Spirits and atheists

Germs are garbling the thoughts in my head, I admit. So if the usual run of my thoughts takes a less-than-eloquent turn, this is why.

A few weeks ago, I listened to an NPR interview with author Barbara Ehrenreich on her latest book, Living with a Wild God. I’ve read her other work, particularly the work related to feminism, in college and graduate school. This latest work is a departure for the trained scientist, and intensely personal. In short, she attempts to make sense of the mystical experiences — I will use the descriptor offered — that she had as a girl.

She turned her back on those experiences as an adult, and chose scientific rationalism and atheism. But those experiences did happen. In the interview, she describes the world-view that fits her experiences as essentially animistic (her term).

“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,” she tells Terry Gross.

In part of the interview that wasn’t transcribed on the NPR site, she discusses the potential for gods — and doesn’t rule them out. Gods and spirits, at least in terms of her own experience, have little in common with the big-G god of monotheistic faiths, but are strange, other.

I was fascinated by the interview, and the similarity with my own experiences. In fact, it seems that Ehrenreich’s own life has led her — against her inclination and atheist upbringing — into polytheism, as it is experienced in various cultures around the world.

I, too, had those experiences — mystical, visionary, spiritual, whatever word you want to use — when I was a child. Instead of fleeing them, I explored them, ultimately embraced them and have gone on to guide my life by them. They suffuse the world with meaning and connection, a concept I called “the Web” when I was a teenager. And despite the singularity of the name, the Web isn’t synonymous with the big-G. In fact, while I have had many experiences with gods and spirits, I have never encountered the big-G that monotheists describe and, thus, doubt that he exists, at least for me. (And it always seems to be a he in monotheism, doesn’t it?)

Alas, I did something I caution others never to do: I read the comments attached to the Internet story. And they profoundly saddened me. To wit: Ehrenreich, and anyone who has undergone similar experiences, is mentally ill. Crazy. A traitor to the atheist cause. In short, there were the usual bevy of atheist fundamentalists, no different in practice from the monotheistic fundamentalists. In the end, their positions are the same: Any experience or interpretation different from mine shall be forcibly silenced, whether maligned as heretics or as mentally ill and thus unreliable.

Is Barbara Ehrenreich crazy? Am I? Do we, in truth, live in a mechanistic world sans spirit, in which all are intrinsically alone?

I don’t dislike atheists in particular, but I don’t experience the world that they see and proclaim as “the one and only reality.” In my experience, the multiverse is infinitely complicated and far more than we can take in with our senses and our brains. Its various denizens speak, whether or not we have learned to listen.

When I think of the world experienced and promoted by atheists, I think of Rene Descartes locked in his inn room, breaking the world down into its component mathematical principles. “Cogito, ergo sum,” he proclaims. The very picture of disconnection: the rational mind breaking the world down into little bits, the inn door keeping the world outside.

But we are both more and less than our rational minds, and reason isn’t limited to humanity, even though that’s the cliche. Animals use reason all the time to figure out how to solve problems and even make tools. They think — although Descartes believed, as many scientists believed and still believe, that they do not.

Interestingly, even Descartes didn’t believe in a mechanistic world devoid of spirit. He had visions, too; a “divine spirit” came to him and set him on the intellectual journey he followed for the rest of his life! An ardent Catholic, he believed atheism to be illogical. While I don’t think those arguments would hold out for most atheists, I find this interesting. Perhaps it comes down to this: a man whose philosophy is pushing him toward atheism cannot accept an atheistic world, because his own personal interaction with spirits — the aforementioned vision — shows him something else.

And perhaps it comes down to this, too: You can try to put the universe in a clearly labeled box, whether it’s atheism, monotheism, reason, etc. Ultimately, however, the universe doesn’t fit in the box because it has far more dimensions than your mind and senses can encompass. This doesn’t mean that the bits of the universe spilling over the edge of the box are wrong, sick or crazy, or the people who witness said spillage.

It means that there is no box.

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About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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