Our first peek into the Faith & Doubt Issue is this interview with Meghan O’Gieblyn, author of the new book of essays, Interior States. We also were lucky enough to republish parts of her essay, originally published in The Point, “The Insane Idea.” Copies of Faith & Doubt can be gotten here, and here

If there’s a recurring theme within these two subjects of faith and doubt, it is that the barrier between them is more porous than we might like to think. While cultural discourse and Pew Research findings may paint a picture with heavier lines and higher contrast, the truth of experience is a bit more impressionistic. Within every faithful believer is an equally faithful atheist—an obstinate voice that finds it all to be a hoax. Conversely, within every self-assured atheist there is a disconcerting but no less committed believer in something or someone that holds everything together. Much as we may see the allegiance of the martyrs or the intellectual courage of the apostates as stories to aspire to, their mythos betrays an unsettling truth: most of us are middle-of-the-road people.

Meghan O’Gieblyn writes quite literally from the middle of the road in her new book of essays, Interior States. A native of the Midwest, she has gotten used to living in a land locked between extremes. She’s known the extremes of faith and doubt, too. A child of evangelicalism, she later dropped out of Bible college and left her faith. As she describes in her essays, though, her yearning for eternal answers—for transparency and certainty—just moved onto new targets, to New Atheism, to physics, to the apocalyptic visions of the Transhumanists. While all of these new “churches” promised certainty, none of them could admit that what they demanded was, in fact, faith. From these extremes, Meghan comes to terms with the enduring unknowns of life, how “you are always working on a wire strung across an abyss,” and how existence itself is dependent not on knowledge but on faith.

For this issue we had the opportunity to talk to Meghan about some of our favorite essays in her book, and also about the running themes which seem to perennially fascinate her: the human longing for certainty and the courage to believe in what’s beyond it.

MOCKINGBIRD

Much of Interior States discusses the Midwest as home, like a kind of marriage you’ve settled into for better and for worse. What parts of the Midwest is the rest of America missing out on? What could the Midwest do to make a marriage a little happier?

MEGHAN O’GIEBLYN

A marriage is a good way to describe my relationship to the region—maybe an arranged marriage, in the sense that it’s not a place I consciously decided to spend my life. Like a lot of young people with intellectual ambitions, I’d dreamed of going somewhere more glamorous—to New York or Europe—and the fact that I never left feels, in many ways, accidental, or perhaps fated. But I have come to appreciate the sensibility of the Midwest. There’s a groundedness here and a skepticism toward elated narratives and utopian projects. I write in one of my essays about how some of my West Coast friends, who work in the tech industry, come back to Michigan during the holidays and speak about innovation with the fervor of true believers. Midwesterners are understandably wary of such visions of progress because technological disruption—particularly in the form of automation—has affected many of our communities for the worse.

But my love of the Midwest has always been complicated. There are lots of problems here, as there are everywhere in America. Midwestern cities are very racially segregated, and economic disparity here has increased in recent years. I do think it’s important, though, to distinguish these real social challenges from the stereotypes about the region. Going back to the early twentieth century, there’s been this narrative that the Midwest is the “real America,” which is often a euphemism for white America. People often forget that these states contain cities with majority nonwhite populations, like Flint or Detroit—or Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest Arab-American community in the United States. At a moment when the region is often shorthand for the white working class, it’s important to acknowledge that these places are also part of the Midwest, and the problems they face are part of the story of the region.

M

To what degree are your pictures—in growing up, in being there now—of the Midwest and of Christianity inseparable from one another? And how much are each of these inseparable from you, a part of what makes you who you are?

MO

It wasn’t until midway through writing these essays that I saw these two ideas—the Midwest and Christianity—as connected. In the beginning, I was writing about each topic as though it existed in a vacuum, and then it finally occurred to me that there were important links between them. For one thing, the type of evangelicalism I write about is distinctively Midwestern. I went to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and the theology I was exposed to as a child and later as a student of theology—premillennial dispensationalism—was popularized in the U.S. by the Illinois evangelist Dwight L. Moody, the founder of that school. This was an eschatology that maintained a very cynical view of history. As a child, our pastor used to preach that the End Times were near, that human culture was becoming worse and worse, and that nothing would improve until Christ returned. It’s interesting to consider how this theology inflected my earliest images of the Midwest. Growing up outside places like Detroit—a city largely in ruins—it was easy to believe that this was true, that the apocalypse was indeed nigh.

M

In your essay “On Subtlety,” you describe the relief you imagined having if you stripped yourself of the superstitions of religious belief, if you finally settled into the warmth of scientific facts and clear reason. This is reminiscent of the promises of the New Atheism campaign, the whole, “There’s Probably No God, Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.” You mention, then, how ridiculous this idea is, that even in the simplest of sciences the facts are concealed from us, and require faith to address the subtlety. What might this mean for secular “nones” and “dones” among us, and what might this mean for tried-and-true “believers”?

MO

Yeah, like a lot of new apostates, I had the predictable fling with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. I think I was searching for the certainty I’d felt as a fundamentalist, and I believed that science and reason could provide definite answers. During that time, too, I read a lot of popular science books about contemporary physics, but it quickly became clear that the field was in crisis. The Standard Model of physics had been thrown into doubt. There was still very little knowledge about basic things like dark matter. It seems as though the more we learn about the universe, the more we’re forced to contend with the fact that the physical world eludes our human understanding. There’s a persistent narrative that technology is eventually going to bring about more enlightenment, but that too has bred more confusion. Neural networks and deep-learning algorithms are essentially black boxes—nobody knows how they work, or how they make decisions.

For me, there was no small irony in this realization because the thing that I’d found so frustrating about the Christian God was that he refused to provide answers or explain himself. When Job asks for answers, he’s basically told that his limited human brain cannot fathom the infinite nature of God. Well, now it’s become evident that our limited human brains can also not comprehend the universe, or even the technologies that we ourselves create. So I suppose I’ve become skeptical of the idea that religious faith is necessarily more mystical or irrational than reason-based pursuits like science or technology.

M

One of your recurring themes, in several of these essays, is the American (human?) aversion to powerlessness. In “The Insane Idea,” you ask a provocative question about this and how it relates to the legacy of AA: “If the leading scientific experts contend that recovery from addiction depends upon belief in a fictional entity—free will—why is it any more ‘irrational’ to believe in YHWH, the spirit of the universe, or the community of fellow alcoholics … ?” Addiction is its own thing, of course, but what are you saying about the limits of pep talks and health advice?

MO

I have some experience with addiction, so I was drawn to this topic for personal reasons. But I’m also interested in it because it’s the most distilled example of human irrationality, and I’m committed to the idea that humans are fundamentally irrational—which I credit to my Christian upbringing and the notion of original sin. The idea of irrationality or powerlessness is very irksome for Americans, of course, and it’s particularly irksome for those who believe that science can cure all human ills. Several years ago, there were a slew of books that came out around the same time attacking AA as a backwards spiritual approach to addiction and arguing that there were more rational methods, including cognitive behavioral techniques, medication, and apps. The idea was that certain cues, or nudges—technological or otherwise—could help people make better decisions.

I was immediately skeptical of these ideas. And once I started reading the books, it was almost farcical how they contradicted their own premises. According to the materialist worldview, free will is an illusion. And yet the leading scientific studies demonstrate that addicts benefit from believing they have free will. So these authors were put in the rather thorny position of arguing that achieving long-term recovery requires the addict to believe in something that doesn’t technically exist—which is obviously not any less irrational than addicts believing in God, or a Higher Power, to keep them sober.

M

Your essay “Ghost in the Cloud” is about the transhumanism movement and the technological promises of restoration and eternity touted by guys like Ray Kurzweil and Peter Thiel. You discuss the cleanliness and ease (and latent dishonesty) of the whole program, how it came to resemble to you a “modern pantomime of redemption,” how you found in it a longing for redemption that you had also found (and repudiated) in Christianity. What are redemption narratives missing in your experience? Your essay ends with a note of longing, as if redemption is something you’re still hoping for, even if you know it isn’t true.

MO

I got very into transhumanism after I left the church: a guy I worked with lent me Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines, and it sent me down this year-long rabbit hole of reading about things like cybernetics and the Simulation Hypothesis. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was drawn to this narrative about the future because it mirrored the story I’d believed as a Christian: that humans would one day achieve immortality, that the dead would be resurrected, that the earth would be restored to Edenic perfection. I eventually became disillusioned with that story about the future, because I realized it was just the Christian redemption narrative dressed up in secular trappings. But when I revisited the whole experience years later to write about it, I was more sympathetic to the fact that I’d been drawn to these technological narratives, and I could see more clearly why people find these kinds of stories about the future alluring.

One of the ideas that I keep returning to in my essays is that my own experience of leaving the faith is, in some sense, symbolic of the loss the West has experienced as we’ve become increasingly nonreligious. My own experience leads me to suspect that spiritual longing is endemic to human nature: even after I’d outwardly denounced my faith, I began looking to other ideologies and lifestyles to fulfill that longing. And it seems to me that this is what’s happening on a larger scale, as more and more Americans leave behind religious belief. Instead of becoming purely rational agents, we increasingly displace those religious enthusiasms onto other things.

M

Your essays examine the presence of quasi-religious dynamics in a wide variety of cultural offerings, from addiction, to American “niceness,” to the mindful mantras of “being present.” Are there other sectors of American culture you didn’t hit on in the book that also strike you as being paradoxically faith-based?

MO

Yes, so many! Once you start looking, you find evidence of it everywhere. Foucault, I think, wrote about how the psychoanalyst has replaced the priest as an agent who receives confession and doles out absolution. And a lot of popular psychology today—particularly self-help figures like Tony Robbins—have become quasi-spiritual leaders offering people these transcendent conversion experiences. Many corporations seem to see themselves as moral institutions, much like churches—particularly those that have lofty mission statements, charismatic leaders who are outspoken about political issues, and a cultish employee culture that is designed to offer people a sense of community and belonging. None of this is surprising to me. If religious institutions are discredited and abandoned, then people are going to look to have those essentially spiritual needs fulfilled in other places.

M

What is your relationship to faith now? Is there an analogy you’d give to describe it? (Dead relative, dust in the wind, Sleepless in Seattle?)

MO

“Bad Romance”? All I can think of is all those pop songs about toxic relationships. The fact that I denounced my faith and yet keep returning to it in my writing feels at times like the makings of an unhealthy relationship! But maybe that’s a cynical way of thinking about it.

M

Are there parts of Christianity you miss? What do you still carry with you?

MO

There’s a lot I miss about it: the community, the rituals, the music. I find it difficult to hear certain songs (particularly the old hymns) without becoming emotional. I’m very sentimental about baptisms, too. I suppose the thing I miss the most is the way in which faith functions as an ordering principle, a system of thought that undergirds everything and imbues all of life with meaning. Leaving that behind was as terrifying as it was freeing.

I do still carry the faith with me. An Episcopalian friend of mine insists that I’m still a religious writer, even if I’m not religious. And I think my experience as a former Christian is probably most legible in my writing and my intellectual preoccupations, which grew out of struggling with my faith. In hindsight, I’m grateful to have grown up in a culture that took ideas seriously. Listening to sermons and studying the Bible amounted to an invaluable intellectual education: I learned close reading, polemics, rhetoric, critical thinking. And it wasn’t just idle analytical exercises—this was about matters of life or death, eternity. I realize now what a rare thing it was to have belonged to a community that was so passionately dedicated to this kind of discourse.

Check out more from the Faith & Doubt Issue here.