild God” of her title feels a little cheap to me. It’s as if she or her publisher figured out that the best way to play to both the freethinking crowd and the huge religious audience is to not-so-subtly plant the idea that maybe the life-long non-believer is having second thoughts. (Incidentally, Ehrenreich is speaking at the Women in Secularism conference next month.)

I like Ehrenreich. She’s a courageous writer (check out her takedown of the breast-cancer awareness industry here), so I hope I’m wrong about this being a calculated effort to sell books. If her memoir offers worthwhile insights in the God-and-spirituality department after all, I’ll be sure to share them here.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.


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