I see that Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Smile or Die (Bright-Sided in the US), will soon have new book out. If you don’t know Smile or Die, it’s about the tyranny of positive thinking, not daring to have bad thoughts about having cancer in case they finish you off. I didn’t read the book, but it’s something that needed to be said.
Ehrenreich seems to be well-known in the US as a writer on health and feminist issues. Time magazine calls her a ‘noted and staunch atheist’. From her Wikipedia profile she sort of matches up with our Polly Toynbee, another leftwing intellectual with a social conscience (interestingly, both wrote harrowing books about their experiences of trying to survive on the minimum wage). Toynbee is a very noted atheist, her thundering denunciations up there with Dawkins.
In her new book, Living With a Wild God, Ehrenreich tackles religion from an experiential perspective. (These details are from an article she wrote for the New York Times.) Aged 17 she went on a skiing trip having made few serious preparations, arriving tired and hungry. When she stepped into the street something happened:
There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out 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, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of. It seemed to me that 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 felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.
Having no framework in which to place the experience she assumed it was some kind of breakdown and tried to put it behind her. It was a long time before she realised that it’s a not uncommon experience. All kinds of people have uncanny experiences that they can see as transcendental, and these people include atheists like herself. In her case there were no visions, hallucinations or voices, and it didn’t convert her to religious belief. But neither did she think it could be explained away along the usual lines – intoxicants, temporal lobe epilepsy, ‘primary or mood-disorder-associated psychotic disorders’, etc, etc.
Paradoxically it was her scientific education that convinced her to think about it in a different way.
One of the things I learned was that you do not discard anomalous results. If you have a result that doesn’t fit your theory, that falls way off the curve in your graph – I’m sorry, you don’t get to erase that. You have to figure out what’s going on. I’m just opening up the conversation. If in the process I completely ruin my reputation as a rational person and end up in a locked ward, that’s the chance I’m taking.
Perhaps the ‘insanity’ explanation is just a cop-out. This might really have been some sort of encounter. But an encounter with what? She thinks science should be willing to investigate.
We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are “wired” for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?
Fortunately, she goes on, science itself has been changing.
It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.
It’s always heartening to see someone with a scientific education talking sense about these things. Most scientists think they absolutely should discard anomalous results.
But then we remember that it requires an actual experience to make this shift. If it had been someone else’s experience Ehrenreich would doubtless be using exactly the same reductionist terms as other atheists and scientists. It wouldn’t be an experience at all – just something that a person says who hasn’t had a proper scientific education and doesn’t know any better.
In the end, though, Ehrenreich’s expanded thinking is not just a response to her own experience, it’s also limited by it. It permits her to make a tentative step outside the confines of reductionist science, which to her is daring enough. But it doesn't stop her being dismissive of the idea of a 'caring' God.
This is surprising in a way. I assume she’s read the literature of mystical experience, in which case she will have read of many, many cases of people who had a sudden revelation every bit as powerful as hers, but who, unlike her, felt swept up in the loving embrace of a God of love, that permeated every cell of their being, and convinced them for the rest of their days that love is the real stuff of the universe.
Why does she think that the meaning she derives from her experience is valid, when the meaning that others have derived from theirs – clearly in the same class as hers - is not? She seems to imply that in other people such an experience can still lead to wrong ideas, not to say religious delusions. That doesn’t add up to me.
It’s not a criticism, as I have no idea how I’d behave in such circumstances. And as I say, it’s good to see credible people talking this way.
But always I want to know what is really going on in the rationalist’s mind. Ehrenreich has joined the growing number of people who sit on the cusp of two worldviews, facing both ways. They have to make sense of an experience that jars mightily with what their tribe considers to be true. It’s the ultimate challenge for a responsible, thinking person – to reconcile their idea of what ought to be the case with the strong suspicion that it’s actually something quite different.