It started sounding like Unholy Week on NPR. On the national show “Fresh Air,” one day after Bart Ehrman insisted Jesus didn’t see himself as God, host Terry Gross brought on another atheist author, Barbara Ehrenreich. The segment was titled "A Nonbeliever Tries to Make Sense of the Visions She Had as a Teen."
Or as Hanna Rosin summarized it for Slate: “Could Barbara Ehrenreich, fourth-generation atheist, proud socialist, and mocker of brightness and smiles, have found religion? Dream on, Billy Graham.” But apparently titling your book "Living With a Wild God" makes your atheist comrades unhappy.
Ehrenreich checks several boxes of comfort for the NPR listener -- socialism, feminism, atheism. The interview traveled all over the landscape, from Ehrenreich's mystical visions in her teen years to her breast cancer to her early studies of science. Here's where belief comes in:
GROSS: ...You say, no, I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender. What do you mean by that?
EHRENREICH: Why believe when you can know? I mean, I don't believe in extraterrestrials. I am really curious. I want to find out. I'll say I don't believe in evolution; I'm more or less convinced by the evidence. But I would like to just put the whole idea of faith and belief away. Let's try to find out things.
Look, let me just say this about religions. The religions that fascinate me and, you know, could possibly tempt me are not the ones that involve faith or belief. They're the ones that offer you the opportunity to know the spirit or deity. And these are religions - well, I think most readily of West African derived religions, which involve ecstatic rituals, where people actually apprehend the spirit or the god or whatever that they are invoking and that they are trying to contact. I have respect for that, but don't ask me to believe anything....
GROSS: So I want to get back to your book and to its title. Your new book is titled "Living with a Wild God." What does that mean?
EHRENREICH: I thought it sounded good. (Laughter) It was a chapter title and my editor said, oh no, that's good for the whole book. Gets me into a little trouble with people who think ah, she's backsliding; she's not an atheist anymore. I use the word God rather freely and metaphorically here with an emphasis on the wild. That there may be beings that we cannot normally see or measure with our instruments in any way that are nonetheless there but they're not benevolent. They're not watching over us. They're not concerned about how our diet is going or our career is going or anything like that, you know. They are utterly strange.
GROSS: And are they on the other hand not intentionally out to hurt us and undermine us?
EHRENREICH: I don't think so. I don't think we're the center of the universe.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So is that like the closest you've come to reaching a conclusion so far?
EHRENREICH: To say that there are, I would say based on my experience that there may well be other conscious beings or agents - let's put it that way - in the universe than ourselves and that they, we may occasionally contact them. I am ending though, with a call to try to figure this out more. Just because we don't know for sure that something is there is not a reason to search for it. Look how long the search went on for the Higgs boson. There was no guarantee that it would be found. And I think we have a phenomenon, a strange phenomenon. People have these unaccountable mystic experiences. Generally, they say nothing. Or they label it as God and get on with their lives. I'm saying, hey, no, let's find out what's going on here.
GROSS: Now that you've gone public about the experiences you had when you were a teenager that you describe as mystical experiences, what reactions have you gotten from friends, family, I don't know if it's too soon to have gotten reactions from book critics or not, readers?
EHRENREICH: Well, phew, I was nervous. I was nervous and fortunately, they liked it, my children. They're the biggest critics and judges I have. Now I'm getting responses from people and I'm talking about serious people, serious rational actually nonbelievers, people I know through my work, as well as total strangers who pop up and say, that is so much like my experience.
Rosin’s book review brings in the questions a serious believer wants asked – questions Gross never located:
[S]he insists that “the idea of a cosmic loving-kindness perfusing the universe is a serious, even potentially dangerous error.” But she also seems to back away from her atheism, portraying it as just another arrogant belief system she inherited from her father, a man she sums up as the “great man-god and Shiva-like genius of self destruction” and a “habitual liar.”