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Wendy Kaminer


The rise of irrationalism and perils of piety

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2001).

In spite of its title, this book is not about UFOs and has little to say about abduction claims. It is really about belief systems and the irrationalities and absurdities into which they may lead us, at both the personal and the public level. Kaminer sees the present enthusiasm for belief systems as a retreat from rationality. Pretty well inevitably, she finds herself writing about religion, insisting that it is unjustifiable to separate "respectable" religions such as mainstream Christianity from so-called fringe religions or "cults". She denies, however, that she is setting out to attack religion as such. She identifies herself as an agnostic, not an atheist, and acknowledges that there seems to be an inbuilt human need to form religious beliefs. She does not claim to be exempt from all belief systems herself; in a disarming foreword, she admits to consulting a homeopath. What is harmful, she maintains, is not so much belief systems themselves as the inability to keep them in their place and to subject them to rational criticism. For example, the divinity of Christ is a matter of faith, but claims that prohibiting mandatory school prayer have increased the crime rate can and should be tested empirically.

Kaminer is American, and religion has a greater degree of prominence in the USA than in most other nominally Christian polities, so it is natural that she focuses almost entirely on the North American scene. Most of the writers whom she cites are American, and she has much to say about what she perceives to be the baleful influence of religion on American politics. This preoccupation with American affairs, though understandable, does somewhat limit the relevance of the book for readers in other countries. Even so, the trends she identifies are to a considerable extent universal, at least in industrialized countries, so their relevance is not confined to the USA. In Britain, for example, there seems to be an increasing trend today for politicians to identify themselves as religious believers and church attenders. But things have seemingly gone further in America, where it is difficult for critics of religion to make themselves heard. Some seventy years ago, the columnist H.L.Mencken was openly scornful of religion, but he would find it difficult to publish his views today. Virtue is supposed to be indissolubly linked with religion, and atheism is often equated with immorality.

It is not only Christianity in its various guises that is influential in the USA; so, too, are numerous and often bizarre forms of what Kaminer calls pop spiritualty. Books such as "The Celestine Prophecy" sell by the million, and huge numbers of people, it appears, are regularly encountering angels. Angels are not, in principle, much different from aliens, and the similarities between the two have often been remarked on. Aliens could indeed be considered as angels (or sometimes devils) with technological clothing. (It would be interesting to know if the incidence of alien abductions is beginning to fall as the number of angelic encounters rises; is it perhaps the case that overtly religious experiences are becoming more psychologically available without the need for a technological context to make them acceptable?)

Assurance of personal immortality is an important component of many of these belief systems. Often this takes the form of reincarnation; there is a popular vogue for therapies that purport to elicit memories of previous lives. Kaminer laments the absence of any sense of criticism or questioning among the participants in groups dedicated to eliciting such experiences, but she recognizes that the purpose of attending is to obtain reassurance; and a questioning attitude is exactly what is not needed for this purpose.

Many of the belief systems criticised by Kaminer are supported by claims that they are confirmed or validated by science, especially quantum physics. Since this is mysterious to everyone, physicists included, it allows New Age gurus such as Deepak Chopra to dress up their not very original ideas in pseudo-scientific garb. Lack of originality is, in fact, a selling point for writers such as Chopra; as Kaminer astutely remarks, mass-market advice books do not succeed unless their underlying message is mundane. Chopra is a descendant of nineteenth-century alternative healers like Mary Baker Eddy. Both claim that sickness and aging are the result of faulty perceptions, and are therefore unreal.

This is a sane and often entertaining book that deserves a wide readership. Unfortunately, however, it is unlikely to be read by the people who would most benefit from it.

%T Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials
%S The rise of irrationalism and perils of piety
%A Wendy Kaminer
%I Vintage Books
%C New York
%D 1999
%G ISBN 0-67944234-X
%P 228 pp
%K religion, sociology
%O paperback
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