Even people who do not obsess on the notion of life after death, who are not really anticipating an eternity of bliss or, in the alternative, who are not truly fearful of endless torture in payment for irredeemable sins, occasionally anticipate their own demise with a measure of unease.
Very few of us regret that we were not alive and kicking in, say, 1492 when we might have been among the Arawak people who foolishly welcomed Columbus to the shores of Hispaniola. We also do not feel horribly deprived that we missed the events in Athens in 399 BCE when we might have said a last good-bye to Socrates. Losing a past that we never experienced is not cosmically stressful; however, we may feel a tinge of sadness when we ponder the fact that we won’t be alive to see our great-great-great grandchildren graduate from college (if colleges still exist) sometime in the twenty-second century or we might feel disappointed not to live long enough for conclusive evidence to be released by the authorities telling us who really killed John F. Kennedy (some fascinating material that has been kept out of public view for reasons of “national security” is scheduled for release in 2038, assuming someone hasn’t tampered with it or simply misplaced it in the intervening seventy-five years since the events in Dallas that bright sunny day in November).
Whatever may be our motives to live longer than we actually will, anticipating our personal extinctions but maybe not convinced of the existence of what so-called “organized religions” teach awaits us “in the great beyond,” the sceptical but timid among us may very well agree to a variation on Pascal’s wager.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) famously hedged his bets on the question of whether or not God exists. He reasoned that, if God does exist, belief in God may win us everlasting rewards, whereas disbelief may result in eternal damnation. So, it is to our advantage to believe. On the other hand, if God does not exist, whether we believe or not won’t matter. Accordingly, in section 233 of his book, Pensées, he indulged in an early version of Game Theory and advocated having faith since it could pay off big-time if God exists yet cost us nothing if He doesn’t.
I have never thought much of this as an ennobling theological or metaphysical strategy. A “faith” born out of self-interest and rationally calculated rather than “faithfully” embraced seemed to me to be a pretty poor thing and not the sort of devotional commitment toward which the Almighty might nod His approval. But then, I’m not God; so, maybe my opinion is, as District Attorney Hamilton Burger repeated weekly on the old “Perry Mason” television drama, “incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial” and, I’d add, “impertinent” as well, especially since I am an unbeliever and probably have no business poking my nose into such matters in the first place.
Pascal, however, is representative of those people whom I call “believers of convenience.” They include not just logicians and probability theorists, but also people who finesse matters of divinity, the purpose or meaning (if any) of life and large thoughts about eternity in other ways. Especially popular these days are a range of sometimes saccharine “new agey” attitudes that are promulgated by people who may be disillusioned by what they label organized religion, but who cling instead to the some sort of ethereal “spirituality.” I know a number of people who slip into this category. Few of them can offer even a preliminary account of what spirituality might actually mean. Instead, when asked to explain themselves, their eyes glaze over, they become communicatively incompetent, smile vaguely and appear shrouded for a few moments in love, trust and pixie dust before recovering and looking somewhat dolefully at me as someone who apparently doesn’t “get it” (and they’re right).
Barbara Ehrenreich isn’t the last person I’d expect to make the slide into any such a state of holiness, but she’s close. She is a self-described “fourth-generation atheist.” She is a trained scientist with a Ph.D. in cellular immunology. Her father was a copper miner and a strong trade unionist who was driven to succeed, ultimately becoming a senior executive at the Gillette Corporation. Her father was also an alcoholic. Her mother is described as a liberal democrat preoccupied with racial injustice. Her mother was also a suicide. Barbara was taught two rules: never cross a picket line and never vote Republican. Neither parent can be considered overly helpful to a bright, sensitive child. The home they made was filled with anger, from which Barbara understandably retreated. Her parents certainly were not happily married and Barbara was not an especially happy girl.
Readers will get the impression that Barbara Ehrenreich’s atheism was an imposition, part of a family tradition she might not otherwise have embraced. It certainly came unstuck in a moment that some people (including Ehrenreich) would call an epiphany, a mystical experience. What it was, of course, was at least partly a psychological anomaly. Ehrenreich was seventeen-years-old. She had been wandering around California toward the end of a badly planned skiing vacation. She hadn’d slept or eaten for two days, and she was dehydrated as well. She reports that, as she stepped out into the streets of the small California town of Lone Pine, she experienced something; whatever it was, it is the fulcrum upon which the book and, apparently, a good part of her life are precariously balanced.
This is how she describes it: “the world flamed into life … Something poured into me and I poured into it … It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all the things at once ... ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria.”
This is what she says it wasn’t: “There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. This was not the passive beatific merger with ‘the All,’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of. It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.”
This is how she thinks about it now:
"An alternative to the insanity explanation would be that such experiences do represent some sort of encounter. It was my scientific training, oddly enough, that eventually nudged me to consider this possibility. Sometime in middle age, when I had become a writer and amateur historian, I decided that the insanity explanation may have been a cop-out, that I could have seen something that morning in Lone Pine. If mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter, as they have commonly been described, is it possible to find out what they are encounters with? Science could continue to dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena, internal to ourselves, but the merest chance that they may represent some sort of contact or encounter justifies investigation. We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are ‘wired’ for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?"
It’s none of my business, of course, but I feel a certain sense of disappointment, though not so deep as to approach actual betrayal. It seems to me that hypoglycemia would explain a lot―but, then, I’ve never had a transcendental experience, not even fifty years ago when I was eighteen. Maybe I missed something, but I doubt it.
For those who don’t know her work, Ehrenreich has been a fearless warrior for truth and as much justice as any of us could reasonably expect. Her first two books (both co-authored) were published in 1969. They were The Uptake, Storage, and Intracellular Hydrolysis of Carbohydrates by Macrophages and Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad. Science and politics may or may not mix well, but Barbara Ehrenreich began with a foot firmly planted on both chunks of turf, though she has engaged more in the exploration of social class, feminism, the history and economics of public health and private profits than in her brief formal scientific work. She has examined aspects of popular culture (see my favourable review of Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Doughty, 2006) and of ideology in North America (Ehrenreich 2009). Her most successful book to date, however, was a gripping personal account of life in poverty, Nickel and Dimed, which intimately revealed what life among the marginalized was like. It was written especially (I like to think) for the empathetic liberal classes who “feel” but do not “experience” the pain of “other.” If so, it would certainly tell them a thing or two.
At one point, Ehrenreich says: “Step outside the borders of what is ‘real’ and collectively agreed upon and you might as well fall right off the planet into a personal orbit of your own.” She might have stepped off for a moment and promptly jumped back. Fifty years later, she has written a “coming of age” story in which we wonder if she really grew up or just locked up part of the process and waited a lifetime to open it up again.
Barbara Ehrenreich deserves almost the last word: “The religions that fascinate me and 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. ... 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.”
Now, I’ll exercise the reviewer’s prerogative: Me neither.
Instead, I will channel her (so to speak): “I hate the word spirituality. It creeps me out. It sounds so…sweet. And cozy.” Me too.
There are plenty of people who will like this book. There are some who won’t. Some will fall between. As David Shariatmadari put it: “I didn’t like not liking this book.” Barbara Ehrenreich is such a good writer that I hope some of you will read it regardless of what motive or expectation you might have. If nothing else, it should encourage you to read something like Nickel and Dimed. The combination will at least forge a balance. That’s not always a bad thing. She deserves nothing less.
Doughty, H. A. (2006). Review of Dancing in the streets: A history of collective joy The College Quarterly 9(4).
Ehrenreich, B. (2008). Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America. New York: Picador.
Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. New York: Henry Holt.
Shariatmadari, D. (2014, June 13). Review of Living with a wild god. The Guardian. Retrieved June 13, 2014 from http://www.theguardian.com
Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and modern political thought at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.