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Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials (1999)

af Wendy Kaminer

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213697,249 (3.5)1
In Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, social critic Wendy Kaminer illuminates the various ways in which society has come to value emotion over reason, faith over fact, and argues that declarations of intense belief have largely taken the place of rational discourse. In a world in which "How do you feel," seems to be a more frequently asked question than "What do you know," Kaminer's examination of the rise of spiritualism, the mushrooming junk science, and the habitual merging of political and evangelical speech, blazes with relevance and incisive wit. Probing the amusing and ominous implications of rampant credulity in our age, Kaminer raises important questions, and provides a thoughtful and eloquent perspective on the perils of present-day irrationalism.… (mere)
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Read during Winter 2002/2003

I first heard of Wendy Kaminer when I read a review of her book "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional." I didn't read that one but I think I will now, since Sleeping with Extra-terrestials was so thoughtful and provocative. The subtitle is "The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety" and it is a free-ranging discussion of the influence of religion, New Age spirituality, and other less than rational movements. It was published in 1999 but is even more apt now. I found some of her arguments confusing, esp. the chapter called 'Pious Bias' but everything made me think and I hope that is the goal.
  amyem58 | Jul 14, 2014 |
“The contrary willingness to accept untested personal testimony as public truth is at the heart of the irrationalism that confronts us today. . . Generally, the only proof offered for a fantastic belief is the passion it inspires in believers.” Kaminer’s new book decries the influence that irrational belief has on public policy. In the introduction she humorously ridicules her going to a homeopath, recognizing that it has no scientific validity, and she knows the result is due to the placebo effect, yet that effect is real to her. She argues, however, that others should not take her testimony at face value. Objective evidence should be required.

Kaminer discusses the public’s eagerness to join in the hysteria over satanic ritual child abuse, mass mourning for celebrities, how junk science and personal prejudice have influenced public policy decisions related to drugs, school vouchers, and classroom prayer. We are in danger of losing our skepticism, she argues, and that is dangerous for a democratic society. She acknowledges the personal need of many for divinities, but she suggests that a society that wears its piety in the public square craving for angels and alien abductions, not to mention Saint Diana, is more likely to look for miracles than face the challenges of living in a pluralistic society.

And she comes down quite hard on religious faith as feeding the irrational. “What’s the difference between crossing yourself or hanging a mezuzah outside your door and avoiding black cats. Believing that you’ve been abducted by aliens or that Elvis is alive is, on its face, no sillier than believing that Christ rose from the dead. . . People who believe that God heeds their prayers have probably” waived the right to mock people who talk to trees and guardian angels or claim to channel the spirits of Native Americans.” One man’s superstition is another’s sacred.

Kaminer blames the media for much of this, they quail in the face of the supernatural. Skepticism is edited out of journalistic reporting and she doubts H. L. Mencken could publish many of his antagonistic remarks about religious silliness, arguing that we risk becoming less religiously free than during the Victorian era. She is a fervent advocate of religious freedom. “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 protest is, in par, a right of private association, which the government is bound to accommodate, but not support.” But she cites numerous instances of religious viewpoints appearing in work and school settings, almost universally those of Protestant Christianity.

Kaminer’s examples are witty and eerily disturbing. Together they present a rather disturbing vision of the future and she ends with a plea for a return to science, skepticism, reason, and freedom of inquiry.

“The rights and interests of individual believers clash with religious institutions when the institutions seek sponsorship of the state. Crusades to breach the boundaries between church and state constitute a much greater threat to religious tolerance than any number of evangelical atheists. Theocracies throughout history have made that clear.”

As I was reviewing some of Kaminer’s magazine articles I stumbled upon a very recent commentary which I quote in its entirety:

“Sometimes I put my faith in sectarian rivalries, which helped derail the most recent proposed school-prayer amendment to the Constitution. Last year, an organization in Arkansas, Put God Back in Public School, decided not to press for the introduction of school prayers in Arkansas (instead, they demanded state funding for special Christian schools). The group reconsidered the value of school prayer after its founder Kathy Smith, consulted with God: ‘I asked God, “Do you want me to change the law to put prayer in the schools?” He said no. If you do that, kids would have the right to pray to other gods, too. They could pray to Buddha. God doesn’t want that. There is only one God.’

What more can I say but ‘Amen’.”
( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Reviewed in blog at http://www.sea-of-flowers.ca/weblog/sea/archives/2004/07/20/sleeping-with-a.php and Blogcritics at http://blogcritics.org/archives/2004/07/19/213121.php

This review has been rewritten since it was first published. A more extensive review appears in my own Web log).

Wendy Kaminer's book, "Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety" is interesting. She says that her objective is to write against irrationalism but I see this book more as an examination of how the New Age is becoming, in effect, a significant minority religion in America.

Wendy Kaminer was a lawyer in New York, and a contributing editor of the Atlantic Monthly. She seems to be a writer and a social critic. She appears to be a fairly typical Eastern liberal intellectual. Her writing is rich and dense. I have the impression that she has reworked magazine articles and essay into a more coherent form, and I think she hasn't completely succeeded. She repeats some ideas, and some of the arguments are a bit disorganised.

She doesn't come across as a hardline atheist or enemy of religion. She seems to be more of a free-thinker and skeptic. She seems to be concerned to promote a secular public space in which religious values are respected but kept private except to the extent that they coincide with broadly accepted values that support a peaceful secular society. She does clearly say several times that she finds that New Age gurus and the priests, ministers and rabbis of organized religion tend to profess equally irrational beliefs.

She skewers the writers and readers of come-and-go bestsellers like "The Celestine Prophecy" and "Mutant Message from Down Under," and writer-lecturers like Neil Donald Walsch and Marianne Williamson. She points out that these writers are cashing in, big-time by spiritual teachings that make people feel good about themselves. She also deals with the relatively incoherent, vaguely Hindu ideas of the New Age. She points out that many New Age writers encourage people to accept and tolerate evil in the world as part of karma or destiny. She points out that some writers have condoned murder because murder victims are in agreement with their murderers on an eternal, cosmic level!

She goes on to look at the lecture and training programs for personal growth. She asks the question about why Americans appear to be ready to place their trust in this stuff so easily. She nails the renegade ex-Catholic hippie priest Matthew Fox for his vague and rambling theories and his efforts to sacralize New Age values within the Christian tradition. Some New Age writers like Neil Donald Walsch make grandiose claims of direct communication with the divine. Some New Age gurus, in her experience, are very sensitive about their own teachings and react very badly to criticism. She says "In a culture preoccupied with self-esteem, megalomania is a virtue, I guess."

She says that the New Age is intolerant. It treats the established organized religions as unenlightened and authoritarian. Also, while the New Age seems to have room for all kinds of beliefs, it does not accept skepticism and science. New Agers dismiss skeptics as "witch-hunters." In theological terms, one would say that the New Age believes in selective pluralism. It claims tolerance for itself against other religions and against government scrutiny, but it preaches that it is a more enlightened religion than mainline Christianity and Islam.

She discusses feminism and the New Age. She says that many women today try to have it both ways. They want equality, but they also want to be intuitive and emotional and to have all the other stereotypical feminine attributes. She calls this female chauvinism and argues that it has flourished within the spirituality and alternative-healing movements. She points out that while in earlier generations these ideas empowered women by giving them a particular area of safety and personal authority, today they hold women back.

She examines the New Age's obsession with justifying itself scientifically, or at least explaining its beliefs by faith in new and innovative science. She deals with the unjustified popularity of Indian medicine as presented by Deepak Chopra and mentions the various New Age ideas that try to tie spiritual beliefs into someone's half-baked understanding of the quantum physics.

She discusses false claims of sexual abuse, and her discussion spins off into a fascinating discussion of the way in which subjective reports of personal experience, no matter how ludicrous and incredible, have become elevated into unassailable truth in post-modernist philosophy, in certain styles of therapy, and in popular culture.

I found a theme running through the book. The New Age preaches freedom and innovation in theory but in practice it encourage subordination to the pronouncements of predatory and self-serving writers, lecturers, teachers, coacher and gurus.

I thought that her general premise that organized religion and the New Age are equally irrational led her to overlook a couple of criticisms of the New Age. There are intellectual differences between the major religious traditions and the New Age.

The major religions have systems of personal and public ethics and are concerned about justice. While the Christian left thinks the Christian right is overly focussed on sexuality, and right thinks the left are all commies, they all have strong ethics and willingness to work in the world to change it. The New Age is all about self-esteem and feeling good. As for justice - remember what some New Age writers said about murder. That may not be completely fair. Some New Agers have a sort of non-violent, tree-hugging anti-corporate ethic but they can't seem to stop meditating and navel-gazing long enough to do anything. They dream of changing the world, but they won't live in the real world.

Kaminer would seem to agree that the adherents of the New Age tend to be self-absorbed and grandiose, and out of touch with the real world but she can't seem to make the other points I've mentioned.

It is a good little book to read and think about. It doesn't try to catalogue all the New Age writers and lectures or their theories. It doesn't try to examine the evolution of the ideas of the New Age and their circulation in popular culture in depth. It has enough factual observations and evidence to support the main arguments. It raises real concerns about the role of the New Age in popular culture and it should make people re-examine language and concepts that we tend to take on board, ignorantly, from the media and popular culture. It is written forcefully and with wit and elegance. ( )
1 stem BraveKelso | Oct 5, 2008 |
Highly entertaining and extremely well-written supported by source references. If you are in the UK a lot of it seems more pertinent to the US. However, the final chapters on Junk Science, Therapy culture are Cyberspace are definitive works in the struggle against contemporary nonsense. ( )
  atyson | Jul 27, 2006 |
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In Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, social critic Wendy Kaminer illuminates the various ways in which society has come to value emotion over reason, faith over fact, and argues that declarations of intense belief have largely taken the place of rational discourse. In a world in which "How do you feel," seems to be a more frequently asked question than "What do you know," Kaminer's examination of the rise of spiritualism, the mushrooming junk science, and the habitual merging of political and evangelical speech, blazes with relevance and incisive wit. Probing the amusing and ominous implications of rampant credulity in our age, Kaminer raises important questions, and provides a thoughtful and eloquent perspective on the perils of present-day irrationalism.

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