MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you're interested in issues like income inequality or other things pertaining to social justice, then you probably know the name Barbara Ehrenreich. She's spent her life searching for answers.
She's written nearly two dozen books about things like poverty and underemployment, including the bestseller "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America." But her latest book is about searching for answers within herself. The book is titled "Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything." And Barbara Ehrenreich is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Oh, glad to be with you.
MARTIN: You said you didn't want to write a memoir or an autobiography.
MARTIN: How would you describe it?
EHRENREICH: All right. Here's my, you know, biggest promotional thing to say about it. I like to think of it as a little bit of a metaphysical thriller. I start with a question as a child. I start with a question, what's going on here?
Why are people born and then go through all this stuff and then die? What's this all about? And that question, one way or another, motivates me all the way through, through some very strange events.
MARTIN: I want to get you to tell us about some of those strange events, but you - where you describe yourself as a fourth-generation atheist.
MARTIN: ...And I wanted to ask if you would just set it up by telling us, why are you a fourth-generation atheist?
EHRENREICH: Well, I'll tell you the...
MARTIN: How did it happen coming from a Irish-Catholic background?
EHRENREICH: I'll tell you the family story from my father. These are people who were mostly copper miners, railroad workers - the men in my family - in western Montana, in Butte, Montana. And my father had a - I think it was a grandmother, possibly a great-grandmother.
When her father laid dying, she sent for a priest to administer the last rites. She got back a message that the priest wouldn't come unless she could pay him $25, which was completely beyond them. So that was the end, really, for my family. Couple of years later, she lay dying herself, a young woman in childbirth, and the priest showed up. But he hadn't been asked, but he showed up.
There was a crucifix placed on her chest for the last rites. And according to my father, with her dying breath, she grabbed that crucifix and threw it across the floor. Now that's a heavy legacy. You know, you don't betray that.
MARTIN: And it was also - but you also describe it as both kind of a suspicion of all authority, you know...
MARTIN: ...That you kind of inherited of, you know, bosses, priests, of...
EHRENREICH: ...Lawyers, doctors. Yeah.
MARTIN: ...Lawyers, of government, of, like, suspicions of all kind of authority. But I did want to ask, if you wouldn't mind, reading a passage from the book about how you grew up.
EHRENREICH: (Reading) It wasn't easy being a child atheist during the great Cold War, or for that matter, probably any time in human history outside of a few short-lived Communist states. At school, I tried to blend in by mouthing the Lord's Prayer along with everyone else, which was mandatory in those days in the public schools, only sometimes preventing myself to slip into inaudible mocking gibberish. But I could not hide my peculiarity on Wednesday afternoons.
When all the other kids were bussed off to what was called religious study at various churches, while I remained behind my desk under the grudging supervision of a teacher who might otherwise been free to leave. There were times when I was taunted after school for being a, quote, "communist" which I understood only as a derogatory term for atheist. Once some boys picked up rocks and chased me home, but I outran them. How would I have turned out if I had not been set apart by this irreconcilable difference?
If when I had first started asking why, I had been given that great non-answer - God. I like to think that I would not have been satisfied and would've persisted, taking my question why right up to Him. But then again, maybe I would've ended up as some denatured version of myself, content with whatever anodyne explanation was being handed out.
MARTIN: As you describe it, you've been on a quest for why ever since. I mean, you started with science. Your father, for example, who, through scholarships, was able to kind of get out of the mines. And you were interested in science, yourself. You've been a science writer, too. And you also talk about, you're kind of interested in other religions. But why do you think the why is so important to you - always was?
EHRENREICH: It's not only why. It could also be put as, what is going on? You know, what is the situation that we are in? I can't explain it. That's just - burns in me. And it can take me to science. It can take me to the study of history, religion, of anthropology, whatever.
MARTIN: You describe something in the book, and one of the pleasures of the book is revealing what this experience is. That has also been something you have not talked about or written about recently. You call it altered states of consciousness. Other people have called these outcomes spiritual experiences. Do you want to talk about that?
EHRENREICH: I don't like the word spiritual. I'll just say that.
MARTIN: I would say other people call it that.
EHRENREICH: You know, I don't know. You know, it started when I was 13 and came to a sort of a climax when I was 17 in an experience that I much later learned had a term, and that is that it was a mystical experience. I don't think that's a great phrase, but it's the best I can do. I didn't know at the time that it had ever happened to anybody else. Now I think it's fairly common.
But I will say, I was outdoors, very overtired, etc. Suddenly, the world flamed into life. It's like something was rushing at me from all directions. It was beautiful, and it was terrifying. It gave me a feeling of completion and a feeling of being shattered. That's the best - almost the best I can do in decades of trying to find some words.
MARTIN: And you describe this in the book, that there are people who have psychological explanations for this. You find those unsatisfying.
EHRENREICH: No. I lay out here plenty of possible clues or whatever, explanations, you could say, childhood difficulties. I was a very solitary, introverted, thoughtful kid. You could talk about various physical and chemical changes in the brain and so forth. I'm down with that. That's fine. But here's the subjective experience.
That's what I deal with. And, you know, I didn't dare think this, but I sort of guessed it. It seemed like an encounter with something or someone or some being other than myself. Now I was an atheist. So I didn't - I couldn't slap the word God on that and be done with it.
MARTIN: It is a bit of a mystery story. It's kind of an investigative - what's the word that you used at the beginning of our conversation?
EHRENREICH: Metaphysical thriller.
MARTIN: A thriller. It is a thriller because you describe kind of your process of trying to investigate this but also the fact that you, as a very young girl, had kind of written about this to yourself and put that away, you know, through all of your moves, through all of your other books and have talked about many hard things that a lot of people don't talk about. But somehow, you didn't want to talk about this. And I'm wondering why.
EHRENREICH: I did not want to appear insane. And I'm still afraid of that because, you know, all my life I never said a word about this, not to the people closest to me because it sounds too crazy. That's how I thought. And when I was a teenager, I thought, well, what is this? Is this schizophrenia? What's going on here? I was afraid of being diagnosed and put into psychiatric care somewhere.
MARTIN: How do you feel now, now that you've written about it, and we are now talking about it?
EHRENREICH: Well, this is a huge leap. This really took a lot of courage from my part to do this, which may seem silly. But here's what's happening. I'm beginning to hear from people, people I know very well saying, my God, that happened to me, too. Sorry for the God in that sentence.
But I know what you're talking about. We never talk about these things. Now you give me something that we, quote, "never talk about," and I want to start a conversation about it.
MARTIN: How are you with the God idea now?
EHRENREICH: Oh, I'm an atheist. No. This - you know, this has nothing to do with people's ideas of God, which in our time and culture are mostly of a monotheistic, benevolent God. There...
MARTIN: ...Or a judgmental God.
EHRENREICH: Or judgmental. Yeah, whatever.
MARTIN: But omnipresent, all-knowing.
EHRENREICH: But this is - you know, but that assumes something so human-like. There - what, I think - as I have studied - and I have studied some of the Christian mystics in preparing to write this book.
And I'm not a Christian, I'm not, you know - they describe, often, an experience not unlike mine. It's not about good or evil.
MARTIN: So why do you call your book "Living With a Wild God"? Is God just the best name for what you experienced or understand?
EHRENREICH: Yeah. Yeah. I guess I'm pandering to the fundamentalists more. No. I'm not. I'm only kidding. No. I just liked that concept. If you could get people away from thinking of God as this person-like creature who is moral. Morality is a human thing - and some animals I would say, too.
But I'd get away from that completely. Think of something wild, something that we really don't have the terms and the categories to understand.
MARTIN: Why does one have to get away from it, though? 'Cause you described your atheism as an inheritance, which I understand. But is it now something that you have embraced for yourself based on your own inquiry, belief and understanding?
EHRENREICH: Nothing has ever happened to make me want to believe in the predominant God, nothing, or polytheistic deities or anything. No.
MARTIN: Well, as we said, it is a thriller, so we don't want to give away the ending. But can I induce you to give us a word of wisdom, some understanding that you would want people to take away from your particular journey?
EHRENREICH: Well, one would be, you know, as my father and my parents said, keep asking. Keep asking questions. Never be satisfied with the answers you get. Push it further.
And don't be afraid of finding out things that don't fit into any established pattern or theory in your brain, in your mind. Be ready to be amazed.
MARTIN: Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of nearly two dozen books. Her latest is titled "Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything." She joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Barbara Ehrenreich, thanks so much for joining us.
EHRENREICH: Oh, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.