“Interior States” by Meghan O’Gieblyn

Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States is a collection of her journalistic essays. A former evangelical Protestant, what themes many of these pieces is the psychological dislocation brought about by the loss of her faith. The title of the collection puns on her exploration of this process, on the one hand, and on the other her observations upon her Mid-Western upbringing in the Rust Belt, the former industrial heartlands sold short by a generation of governments, and now ripe for Trump’s conspiratorial diatribes against Deep States and coastal elites. This dual legacy of loss and neglect feeds into the author’s general sense of being on the edges of things, out of step with the modern world, and provides her with a unique vantage point from which to assess it, making the essays fascinating, heartfelt and insightful.

Given her past religious convictions, O’Gieblyn is able to provide a deeply sympathetic appraisal of a worldview she no longer shares. There is a nostalgic fondness and sadness for this lost simplicity and coherence that is able to bring out more than any dispassionate analysis. It also gifts her a form of objectivity, and her writing is often blessed (or cursed) with great subtlety – a quality she explores with characteristic ambivalence and delicacy in an essay dedicated to that very topic. She is fair and detailed in her critiques, and at certain points the reader remains uncertain where she will come down on some issue until the very last sentence – and sometimes not even then.

Perhaps the best illustration of this tendency can be found in “A Species of Origins”, detailing a visit to Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, a religious theme park containing a purportedly full-sized replica of Noah’s Ark. Listening to her atheistic boyfriend attempting to refute the creationism of a devout patron, she is surprised to find herself effectively weighing in against her partner, explaining his antagonist’s creationist logic in a way that her boyfriend “fails” to grasp, but – despite her apostasy – she still can.

It is this deep understanding of what faith looks like from the inside that allows O’Gieblyn to recognise Christianity’s echoes and influences where others overlook them. One of the finest essays in the collection is “Ghost in the Cloud”, a deep dive into Transhumanism, or the belief that technology can allow humans to evolve beyond their natural, mortal limits. It is here that, emerging from a year-long obsession with the writings of the likes of Ray Kurzeweil and Nick Bostrom, she comes to recognise it for what it is: a restatement of Christian concerns in technological and scientific form. It is a secular religion, similarly intent on the realisation of immortality, of heaven on Earth, feverishly scanning for signs of the Rapture-like point of the Singularity, where super-intelligent machines will allow us to conquer death, transcend the physical, and in the process grant us God-like gifts.

This is no whimsical comparison, but a measured and well-drawn conclusion based on her own deep familiarity with religious patterns of thought, and O’Gieblyn’s insights are foreshadowed and echoed elsewhere: in Nietzsche, for instance, and more explicitly in the writings of John Gray (e.g. “Straw Dogs”, “Black Mass”). That the metaphors of religion are echoed in Transhumanism to such an uncanny degree is therefore perhaps, she suggests, a sign that the human mind is more attracted by metaphor than it realises, and less able to abandon familiar patterns that it supposes.

In summary, there is much here to fascinate, inform and admire – especially, for those (like me) with an interest in philosophy, technology, and religion. It is a wonderful book, beautifully written, with some real gems, and is highly recommended.

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Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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