Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ehrenreich Redux

Several weeks ago I wrote a post about the reaction to Barbara Ehrenreich's new book and her coming out as an atheist who, nevertheless, has had what many people, including, apparently, her, would call a mystical experience.

I read this blog post this morning

Online, radio, and print news is abuzz about Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living with a Wild God, with the paradoxical subtitle, A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. And, yes, this is the “fourth-generation atheist,” Barbara Ehrenreich, of leftist-labor and feminist-activism fame, whose award-winning journalistic investigations into social, economic, and political issues span decades.

Now in her early seventies, Ms. Ehrenreich discloses a narrative running parallel to her life and career since a young age, most significantly a personal experience at 17. On a predawn walk in Lone Pine, California, Ms. Ehrenreich recalls, she encountered “something alive” which she describes as nothing short of a “cataclysmic experience” when “the world flamed into life.”

No visual hallucination, no prophetic voices; rather, the world opened up and was “rushing out to” her. Ms. Ehrenreich writes:

“Something poured into me and I poured out into it…. a furious encounter with a living substance.”

Looking back on this moment, as recorded by her younger self, Ms. Ehrenreich reflects on the want of adequate language to describe what happened, personally, experientially, and as an atheist who continues to describe herself a rational empiricist (though, recently, also as a “mystical rationalist”).

Grasping for words outside of “ineffable,” “transcendence,” “spiritual,” or “religious,” Ms. Ehrenreich leans on the word “mystical” to carry her burden of meaning. The lack a vocabulary to express the varieties of the inexpressible leads Ms. Ehrenreich to her larger challenge to science: go forth boldly in the study of uncanny experiences...

Here is my reaction to the post.

In reading Barbara Ehrenreich over the last few decades, one of the thing that has struck me is how much of her hostility to religion governs how she thinks. Over the past decade of the new atheist fashion, I've come to see how much that hostility, not empirical rationalism has governed all aspects of modernity for all of the 20th century.   

That has led to such things as the rote denial of the fact that, in the West, religion was the major force in reforming society and laws in most areas, racial equality, womens suffrage, rights of workers, relief to the destitute and poor.  I have also, largely through reading what atheists of the "rational empirical", materialist type have said, have come to see atheism as an inherently anti-liberal ideology, denying the absolute reality of equal, inherent rights and the equally held moral obligation to respect those rights.  Without those metaphysical foundations, liberalism (in the American sense of the word) is impossible and, in fact, wrong.  

Through reading history I have also come to the conclusion that those things are obviously not wrong, that the history of the 20th century, largely through the activity of anti-religious governments and governments that denied the reality of those metaphysical foundations produced a factual record proving that liberalism got that part of it right.  Those lessons, unlike the ones demonstrating evolution and geological history of the planet and life, are an articulation of human intentions and a more direct route to understanding than science has available to it.   People produced that record to articulate their intentions and document their acts, to communicate them in a way that is intentionally unambiguous - accounting for and rejecting intentional falsification.  The record of that history is directly factual in a way that much of science can't be.  The fact supporting the reality of equality, inherent rights and moral obligation is unambiguous whereas much of neuro-science, cognitive-science, evolutionary psychology and the speculations of cosmology are far more indirect and require a far greater degree of interpretation, much of it as or more open to ideological twisting and wishful thinking as any other area of academic study.  The past decade of encountering atheism and atheists has shown to me that they are as prone to being governed by wishful thinking as any other group of people.   Without an authoritative declaration that it is a sin to bear false witness and lie, even that imperfect governor on self-deception and intentional deception are replaced by the mere gamble that they might not be able to get away with it.   In the area of academic discourse and journalism, they often do.  

I might have added that a declaration of their disbelief, their atheism is also a requirement, so often it seems nervously appended to something quite unrelated to it.   Thornton Wilder's note on Our Town, dispelling any suspicion that he's unreliable, believing in such woo as an afterlife and the mind of God, purifying that by invoking the shade of Dante.*

And I have to confess that another comment at the blog got there a lot faster than I did.

Submitted by Reza Mahani on Tue, 2014-05-27 08:37
From your descriptions, I get the feeling that she does not have enough "humility" to be taken seriously on these issues. But this is just a first impression.

Reza Mahani got one of the major things wrong with our intellectual life better in that observation than I did in paragraphs.

* I had a project a few years back of reading everything by Wilder I could get to and came to the conclusion that his fear of dealing with that topic might have something to do with why his best works seem to fall apart at the end.  The concluding chapter to The Eighth Day is especially disappointing, leading more logically to the conclusion of life's futility than in the value of any particular second of life's experience.   Perhaps that has something to do with the bleak cynicism of so much of what is called modern.


  1. It's early in the morning and I'm awakened to ramble, so I may regret this in the harsh light of later day.

    But I've been watching "The X-Files" on Netflix, binging on whole seasons at a time (for some reason watching TV shows on DVD's never happens, but on Netflix.... The psychology of that is for another day.) Anyway, this was a wildly popular show on 20 years ago: and the entire premise was that Scully was the skeptic (i.e., atheist, although disbelief was not her starting point) who shoehorned every paranormal event into a scientific explanation, even when that explanation had to shave off several corners in order to get the square peg into the round hole.

    Now here's where the discussion gets tricky, because what I admired about the show was its intelligence: Mulder is often running to hounds with his extraordinary explanations, and the best shows are where nobody can quite explain what happened (there were more than a few of those, with an extraordinary gift for levity and humor and insight in them; that's yet another topic). As the show later got more interested in religion (specifically Xianity), it goer even more intelligent, as in setting up a "modern" preacher as the desirable figure when he's actually the evil in the story, against a snake-handler who actually knows what's going on and understands.

    Just not in the way either Mulder or Scully do.

    So the show was never so simple as to make Mulder always right, or Scully always wrong. But the determination of Scully to explain what she has just experienced in purely rational, purely scientific terms, is always challenged by what the viewer has just seen. Well, that's the premise of the show, innit?

    What's interesting is how wildly popular this show was. It challenged the very positivism so popular among on-line atheists. It allowed for greater possibility, not less. And if you connect that to Hume's conclusion, that we can only talk about accurate but unimportant things ("this stone is heavy") and everything else is just unfounded opinion ("This music is beautiful") which can never be empirically verified, I wonder if "The X-Files" doesn't provide a kind of lens on the present day.

    Clearly it had no real influence on contemporary thought (why should it?). But just as clearly the on-line atheist rages to fit the world into a convenient box where the Bible is "fairy tales" from the "Bronze Age" (or Iron; they can't seem to decide) written by "shepherds" (let's ignore the two kingdoms into the bargain), and all evidence that doesn't comply with this scheme is unknown, ignored, or flatly discarded.

    So here's the question: how did they all watch that show (and you know they did, or they've heard about it since) and decide it was about how right Scully was? If science "goes forth boldly in the study of uncanny experiences" will it even find any? Or will it simply say such experiences are the result of bio-chemical-electrical discharges in the brain? Will it continue to rely on the history of Phineas Gage as proof we are all meat, and can only do what our brains allow us to do, and what the brain allows can be known because of the story of Mr. Gage? A story most people, even scientists, get completely wrong? (Because, as any good programmer will tell you: garbage in, garbage out.)

  2. OTOH, that blog post is much more intelligent and insightful than the stuff I usually read.

    Thanks for that, The morning needed it.

  3. I haven't ever watched the X-Files (reading your comment makes me think I should, now) but it's similar to how the same people took the Harry Potter series to its breast, now they are so remarkably tolerant of the neo-Pagans who violate their prime directive, alleged, as much as anyone who believes in The Virgin Birth or the Resurrection but who they make common cause with.

    Perhaps the issue is that that the "Pagans" don't really do much in the way of pushing any more in the way of morality than a watered down version of the Golden Rule. An insistence that the results of sex, for both partners and any resultant children have to be considered might have something to do with it.

    The history of the "skeptical" - by which you can safely understand materialist-atheist - use of the soft sciences is illustrative of how rigorous their respect of scientific standards is not. I'll probably not get around to doing the piece on it but the atheist saint, Carl Sagan's, absurd piece, "The Amniotic Universe" using some really crappy theories of 60s-70s era psychology, is emblematic of how far one of them can go. Even the author of the theory he used to try to make peoples' near death experiences just go away complained that he'd misrepresented his theories, lately, it would seem, some of the "skeptics" have critisized that for being "woo", though at the time they were quite willing to make use of it. The use of the phrenological analysis of Phineas Gage - what most contemporary neuro-cog junk about him is based on - is another example of how they "cherry pick" the record when it suits their purposes.

    Sometimes I get the feeling that the atheist fulminations online are they trying to convince themselves and others that they're more right than they really believe they are. A lot like the motivation behind creationism of the most extreme type. And if not in their correctness than in their superiority to most other people. They need to have a massive body of the damned in order to count themselves among the elect.

  4. As to your last paragraph: absolutely. The identity of the modern atheist (the on-line version, at least) is so dependent on a straw man of religion that to even point out they've erected a straw man is to court their fiercest ire.

    Moving backwards a bit, the story of Gage is the story of why scholarship is so important, and I wonder how much scholarship there is in science. If it exists, it is roundly ignored by the popularizers of science (no surprise there; Celtic Xianity, to pick a topic, suffers the same fate), but it also seem to be unknown to most scientists, period. Scholars would elucidate the true story of Gage (and some of them must have preserved it somewhere), and eliminate the wholly false one. Perhaps, as I say, they exist in the sciences; they need to be more prominent (something true in many fields of human endeavor; but I don't fault the scholars for that. Scholarly work is hard, and most people don't want to be bothered with it.)

    As for Sagan, I gave up on him with his "demon haunted world." Never read his "Amniotic Universe," but I can imagine how utterly foolish it was. Again, a question of scholarship. Interestingly, Biblical scholarship rests heavily on the work of anthropologists and archaeologists today; as well as the work of linguists (before them, philologists, who no longer exist as such) and other sciences. There's a great deal of cross-disciplinary work being done (read any of Crossan's works after his magisterial effort on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, such as "In Search of Paul" or "Excavating Jesus.").

    I see little or no evidence of such work being pursued in the sciences. Physics is sure it's GUT will explain life, the universe, and everything; just as chemistry was going to do in the 19th century, or genetics is going to do in the 21st century. Dawkins, as you have pointed out, says the most absurd things about genes and behavior because he knows nothing whatsoever about behavior but hey!, he doesn't need to! He's a geneticist! It's all about genes!

    Or chemistry; or physics; or....

    While many disciplines insist on the value of cross-disciplinary work (the examples could easily be expanded: psychology, sociology, and marketing/management, for example), the "hard" sciences insist on retreating further and further into what Auden called the "[prison] cell of [themselves]."

    Which, I think, in the nutshell of a comment, shows the way to explaining quite a lot....

    (If I can finish the 7 seasons of the series, I'll try to list off my absolute favorite episodes of "X-Files." Some are really worthy of consideration in any college philosophy class, if only because they raise such interesting questions in such an entertaining way.)