Barbara Ehrenreich on Science vs. Mysticism

In Ehrenreich’s new book, she comes out about mystical experiences in her teens. Then she puts them under a microscope.

Sarah Jaffe

Barbara Ehrenreich at age 18. In 1959, at age 17, she had a mystical experience that challenged her atheism. (Courtesy of Twelve Books)

Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich is not the writer you would expect to pub­lish a mem­oir about mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ences” in her youth. One of America’s sharpest social crit­ics, Ehren­re­ich has been expos­ing the ugly truths behind the country’s most per­sis­tent myths for decades. As one of In These Times’ found­ing spon­sors,’ she was a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine in its ear­ly years.

I would like science to leave open the possibility of non-human intelligent consciousness. But you don’t just fall on your knees and worship it. That’s where I can’t stand spirituality; I can’t stand people who say, 'Oh, it’s a lovely mystery.' No. We’ve got to find out what it is.

Most recent­ly, she punc­tured our bub­ble of pos­i­tiv­i­ty in Bright-Sided: How the Relent­less Pro­mo­tion of Pos­i­tive Think­ing Has Under­mined Amer­i­ca. She may be best known for the time she spent as a low-wage work­er for Nick­el and Dimed: On (Not) Get­ting By in Amer­i­ca, an inves­ti­ga­tion into the chal­leng­ing low-wage jobs avail­able to sup­pos­ed­ly unskilled women.

But in her new book, Liv­ing With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Every­thing, Ehren­re­ich takes us through her teenage years via a jour­nal that she with­held from the Har­vard archive that con­tains her papers. As a youth, Ehren­re­ich was an athe­ist — spir­i­tu­al­i­ty being a crime against rea­son” — with an apti­tude for sci­ence encour­aged by her coal-min­er-turned-Gillette Corp.-executive father.

How­ev­er, through­out her teens she had uncan­ny dis­so­cia­tive expe­ri­ences that cul­mi­nat­ed, on the dri­ve back from a ski trip to Mam­moth Moun­tain, Calif., in May 1959, in an event so strange, so cat­a­clysmic, that I nev­er in all the inter­ven­ing years wrote or spoke about it.” She describes this expe­ri­ence as a furi­ous encounter with a liv­ing sub­stance that was com­ing at me through all things at once.” It left her pro­found­ly shaken.

As a grad­u­ate stu­dent in cel­lu­lar biol­o­gy at Rock­e­feller Uni­ver­si­ty, Ehren­re­ich plunged into activism, but decades lat­er finds her­self still grap­pling with the oth­er­world­ly expe­ri­ence that con­front­ed her 17-year-old self.

Emphat­ic that this very auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal book is not an auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Ehren­re­ich weaves togeth­er phi­los­o­phy and sci­ence, turn­ing her sharp critic’s eye on her par­ents, her­self and her expe­ri­ences. The result is a page-turn­er that is styl­is­ti­cal­ly unlike any­thing she’s writ­ten but, the­mat­i­cal­ly, deeply con­nect­ed to her pri­or work. She invites the read­er to join her on a quest for truth, but refus­es to draw easy con­clu­sions. Ehren­re­ich talked with In These Times about her book and its themes of sci­ence, reli­gion, athe­ism and authority.

You men­tion sev­er­al times in the book that talk­ing about your mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ences seemed to be a pun­ish­able offense” — one that might get you locked up. Do you feel that you took a risk in writ­ing this book?

Oh, yes. I am hap­py to report that among peo­ple I’ve talked to who have read the book so far, nobody has said I’m insane. I real­ly was ner­vous, and it was an enor­mous leap for me to talk to any­body about it.

I remem­ber a few years ago telling my son — Ben Ehren­re­ich, he’s a great writer — what I was work­ing on. We were in this lit­tle shop­ping cen­ter Chi­nese restau­rant and I said, I have to tell you some­thing.” Of course he looked ner­vous. I said, It’s about some­thing that hap­pened to me when I was 17.” Then he looked real­ly upset. I said, I had, I think it’s called, a mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ence.” And he just sighed in relief. I don’t know what he had imag­ined. But it was so hard for me to get those words out, even with some­body I’m that close to.

I think I kept com­ing back to it in part because I am such a ratio­nal­ist. I want to under­stand. I can’t just push aside an aber­rant bit of data, because that’s the lit­tle piece of data that may change everything.

I saw themes from oth­er work of yours—Bright-Sided; Danc­ing in the Streets: A His­to­ry of Col­lec­tive Joy; Blood Rites: Ori­gins and His­to­ry of the Pas­sions of War; and Witch­es, Mid­wives and Nurs­es: A His­to­ry of Women Heal­ers. Belief, ratio­nal­i­ty, pow­er and rit­u­al run through all of them.

Danc­ing in the Streets and Blood Rites cer­tain­ly fed into this. Blood Rites intro­duced me to some things about religion.

I had always tend­ed to think of reli­gion in terms of the monothe­is­tic reli­gions that are so promi­nent today, and then I real­ized that before 2,000 or 2,500 years ago, most peo­ple weren’t monothe­ists, and their deities were as like­ly to be ani­mals, or ani­mal-like, as human in shape. And nobody thought these deities were good or moral. Even when you get to the com­plete­ly human-shaped Greek gods, they’re just out of con­trol. So the idea of a one per­fect good god is a fair­ly recent one, and I think wrong.

Then I think Danc­ing in the Streets put me on the trail to the wide­spread occur­rence of — I don’t like to say altered states of con­scious­ness” because it sounds so drug­gy — but ecsta­t­ic expe­ri­ences that take peo­ple out of the mun­dane for at least a while. It was very impor­tant for me to real­ize that this was a wide­spread thing.

You write about your family’s athe­ism as con­nect­ed to a work­ing-class resis­tance to author­i­ty, as well as a refusal to take any­thing on faith.

The notion of a good god becomes a way of legit­imiz­ing human author­i­ty. The king has divine right and it comes from this good god, so how can you ques­tion anything?

You are crit­i­cal of sci­ence as well as reli­gion. You say sev­er­al times that sci­ence often seems to be out to crush any sign of autonomous life” rather than to dis­cov­er it. How would you like to see this change?

First, let me say that there’s a good rea­son sci­ence is like that. What­ev­er phe­nom­e­non I’m study­ing in the lab­o­ra­to­ry, I can’t just say, Oh well, these things hap­pen because lit­tle crea­tures make them hap­pen.” I’ve got to find out what they are, what makes them work. Sci­ence is reduc­tion­ist in spirit.

But I think it went a lit­tle too far. The biggest, most obvi­ous exam­ple was the denial for so long of the idea that non­hu­man ani­mals could have feel­ings or con­scious­ness of any sort. That defies actu­al human expe­ri­ence with ani­mals. But it’s just in the last few decades that that kind of sci­en­tif­ic work has tak­en off.

I would like sci­ence to leave open the pos­si­bil­i­ty of non-human intel­li­gent con­scious­ness. But you don’t just fall on your knees and wor­ship it. That’s where I can’t stand spir­i­tu­al­i­ty; I can’t stand peo­ple who say, Oh, it’s a love­ly mys­tery.” No. We’ve got to find out what it is.

You write about the sex­ism you encoun­tered in sci­ence, in deal­ing with the macho” cul­ture while the only woman in the lab, and even in ten­sions with your father. Do you think this is con­nect­ed to the ten­den­cy we just spoke of?

That’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion. I’m not sure I could answer it. I have those same reduc­tion­ist urges as a woman. But I think you could prob­a­bly make an inter­est­ing case, and I’m think­ing now of Eve­lyn Fox Keller’s cri­tique of bio­chem­istry.

You talk about hav­ing tried to dis­miss the expe­ri­ences you had as a teenag­er as men­tal ill­ness, and then com­ing back and real­iz­ing that many peo­ple have had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences. I’m won­der­ing if you’ve read much of the writ­ing late­ly on the need to repoliti­cize men­tal illness.

Def­i­nite­ly. That real­ly begins as far as I know in the 1960s, the emer­gence of rad­i­cal psy­chi­a­try, and ideas that schiz­o­phren­ics for exam­ple might have greater insight, that we should lis­ten to them. This is not some­thing I’m very famil­iar with but I did read about it some, years and years ago.

I kind of make fun of psy­chi­a­try in the book, the quotes which are basi­cal­ly say­ing that men­tal ill­ness is not think­ing like every­body else.” It’s any kind of cog­ni­tive or intel­lec­tu­al non­con­for­mi­ty. That’s real­ly vicious and limiting.

I was very inter­est­ed to learn recent­ly about the neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty move­ment, a move­ment of peo­ple say­ing, Yes, we’ve been defined as men­tal­ly ill, but we’re just see­ing things dif­fer­ent­ly.” That’s cool, I’d like to know more about them.

How much do you still feel like the girl who wrote that journal?

It’s a fun­ny rela­tion­ship to have with your teenage self. I guess I feel a lit­tle mater­nal toward her. There’s no get­ting away from that, at my age. A nov­el­ist might try to say, Well, because these things hap­pened to me in my child­hood, then I had these kinds of anom­alous expe­ri­ences and then this led to my life as an activist.” I’m not so sure. The read­er is invit­ed to con­nect those dots, but just can’t.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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