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America the Irrational

Wendy Kaminer, the author of Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials, sees a disturbing decline of reason in our public life

November 3, 1999

Sleeping With Extra-TerrestrialsAmericans today are transfixed by the supernatural. Television shows like Touched by an Angel and The X-Files soar in the ratings, books about guardian angels and near-death experiences find tremendous readerships, and savvy politicians flaunt their religious faith, each proclaiming a special relationship with God.

In her new book, Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety, Wendy Kaminer argues that although this preoccupation with the unearthly is relatively harmless -- for many people belief in God, angels, or the teachings of Deepak Chopra offers comfort and meaning -- there is cause for concern when our private irrational convictions begin to spill over into the realm of public life and public policy. "Other people's personal religious beliefs and reading habits," she explains, "are none of my business (and surely don't require my approval). But the possible public consequence of their inclination to believe is everyone's business and merits everyone's concern."

From the archives:

"God's Patriots," by James Carroll (December 1993)
A review of Stephen L. Carter's The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion.

From Atlantic Unbound:

American Graffiti: "When Armageddon Looms," by James Surowiecki (April 30, 1997)
As the popularity of The X-Files suggests, Americans find paranoia strangely exhilarating. This is nothing new.

Recent Atlantic Unbound interviews:

A Cold, Comic Heart (October 20, 1999)
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In his new book, The Big Test,Nicholas Lemann argues that the structure of educational opportunity in America is inherently flawed and must be rebuilt.

Setting the Record Straight (September 22, 1999)
Edward Said, author of a new memoir, Out of Place, talks about Beethoven, the Oslo Accords, Arafat, and the "enormous fabrication of lies" printed in this month's Commentary.

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An Atlantic Unbound interview with Richard Wilbur, a poet who doesn't care for "perfection."

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Elijah Anderson talks about his new book, Code of the Street, and the importance of looking honestly at life in the inner city.

Landscape Artist (July 14, 1999)
Witold Rybczynski talks about Frederick Law Olmsted, the importance of Central Park, and the shape of our urban and suburban landscapes.

Not Your Regular Joe (June 30, 1999)
Joseph Epstein is the essayist's essayist. But with his latest book, Narcissus Leaves the Pool, he says it's time to light out for new territory.

The Seth Variations (June 23, 1999)
Vikram Seth, the author of An Equal Music, discusses Indian writing, declares allegiance to poetry, and disagrees with Salman Rushdie.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.


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Kaminer looks at how irrationalism in the forms of mainstream religion, the New Age movement, pseudoscience, and the therapeutic culture (as shaped by the recovery movement), permeates contemporary American culture and is increasingly shaping public policy with respect to criminal justice, education, and civil liberties. As our commitment to rational public debate is subsumed by irrational convictions, our ability to think critically is eroding. Or so Kaminer fears. "The values we fashion and ultimately codify," she writes, "are likely to be influenced by religious teachings, of course, but they should be shaped democratically, by the human intellect reflecting on experience, not handed down from on high."

Wendy Kaminer is a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a regular columnist for The American Prospect, and a public policy fellow at Radcliffe College. She writes frequently about feminism and about civil liberties. Her previous books include True Love Waits(1996), It's All the Rage(1995), I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional(1992), A Fearful Freedom(1990), and Women Volunteering(1984).

She spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Sage Stossel.



Wendy Kaminer
Wendy Kaminer   

As you explored Americans' various beliefs and spiritual practices in the course of researching this book, was there anything that especially surprised you?

Well, the short answer is no. When you consider the convergence of celebrity culture, pop therapies, new technologies, and all the anxious supernaturalism that's been aroused by the approach of the year 2000, public life in America has become so much weirder than I ever imagined it could possibly be that what once might have seemed surreal, now is merely mundane. Given that, I can't say that anything surprised me.

I am dismayed, though, by the eagerness of so many people to relax restrictions on government sponsorship of sectarian institutions and sectarian practices like official school prayers. And I do fear that we might be heading into a period of really ugly sectarian rivalries and even the religious repression of minorities. There was a recent ACLU case in Alabama, for example, where public school teachers harassed Jewish students by forcing them to pray to Jesus and forbade them to wear the star of David to school, claiming it was a gang symbol. In another ACLU case an eleven-year-old Lutheran child in a Baptist school was branded a Devil-worshipper by his classmates after his teacher announced that he wasn't participating in Bible classes because he didn't believe in God. Cases like this are shocking but -- especially in the South -- not anomalous. The more we erode the wall between Church and State, the more of these cases we're bound to see.

Your book refers to the strong piety of Americans in the late nineteenth century and their fascination with the supernatural. You also talk about a "tradition of caustic secularism" earlier this century, expressed by commentators like H.L. Mencken and Mary McCarthy, "that once provided a refuge for the faithless." Does this country go through successive phases or cycles of rationalism and irrationalism?

I suspect that we do go through phases. Sometimes reason seems ascendant, and sometimes we put our faith in guardian angels or alien visitations. Earlier in this century faith in social science was very strong. It's worth noting, though, that this faith was not always benign or even well-reasoned. Nick Lemann's new book about the SAT gives very good examples of some of the ravages of too much faith in social science.

I think there is something that distinguishes the current climate in America and that is the degree to which religion and spirituality have become popular, or at least respectable, among intellectual elites. That was not true, say, in the 1920s and 1930s when people like H. L. Mencken and John Dewey were around. There's also a great deal of respect for religiosity in the popular media. You won't, for example, find anyone mocking religion in Time or Newsweek.

At the risk of seeming optimistic, I might predict that our current romance with the irrational will subside once the year 2000 has come and gone. But that might be wishful thinking.

Do you think that the increasing numbers of religious programs and supernatural docudramas on television today actively contribute to piety and irrationalism in American culture?

In general, what we see in the popular media will tend to reflect and reinforce social trends. So, yes, I do think that docudramas about extraterrestrial landings, or angels, or ESP contribute to the rise of irrationalism. Many people tend to believe what they see on TV, just as they tend to believe what they read in the newspaper -- especially if the belief comforts them. The media lends authority; it lends credibility to sensational stories about supernatural occurrences or less sensational claims about, say, the healing power of crystals. We like to think of ourselves as a skeptical, cynical society, and there is a certain amount of cynicism, but it coexists with enormous gullibility.

In your essay "Morality -- The Newest Deal," in True Love Waits, you described Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a leader who was able to appeal to common moral values and inspire confidence without invoking religion. Are there any current politicians or public figures whom you think might be capable of that role?

Nobody comes to mind. If I think about the major presidential candidates, Bill Bradley is about the only one who has even tried to appeal to what you might call our better natures without invoking religion and without assuring us of his own close relationship with God. In fact, he has refrained from parading his faith (I think to his great credit), observing that it is essentially a private matter. His refusal to join Al Gore and George Bush in what I think is religious pandering is quite refreshing. But there really isn't much evidence that Bradley is as astute a politician or as inspirational a leader as FDR was.

You argue that New Age movements and mainstream religions are similar in many ways -- a primary difference between them being that the mainstream faiths have become institutionalized organizations. Were the divine figures of today's established religions the pop gurus of their day?

New Age movements may someday become established faiths of the future (though it's worth noting that New Age generally functions as an alternative to established faiths). But I don't think that the fact that established religions are established makes them any more credible than New Age movements that are not institutionalized. And I certainly didn't mean to argue that New Age and organized religions are similar; they differ greatly in their theologies. I just wanted to point out something that we often overlook: New Age and established religions are both forms of supernaturalism. A New Age belief in miracles is no more or less silly, and no more or less worthy of respect than, say, a Christian belief in miracles. Yet mockery of New Age is much more common and much more socially acceptable than mockery of established faiths. There's a double standard in the way we think about New Age movements and the way we think about established religions that I find intellectually indefensible.

In your introduction you write: "I don't deny that organized religions offer people psychic comfort and community, as well as important social services, but I fiercely oppose their periodic assaults on secular government." Why is a secular government based on rational principles a more desirable ideal than a harmonious society organized around a belief system that promotes comfort, community, and a sense of purpose in life?

There is a deep flaw in the assumption that societies organized around religious beliefs are in fact harmonious and do in fact provide everyone with comfort, community, and a sense of purpose in life. Unless societies that are ruled by religious beliefs are entirely homogeneous, and also entirely voluntary, they're apt to be bitterly contentious or quite repressive of religious minorities. Consider the Middle East. It's not exactly a picture of harmony. Or think even of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Here in Massachusetts in the 1600s you had a society organized around religious beliefs, and it was extremely repressive and not at all tolerant of religious freedom.

Organized religions in this country do offer community and comfort to a great many people, but I think that's precisely because they operate freely in the unofficial spaces that are allowed or created by secular government. The point of a secular government is that it enables people to find their own communities and to find expression for their own faiths.

What do you make of studies showing that people who consider themselves religious and who regularly participate in religious services live longer, healthier lives?

I don't doubt that our state of mind affects our health. And since so many people do find solace and some peace of mind in religion it wouldn't shock me if there were some correlation between religious belief and health. I would expect, though, that whatever it is in a religious community that can give people the kind of peace of mind that helps keep them healthy can also be found in ethical secular communities that provide people with a sense of purpose. I tend to doubt that religion is any more essential to health than it is essential to virtue.

Should church-sponsored programs with proven track records of successfully aiding the homeless or enriching the lives of inner-city youth be denied government funding on principle (for the sake of maintaining a separation between Church and State)?

I do think sectarian institutions should be denied direct public funding. Not for the sake of some principle, but to avoid the practical problems that come with government sponsorship of religion. One problem is that many taxpayers are going to deeply resent directly supporting religions that are anathema to them. That resentment will only encourage religious discrimination. Rudy Giuliani, for example, contends that the public shouldn't even support the Brooklyn Museum because one of its shows offends his religious sensibilities. Imagine the reaction if public funds were used to support after-school programs offered by the Reverend Moon -- or the Nation of Islam. When you put money on the table and say that sectarian institutions are eligible for a piece of it, you can't discriminate on the basis of theology.

Another problem is that if sectarian institutions receive public funds to deliver social services, the recipients of these services are very likely to be subject to religious proselytizing, whether they like it or not, in violation of their religious freedom. We can have rules that prohibit the conditioning of social services on mandatory participation in prayer or other religious rituals, but those rules are going to be practically impossible to enforce.

Still another problem is that publicly funded social-service workers will be hired and fired on the basis of their religious beliefs. (In fact, in the charitable-choice provision that was passed as part of the 1996 Welfare Bill the religious institutions that take public money to administer welfare programs are expressly exempt from the antidiscrimination provisions of federal law.)

Finally, government officials will eventually have to start monitoring the activities of these religious institutions they're funding. And that threatens the institutions' autonomy: when you receive government funds, eventually you're going to become accountable to government bureaucrats. I think that's going to be a problem down the road for private religious schools if we end up with a very widespread voucher system.

It's important to remember that the principles laid down by the First Amendment are not academic. In a very real way they protect both the religious freedom of individuals and the autonomy of religious institutions. So I'd want very much to uphold constitutional principles regarding religion because of the practical harm attendant on violating them.

Some might say that the recent controversy over the dung-decorated Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum supports the contention that people who take religion seriously are discriminated against as uneducated philistines by secular intellectual elites. What's your take on the dispute?

My own take on this controversy is that it was essentially manufactured by Rudy Giuliani to bolster his senate campaign. There really is no evidence of a populist uprising against the Brooklyn Museum. In fact, the evidence suggests that popular sentiment is aligned with the museum if you consider the number of people attending the show and if you look at polling data. And the charge that this show represents the hostility of secular elites toward religion is just absurd. The artist who's responsible for the controversial portrait of the Virgin Mary is reported to be a practicing Catholic who conceives of his work as reverential.

It is worth noting, though, that there has been some hostility expressed toward one particular religion that's been expressed in the angry reaction to this show. Camille Paglia in Salon nastily stressed that this supposedly anti-Catholic art exhibit was mounted by a Jewish collector and a Jewish museum director. It was an incredibly irresponsible comment -- especially when you consider that the artist of the controversial work is a practicing Catholic. The real question is, Why does a reverential, practicing Catholic produce a work of art that so many other Catholics find offensive? Maybe the answer is that different people look at their religion differently. And different people see art differently.

In a 1993 Atlantic article, "Feminism's Identity Crisis," you described a backlash against traditional feminism in the form of a new preoccupation with women as victims rather than as equals. Has feminism's identity changed since then?

It actually wasn't a new preoccupation with women as victims. The feminist identity crisis I described in 1993 dates back 150 years to the beginning of the women's rights movement. Feminists have always been divided over two conflicting views of femininity and two approaches to sexual justice. From the beginning, in the mid nineteenth century, some feminists focused on what men and women shared -- the capacity to reason, for instance, and the right to a self-determined destiny. They sought legal equality: laws that would extend the same rights and the same responsibilities to both sexes. Other feminists, whom I think of as "protectionists," focused on biological differences between men and women and embraced traditional notions of women as a gentler, more moral sex. These women tended to seek sexual justice through protectionism. They advocated protective labor laws for women and the censorship of sexually explicit material.

Today, some forms of protectionism have been relegated to history: protective labor laws, for example, were generally invalidated by the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s and 1970s. And these days when we pass labor laws having to do with what might be thought of as "women's issues" -- like the Family and Medical Leave Act -- they tend to be gender-neutral laws that apply equally to both sexes. But other forms of protectionism -- like demands for censoring pornography or hate-speech -- continue to be advanced by some feminists. What's more important is that the traditional notions of femininity and masculinity that underlie protectionist campaigns still prevail among many women. You have only to consider the campaigns of female candidates who describe themselves as more cooperative or better listeners or better consensus-builders than men -- a lot of those clichés about female character and female sensibility are very much alive. And those ideas do conflict with a feminist drive for equal rights. But they are held by many women who would identify themselves as feminists. So feminists have never really coalesced around one answer to the perennial question of whether biology is destiny. I don't know that we ever will: feminism remains a very, very diverse movement. And that's what makes it interesting.

Do you think that Hillary Clinton is doing a disservice to feminism by running for office on the strength of her popularity as a victimized wife?

I don't accept the premise that Hillary Clinton is running on the strength of her popularity as a victimized wife. I'm not a supporter of Mrs. Clinton, because she has been a cheerleader for an administration whose policies I deplore (the Clinton administration has a particularly dreadful record on civil liberties). But it's important to note that many female voters, including some self-identified feminists, support Hillary Clinton because they see her as a strong, smart female -- not a weak and victimized one. So I think in many ways Hillary Clinton is playing to what people see as her strengths.

In Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials you described an ABC television special that "Purport[ed] to reveal scientific evidence of biologically determined cognitive and emotional differences between men and women," but which drew upon "prejudice, preconceptions, and an occasional questionable study that produces junk science" in order to make that case. Supposing that solid scientific evidence did, in fact, prove significant cognitive and emotional differences between men and women, should that have any bearing on men's and women's roles or how they are treated?

I think that's a good question, though it's important to note that it's a very academic one. As a general rule, I don't think sex should be used as a predictor of behavior, even if some future scientist were to discover differences between the sexes, because average differences tell us very little about individual variations. Consider physical differences. Men on the average may be taller than women, but some women are still taller than some men. So it would be hardly just for laws to deny women the right to apply for jobs that had minimum-height requirements on the assumption that all women are short. Biology, after all, is only one factor that shapes us. We're also the products of our upbringing and our culture. If you can imagine a scientist demonstrating that, say, women really are, on average, less adept at math than men, you might still predict that some females would display math skills that were far above average, and that if they were properly taught and encouraged, many other females might excel at math and surpass some males. So, as a general rule, whatever scientists may in the future find out about average sexual difference, I think laws should not treat men and women as sexual prototypes. Justice generally comes from treating people as individuals.


Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Sage Stossel is a senior editor of Atlantic Unbound.

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