Maybe it's the
approach of Christendom's millennium, but suddenly it seems that piety is
everywhere. Presidential candidates preach about the need to inject religious
values into social and political discourse. Media pundits cluck like church
beadles about moral decline. Dewy-eyed utopians and New Age healers glare down
reason at every turn.
What has happened, you might ask, to separation of church and state, to
skepticism, to scientific inquiry and rational secularism? Now, Wendy Kaminer,
journalist, lawyer, and provocateur, has weighed in with a dose of cool reason
called ''Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils
An avowed agnostic and prolific writer - previous works include ''I'm
Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional'' - Kaminer unpacks the powerful myths that
get us through the night. Mere mortals have always needed divinities, she
acknowledges. But faith belongs in the private realm of emotion and impulse, not
in the ''public square.'' And an electorate that believes in angels, alien
abductions, and Saint Diana is more apt to crave miracles than the bracing
challenges of a pluralistic society.
Kaminer is both essayist and journalist, capable of a poke in the eye (like
H.L. Mencken) as well as trenchant analysis (like Walter Lippmann). She's hard
to place on the conventional left-right political spectrum - and that is what
imbues her work with originality. She relishes the clang of a good argument.
It seems fitting, given her choice of subject, that she begins with a
confession: ''Western religious faith - or supernaturalism - is the primary
subject of this book. I was graced with relatively little of it and have
sometimes regretted my resistance to believing in a supreme being and various
visions of immortality.''
Most critics quail in the face of belief in the supernatural, she argues,
allowing a powerful social force to remain unexamined. ''I suspect that media
elites offer virtually no analysis of the religious impulse or majoritarian
religious beliefs mainly because they fear appearing impious or giving
offense,'' she writes. ''What's striking about journalists and intellectuals
today, liberal and conservative alike, is not their mythic Voltairian skepticism
but their deference to belief and utter failure to criticize, much less
satirize, America's romance with God.''
Although America has no official state religion, she writes, religion -
specifically Christianity - is an inextricable part of this country's history,
politics, law, and culture. Perhaps angered by the relativistic boomers who
partied through the 1970s, the Christian right ''emerged on the national
political scene, organized in opposition to momentous social changes that had
been percolating since the 1950s.'' Churches provided a base, and sex education
programs, changing gender roles, and the gay civil rights movement provided
''Separation of church and state does not desire, much less mandate, the
banishment of religious faith from public life, as right-wing rhetoric sometimes
suggests. ... The right of religious people to organize and mount political
protests is, in part, a right of private association, which the government is
bound to accommodate, but not support.''
Kaminer charts some of the wackier fads that have hijacked cultural debate
during the 1990s: recovered memory, 12-step programs, the co-dependency
movement, angels, UFOs, out-of-body experiences. She distinguishes totalitarian
cults from New Age spirituality and mainstream religion, but she skewers magical
thinking wherever she finds it. She takes on purveyors of junk science like
Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, who gave credence to alien abduction stories in
his 1994 book, ''Abduction.''
Those who hold that it is possible to think and to believe in God (or Allah)
at the same time will take issue with many of Kaminer's points. After all, God
takes on many shapes in the human mind. Theologians have written of the
transcendent God who is beyond discernible experience, as well as the immanent
God found in everyday relationships.
But in the end, Kaminer remains suspicious of any revealed wisdom and argues
that it should not color public life. Nothing would stifle religious freedom
more, in her view, than the advent of an American theocracy.
We are a nation in love with the irrational: flights of angels, invasion by aliens, miraculous healings, supernaturalism, crystallography, and the paranormal. Little of this seems shocking or revelatory to anyone living today, and much of it is fun and amusing. Kaminer, contributing editor at the Atlantic Monthly, sees things differently. She believes that all this intoxication with The Beyond has a crippling effect on society as a whole and contributes to the advancement of irrationality in the public arena. She points out the dangers in the courtroom use of junk science (theology and belief masquerading as science; the acceptance of "feelings" over facts) and argues that the encroachment of sectarianism into government organizations and institutions further diminishes the separation between church and state. All this would be heady reading if Kaminer weren't a witty, anecdotal writer. Her examples are funny, interesting, and eerily disturbing; individually amusing, they collectively weave together a tapestry of dire foreboding. She ends her book with a call for a return to respect for science, skepticism, reason, and freedom of inquiry. Recommended for all libraries.--Glenn Masuchika, Chaminade Univ. Lib., Honolulu Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.