Unorthodox is the sort of TV show whose plot arc you know before you finish it. It’s right there in the subtitle of the book the show’s based on: “The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.” Formerly Orthodox Esty Shapiro leaves her Brooklyn religious community behind and travels to Berlin to make a new life, but she’s ill-equipped to handle the secular world. Her piano education is inferior to the one she would have received outside of her Williamsburg community, but she’s never realized that. In one scene, not long after she turns up in Germany, she accidentally eats a ham sandwich (definitely not kosher) and runs to a nearby tree waiting to vomit, sure that she’ll get sick if she doesn’t obey the dietary laws she’s been raised to follow. Nothing happens. The rest of the show has moments like this: vignettes of religious laws being broken, which usually go hand in hand with images of release or a damnation that doesn’t quite come. Esty goes swimming at Wannsee, tearing off her wig as she enters the water, the sky twinkling above her. It harkens back to her premarital ritual in the mikvah, only it’s been transfigured to feel less uncertain and, well, more transcendent. A few episodes later, leaving the sweat-soaked club, she ends up in the bedroom of the Berlin musician, Robert. We’re led to believe her prior struggles with vaginismus dissolve along with her hang-ups.
As narratives of deconversion go, it’s nimbly compressed. But whoever laid it out knew full well that compression was only possible because we already understood the cultural shorthand for leaving one’s religion. A number of recent cultural products center former believers. Aside from Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox, there are memoirs like Cut Me Loose and Treyf, not to mention Tara Westover’s best-seller, Educated. While I can’t help but read along, interested in what they tell us about when and how our worldviews change, the stories strike me as suspiciously breezy. They vary in terms of quality and nuance, but the plotlines are consistent. A woman rejects her prior relationship to (often male, often abusive) authority by trying on new attitudes around dress, sex and secular education. Detailing the effort of thought and will required for a religious person to leave the faith, the books are filled with dramatic turns. Think accomplices and escapes into the night (in Educated, the narrator visits grandparents; in Unorthodox, Esty flies to Berlin with the help of a piano teacher). Reviews speak often of bravery. Against all odds, the protagonists of such stories inevitably reach a kind of spiritual adulthood.
A few weeks back, scrolling through headlines, I found a review for a new Netflix docu-soap, My Unorthodox Life. Formerly a member of a Hasidic community in Monsey, New York, Julia Haart is now a fashion exec who wears gem-studded cobalt stilettos and a printed-bustier short set. In the photo accompanying the story, she stands in a pool of bright sunlight. Looking at the picture I wonder if, in the post-religion photo shoot, she’s obligated to look enlightened.
There are other ways. Meghan O’Gieblyn, a roving critic and a master of the essay form, knows that when it comes to writing about religion and loss, the devil’s in the details. In an essay from Interior States, her 2018 debut collection, O’Gieblyn observes that we mistakenly think that writing requires us to speak in “no uncertain terms.” By contrast, O’Gieblyn describes the hermeneutics she learned from growing up religious: the hours spent studying Jesus’s parables, debating predestination over soft serve at the Bible college’s student center. Being religious meant being receptive: hearkening to God’s whispers even through fortune cookies or pop songs. For O’Gieblyn, who left Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute and the fundamentalist Baptist faith of her upbringing, deconversion was supposed to mean “striding onto terra firma, embracing a world where there would be no more shadows, no more distant echoes, only the blinding and unambiguous light of science and reason.” Leaving religion meant a more straightforward relationship to the world, O’Gieblyn thought. As it turns out, that was a false hope. O’Gieblyn writes, “the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitions I’d left behind.”
Interior States is, among other things, a series of essays about taking religion seriously and then losing one’s prized object; it is an expansive, lyrical depiction of forms of evangelical life in the Midwest of the early 2000s. O’Gieblyn starts college at Moody, the “West Point of Christian Service,” where students aren’t allowed to dance or watch movies and Friday nights are spent evangelizing outside Banana Republic. Pivoting from theorizing about salvation to questioning late-stage capitalism, we see O’Gieblyn first entertain doubts about hell and then about “Christianity itself.” But Interior States is not a deconversion narrative in its standard form. It’s most centrally a book about the stubbornly religious longings that flicker within people even as formal faith dims and disappears. At one point, O’Gieblyn turns her energies of spiritual self-betterment on her body. Her search history becomes a “compendium of cleanse recipes, high-intensity workouts, and the glycemic index of various exotic fruits.” Often, though, O’Gieblyn’s insights about her yearnings are less direct. Realizations build under the surface of plot and argument and culminate in quiet epiphanies. Take “Dispatch from Flyover Country,” which closes in the afterimage of a baptism along the shore, crowds thinning out along sand “firm with water.” O’Gieblyn is no longer religious, but her prose describes a world that’s exalted, as when she notices in the sky “the faintest trace of a sunset.” As a reader, O’Gieblyn’s writing often leaves me feeling vaguely devotional.
On the face of it, O’Gieblyn’s latest, God, Human, Animal, Machine, is a different kind of book. A deeply researched work of history, criticism and philosophy, GHAM begins in our technological age, where, as O’Gieblyn writes, “everything in modern life, from our minds to the rotation of the planets” becomes a system to be figured out. Yet insofar as O’Gieblyn continues to complicate the conventional deconversion narrative, God, Human, Animal, Machine and Interior States are part of a continuous project. Taken together, they show that religion isn’t a subject matter you can simply move on from, nor does O’Gieblyn expect to outgrow her former vantage point as a believer. Instead, GHAM probes the uneasy coexistence between what’s enchanted and what’s disenchanted. For O’Gieblyn, to the extent that we use tech to address “many of the questions that were taken up by theologians and philosophers,” it should be no surprise that our metaphors rely on the language and frame we already have—a language of personal identity and consciousness that we’re familiar with from more religious worldviews.
GHAM’s structure functions as a kind of synecdoche. O’Gieblyn’s own deconversion, what she cheekily calls a “personal disenchantment,” becomes a means of thinking about our post-Enlightenment world. That means nonreligious readers are just as much O’Gieblyn’s audience as the devout: we all occupy a secularized world whether or not we have religious frames too. The book toggles between the writer’s concrete experiences, how she tries to get her bearings in the secular world but finds herself reading about Nick Bostrom’s simulation theory, and more abstract reflections on how we seek redemption in tech after losing God.
After leaving her Christian faith, O’Gieblyn writes, “life lost its mooring.” She had to let go of the conviction that at some point she would “ascend into the clouds to spend eternity with God.” But life without such a belief felt meaningless. Hopes dissolved along with O’Gieblyn’s sense of self. Until, that is, O’Gieblyn discovered eighties and nineties West Coast tech theorists like the founder of transhumanism, Ray Kurzweil. Concepts like digital resurrection and mind-uploading led her to daydreaming about novel forms of re-enchantment. It’s no exaggeration, O’Gieblyn admits, to say that she invested Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines with “a totemic power.” She writes, “It seemed to me a secret gospel, one of those ancient texts devoted to hermetic mysteries.”
According to Kurzweil, human enhancement and resurrection could still be viable beliefs for a nonreligious person. Only this time that meant uploading your consciousness, and then using that as part of your rebirth. O’Gieblyn reads Kurzweil’s theories of human enhancement and transcending mere life, how he sees the grand narrative of history as leading “toward nothing short of total reenchantment.” The ideas and promises—the belief that the dead would rise, that earth would be transformed, that humans would become immortal—sounded a lot like Christian eschatology. O’Gieblyn describes the connections between what she once believed and her fascinations with tech and forms of artificial intelligence:
As I became more enmeshed in the actual details of these ideas [transhumanist philosophy], I found myself in a state of regress, returning obsessively to the questions that had preoccupied me as a student of theology: What is soul’s relationship to the body? Will the Resurrection revive the entire human form, or just the spirit? Will we have our memories and our sense of self even in the afterlife?
She tries not to get too close. According to the writer, former believers are prone to “recidivism.”
One might wonder, then, if O’Gieblyn suggests we’d be better off returning to traditional religion. After all, if science presents itself “as a new form of revelation,” what Max Weber called “academic prophecy,” aren’t we better off just going to church? It’s a question O’Gieblyn raises too, but from a distinctive angle. Churches today, O’Gieblyn argues in Interior States and again in GHAM, have stopped providing a real alternative to the “bleak moral market” of contemporary life. Congregations do market research to see what parts of teaching will go over best (it’s why many churches stopped talking about hell), a development that O’Gieblyn suggests compromises their ability to provide real options to those already living in a market-driven society. What’s more, O’Gieblyn is wary of the idea of going back, warning that “reenchantment is never merely return.” This is part of why transhumanism and tech theory are so intriguing to her: they represent appropriately 21st-century forms of enchantment. And yet, reading GHAM, agreeing with the critiques of both of tech and traditional religion, I find myself wondering if there are other choices. I hope there’s still possibility for what Heidegger called “poetical dwelling,” a different way of being attuned to something outside of ourselves.
God, Human, Animal, Machine works to displace an old story: that leaving religion can be narrated as a kind of linear progress, an arc that ends in something like liberation. That narrative, one familiar from popular ways of talking about deconversion, inherits a lot from Kant’s 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?” Written in the aftermath of the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Kant and his peers in the German Enlightenment advocate for intellectual progress as a vehicle of self-improvement. The Prussian philosopher diagnoses people as childlike, suffering from “self-inflicted immaturity,” and lacking the courage to use their reason without the guidance of others. On this account, the most egregious offenders are religious institutions. By teaching us to rely on authority rather than on our mental faculties, they keep us infantilized. In our cultural narratives of deconversion today, we hit the same notes. The formerly religious hero experiences losses when leaving faith: the loss of community, of ways of seeing. But as with the star of the bildungsroman, the deconvert comes to realize that growing pains are a necessary cost of freedom.
It’s disconcerting how readily we take up stories like these, ones that make religious people look like they’re stuck in a kind of perpetual childhood. These familiar narratives, as O’Gieblyn argues, threaten to see religion as anachronistic, overemphasizing the ways that “the Western world stopped believing in a literal hell during the Enlightenment.” Encountering these tales, I’m reminded of what historian and postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty has long argued, that appeals to Enlightenment notions of striving for “secular modernity” and “maturity” come at a cost. When we decry religious myth and elevate reason uncritically, self-satisfied with our own position in relation to others we deem infantile, we repurpose colonial justifications for new ends. What O’Gieblyn and Chakrabarty have in common, then, is skepticism about associating religion with immaturity. The way we write about losing religion, they suggest, is a high-stakes affair.
Rereading “Dispatch from Flyover Country,” I think about the critical response to shows like Unorthodox. In the essay, written in 2016, O’Gieblyn laments the way we see ourselves as all-knowing by comparison to our peers, how we suffer
from the fundamental delusion that we had elevated ourselves above the rubble of hinterland ignorance—that fair trade coffee and Orange You Glad It’s Vegan? cake had somehow redeemed us of our sins.
Something similar too might be true of why we can’t simply decry what’s wrong with tech as a new religion: it’s easier to see transhumanism as outlandish or unconvincing than it is to account for its pushes and pulls. What O’Gieblyn points to is the way we’re situated in the crosshairs, pressures toward belief and unbelief on both sides.
Both conventional deconversion narratives and sweeping critiques of tech as a new religion, then, miss something that O’Gieblyn offers in spades: ambivalence. With the sensibility developed as a consummate essayist, O’Gieblyn shows us again and again how to search for something other than certainty. Take an early scene in GHAM, where O’Gieblyn bonds with a robot dog, Aibo, who misbehaves and whimpers. In turns, he wags his tail while barking at apartment crawl spaces. O’Gieblyn finds herself reflexively ascribing internal experience to the dog, even if she’s certain he lacks subjectivity. The scene serves as a lesson. The “true trauma of disenchantment” that O’Gieblyn experienced too in the wake of her deconversion is seeing that the world is “devoid of intrinsic meaning.” In this case, she suggests that the disenchanted view would be to regard Aibo as nothing more than a robot. But the writer’s reluctance to power the robot dog off when she leaves home betrays her own mixed feelings. But this is what we all do, by O’Gieblyn’s account, even when we’re not aware of it: obsessively, constantly re-enchant the world “with life it does not possess.”
God, Human, Animal, Machine comes at a moment marked by highly visible tech. In late July, Jeff Bezos catapulted into space on a commercial flight. Elon Musk’s Neuralink is a massive enterprise directed at “symbiosis with artificial intelligence” through implants, and two new books about Musk’s grasp of physics dropped last month. At the close of the book, O’Gieblyn asks us to abandon attempts like these to use tech as a way of transcending our mortality or recentering ourselves in the universe. Instead, O’Gieblyn writes that we need to “clarify the purpose of science and technology” as part of a more humanistic worldview. But where she departs from others who find technology has its limits is in yet another of her capacious final vignettes. We find the essayist talking to a chatbot about personal identity; they exchange messages about the importance of maintaining perspective and thinking about “our timeline within the scale of the universe.” O’Gieblyn, like the rest of us, seeks connection that she doesn’t produce, insinuating that our desires for meaning beyond ourselves may be ineradicable.
In effect, then, God, Human, Animal, Machine offers an unconventional antidote to standard deconversion narratives, suggesting the ways that these stories matter for all of us. Culturally, we’re all living in the wake of religious upheaval, whether we have felt that upheaval in our personal lives or not. We all have a stake then in acknowledging the ways we continue to reckon with religious impulses, even if we consider ourselves deconverted and disenchanted. Undoubtedly, one of the main ways we search for transcendence today is through technology. But it is other moments I find myself returning to in O’Gieblyn’s writing: stumbling upon Kierkegaard’s grave, say, or noticing the play of light and shadow outdoors. Our supernatural aspirations get in through the back door. We return to what philosopher Richard Kearney calls “God after God.” And yet this is as it should be, the questions of what we know separate from what we hope.