'Living With a Wild God' author and 'Women in Secularism' speaker Barbara Ehrenreich.

‘Living With a Wild God’ author and ‘Women in Secularism’ speaker Barbara Ehrenreich. Photo courtesy Center for Inquiry.

Can atheists have mystical experiences?

In her new book Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, Barbara Ehrenreich—prolific author of 23 books including Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America—opens up about hers.

Ehrenreich, who was raised atheist, has long been vocally skeptical of organized religion—evidenced, for example, by her suggestion in Nickel and Dimed that “it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify [Jesus] again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth”—and was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 1998.

Yet she has also had multiple mystical experiences—something she has hesitated to speak about. As she explains in the foreword to Living With a Wild God:

So what do you do with something like this—an experience so anomalous, so disconnected from the normal life you share with other people, that you can’t even figure out how to talk about it? … Try inserting an account of a mystical experience into a conversation, and you’ll likely get the same response as you would if you confided that you had been the victim of an alien abduction.

But instead of incredulity, Living With a Wild God has been met with acclaim; The Boston Globe praised Ehrenreich’s “courage and intellectual rigor” and The Seattle Times called the book “brave” and “remarkable.”

Tomorrow (Saturday) Ehrenreich will give speak at the third “Women in Secularism” conference in Alexandria, Virginia. In advance of her remarks there, I spoke with her about reconciling mystical experiences with atheism, sexism among nontheists, and why atheism alone is not enough.

Chris Stedman: I imagine some atheists will struggle with Living with a Wild God’s exploration of mysticism. For example, I’ve encountered people who attribute all religious or mystical experiences to mental illness. Knowing that this can be a difficult issue, how did you approach the subject matter?

Barbara Ehrenreich: I applied my own rationalism to the anomalous experiences I’ve had. If they weren’t indicative of mental illness—and I decided to entertain the possibility that it was not mental illness, since I seem in many ways to be pretty sane—it was something I needed to look at. With science, when something comes along that doesn’t sit with your conventional wisdom or what your theories are, you don’t just toss it away. You try to think about what it might mean.

CS: How have readers responded so far?

BE: A lot of people have told me about their related types of experiences. It’s important for people to realize that they can have such experiences and they don’t have to be silent about them forever because they’d be perceived as mentally ill—and that has nothing to do with whether you’re an atheist or a believer.

CS: You write about having an experience where you felt as if you were “being drawn into something” that “begins to feel like a single living, breathing Other.” Can you say more about your conception of this “Other”?

BE: I’m saying that it’s a possibility, but I’m not talking about anything that’s godlike in terms of being all-powerful or a creator—and certainly not in the sense of being a loving presence in our lives, or a concerned presence.

CS: You’re speaking at the third “Women in Secularism” conference this weekend. Over the last few years there has been a lot of discussion about sexism among nontheists, and this conference seeks to continue that. Why do you think the atheist community is struggling around issues of sexism and harassment?

BE: I don’t know. I don’t spend a lot of time in what you might call the atheist community. It’s not a word that I think would adequately describe me—it’s just a starting point. I don’t believe, but that doesn’t exactly define a community, except in some circumstances when we’re up against real discrimination, which we often are.

So I can’t say I know much about sexism in the atheist community. Certainly the very prominent atheists have been white men, and I don’t know what to do about that. We need to add some women to the list.

CS: What will you be talking about at “Women in Secularism”?

BE: I’ll base my remarks on Living with a Wild God, and I’ll talk about growing up as an atheist and coming to question some of the foundations of the science I had been taught. I hope to emphasize that atheism in itself is not a complete answer. That’s just where we start from—we don’t start with any belief. We’re still trying to figure things out.

CS: You say that atheism is a starting point. What comes after?

BE: Anything you like. As an atheist, you don’t start by saying, “There is a God and he or it has arranged everything as it is.” Every question is open once you put aside beliefs like that.

8 Comments

  1. The Great God Pan

    It’s not a binary choice between “mental illness” and “genuine mystical experience,” with Mean, Nasty New Atheists on one side and Open-Minded Salt-of-the-Earth Good Folks on the other.

    Most or all of us occasionally experience something we call “deja vu.” That doesn’t mean that most or all of us are mentally ill, but it also doesn’t mean these experiences are proof that–for instance–we are all living our lives over and over again repeatedly on an infinite loop. It just means that the mind sometimes has a hiccup. The hiccup isn’t a sign of mental illness, but treating it as something more than a hiccup might be a sign that something is wrong.

    What compelling reason is there to treat the vague feeling Barbara Ehrenreich describes as anything more than a similar hiccup? It doesn’t mean she should be locked away and medicated, but it also doesn’t mean that she was in communion with “the Other.”

  2. ‘Scuse me, Pan, but I took it that this was exactly was what Ehrenreich was saying. She’s an atheist–she doesn’t take these experiences to be communion with some Other. Now I on the other hand am a (skeptical, heterodox) Christian because I’ve had these experiences. Not because I think they prove anything, but because I really, really like these experiences, and because religious practice provides the machinery for getting them. And, yes, I’m not particularly interested in intellectual honesty.

  3. “Try inserting an account of a mystical experience into a conversation, and you’ll likely get the same response as you would if you confided that you had been the victim of an alien abduction.”

    I’m right there with you! Music, Theatre, Art, Literature and all sorts of Culture takes me to a wonderful place of enlightenment and joy!

    Don’t let the religious jerks tell you it is a ‘god’ or some supernatural BS. These feelings are natural – just the wonderful, numinous experiences of life itself – pure joy!

  4. I don’t see how mysticism and atheism can logically correlate. Mystical states have to do with, as far as science has failed to show otherwise, the metaphysical. Atheism, not believing in a creator, would have to rely on naturalism, physical determinism… Therefore, the metaphysical does not exist in such a worldview, yet mysticism is metaphysical… In fact, modern science shows, that we have yet to discover any single shred of causal evidence for a physical brain state causing a mental state, besides correlation… We have yet to physically measure or locate the will, consciousness, and other qualia in the physical brain… I know that mystical states are possible, but I fail to see how they are possible in an atheist worldview… If anyone disagrees, they would have to differentiate between different altered states of consciousness, and explain how many mystical experiences describe an all-loving presence, timelessness, etc. contrary to what this woman experienced… Clearly these experiences are metaphysical…

    • @JOHN,
      What is a ‘mystical’ state of mind?
      Clearly great Atheists like Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) and Rod Serling (Twilight Zone) and Isaac Asimov (Robots of Dawn) were completely rational and yet understood the mystery of life as a wonderful curiosity. You certainly do not need to believe in a supernatural realm in order to love mystery or the fun of imagination.

      Why call it ‘metaphysical’ and why suggest it must have something to do with Gods? I see no connection at all.

      • Imagination deals with a representation, which is metaphysical in and of itself…

        Star trek, and all those other sci-fi programs you mentioned were also metaphysical in the sense that they were products of imagination… Created by man… the proof is obvious…

        I believe Martin Luther King, Gandhi, mother Theresa, and Nelson Mandela, all theists, understood the mystery of life in a more humane way than Gene and those others you mentioned… The proof is in the love they gave… The virtues and self-possession they had… The mystery of life is to be found in the dignity of human life, not in Spock and the U.S.S. enterprise…

        I fail to see the correlation between what you wrote, and an actual mystical state…

        Therefore, mysticism is not a use of imagination towards contingent fantasies, but rather a direct intuition of the infinite, necessary being through contemplation and love…

        “Mysticism, according to its etymology, implies a relation to mystery. In philosophy, Mysticism is either a religious tendency and desire of the human soul towards an intimate union with the Divinity, or a system growing out of such a tendency and desire. As a philosophical system, Mysticism considers as the end of philosophy the direct union of the human soul with the Divinity through contemplation and love, and attempts to determine the processes and the means of realizing this end. This contemplation, according to Mysticism, is not based on a merely analogical knowledge of the Infinite, but as a direct and immediate intuition of the Infinite. According to its tendency, it may be either speculative or practical, as it limits itself to mere knowledge or traces duties for action and life”
        APA citation. Sauvage, G. (1911). Mysticism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 19, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10663b.htm

  5. I am perpetually baffled that now, in the modern age, we can still divide the mystical from the religious. The mystical experience is born in the human nervous system, every bit as much as religion is. One might even say it is a spontaneous chemical reaction arising from the frontal lobes and a product of consciousness every bit as universal and phenomenal as dreaming. Religion seeks the same, but through ritual, music, incense, dogma, and myth. In each experience we see individuals, either, alone, or through community, consensus, and morality in awe of the “mysterium tremendum”. Religionists have mystical experiences. Mystics have religious experiences. The former attributes it to an exoteric revelation brought on by their chosen belief system or deity, and typically interprets it as a boon bestowed upon them. Whereas the mystic’s revelation is esoteric and perceived as independent of any preformed source or ideology. It is a thing unto itself. Nevertheless, they are both born in human consciousness. Since the beginning of time there have been two types of religion: those of immanence, and those of consensus. Either way, they share the same origin– the imaginal and wondrous properties of human consciousness.

    • Considering you are talking about the human brain, you must have scientific evidence for this? Provide materialistic, causal evidence which shows we can discern an altered state of consciousness from a true religious, mystical experience…

      What is your proof that religions are created by the consciousness… without a real revelation? Neurological data please…

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