Sleeping with Aliens

Wendy Kaminer’s book, Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety is interesting. She says that her objective is to write against irrationalism but I see her book more as an examination of how the New Age is becoming, in effect, a minority religion in America.
(On July 19, 2004 I posted a review of this book at the Blogcritics site. This post is a longer and more detailed version of the review).

Wendy Kaminer was a lawyer in New York, and a contributing editor of the Atlantic Monthly. She has shifted her career to writing with an emphasis on social criticism. She has published a few books, and “Sleeping with Aliens” seems to be her best-known book. I found a few articles indexed on line, and biographical notes at Feminists for Free Expression and The American Prospect Online.
Some of her articles have been reproduced at the Positive Atheist site, which has a militant atheist perspective but she doesn’t come across as a hardline atheist or enemy of religion. Her own perspective appears to rationalist. She seems to be more of a free-thinker and skeptic. She seems to be concerned to promote a secular public space in which religious values are respected but kept private. She does clearly say several times that she finds that New Age gurus and the priests, ministers and rabbis of organized religion tend to profess equally irrational beliefs.
Her writing is rich and dense. I have the impression that she has reworked magazine articles and essay into a more coherent form, and I think she hasn’t completely succeeded. She repeats some ideas, and some of the arguments are a bit disorganised.
In the first two chapters, “Pious Biases” and “The Sectarian Public Square” are largely devoted to a discussion of the claims made by the Christian right – mainly by fundamentalists in the name of freedom of religion. There is a lot of discussion of specific events and incidents (suggesting that these chapters were taken from magazine articles or essays written within a couple of years before this book was published. Her references and arguments are obscure to readers who are not well grounded in the law and politics of religious freedom in the USA.
She points out that religion and religious practice are popular in America and that religious ideas receive much more respect than the basic text of the Constitution might indicate. She spends some time criticising the positions taken by the Christian right in constitutional litigation in the United States. She argues that efforts by the Christian right to be able to use public resources to preach their viewpoint has opened the way for cults and fringe groups to claim public tolerance and public resources for their viewpoint. The venture of turning freedom of speech and religion into a right to offer spirituality education allows cults and fringe groups to claim the same rights as main-stream churches. She also observes that established churches have been responding to the New Age by borrowing and incorporating some of the ideas of the New Age.
The Third chapter is called “Pop Spirituality Books and the Gospel of Good News” which is a lively but disorganised discussion of the role of the publishing industry and a handful of writers in promoting wacky ideas for fun and profit. She skewers the writers and readers of come-and-go bestsellers like “The Celestine Prophecy” and “Mutant Message from Down Under,” and writer-lecturers like Neil Donald Walsch and Marianne Williamson. She points out that these writers are cashing in, big-time, by spiritual teachings that make people feel good about themselves. She also deals with the relatively incoherent, vaguely Hindu ideas of the New Age. She points out that many New Age writers encourage people to accept and tolerate evil in the world as part of karma or destiny. She points out that some writers have condoned murder because murder victims are in agreement with their murderers on an eternal, cosmic level!
She makes a connection between New Age writers and their ideas, and the recovery movement (she wrote another earlier book debunking the recovery movement). The recovery movement started with Alcoholics Anonymous and the idea that people are always recovering from addiction or abuse of some kind. Her first point is that the recovery movement is simply a self-help movement which works for some people. It isn’t a general scientific theory of human behaviour. However, the ideas of the recovery movement have been expanded into a very vague set of general ideas about human behaviour and incorporated into all kinds of therapies and personal growth programs. The ideas seem to have made inroads in public awareness and evolved into a broad popular culture which teaches people that they can blame their problems and feelings on people who have abused them. She spends some time on the way that claims of abuse seem to have become credible – without evidence. She points out the incidence of false or largely subjective claims of abuse. She also takes aim at the post-modernist feminist idea that a woman who feels abused has been abused.
She points out that the recovery movement was basically a publisher’s dream – books flying off the shelves for years. As that movement lost steam, the publishers brought out a new generation of feel-good New Age books to feed the addiction of many Americans to feeling good about themselves. She points out the New Age seems to be the latest renewal of movements that started in the 19th century – Theosophy, Unitarianism, spiritualism, and that it isn’t particularly new. The New Age’s fascination with Indian and Oriental medicine and religion, and with consciousness-altering meditation, often attributed to the discovery of Buddhism and Indian religion by the beatniks and hippies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, is not new.
Chapter Four, “The Spirituality Bazaar” repeats parts of earlier chapters about author-lecturers, but goes on to look at the lecture and training programs for personal growth. She writes that she has gone to the lectures and courses, and taken notes, and listened to the questions. She has asked questions when questions are permitted, but didn’t get straight answers. She has written articles about these lecturers and received some very strong reactions. She asks the question about why Americans appear to be ready to place their trust in this stuff so easily. In this chapter she nails the renegade ex-Catholic hippie priest Matthew Fox for his vague and rambling theories and his efforts to sacralize New Age values within the Christian tradition. She also nails Marianne Williamson again, and nails therapist-gurus Brian Weiss and Judith Orloff. Philosopher-therapist Thomas Moore comes off more lightly because he admits that his books tend to repeat the same advice on self-care written by the Renaissance philosopher Ficino, and because he refuses to turn his books into expensive lectures.
Some New Age writers like Neil Donald Walsch make grandiose claims of direct communication with the divine. Some New Age gurus, in her experience, are very sensitive about their own teachings and react very badly to criticism. She says “In a culture preoccupied with self-esteem, megalomania is a virtue, I guess.”
She says that the New Age is intolerant. It treats the established organized religions as unenlightened and authoritarian. Also, while the New Age seems to have room for all kinds of beliefs, it does not accept skepticism and science. New Agers dismiss skeptics as “witch-hunters.” In theological terms, one would say that the New Age believes in selective pluralism. It claims tolerance for itself against other religions and against government scrutiny, but it preaches that it is a more enlightened religion than mainline Christianity and Islam.
Chapter Four also has an interesting discussion on feminism and the New Age. She says that many women today try to have it both ways. They want equality, but they also want to be intuitive and emotional and to have all the other stereotypical feminine attributes. She calls this female chauvinism and argues that it has flourished within the spirituality and alternative-healing movements. She points out that while in earlier generations these ideas empowered women by giving them a particular area of safety and personal authority, today they hold women back.
In Chapter Five, “Junk Science,” she examines the New Age’s obsession with justifying itself scientifically, or at least explaining its beliefs by faith in new and innovative science. She deals with the unjustified popularity of Indian medicine as presented by Deepak Chopra and mentions the various New Age ideas that try to tie spiritual beliefs into someone’s half-baked understanding of the quantum physics. Chapter Seven, “Cyberspacy” seems to pick up on the New Age’s fascination with big picture scientific and cultural ideas, with a particular focus on the New Age’s tendency to view the Internet as evidence of the emergence of a higher level of consciousness.
Chapter Six, “The Therapeutic Assault” revisits and expands on her earlier reference to the recovery movement. This chapter is worthwhile for its examination of how the therapeutic professions embraced junk science about recovered memories and how some professionals testified in court – with horrendous consequences for innocent people – in child abuse cases that were founded on false accusations and bad therapy. This chapter spins off into a further discussion of the way in which subjective reports of personal experience, no matter how ludicrous and incredible, have become elevated into unassailable truth in post-modernist philosophy, in certain styles of therapy, and in popular culture.
I found a theme running through all these chapters. The New Age preaches freedom and innovation in theory but in practice it encourage subordination to the pronouncements of predatory and self-serving writers, lecturers, teachers, coacher and gurus.
Chapter Eight is a short chapter which tries to identify why people embrace the New Age. She suggests that people need to fail safe and to feel good about themselves, and can find safety and validation within the belief systems of the New Age. She briefly touches on the connection between the New Age and cults. She seems to accept that cults are an extreme form of the New Age belief, carried into practice, but she doesn’t spend much time on cults.
I thought that her general premise that organized religion and the New Age are equally irrational led her to overlook a couple of criticisms of the New Age. There are intellectual differences between the major religious tradtions and the New Age. The major religions have coherent theology. They have an internally consistent intellectual system, although members of a religious tradition may tend to ignore that system and favour personal testimony and personal experience. The New Age is fractured. Its theology is a la carte, and it is basically a subjective and emotional movement.
The major religions have systems of personal and public ethics and are concerned about justice. While the Christian left thinks the Christian right is overly focussed on sexuality, and right thinks the left are all commies, they all have strong ethics and willingness to work in the world to change it. The New Age is all about self-esteem and feeling good. As for justice – remember what some New Age writers said about murder. That may not be completely fair. Some New Agers have a sort of non-violent, tree-hugging anti-corporate ethic but they can’t seem to stop meditating and navel-gazing long enough to do anything. They dream of changing the world, but they won’t live in the real world.
Kaminer would seem to agree that the adherents of the New Age tend to be self-absorbed and grandiose, and out of touch with the real world but she can’t seem to make the other points I’ve mentioned.
It is a good little book to read and think about. It doesn’t try to catalogue all the New Age writers and lectures or their theories. It doesn’t try to examine the evolution of the ideas of the New Age and their circulation in popular culture in depth. It has enough factual observations and evidence to support the main arguments. It raises real concerns about the role of the New Age in popular culture and it should make people re-examine language and concepts that we tend to take on board, ignorantly, from the media and popular culture. It is written forcefully and with wit and elegance.