Born Skeptical

04.19.14

Barbara Ehrenreich Gives God a Going Over in Her New Book

Social critic, scientist, muckraking journalist, Barbara Ehrenreich has never been one to take things on faith. In her new book she takes a hard look at everything from religion to science.

When she was a teenager, the prospect of the eradication of the human species did not strike the future social critic and activist Barbara Ehrenreich as particularly troubling. Humans were generally overrated. “I have known people who are duller than trees, as well as individual trees that surpassed most people in complexity and character,” she writes in her new book, Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything. Trees, clouds, and the shifting moods of the sea would suffice for company.

Ehrenreich realized when she was ten that reading was not socially acceptable in certain settings, so she developed elaborate fantasies as an alternative to books. One involved imagining life in Los Angeles as the sole surviving human. She looted supplies from shops and avoided packs of wild dogs. As time passed, life became harder; she realized she couldn’t repair engines or maintain fires through the night. And there was the problem of mountain lions prowling the city to feast on garbage-fattened pets.

Suffice to say that Ehrenreich was an unusual child. She committed an act of eco-terrorism at eight, vandalizing a home in a new development to defend the trees from human encroachment. She once ran outside to play in a hurricane so that she could test her strength against the storm. It might be tempting to explain her youthful tendencies as a mixture of eccentricity and precocious environmentalism, but her new book—a sort of spiritual and intellectual memoir—presents them as part of a quest to make sense of the world. Her subtitle, A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything, is not hyperbolic: she’s been searching in various domains for most of her life.

Her goal is not just the acquisition of knowledge on sundry subjects. She wants to understand a more fundamental question, one that she poses on the first page of the book’s first chapter: “What is the point of our brief existence?”

She first asked herself this question at 13, and she quotes excerpts from her adolescent diary throughout her memoir. Teenage musings on the meaning of life may not sound like a promising basis for a book, but Ehrenreich’s journal reveals an exceptional and inquisitive mind. She reasoned her way to an epistemic skepticism reminiscent of Descartes’s stance in the Meditations. She’d never read the philosopher, but she shared his impulse to question the validity of belief in the external world. (She also felt a fascinated frustration with the absurdity of imaginary numbers, like the square root of negative one—a category of numbers Descartes named).

This is not a memoir of a scientist gradually embracing religion and mysticism, yet it's also not a triumphalist argument that science can clarify all the world’s uncertainties.

Her parents advocated a scientific and empirical approach to the world. Her mother once told her that if you can’t explain something, then it isn’t true. She applied this spirit of scientific skepticism to science itself. She’d never seen an electron or constructed a test to distinguish planets from other debris in space, so she concluded that all she could know was that she knew nothing.

She doesn’t see the problem of understanding how we know what we claim to know as an abstract or academic one. This is one of the rare pleasures of reading both her teenage and her later reflections: she imbues metaphysics with emotional urgency and universal relevance. She is baffled, for instance, by the fact that most humans seem to ignore the imminence of death and the strange beauty of life. She sometimes wants strangers to throw “their heads back and scream at the sky in alternating terror and ecstasy.”

Her desire for “the complete and absolute truth” has led her through many disciplines; she seems to have spent a lifetime devouring works of fiction, philosophy, and science at a rapid rate. But a few strange and shattering experiences she had as a teenager defied all explanations.

Even after nearly 50 years, Ehrenreich is reluctant to describe the experiences as mystical. No bushes began to burn, no divine voice declaimed from the sky. The things in the world simply lost their meanings. “All that was familiar would drain out of the world around me.”  The sensation was sometimes terrifying.

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‘Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything’ by Barbara Ehrenreich. 256 p. Grand Central Publishing. $12.99 ()

Experiences beyond language are necessarily hard to describe, so there is some inherent futility in her attempts to invoke the nature of these episodes. When she writes that “the realness of things is lost” and that she was left in “that strangeness that lies beyond language,” she’s gesturing at the limits of the expressible as much as reporting from the beyond.

Ehrenreich doesn’t try to convert or convince her readers; she writes in a spirit of critical inquiry and analysis. Her curious and discerning approach is reminiscent of William James in his classic study on the varieties of religious experience, but there’s also a dark and frenetic edge to her observation that evokes Dostoyevsky.

If the book were reducible to a thesis, it might be the simple claim that some things exceed our capacity for comprehension. Ehrenreich encountered this truth not only in her inexplicable states, but also in her career as a scientist. She stumbled across an unaccountable irregularity while measuring electrochemical oscillations of a silicon electrode as part of the research for her undergraduate thesis. Physics in the early ’60s had no way to account for her findings, which would eventually be described by nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory. She finally earned a doctorate in biology, partly to try to discover explanations that could account for all available data, from electrodes to her own strange experiences.

This is not a memoir of a scientist gradually embracing religion and mysticism, yet it’s also not a triumphalist argument that science can clarify all the world’s uncertainties. She considers her own experiences without the dogmas of a religious or atheistic fundamentalist, and the result is a nuanced and moving account of one person’s quest to find meaning in the world.

“Everything looks strange, as if I’d never seen it before,” she wrote after one of her adolescent experiences. Her powerful prose subtly induces the very state she describes; her memoir may not prompt ecstatic and terrified screaming at the sky, but after an encounter with her story, everything looks slightly stranger than it did before.