Sleeping With Extraterrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety

  • Article by: KATY READ
  • Updated: November 20, 1999 - 10:00 PM

If Gov. Jesse Ventura were the type to toss around phrases like ''font of quotidian oppressions,'' his views on organized religion might sound like Wendy Kaminer's.

What Kaminer writes in "Sleeping With Extraterrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety" is more loftily worded but no less blunt than what Ventura said in his notorious Playboy interview.

"Considering their histories, you can safely call organized religions mixed blessings, at best," Kaminer writes. "Apart from their obvious atrocities -- the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, endorsement of slavery in nineteenth century America, territorism in the Middle East today -- religions have been a font of quotidian oppressions, from my liberal point of view, at least."

Ventura's Playboy debacle occurred too recently for inclusion in Kaminer's book, but the episode would have tidily illustrated her contention that, despite complaints about society's disrespect for faith, "mocking religion is like burning a flag in an American Legion hall." She goes on to compare the central tenets of major religions to tabloid-level flakiness: "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 or that God parted the Red Sea so that Moses and his followers could traverse it."

Mainstream religion is just one of the targets in Kaminer's critique of irrationality in the United States. With a skepticism that's either harsh or refreshing, depending on your point of view, she picks apart New Age spirituality, paranormal phenomena, recovered-memory syndrome and the mass mourning for dead celebrities. Her perspective is liberal, but she's not afraid to tackle leftist convictions -- for example, scorning what she calls a "cult of victimhood" that unquestioningly accepts claims of oppression by women and minorities.

Although many of these notions offer easy pickings for ridicule -- she mentions one best-selling guru's bizarre declaration that murder victims volunteer, on a spiritual level, to be killed -- it might be hard to see what danger they pose to society. Kaminer warns that the spread of irrational belief threatens everybody. And some issues, such as whether to require school prayer, are public concerns.

But if some private citizens think they're visited by angels or abducted by aliens, so what? Kaminer argues that the habit of thinking irrationally spills over into decisions about public policy. The war on drugs is a failure, she writes, but remains popular because voters consider drug use sinful and don't know how to sort their feelings from the facts.

Despite its often wacky subjects, the book isn't as much fun as you might think. It's too short on anecdotes, too long on wordy generalizations. And some of the material is simply too familiar. The chapter on the religious right's assault on church-state separation offers little news for anyone who reads the papers and managed to stay awake in seventh-grade social studies class.

Kaminer salts her writing with humor and sharp observations. Watching a pop spiritualist demonstrate "channeling," she says, "you could tell that he was in possession of an ancient Egyptian spirit because he spoke in stilted English, with a vaguely Asian accent."

But in between are some dry, textbookish passages. Start to doze off and -- as you enter that highly irrational, half-dreaming state -- you might find yourself thinking that Kaminer could learn something about keeping an audience's attention from Ventura.

    -- Katy Read is a Minneapolis freelance writer and a former reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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