A journalist, historian and social critic, the award-winning writer dissects her latest text, Living with a Wild God.
Writer Barbara Ehrenreich
Tavis: So how does a self-proclaimed atheist deal with mystical experiences from her teenage years that seemed to challenge her certainty about the absence of God and the dominance of science?
For Barbara Ehrenreich, one of the country’s most important journalists and social critics, that meant writing a new memoir: “Living with a Wild God: A Non-Believer’s Search for the Truth about Everything.”
It takes us on a fascinating journey, exploring the crossroads of fact and faith. Barbara, always good to have you on this program.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Good to be with you, Tavis.
Tavis: I want to jump right into our conversation by asking you to unpack this title for me: “Living with a Wild God.”
Ehrenreich: Well this title reflects the fact that human beings have worshipped a variety of deities and spirits throughout history and throughout all the continents, and most of these were not monotheistic gods who were good and benevolent.
Probably before 2,500 years ago, most people were worshipping animal gods, or certainly some of my ancestors in the Celts were worshipping a horse or a (unintelligible) Scottish.
You smile, but this is quite normal. (Laughter) The idea of the, our ideas of god today are very limited by monotheism, which presents one single – usually imagined as male – God who is also benevolent and all-powerful.
So is it the mono that trips you up verses the poly – you’re open to poly, but not mono?
Ehrenreich: (Laughs) I’m just saying that we need to think of a lot of things when we use the word “god,” and I am with this title, “Living with a Wild God,” in no way referring to probably your monotheistic god.
Tavis: Right. But I’m pressing this because I want to lay a foundation here. Does that mean, though, that you are still questioning the mono, but that you’re open to the poly?
Ehrenreich: I’m open to all kinds of things.
Ehrenreich: But no, I’m not questioning the monotheistic god. I think there’s absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a god. When I say that, I mean I’m – part of that is that the idea that God could be all-powerful and also benevolent is on its face contradictory.
There’s a lot of cruelty going on all the time, and I’m not just talking about inter-human cruelty. I’m talking about whole species becoming extinct, asteroids hitting planets, black holes gobbling up stars. This is a violent place.
Tavis: So just to set the stage before we go any further, so what we’re talking about here with you is atheism, not agnosticism, so that’s clear based on your answer now.
Let me delve a little deeper now into how this came to be your way of thinking. You, in the book, unveil, in a pretty transparent way, how this took root in your family all the way back to your great-grandmother before we ever get to your position on this. Tell me about your family and how this played itself out.
Ehrenreich: Well, these are – most of the men in my family were miners or railroad workers, blue-collar people mostly of Irish or Scottish background. Our atheism family tradition is traced to a, I don’t know if it was great-great or a great-great-great grandmother who was a poor Irish-American woman in the 1880s in western Montana.
When her father lay dying, she sent for the priest. She got back a message saying, “A priest will come and administer the last rites for $25,” which was completely out of the question for these people.
So that was the end for her, no more religion. A few years later she lay dying herself in childbirth and the priest showed up. I don’t know how he knew. And he started to administer the last rites, which included putting a crucifix on her chest.
The story, the family legend, is that with her last ounce of strength, she took that crucifix and hurled it across the room. That’s not a legacy you can shrug off.
Tavis: What about your parents?
Ehrenreich: Oh, yes, atheists, yeah. There was part of what went into this atheism, because these were not educated people, particularly, was a general populist anger at unjust authority.
We were not to like or trust bosses, lawyers, doctors, or priests. All of those categories manipulate people and use them. That’s what I was told.
Tavis: My mother’s watching right now, and she doesn’t miss this program any night.
Ehrenreich: I’ve met your mom, and I’m scared. (Laughter)
Tavis: I know you’ve met her. Scared – you ain’t getting a phone call when this show is over. I’m going to get the phone call. (Laughter) To get scolded for having you on this program to talk about this subject.
Not you, but the subject matter. But I raise that only because my mom watches every night and – hey, Mom. I love her, obviously, and my mother and my father and I have nine brothers and sisters, so the 10 of us were introduced to the god that I know because my parents ushered us in, specifically my mother.
So I wonder how you think your life might be different, how you might view this mysticism differently, which we’ll get to in just a second. I want you to share some of what these mystical experiences were about.
Before we do that, I wonder how you think, or have you ever thought, about how different your life might be –
Ehrenreich: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: – had your family, had your mother been my mother, where faith is concerned.
Ehrenreich: Oh, yes, it would have been different, very different. I first started asking big questions when I was 12, and by big questions, I mean, “Why are we here? What is this business? We’re alive for a few short decades and then poof, we’re out of here.”
I would have gotten, if I were you or had your mother, I would have got the answer, “This is God’s plan. God’s got it figured out. Don’t ask any more questions.”
Well, thank God, if I may say that, (laughter) for my parents, because they said, “Keep asking. Keep asking.” They never put a lid on questions. I didn’t get that answer, “God.”
Tavis: That’s the one thing – again, my mom’s watching; so are many others, I suspect. That’s the one thing as I’ve gotten older that I have pushed back on by way of honest confession.
It has in no way shaken my abiding faith in the god that I believe in, but I do not believe in people telling me that I can’t ask questions. I’ve said so many times for those of us who happen to be believers, when Jesus is praying in the garden before he goes to the cross, he says, you know, Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.
He’s questioning his own father. I don’t want to go to the cross. He says, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” This is Jesus talking to his father. So if Jesus, I figure, can ask questions of his father, certainly I can ask questions.
Ehrenreich: You certainly can.
Tavis: So I have pushed back on this notion of asking questions, although it has never shaken my abiding faith in the belief system that I have. But back to you, though, it raises another fascinating question, which is how you got on the science track.
So you’re raised in a family of atheists, which seems to make sense, then, that you would go in the direction of science. But I do know scientists who are believers, so give me your sense about how you got on the science track.
Because you have a – people may not know this because we know you as a wonderful writer and social activist, but you have a Ph.D., and you went into the science field.
Ehrenreich: Ph.D. in cellular immunology.
Tavis: Yeah, whatever that means. (Laughter) What is cellular immunology?
Ehrenreich: (Laughter) How much time do we –
Tavis: No –
Ehrenreich: No, it’s about the cells that help our bodies to fight germs, microbes, viruses.
Tavis: Okay. How’d you get on that science track?
Ehrenreich: Oh, I didn’t figure there was anything else I needed from school. I can read by myself and I was reading. I read everything as a kid from the public library – philosophy, history, and lots of great fiction. So I thought science is harder. This, I can learn at school. I should learn. But –
Tavis: Your father was a scientist.
Ehrenreich: He had been a miner, managed to get a scholarship, and got a degree in metallurgy, which is what comes from mining.
Tavis: Sure, mm-hmm.
Ehrenreich: So yes, and that’s what he thought I should be. In fact, he thought it was really the only worthwhile white-collar pursuit.
Tavis: Let me ask you something very uncomfortable, and this is not something that I subscribe to, but I know people who I think have a warped sense of the way the world works and the way that God works in the world who might ask this question, were they in this seat tonight.
So let me ask it: Your parents end up being alcoholics, your mother tries to commit suicide countless times; eventually she succeeds. Your father ends up dying of Alzheimer’s.
I wonder if all that might have been visited upon them had they been believers, had they not cursed the god or disbelieved the god that brought them into the world. And you understand my question –
Ehrenreich: Well that’ll be pretty mean of God, is all I can say.
Tavis: That’s why I want to get your take on that, yeah.
Ehrenreich: Yes, I would say that would be rather, that would be mean and spiteful that God should have – I would say to your god, “Look at the other side of them. Look how they’re raising me, anyway, in an intellectually liberating fashion.”
Part of that might be construed as neglect, but no, I am not down with any idea of a deity who goes around punishing people.
Tavis: I asked that in part because 10 minutes ago, five minutes ago in this conversation you suggested – I can’t quote you exactly, but you suggested that if there were a benevolent god, you listed a number of things that would not be happening in front of our very eyes.
Why is it your believe that God is visiting this hell upon us rather than, certainly where the environment is concerned, which is what the examples were that you raised, versus us bringing this on ourselves for the way we maltreat the environment that he created?
Ehrenreich: Well we have to take our huge share of the blame here for a lot of things.
Ehrenreich: But we have to also acknowledge that even without burning all this carbon and the other bad things we do, the, we’re in a shaky position. We’re on this planet, this rock in space. It itself is unstable.
Its mantle is always shifting around; we have nothing to do with the earthquakes and volcanoes. Well, maybe some of the earthquakes now from fracking, I don’t know.
Tavis: Yeah, maybe so, yeah.
Ehrenreich: Take that back. (Laughter) An asteroid could hit us at any moment. This is not – and also, the most successful kind of life on this planet is not us, it’s microbes. They’re the ones who greatly outnumber us, and may eventually destroy us.
Tavis: When you look at man’s inhumanity to man, how then does God get the blame for that when most of what we deal with, almost everything we deal with is the way we maltreat each other, from racism to homophobia to war, just run the list here, to poverty.
It’s man’s inhumanity to man, ultimately. So if you are a believer, God creates us, he puts us on the planet, and then we just start dissing one another and killing one another and maltreating one another. How does God get the blame for that in your believe system?
Ehrenreich: Well I guess my atheist moral answer would be because there is no god, no benevolent god, anyway, that is going to intervene and set things right, we have huge personal responsibility to do so.
I cannot walk past a beggar on the street who’s actually reaching out for money and think to myself, “Oh, God’ll take care of that.” No. It’s up to me, and that’s what I taught my children.
We have a moral responsibility. Nobody is going to clean up after us. No one else is going to help. We’ve got to do that.
Tavis: Now to the good part of this book, as if this hasn’t already been rich. But now to the real good part of the text, which is these experiences that you have had, these mystical experiences that you’ve had that you write about in the text that you’re even now trying to figure out to some degree. Pick one or two of them if you’d like, and just kind of share.
Ehrenreich: Okay, but first, we’re not talking about visions.
Ehrenreich: We’re not talking about hallucinations, nothing. I didn’t have any words for any of this. I never talked to anybody about this until this book. I’m coming out with, like, a huge secret.
It remained a secret because I thought if I talked about it I would look crazy, so I didn’t all my life. But the most shattering experience occurred when I was 17, under rather stressful physical conditions.
Tavis: By the way, that’s a great picture. I see it up on the screen there. I love this picture of you when you were just a pretty young thang.
Ehrenreich: Yeah, that girl.
Tavis: Is that sexist? Can I say that? Is that sexist?
Ehrenreich: What’d you say, a girl?
Tavis: To call you a pretty young thing?
Ehrenreich: No, you could say that any time. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, I don’t want to get in trouble with you. (Laughter) Anyway, you were 17, you were saying, yeah.
Ehrenreich: And it just, it happened. Something, like the whole world changed, visually. I did not so far as I know fall down or shriek or anything like that. It’s as if the world burst into flame.
Not a flame that was hot and destroying me. This was, like, ecstatically beautiful, and at the same time, almost terrifying. I felt like I had learned something totally profound, that I understood something, that I no longer had to continue on my search to find out the truth about why, that somehow now I knew, but I had no words for it.
I was not in great shape for a while after this. And of course I didn’t even know there was a term for such an experience. Only much later did I learn that the term, say, “mystical experience.”
Then I found out that one reason why I had always been turned off by that or by any accounts of that is that they’re usually associated with religion. So usually it would be, “Well, and then he saw God.” Like Moses had –
Tavis: The burning bush experience.
Ehrenreich: The burning bush, which I think is a similar image.
Tavis: I was just – they say great minds think alike. I wouldn’t put my mind on your level, but the minute you started telling that story, I went straight to Moses and the burning bush.
Ehrenreich: Yeah. And you can find a lot of descriptions, whether they’re in a religious framework or a non-religious framework, because these sorts of experiences don’t just happen to religious people.
Ehrenreich: Plenty of atheists. It is overwhelming. It’s not something – people have said to me, “Is this like taking an hallucinogenic drug?” I don’t know. I haven’t actually tried.
One reason I haven’t tried is because this happened to me, and I don’t think it’s something you mess with. But my guess is no, it’s not the same. This is not –
Tavis: See, the reason why I always push back on those comparisons, is it like taking an hallucinogenic drug, I push – easy for me to say. I push back on that because you self-induced whatever experience you had when you ingested those drugs
You were in an altered state of mind, versus you being in your right mind and having an altered state of consciousness. Those are two fundamentally different things, and I always push back on people who want to make those comparisons, in my mind, at least, because the comparison just doesn’t hold up.
But what does fascinate me about this is your statement a moment ago, Barbara, that you kind of had a rough time with it and you kind of pushed back on it, because the next step is, “And then they saw God.”
Based upon your atheistic upbringing you don’t believe this. You don’t want to open yourself up to that because you don’t want to encounter what that next step might be.
So how does your life change if at 17, and every other time you had a mystical experience, you had opened yourself up to the possibility of what was being said to you?
Ehrenreich: You are trying to convert me, I can tell.
Tavis: No, I’m not. I’m just asking.
Ehrenreich: I can tell what’s happening.
Tavis: I’m just asking. (Laughter) You deliberately shut yourself off, so I’m just asking if you had opened yourself up to it, what might have happened.
Ehrenreich: Oh, well I think if I had had a religion, and I mention, I discuss this in the book, if there, I could have just slotted myself right into that. I could have said that was God. It’s a little scary and everything, but that was, that must be God.
Tavis: But what I’m getting at though is not that you even had to have a religion. You had a mystical experience; you’ve had more than one, that obviously, to use your word, shattered you.
So rather than walk away from that, if you had opened yourself up to it without having any religious base – this is not about religiosity. I’m talking about being open versus being closed.
Ehrenreich: Well I guess in some way I was, in this way I was open. First I had to kind of put it out of my mind, and I did a lot of things, other things in my life. But I couldn’t get rid of it. It didn’t go away. I couldn’t stop questioning it.
If this was not an encounter with someone or something or some sort of other, then what was it? Was I just mentally ill? I really thought of that quite seriously for years, that I’d had some kind of mental breakdown.
So I had all these questions in my mind. Then, somewhere in mid-life, I began to more seriously pursue, without thinking of writing a book that would be like a memoir or anything, but the history of religion.
To read theology and not mysticism; I think new-agey things really turn me off – and to try to better understand it. That’s when I find out that this is not an uncommon kind of experience. It’s just that no one can talk about it.
Tavis: Right, and I get it. And people don’t want to talk about it because it makes them feel crazy to do so. I get that, although those of us who happen to be believers understand that sometimes when you talk about what you’ve been through and how you came through, people will think you’re crazy.
That’s okay, which leads me to the point that I’ve heard you make on any number of occasions. I want to make sure I get this right – I thought I heard you say that “belief is intellectual surrender.”
Ehrenreich: That’s right.
Tavis: That belief is intellectual surrender. Unpack that for me.
Ehrenreich: Okay. This is where your conversion process is going to break down.
Tavis: I’m not trying to convert you. (Laughter)
Ehrenreich: I know.
Tavis: (Unintelligible) I’m just trying to – go ahead, but go ahead though.
Ehrenreich: No, is that why believe? There are religions, you know, that don’t involve belief or faith at all.
Tavis: Right, right.
Ehrenreich: A lot of those religions were wiped out by European colonialism throughout the world, but they were religions in which nobody asked you to “believe” in the deity or the spirit or whatever.
They gave you ways to experience it. In the West African tradition, that was through ecstatic rituals, and that goes on. In like Voodoo, nobody says you have to believe in the spirits, the Loa.
They say you will have face-to-face contact; you will have intimate sort of mental contact with the spirit through our rituals. To me, that almost tempts me. (Laughter)
Because I don’t – what does it mean to believe? It means to be convinced about something you have no evidence for.
Tavis: Exactly. To the non-believer, belief is intellectual surrender. To the believer, intellectual surrender is faith. The substance of things hoped-for that you ain’t got the evidence to prove.
But if you’re going to try to navigate through this thing called life with experiences and happenings and occurrences that you have no control over, and in and of yourself you don’t have the power to get yourself through, you got to believe in something.
You believe, when you walk out this door, that you’re not going to fall and bust your head. You believe when you get on the plane that’s going to fly you back to Washington safely.
You believe when you walk up the steps that you’re going to hit that next step, even if you’re in the dark and you can’t see it. You trust yourself to walk up the steps in your house. We all believe in something, Barbara.
Ehrenreich: Yes, but those are not very grand, metaphysical beliefs you just sketched.
Tavis: But it’s a belief system.
Ehrenreich: I don’t believe that there is a benevolent being trying to make sure I get home. Actually, if there’s fewer airport delays, I might start (laughter) sacrificing small animals or something, it’s true. I’ll fall back on anything.
But no, I’m not very trusting. Look, I wrote a book denouncing positive thinking.
Tavis: Yeah, I know.
Ehrenreich: The idea that you can just sort of believe yourself into success.
Tavis: It’s on my bookshelf. Why this book now, and does it mean that you are – my word, not yours – open at this point to receiving, accepting something else, whatever that something else is, at this point in your life?
Ehrenreich: This book now because it was now or never, I thought. By the way, I don’t really like the idea of writing memoirs. That sounds so self-indulgent and self-involved.
So that’s why this is really a story about this quest of mine. Am I open? I am open to any kind of evidence and data you want to bring me.
Tavis: (Laughs) I get you.
Ehrenreich: Or artistic revelations, okay?
Tavis: I get you. In God we trust, but Barbara wants data. (Laughter)
Ehrenreich: That’s right, exactly.
Tavis: So I ain’t mad at you, Barbara. I love Barbara Ehrenreich. As you can see, we don’t always agree on everything, but there’s nobody in the world who I would prefer to talk to more than Barbara.
Lot of great guests on this program, but I love talking to her because her mind is so sharp, and she opens me up and challenges me, as I suspect she may have done you tonight, to consider her point of view.
The new text from Barbara Ehrenreich is called “Living with a Wild God: A Non-Believer’s Search for the Truth about Everything,” and aren’t we all on a search for the truth about everything.
I certainly am, and I delight in having a conversation with you about that search. Barbara, good to have you on.
Ehrenreich: Great to talk to you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
Forrest Whittaker: Tavis –
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