Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials

By Wendy Kaminer

Living in North America at the turn of the millennium, we may feel justified in giving ourselves a pat on the back. Witness our advanced standard of living, progressive institutions, and marvelous technologies. But just how enlightened are we? Less than we may think, this new book suggests.

Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials is a collection of essays on various topics relating to the rise of irrationalism in modern life. Even the form of the book is symptomatic. The essays, it seems, are a product of the electronic media’s effect on the presentation of logical argument. “I imagine each chapter as an autonomous essay,” Wendy Kaminer tells us, “because I know that people no longer read books about ideas sequentially.”

This may or may not be true (it seems more likely that the chapters are separate essays because they were first published separately in magazines), but the arrogance in Kaminer’s tone is duly noted.

This said, Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials is a provocative and sporadically engaging book. Another rant over the decline of western civilization is always good for the spleen, and Kaminer has a lot of fun with her targets, which go from the religious right to the heralds of the new cyber-paradise.

The worst offenders, however, are the gurus of therapeutic wisdom (Redfield, Chopra, et al), a tribe of barely literate hacks who have made personal fortunes hawking camp philosophies that give a spiritual gloss to obsessive self-indulgence.

Even though she uses the word broadly, the perils of piety is primarily an argument against religious feeling. Despite claiming to be agnostic, Kaminer (“graced with very little” faith and “blessed with irreligious parents”) is clearly an atheist. In one clever bit of argument she even shows how atheists are the real besieged minority in America, their voices silenced by a horde of intolerant believers.

Ironically, however, Kaminer’s rhetoric defeats itself by demonstrating how easily atheism can become as narrow an ideology as any faith. A person who can say, as Kaminer does, that “I’ve never sensed any divinity in myself or anyone else” is more to be pitied than admired for their feisty intellect. And you don’t have to believe in the current mumbo-jumbo about personal angels to find a certain nervous shallowness in Kaminer’s claim that she has “put concern about the nature and meaning of life in the category of things I can’t worry about.”

Seeking to understand the roots of a supposed rise in irrationalism would seem a petty undertaking in the face of such sublime indifference. Is irrationalism a result of the fear that is bred of the inability to understand contemporary life and attendant feelings of powerlessness, loneliness, and lack of belonging? Can it be blamed on the thought-destroying influence of the media? Is it related to gender stereotypes and victim-feminism?

The point may be moot, as the central premise seems to me to be wrong. Rational conduct in human affairs may be a useful ideal, but human beings are not rational creatures. Since the human needs met by piety are timeless and universal, can we really believe that there is more of it now than there was in the Dark Ages? What evidence is there that irrationalism is experiencing a “rise”? The success of Deepak Chopra?

Progress and decline are useful models for thinking of civilization, but human nature is unable to either rise or fall.

Review first published November 20, 1999.


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