Having spent the last eight months reading and discussing Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (see previous posts Sept., 2013-April, 2014) in my Unitarian Universalist Adult Religious Education group, it seemed serendipitous when I saw Barbara Ehrenreich interviewed about her new book.
An atheist writing about having had mystical experiences? What would Dennett say?
Probably he would say what Ehrenreich herself said for years: temporary psychic break, “perceptual slippage,” sudden electrical or chemical power surge in the brain, etc., in any case, a perfectly rational and natural explanation.
Raised by atheist parents under the strong influence of her scientist father, Ehrenreich struggled most of her life with those rational and natural explanations that were never quite commensurate with the experiences themselves, experiences in which the natural boundaries of ordinary physical objects broke down and the world seemed to flame out in radiance.
She pursued a career in science herself, moving from chemistry to physics, finally earning a Ph.D. in Cellular Immunology, before becoming a free-lance writer more focused on the social science of feminism, economic inequality, war, militarism, and the politics of health care than chemistry, physics, or religion.
It was actually her research into the origins of human warfare that eventually intersected with her life-long quest to understand her seemingly “mystical” experiences. The study of human evolution led her to, lo and behold, the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device or HADD (see previous post Jan., 2013), which Dennett cites to explain the rise of early religion in the form of animism and the human belief in other types of “imaginary agents.”
For Dennett, this survival mechanism becomes overdeveloped, even as it makes the advancement of the species possible, resulting in supernatural belief and eventually the cultural evolution of organized religion. By now, however, Ehrenreich’s faith in the certainties of empirical science has been undermined by the New Science of quantum mechanics and “non-linear dynamics.” And she dares to ask the question: If the HADD is reliable when it comes to detecting conventionally observable predators, why is it not reliable in detecting other, non-conventionally observable agents? In any case, how do we know that the latter type of agents is entirely imaginary?
In the end, she does not undergo any kind of religious conversion, but her “faith” in atheism has been shaken. While, she says she does not believe in a god or gods or divinity or universal consciousness at work in the world, she keeps an open mind, neither drawing definite conclusions from her “mystical” experiences nor rejecting them as aberrations without any meaning. There may just be more going on in the universe than our ordinary powers of human perception can take in, and “it may be seeking us out.”
Metaphysical musings aside, Ehrenreich’s book is also an autobiographical study of family dysfunction, a string of broken relationships, academic experimentation, political and social awakening, and self-exploration, all held together by the author’s lifelong quest for the truth about our inexplicable human “situation.”
She recounts tragedy, disappointment, misdirection, social idealism, political activism, success and failure with a cold, unsparing eye and a sharp wit. There is no sentimentalism, no high-flown rhetoric, no glamorization, and no air-brushing of stark reality. Ehrenreich’s unflinching rationalism, skepticism, and wry humor make her openness to the possibility of a “palpable Other or Others,” more credible than the espoused certainties of either true believers or confirmed non-believers. She is not one to be seduced by easy answers or wishful thinking. And that ethic applies to herself as well as to her “wild God.”