Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety

Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety

by Wendy Kaminer

Pantheon Books, 278 pp., $24

The truth is out there. But most people would rather believe in UFOs, angels, and a liberal press. Put on your credulity shields, friends, and welcome to America 2000.

Wendy Kaminer, a fellow at Radcliffe College and author of the pop psych critique I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, has penned a brilliantly scathing and sure-to-be-ignored tome about the dangers of wacky ideas turned into public policy. Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety attacks both the right and the left for their forays into agit-prop sectarian nonsense which winds up infecting the middle with commonly held but questionable beliefs about government conspiracies, the evils of drugs, Women being from Venus and Men burping from Mars, school vouchers, the virtuousness of the religious, and the power of positive thinking.

Now, I can feel through my womanly intuition that many feathers are being ruffled even as I write. Which is why Kaminer is necessary and why she receives hate mail from right, left, and to infinity and beyond. Her clear-eyed and witty analysis leaves most of our cherished fantasies about reality shivering nakedly before the mocking crowd. But the mocking doesn't last long because we are all deluded emperors in one way or the other: angels, divine children, aliens, subatomic physics, and parallel universes, Jesus walking on water (second-century science fiction), Mormonism's golden tablets (19th-century science fiction), Scientology's clears (20th-century science fiction), Shirley MacLaine's channeling (Hollywood science fiction), Nation of Islam's white people made from a mad wizard's cauldron (African-American science fiction), right-wing conspiracies, Satan-worshiping, pedophile-coddling liberal presses.

Whew, have I offended anyone yet? Well, it's okay to make fun of Shirley MacLaine, but Jesus? I've gone too far. That's Kaminer's point. On the face of it, MacLaine's claims are no less bizarre than rising from the dead or white people being the evil creation of a mad scientist, yet once a wacky idea reaches a certain critical mass of acceptance, presto -- you can't poke fun at it anymore. In fact, it becomes dangerous to criticize that idea. Ask Salman Rushdie.

Kaminer doesn't say we need to stop believing in our fantasies. She has her own belief in homeopathy, a "science" that has little, if any, scientific basis: a sugar dot whiffed with an herbal vibe. What she objects to, and rightly so, are the efforts by the religious right to inject their sectarian beliefs into government policy. She notes the movement for school vouchers and church-run public welfare programs as examples of the dangers of eliminating the separation of church and state. She pointedly remarks that certain sectarians are more than willing to take taxpayer money, but adamantly refuse to actually pay taxes. Frankly, we don't want them to pay taxes. Separation protects us all.

It's amazing how hard she has to argue to defend the logic of separating church and state; how the idea of minority rights which is the basis for the Bill of Rights has to be defended against the majoritarianism of the religious right who constantly call themselves real Americans (How could a little silent prayer hurt? Ask a tax-paying atheist.); how anecdote and flattery can so easily separate us from that good ol' down-home practicality mama told us to rely on.

It is just one more mystery in this great big shopping mall and revival tent of funhouse mirrors we call America. "On the left get yer angel's answer, on the right the alien in the plaid suit will be happy to implant the correct answer up yer lily white credulity hole. No questions, no refunds, and, please, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

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Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety, Wendy Kaminer

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