The activist, atheist and best-selling author on cancer, Connecticut and the appeal of voodoo
You’re a noted and staunch atheist. Yet much of your memoir Living With a Wild God is about your own mystical encounters. Why?
I don’t even think the word yet is right because as I’ve learned since I was 17, when these things happened, all kinds of people have uncanny experiences which they can see as transcendental or unspeakable or whatever, and some of these people are atheists.
What form did these mystical experiences take?
There were no visions, no hallucinations, no voices. The only way I could finally find to put it after all these years is that it was as if the world came to life. The whole world was in flame. It was kind of ecstatic and kind of terrifying.
Are you worried that people are going to think you’ve gone off the reservation?
I’m more worried that people will say I’m crazy. But I was educated as a scientist, and one of the things I learned was that you do not discard anomalous results. If you have a result that doesn’t fit your theory, that falls way off the curve in your graph–I’m sorry, you don’t get to erase that. You have to figure out what’s going on. I’m just opening up the conversation. If in the process I completely ruin my reputation as a rational person and end up in a locked ward, that’s the chance I’m taking.
Connecticut is going to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2017. In your experience, is that enough?
No. MIT is constantly monitoring what you need to live on, on a pretty bare-bones level. In New Haven it would work out to be about $20-plus an hour to pay rent and, say, child care for one child. And this is not Internet access, this is nothing.
What about businesses that can’t afford even $10.10?
Well, part of me says, “I don’t care.” This is a moral issue. If you have people working for you who cannot make enough money to live on, you don’t have much of a business plan. Your business plan is really exploiting other people’s pain and suffering.
You were a supporter of Obama. Are you pleased with his presidency?
No. I have many, many criticisms. I think there are major disappointments. On the other hand, my sister recently got knee surgery because of Obamacare.
Are you interested in finding another life partner?
I think I like living alone. I’d be happy to have some fella who came over, just as long as he was out of there by 9 p.m.
You had breast cancer. How is your health now?
I don’t know. I’m not that interested [in checkups]. If they find something, they’ll say, “Well, we can give you six months of chemotherapy and maybe you’ll live two months beyond that.” I’m old enough to die.
If I could give you one power, one wish, what would you do to lessen income inequality?
Stop all the ways that money is being taken from the poor. I mean, you can just spiral down so fast into poverty. You have a broken headlight, you get stopped. The fine is going to be greater than the cost of a new headlight. You don’t have the money to pay the fine, you’re looking at an arrest warrant–and down you go.
Would you ever explore the idea that this other that you’ve experienced could be God?
I would not explore monotheistic religions. The religions that impress me are those which involve ecstatic communion with a deity or spirit–like voodoo. I like that much better than belief. I have respect for that. But as I said, I’m not looking for anything, and I’m not going to church.
This appears in the April 14, 2014 issue of TIME.