Eric_W's Reviews > Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety

Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials by Wendy Kaminer
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Mar 14, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: current-affairs

“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’.”
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