The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   119

Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials

The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety

by Wendy Kaminer

New York: Pantheon Books, 1999

Another Book for the Bonfire

I should begin by saying that the title is simply a tease, and that those looking for a re-telling of The Story of O set on Zeta Reticuli will have to look elsewhere (alas). People who think such things have happened to them are mentioned here, but just once, as one illustration among many of Kaminer's ``rise of irrationalism'' in present-day America.

We have, Kaminer says, grown more irrational over the last few decades, and it's a brave soul who'll disagree with her. It's hard to imagine a brand of hokum so nonsensical that it cannot be successfully peddled in the United States today. Arachne, the secret thirteenth sign of the Zodiac, essential to correct astrology? The world being ruled in secret by reptilian aliens who only look human? Future-life progression via hypnosis? Diabolical conspiracies by bankers to impose Communism? A code in the Arabic text of the Qur'an based on the number 19, predicting a massive earthquake in California on 21 December 1999? Fifteen minutes on the Web is enough to find, not just an isolated crank who believes in these things, but whole communities of fervent believers, and that's with a slow modem. Moving up to people who merely believe in magic spells, astrology, faith healing, guardian angels, memories of past lives, channeling the dead, alien visitations or demonic possession, and, well, their name is legion --- more than half the adults in America at least.

It is easy to mock such beliefs, and the miasma of pop spirituality out of which they condense and into which, over time, they dissipate again. Not only are they easy: they deserve mockery, and Kaminer provides it in a glorious torrent. But --- and this is what sets her far above over people like, say, P. J. O'Rourke --- she is quite impartial in her perception of nonsense, and is just as happy and apt to mock mainstream, socially-accepted religions. Creationism, the miracles of the Rev. Dr. Oral Roberts, the theology of the Rev. Dr. Jerry Falwell, apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary --- all are accorded at least a polite and respectful hearing in the main stream of our public life. To suggest that organized religion's record in improving morals is, at best, mixed; that bishops and evangelists are no better qualified to render opinions regarding the moral law or the desires of the Creator than any other random assortment of sane adults, and probably less qualified to pronounce on family life; that infidels are capable of being good people --- that they can do justice and love mercy and walk humbly before nothing in particular; that religion has no place in politics; to say any of these things out loud is to effectively end one's public career, and it is astonishing to hear them in any forum above a coven of graduate students or readers of The Progressive. Even the inimitable Gov. Ventura made his remarks about organized religion after winning office; even among what passes for the left it's fashionable to say Nice Things about Spirituality and Meaning and so forth.

Kaminer thinks this is a bad thing --- and not just because she's an agnostic from a Jewish family, and has a very personal stake in how unpopular religious minorities are treated. (I agree, and not just because I'm an atheist from a family of Muslims and Communists.) On the one hand, bringing religion into the public sphere --- letting religious organizations administer publicly-funded schools, to pick an idea currently in vogue --- means, inescapably, endorsing particular religions, and rejecting others. It will also mean that the people receiving public services will be subject to more or less strong and overt coercion to adhere to certain religions; Kaminer has a full load of outrageous examples of this from just the last few years, mostly involving schools in the South but by no means confined to them. One of the most extraordinary of these cases (p. 95) involves a Lutheran child who was publicly branded a Satanist for not participating in Baptist Bible readings. Public money and state power, if available, will be used for sectarian ends, including that of suppressing rival sects; conversely, once the government starts paying for religions to do things, functionaries will demand that they be done their way, and religions will lose their autonomy. These are all very basic arguments, and respecting the conclusion to which they lead --- that the government and the churches should have as little as possible to do with each other --- is what has kept us from being at each other's throats these last few centuries. That people like Kaminer need to repeat them now is, frankly, a bad sign.

Kaminer claims that we have become more publicly pious at the same time --- since the 1960s --- as we have come to embrace more (as it were) freelance irrationality, and that these two trends are linked. This will seem plausible to many of us on the sidelines, but she's up front (literally: it's in her introduction) that she can't demonstrate any connection. I can't demonstrate one either, and nobody really has a clue as to the cause of either development. (Even showing, in an air-tight, statistical manner, that there has been a rise in freelance irrationalism would be tricky.) Frankly, if I had any clue about how to conduct such an investigation, I'd chuck physics and make my name in sociology.

Kaminer also treats of topics more or less related to her leading themes of piety and irrationalism --- the propagation of junk science in the media, staggeringly foolish public policy about drugs, the abuse of psychotherapy in legal proceedings, and ``cyberspace,'' meaning by that last the Internet. She has entertaining things to say about all of these, and is generally insightful, but the chapter on the Internet is perhaps the weakest in the book. What is striking about the Internet, as an intellectual and social force, is how much it resembles a drastically expanded and, as it were, leveled Commonwealth of Letters. Much of what you see on-line is obviously literary: obsessive involvement and communication, often drastic disparity between people's personae in writing and in the flesh, communities forming around shared ideas, hobby-horses and histories, even vicious personal attacks on total strangers (for ``flame-war,'' read ``polemic''). Given this, anyone with a candid acquaintance with just how bad and stupid most books really are, and always have been, should by no means be surprised that most of what gets written on-line is at a dreadfully low intellectual level and mostly about sex, money, gods and similar stupidities. (``After all, to any rational mind, the greater part of the history of ideas is a history of freaks.'' --- E. P. Thompson.) But this deserves a separate discussion, and is taking us far from the book at hand.

To close up: Wendy Kaminer is probably one of the sanest people in the world; certainly one of the most relentlessly sane people writing. (Her only rival, in my eyes, is the poet Katha Pollitt, who provides a blurb for this book.) She'd be inhuman if she was always right, but what a pleasure it is to bathe in the icy, sparkling waters of her incredulity!

Errata: p. 49, either ``Islamic fundamentalism'' gets a capital F, or ``Protestant Fundamentalism'' loses its; p. 52, for ``founder's'', read ``founders' ''; p. 222, missing '' after `aware intelligences'; p. 272 n. 38, for 1998, read 1989.
279 pp., end-notes, no bibliography, no index
Cultural Criticism / Debunking / North America / Politics / Psychoanalysis / Religion
Currently in print as a hardback, ISBN 0-679-44243-X, US$24.
12 November 1999 / 31 May 2000