Living with a Wild God: Barbara Ehrenreich on Atheism and Transcendence

April 14, 2014

This week, Point of Inquiry welcomes Barbara Ehrenreich, award-winning columnist and
essayist, and author of 21 books. In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, she went undercover as a minimum wage worker and in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, she took aim at our punishing national obsession with positive thinking. Her new book Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything is very different from her previous writing.

Living with a Wild God is the story of Ehrenreich’s intellectual coming of age. At 17, she had what she calls a “mystical experience.” She thinks experiences like hers raise the possibility of a world beyond the physical, which might include deities or extra-terrestrials. The only form of deity that she definitively rules out is the judgmental, anthropomorphic god of monotheism. Beyerstein and Ehrenreich also discuss the status of transcendent experience within a naturalistic worldview.

Ehrenreich will be speaking at CFI’s upcoming Women in Secularism III conference in Alexandria, Virginia.


This is point of inquiry for Monday, April 14th, 2014. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is Barbara Ehrenreich, journalist, feminist, well-known atheist and featured speaker at CFR Eyes Women and Secularism three conference, which is happening May 16th, the 18th in Alexandria, Virginia, for our bestselling book, Nickel and Dimed. Aaron Reich went undercover as a minimum wage worker in Bright cited. She took aim at America’s obsession with positive thinking. Her new book, Living with a Wild God, is very different from her previous writing. Living is the story of Aaron Reich’s intellectual coming of age and her journey from a teenage solipsist to a socially and politically engaged adult. When she was 17, Aaron Reich had a transcendent experience in which the universe seemed to flame alive before her eyes. In the book, she argues that these transcendent or mystical experiences, which people have experienced throughout history, raised the possibility of a world beyond the physical. She thinks these experiences could be evidence of duties or extra terrestrials, at the very least, she thinks these possibilities are worthy of serious investigation. The only form of duty that she definitively rules out is the G.G anthropomorphic God of monotheism. On a personal note, the book is especially interesting to me because my father, buried by Herstein, was a psychologist who studied anomalous experience from a naturalistic perspective. He wanted to understand how drugs, rituals, migraines, stress and other destabilizing forces in the brain can produce feelings of transcendence in healthy people. 

It’s an endlessly fascinating subject. Barbara, welcome to the program. Thank you. Thank you for having me. 

Tell me, Barbara. And I think this is a question on all of your atheist friends minds. How did a nice atheist like you come to write a book called Living with a Wild God? 

How did an atheist come to write a book like this? Yeah, well, there are a lot of atheists I don’t think 80 ism is you know, it’s not a monolithic ideology or anything. 

I’m a secular rationalist and I’m an atheist from many generations back. However, I do not rule out experiences that could be called mystical. 

That was on that. That’s finally the word I learned to use for them. You’re right. And I’m not the I’m certainly not the only atheist to write about to report such experiences. Sam Harris. 

So I’m sure, you know, I’ve had a you transcendent experiences myself, mostly involving drugs, but they were very real and very powerful. And, you know, I feel change. 

Well, there you go. But it didn’t you didn’t turn into a religious person. Not at all. No, no. Give me either. 

One of the things I thought was really interesting about the book was some you were raised by atheists at a time when atheist him was very much not mainstream. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like? 

What was like growing up as an atheist in the 50s? Yeah, well, it was challenging at times. At school, we were required to say the Lord’s Prayer together. And I would sort of mumble. But we would words. There was I think it was Wednesday half a day was devoted to what was called religious instruction. When people were bused off to different churches for a half day of just what they did. And then it was perfectly obvious that I was the only one left behind. Some little kids. Well, more than more than a few confused atheists. And with communism. I didn’t mean I didn’t know what communism was, except this as a slur for the word atheist some. So I you know, I got some heat for this. 

Your parents felt that Athie ism was very much part of their views on the class struggle. Right. 

And that’s how I would put it now, because there was a spirit is among the within the American working class at a certain point of, quote, free thought. I don’t know if they had any kind of actual contact with free thought publications or speakers or anything like that. But it was very much tied to populism. The idea was that. 

Well, I don’t trust doctors, lawyers, bosses or priests. 

They’re all out there all exploiting it and they’re not. Any of them doing any work of real value. 

That was that what I learned and then sort of the idea of skepticism of God as being the ultimate Straube us? 

Well, no, it wasn’t that God was a kind of a boss. It was that there wasn’t much discussion of God. That was just silly. The idea of God from my parent’s point of view. But there certainly was a sense that the Catholic Church, which was the probably the biggest player in my ancestors rise, was exploitative. 

My father’s great grandmother, a poor Irish Catholic woman living in western Montana and the eighteen eighties, sent for a priest when her own father lay dying and the priest sent back a message saying. Bridge that sent back a message saying that he would only come if he were paid twenty five dollars. Which was an outlandish sum for for people like this at this time. And that was the end. 

That was really the end, certainly in that line of the family. My this ancestor of mine mania, Laflin, when she lay dying a few years later in childbirth. The priest showed up on Didden and started administering last rites to her and her dying act, according to the family legend, is that she hurled the crucifix that was on placed on her chest across the room. And then she died. 

That made the point. Yeah. One of the things I really liked about your book is that it’s a it’s an intellectual coming of age story written from a female perspective. Can you tell us a bit about what was going on in your intellectual life in the months and years running up to your mystical experiences? 

Well, I had a very busy intellectual life. I was on. 

I was on track to discover all the secrets of the universe. And, you know, I was reading everything. I was especially interested in science, but also literature, philosophy, you know, science fiction and the book space. 

I was I had a very rich intellectual life, which I poured out into a journal I kept, which then that journal became the major primary source for this. This book, Living with a Wild God. 

So can you describe for us the experiences that you had that were so transformative as well as a what? 

A girl? 


What it was like, the sort of things that you felt to be growing up in a girl with pretty feminism? Well, I would say my parents were very encouraging to me intellectually. Probably my father more than my mother, because my mother did say things occasionally, like, you know, about my educational aspirations. Oh, don’t worry about getting a APHC. You’ll be lucky to get an MRI. 

Yes. That was one of the clever lines from those that period there. You know, it was impressed on us in many ways that that girls were inferior, that our bodies were somehow stained and messy and that we were, you know, intact. And there was this thing that sticks in my mind so much. It was a principal in junior high school. We didn’t have middle school. 

They went to junior high school. She convened all the girls for an assembly and revealed to us that our bodies would be excreting poisons once a month, that these toxins build up in us and they had to get it. Find a way out how they got out. Of course, wasn’t mentioned or anything. And this, you know, is just astonishing. I knew it was wrong. But you made you it made me feel kind of soiled. 

Do you feel that your sense in the book, I get the sense that you felt very much sort of an outsider detached from other people, sometimes even doubting the existence of other minds in the book I get you I get the sense of you as an as an adolescent as being feeling very much of an outsider feeling cut off from other people sometimes to the point of doubting the existence of other minds. Do you feel like that laid the groundwork for the the more mystical experiences that were to follow? 

I don’t know. I think the solipsism of one degree or another is fairly common among teenagers. It was connected to my AC ism because I was not going to believe in some entity that I had no evidence for. And I thought the evidence for the actual existence of other people as autonomous, conscious beings was a little flimsy. So I shouldn’t believe in them either. Now, of course, they functioned in the world and then my family and so on. But at the back of my mind was always this question, are you real? 

I mean, look, when you and I. 

I’m not so sure about you right now. You’re just a tiny voice in my ear. You could be computer generated. I’m just I’m just opening up that remote possibility. 

It’s entirely possible. I don’t use you that now. 

I’m acting on the assumption that you’re not that you’re a person like myself with feelings and thoughts, some interesting ideas. But, you know, I was just really hardcore about being logical and the relying only on empirical evidence. 

I can definitely relate to that. So when do you tell us a bit about the about the mystical experiences? There are two main ones that you describe in the book. 

Well, the the biggest thing was something that happened when I was 17 under conditions which I now recognize resemble those that are Plains Indian, Native American, might she might try to achieve for a vision quest. I wasn’t consciously trying to achieve anything, but I was very hungry, probably hypoglycemic. I was way over tired. I was walking around a strange town in the Sierra Nevada, Sierra Nevada as close to dawn. And all the only imagery I can use is to say that it was as if the world suddenly flamed into life. Not not the census, though, not some kind of peaceful, beatific merger with the all, but it felt more like a furious, violent, almost encounter with another being. 

Did it did it feel like it being that the. Yes was a being that the whole world was? It was. 

Well, I’m not I’m not sure. You know, I spent the rest of my life in the back of my mind trying to work this out. And at first, I completely rejected the idea of encounter. I you know, I went back and forth, but I rejected it because I thought that was insane and that I so I must have just had a mental break free for mental breakdown. I would still, in a material sense, is no doubt true. But the subjective experience was overwhelming. It was ecstatic. And it was shattering. I felt like I knew something very profound, but that I couldn’t. 

Didn’t know what it was. It didn’t matter. 

Say it in the years that followed. What did you what did you do with that knowledge? How did it. How did it influence your future? Is a thinker and a writer. 

I put all this aside. It was not I you know, since I thought that was that it was insane and I never spoke to anybody about it, but I was drawn back in middle age notions. 

So back. I was drawn into, for example, to study religion, the history of religion and anthropology, all sorts of things, and began to understand that. Such experiences are not uncommon at all and quite widespread, but they usually are presented in religious terms. And that’s why I had ignored them, are usually most people as I saw, I got a visit from the from the spirit or something. But when I decided to ignore the religious imagery and rhetoric, I could see a lot of similarities to my what looks like similarities to my own experience. 

And what are the similarities suggest to you in terms of the pattern of evidence? 

I think there is something that happens to people now and then or. But a lot of people, we don’t talk about it. It’s a taboo. And if we are to take it seriously, we ought to look at this scientifically and rationally. And I don’t just mean putting electrodes on people’s heads. I mean trying to understand what is going on, because there is a tendency. My critique of science is that it tends to deny the existence of consciousness outside of ourselves. I mean, even the admission that non-human animals have feelings, have something resembling culture in many cases have intentions. That’s new. Science said, you know, thought of them as machines or mechanisms. And I think we had we we need to come around to the idea that we are not really alone in the universe, that there are all sorts of minds and some of them are completely alien to us. 

And you feel that the inference to the best explanation to to explain these commonalities is that there is a common, mystical, supernatural dimension that these people are accessing. 

I wouldn’t call a dimension. I you know, I’m living this question. I don’t believe anything. All right. I’m saying let’s talk about this. Let’s let’s bring this out into the open. Certainly, let us not leave this to churches and religious hierarchies to figure out because they don’t know just how that’s God. And atheists can often have set of or secular people and up and said, well, that’s just silly. Well, that’s that’s mental illness. 

What do you have some promising ways to investigate? This would be and how would you go about testing claims about what’s really out there or what these experiences mean? 

Well, first, I want more of a database. I read a great deal in working on this book from about. What I could find mystical experience, some of which are group induced in ecstatic rituals. Some of them are of solitary. Some are labeled as religious by the person who and some others not. And I you know, I was just going from one place to another. I read a tremendous amount of the Christian mystics, which is quite a departure for an atheist to read and. You know, I would I would I would want to sort through these states. 

I do not have the capability to do this, but I think there are certain themes. 

One theme, for example, is that theme of fire blazing that comes up a lot. Even the most familiar example would be a Moses who sees the burning bush, and that that is what gives him the mystical credibility to then get the Ten Commandments and so on. But images of fire would be part of it. 

Is it more parsimonious to say that everybody who has an experience like this has a brain? I mean, in terms of Ockham’s Razor, what does positing around beyond the physical add to our explanatory power? People that are having these experiences, myself included, is that we all have brains that react in certain ways. And there is some neuroscience. You talk about it in the book, teasing out some of the neurological commonalities that seem to be associated with these experiences. I’m just wondering, is it what what explanatory power, how does it make the hypothesis better to say? There is actually something beyond the physical that explains these experiences. When we know that there’s this there’s this layer of the physical that’s shared. 

Well, I hope we find some physical things. I’m not saying I know I’m I’m pretty much a materialist. I want to know. Let me give you a scientific analogy. 

In the mid 19th century, the scientific view of the causation of some of the most serious deep diseases was that there were there were myths. There were my asthmas, something in the air that caused them. And, you know, and the of course, there was also the religious theory that diseases were punishment from God. Then came the germ theory of disease. And the idea and the well, first, the hypothesis that the many of the most serious diseases are being caused by tiny creatures such as the first. 

The scientists have seen through microscopes my germ theory of disease turned out to have a lot more explanatory power than my asthma theory. People were able to look. 

Oh, yes, of course it was born out. It actually didn’t meet as much resistance as one might have thought. There was some ridicule of the idea that little animals, as they were called animal kills microbes, could be causing human diseases. But now we understand that this is the microbes planet. 

They rule. I mean, we’re referring numbered in our own bodies, so far out numbered. 

And they’re back and working together. They can be awfully smart. So, I mean, you know, bacterial colonies can exhibit certain kinds of intelligence almost. 

So, you know, there there is there’s a material explanation. But nobody could have guessed. Because the microbes were invisible. 

But do you think the actual mystical part is amenable to materialistic explanation? Possibly do it? If it is, does that make it mystical? I mean, doesn’t that sort of undermine what we normally mean by mystical? Mystical is a bad word. 

It’s all we got. It’s all we got. You know, right now. But, you know, you know, one place where there’s been a lot of thinking about this kind of thing. The only place I would say certainly not with an organized religion, certainly not within conventional science, but in science fiction, science fiction is full of speculations about other beings, not not necessarily stereotypical extraterrestrials, but beings that might contact us in some ways, beings that have their own agenda. 

OK. Well, thank you very much for being on the show. I really appreciate it. And I’m looking forward to talking to you at women in seculars. And you’re going to be speaking there. Oh, right. Yeah, I’m going to be reading from the new book. 

I’ll be saying something as well. 

Excellent. Well, we will look forward to it. Take care. Thank you so much. OK, thank you. Bye. 

My guest today has been Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Living with a Wild God. Catch Her at CeaseFire’s Women in Secularism three conference in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 17th. Find out more at women in secularism, dawg. This has been a point of inquiry, and I’m Lindsay Beyerstein. Tune in next week. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.