If something has happened that you don’t have words for

The NY Times has a brief interview with Barbara Ehrenreich (who will be at WiS3 in a few weeks ohboy).

She had some mystical-type experiences when she was a teenager, although she didn’t conclude they were from god or anything. She’s written a memoir about it.

You’ve written and spoken extensively about your atheism. Did you ever feel you were being deceitful because you’d had these experiences with a world beyond the rational? 

I realized that whatever I experienced was not anything like a deity that I knew of. It certainly was not a good, caring God of Christianity. On the other hand, I knew it was way out of the reach of science, and I did feel uneasy. My younger sister was distressed that I wrote a book with “God” in the title. We are hard-line atheists, and I had to re-establish my credibility with her or I’d get booted out of the family.

How did you earn back your bona fides?

I told my sister how much I was annoyed by a friend of hers. She’s very New Agey. Damn that stuff. I can’t be around it. If something has happened that you don’t have words for, keep thinking.

Great line. A variation on Wittgenstein’s line, I suppose, but I like hers better – it’s less fatalist. Not we must be silent, but keep thinking.


  1. Al Dente says

    Ever since I read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America I’ve been a fan of Barbara. She’s a good thinker and a good writer.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    Some years back, I was on this message board where I watched one of my favorite fellow posters finally discard her Christian faith for good. It was really only a matter of time. Then she got engaged and disappeared. Two years later, she came back with an odd post about how “something” had “happened” and she could no longer be sure there wasn’t some “higher power” “out there.” Fine. But two weeks later, she was back to her old tricks, so I asked her privately what happened. She told me that, after a few days, she realized that her “special experience” coincided with her starting a different type of psychoactive medication. So much for “higher powers”.

  3. Dunc says

    I’ve had all kinds of “mystical-type experiences”. They don’t cause me any problem with my atheism because I recognise that my perceptions are not necessarily reliable guides to reality.

  4. sambarge says

    I love Ehrenreich’s writing. She manages to be both brilliant and accessible and that’s a feat.

    That said, I really came here to say: I’ve never had a mystical experience. What are they like? Maybe I’ve had one and I didn’t even know.

  5. caseloweraz says

    What are they like? Hmmm… you might try watching the film Altered States — although that can be a little intense.

  6. Dunc says

    I’ve never had a mystical experience. What are they like?

    Oh, you know… The feeling of your conciousness floating around outside your body, feelings of profound connection to (or identity with) the rest of the universe, inexplicable convictions concerning various woolly and inadequately definable spiritual ideas, moments of absolute clarity regarding the ultimate meaning of existence. The usual.

    They’re quite remarkable when they happen. If you’d had one, you’d probably have noticed.

  7. busterggi says

    If one doesn’t have words to describe something then its time to get a thesaurus, not a holy book.

  8. Phillip says

    “I’ve never had a mystical experience. What are they like?”

    Not that I’m endorsing the use of illicit, psychoactive substances but… . Well, it all happened when I was young and in college. I was really just a smart hillbilly from the backwoods of north Georgia on the make and very far from home, attending an Ivy League university in the City of Brotherly Love. I became involved with a graduate student at the med school. She was a rebellious, free spirited, Bohemian type (much to my liking), though definitely not a “new ager”. We shared an interest in these substances and their allied experiences. We were searching for “something”…a vision quest of sorts. As both of us were “genetic atheists” we had never had such a connection in our lives. We tried all the major hallucinogens (LSD, peyote, X, mushrooms, San Pedro, etc.) and each was a unique and distinct, if interrelated, experience. There was, however, a common thread to all of these experiences: an emotion of DEEP connection and understanding with EVERYTHING, especially with each other and the unknown parts of this “everything.” We judged this the long sought after “mystical” experience, a la The Razor’s Edge, and came to the conclusion that this type of experience was purely an artifact of the brain. The emotion and the sensation of being in the presence of something supernatural and otherworldly was very intense.

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