Told You So
As generally skeptical types, we Buddha-killers don’t like to claim victory over the forces of dogma and oversimplification very often. The very act of our title is, after all, in the present tense. But it does seem in recent months that the good word of Buddha-killing–writing about religion the way most of us actually experience it, from the margins, dismantling truisms wherever we find them–is crossing over in intriguing ways into what I hesitatingly call the “mainstream.” We’re sneaky, but we’re here.
First there was longtime Buddha-killer S. Brent Plate’s book A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, an elegantly radical re-ordering of the history of religion away from ideology and toward practice. (Read an excerpt here; see my interview with Brent at Religion Dispatches for a longer discussion, which I wanted to title “The Sensuality of Presbyterians,” though I understand why they did not.) This kind of work, prioritizing individual believers’ practices and rituals, has been around in academia for a long time, primarily in anthropology (think Clifford Geertz) and psychology (good ol’ William James). But Brent says he thinks of this book as a translation of that work from academic into, well, normal, and we wholeheartedly support his endeavor.
Meanwhile our illustrious co-founder Jeff Sharlet has been working on a groundbreaking anthology of literary journalism (or, as he prefers to call it, “mutant journalism”) on religion, Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief, which is already getting rave reviews. In it, Jeff gathers “primary source” material of writers wrestling with the evidence and implications of faith, from Walt Whitman at the bedside of a Civil War soldier, through Francine Prose quoting Whitman while taking in Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park. Among many other things, this collection says, you are not alone.
And that’s also the message of a strange but stunning new book by Barbara Ehrenreich, beloved lefty muckraking author of Nickel and Dimed, Bright-Sided, and now, Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for Absolutely Everything. In this tough-minded exegesis of her own twelve-year-old quest to understand the purpose of life, Ehrenreich, an atheist by heritage, for the first time discusses a dissociative, mystical experience she had in 1959. But don’t call it a spiritual experience. “I hate the word spiritual,” Ehrenreich said in a conversation with Jeff in Brooklyn last week. “It’s too sweet.” Someone asked her why she had waited for 50 years to talk about it, what was she afraid of? “Mockery, derision, outright accusations of insanity.”
She had to come back to the topic on her own terms. Finally, she issued herself a challenge. Having no patience for “this business of something being unspeakable,” whether those things are issues of class disparity, or sexism, or what happened in her own head. “I had been developing my writing skills for fifty years, I had damn well better be able to put it into words.” Damn right. We at Killing the Buddha have been wrestling with wildly irreverent metaphysical speculation since 2000. Welcome, Barbara, and everyone else. We’re here for you.