Sleeping with Extraterrestrials by Wendy Kaminer (March 2001)

This speech was delivered before the twenty-third annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Sept. 16, 2000, where Wendy Kaminer was named “Freethought Heroine” 2000.

Hello, you godless sons of bitches.

I’m honored to be your Freethought Heroine this year, though I have to say that calling me a heroine implies that there’s some sort of courage in what I do, and I don’t think that my work is particularly courageous, considering that I’m based in that hotbed of Unitarianism, Cambridge, Massachusetts. You don’t find me in the Bible Belt getting into fights with people who want to force my children to pray. That’s what takes real courage. Lawyers at the ACLU often say that the bravest people in the world are our clients. Some of our clients also number among the biggest jerks in the world and that’s how they come to be our clients. But, many of them are noble, brave people who put much at risk to stand up for their rights, the rights of their children, and the rights of other people in their communities. If I were to nominate some freethought heroes and heroines of the year, I might pick a collection of ACLU clients.

Enough about heroism. Let’s talk about freethought. I read in Talk magazine recently, that Jane Fonda had found god. And I thought to myself, “well, of course, she has,” because Jane Fonda is a weathervane of popular culture. She was an antiwar protester when that was the thing to be and then she was an aerobics queen in the 1980s and now she’s a child of god. So if you needed any further proof that we’re in a period of religious revivalism you can point to Jane Fonda’s reported conversion.

Or, of course, you could listen to Joe Lieberman, whose political platform seems to be his religious faith. I don’t think anything this year has shown more clearly the link that most people make between morality and religion than the naming of Joe Lieberman as Democratic vice presidential candidate. When Gore needed to establish his morality and to distance himself from Bill Clinton, he picked someone who is aggressively religious.

There has been a lot of breathless talk about the “breakthrough” achieved by the Democrats in putting a Jew, an Orthodox Jew, on the national ticket, but I suspect that Lieberman had a much greater chance of being picked for vice president than any number of secular Protestants, not to mention any liberals. After Lieberman was named there was a wonderful cartoon in the Boston Globe by Dan Wasserman, who’s a very good political cartoonist, showing a picture of a woman looking over Lieberman’s republicanesque voting record on issues like missile defense, HMO’s, and social security, and saying to him, “Funny, you don’t look Democratic.”

It wasn’t surprising to hear Joe Lieberman repeat the canard that the First Amendment protects freedom of and not freedom from religion, though it was a little discouraging. I don’t know who authored that particular phrase. I’ve heard it from such disparate politicians as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. You hear it all the time. It’s irritating because it so clearly misapprehends the First Amendment. Of course the Constitution protects my freedom from Lieberman’s religion and his freedom from Al Gore’s religion, but you all know that.

It seems to be equally evident that politicians have every right to talk about their religious faith–incessantly, if they must–and Lieberman now claims that he only wants to inject religion into public discourse, not into public policy. In fact, a couple of days after he made his statement claiming that religion was essential to morality and encountered criticism, he sort of took it back. One of his spokespersons said something like, well, you have to understand that he was in a church when he said that–suggesting that we shouldn’t have taken his remarks so seriously.

I suppose we can hope that he’s insincere. But Lieberman should not be surprised when some people wonder if all this godly discourse might be a prelude to some godly policies. Especially when he suggests that we can somehow achieve freedom of religion without freedom from religion as well. Lately I’ve been yearning to be free of the moralistic banalities of this excessively pious presidential race. Can’t we just stipulate that all of these candidates believe in god quite fervently and regularly pray? Apparently not. Only a small minority of Americans seems to want to be free from religion, though in general I think that they do want freedom from particular religions, especially the ones of which they don’t approve.

These have been good years for religion and spirituality movements, which makes them very good years for satirists and social critics. Stories about the supernatural abound. Tales of angels, aliens, conversations with god or the spirits of the deceased, adventures in ESP and reincarnation all compete in the marketplace with established religious beliefs. I always include the broad range of New Age beliefs and popular superstitions, including some popular therapies, in my critique of irrationalism. I hope that when you all talk about freedom from religion you also talk about freedom from superstition in general.

Lately we do have a lot of superstition about, but culture is like real estate–it’s cyclical. Sometimes reason is up and sometimes it’s down, and sometimes religious faith and magical thinking reign–most of the time it seems. You can find periods in the early 20th century when reason seemed to be ascendant, but for the most part you’d be hard-pressed to find any period in human history when the vast majority of people didn’t harbor superstitions of one kind or another. And for the past couple of decades, reason has been in a downturn, at least in popular culture, despite all the scientific advances and our reliance on technology. Actually, New Age culture reflects a very conflicted relationship with science: it combines hostility toward science with a desire to appropriate scientific credibility and expertise, which is why people like Deepak Chopra like to make meaningless references to quantum physics. Chopra, for example, talks about taking us “beyond the quantum,” or he prescribes “quantum” exercises for us.

But for all their pseudo-scientific palaver, New Age gurus perpetuate and exploit the myth that our society is excessively rational and that we need to put cold reason aside and embrace our intuitive powers–what pop therapists like to call our “feeling realities.” Think with your heart and not with your head was one of the mantras of the recovery movement, and pop-spirituality books like The Celestine Prophecy commonly denigrated reason as the last resort of the unenlightened. The current wave of religious revivalism, which includes New Age and established faiths, encourages a celebration of ineffable, intuited truths: non-rational truths about the existence of god, the reality of heaven, the presence of guardian angels and other spiritual wishes or ideals.

I’d like to talk to you today about irrationalism and the likely effect of faith and piety on public policy, but first I want to spend just a minute or two telling you something about my own attitudes towards religious belief. I’m personally irreligious, just about completely irreligious. [clapping] You don’t have to clap for that. I hope that you wouldn’t dislike me if I harbored some religious beliefs. Which leads me to my next point: I’m not a proselytizing atheist. In fact, I hesitate to call myself an atheist because I don’t really want to define myself in opposition to religion. One of my friends says that she calls herself an agnostic, not an atheist, because to call herself an atheist makes religion seem too important.

I also don’t consider myself especially hostile toward religion in general though I may take issue with particular theologies and their effect on the culture. I don’t have a lot of patience for all the nonsense produced by some gurus of New Age, although there’s probably just as much nonsense that comes out of established religion. One of the main differences, though, between established religions and New Age is that established religion is–established–which means that it’s institutionalized. There’s a lot of corruption that follows from that but there’s also some social utility. Look at the historic contributions made by religious movements and organizations to social justice and welfare. Religion is a complicated phenomenon. You can’t reasonably assert that no good has come of it.

I’m also very deeply committed to preserving religious freedom regardless of the form it takes. What’s more fundamental than the right to believe and worship as you choose? And, while I consider faith a very poor substitute for empirical reasoning when we are deciding matters of public policy, I don’t share the view of some atheists that religion can’t coexist with reason or common sense. I find categorical denunciations of religious belief as simplistic as categorical denunciations of disbelief.

So, I’m not about to offer you a version of Jesse Ventura’s attack on religion, though I did find his mockery of religion extremely refreshing, mostly because it’s so exceedingly rare. It was hard to believe that an elected official was standing up and debunking belief in god. It was quite refreshing. But his assertion that religion is for weak-minded people was a bit facile. Religion attracts strong-minded, highly intelligent people as well as the weak and the stupid and that’s what makes it interesting. If it only attracted stupid people, if it were nothing but a collection of banalities, it would be unintriguing and much less powerful.

What you can learn from studying pop-psychology, pop-spirituality, and religious revivalism is that intelligence is often compartmentalized, and that highly intelligent people can be what you might consider very unsophisticated about belief in the supernatural. Upwards of 95% of Americans reportedly profess belief in god. Now you can’t possibly think that everyone in this room is smarter than 96% of all Americans. I surely don’t. I imagine that there are people who believe in god who are even smarter than we.

It should be obvious that religious people can be equally acquainted with virtue and vice, passion and viciousness, just like nonreligious people, and it’s extremely difficult, probably impossible to quantify the historic effect of religious belief on human welfare. The only generalization about religion that ever appealed to me was Mary McCarthy’s remark that religion is good for good people.

Usually it makes little sense to talk about religion in general; like the weather, it’s highly variable. Despite outbursts of ecumenism, people involved in different religious sects embrace different beliefs about the almighty and the nature of human virtue. Does godliness require that women wear veils or that children be beaten with belts? Does it oppose abortion or support reproductive choice? We can talk about the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion rights; we can also talk about the role that the liberal Protestant clergy played in the early years of the pro-choice movement. Does religion encourage or prohibit interracial marriages? Religion played a fairly strong role in the maintenance of Jim Crow laws; some white supremacists thought that the division of the races was divinely ordained. Religion also played a very important part in the civil rights movement. What notion of godly virtue does a Pentecostal Christian share with a Christian Scientist, a Muslim fundamentalist, a Unitarian-Universalist, a Scientologist, a Reform Jew and a Spiritualist? So often when people talk about religion in America today they should really be talking about sectarianism.

One of the perils posed by contemporary religious revivalism is the tendency to treat belief in a god simplistically as if it were a monolithic unmitigated good, as if faith were always a virtue and never a vice. I realize that fringe movements, like the Branch Davidians, the Hare Krishnas, and a range of insular totalistic groups that we label cults, are scorned or feared, not praised. But they are often viewed in the mainstream as perversions of religion, not exemplars.

The exaltation of religious belief is often a triumph of circular reasoning. It’s easy to assert that religion inculcates virtue if you limit your definition of true religion to the groups that seem virtuous to you. And that is pretty much what people do. I am very wary of generalizing about religion. John Dewey said we should never talk about religion in the singular, we should only talk about religions, plural. But, as a social critic, I am in the business of making generalizations, and I think that we can engage in some generalized discussions about the phenomenon of religious faith, the willingness or capacity to believe in deities, angels or miracles, whatever forms they take. We can identify basic human needs served by various religions: the craving for immortality or cosmic justice.

It may be fun to debunk religion (it’s often fun to debunk whatever is held sacred), but if you want to be effective in combating the real dangers of organized religion, you have to respond sympathetically to the existential anxieties that fuel religious belief. Life is a series of losses: we’re going to lose all the people that we love, we’re going to lose ourselves. I don’t feel at all contemptuous of people who turn to beliefs in eternal life that I don’t share. I understand why people who lost their children in the late 19th century turned to mediums to try to communicate with them.

It is obvious that the promise of immortality greatly enhances the appeal of western religions and contemporary New Age movements. Popular spirituality books tell us that there is no death, and there are a lot of immortality options in the New Age. Either we’ll be reincarnated or transformed in some mysterious higher form of energy. Or, with the right attitude and diet we can essentially live forever. That’s Deepak Chopra’s message. Established western religions generally tell us that if we behave, we will ascend to heaven. According to a 1990 Gallup poll (this is one of my favorite statistics), some three-quarters of Americans believe that they are going to heaven. You have to wonder who they think is consigned to the other place.

People seem likely to believe what they want to hear or what they fear; in either case, emotion preempts reason. So it’s not surprising that terrifying accounts of alien abductions coexist in a popular culture with bedtime stories about guardian angels who offer unconditional love. With faith on the ascendant, tales of the supernatural enjoy considerable appeal. We live in very credulous times, so when I talk about the rise of irrationalism, I am talking about credulity, gullibility. I’m talking about the decline of skepticism. I’m concerned with the ways in which our culture celebrates faith and devalues reason and applies habits of faith to questions that require empirical analysis, notably questions of public policy.

It is, for example, perfectly appropriate to take on faith assertions about the divinity of Jesus or the assertion that god loves you: You can only take that on faith. But it is not appropriate to take on faith that ending welfare benefits will end teenage pregnancy. That is an assertion about an empirical reality. Conclusions about, say, the efficacy of the drug war or the power of Christian Science healers to cure cancer ought to be demonstrated empirically.

The irrationalism that discourages questioning and empirical analysis is one very important legacy of the therapeutic culture. And by the therapeutic culture, I mean the ethics and the values that derive from popular therapies, notably the recovery movement, the 12-step movement. It has contributed greatly to the current religious revival.

Consider the quasi-religious reliance on personal testimony. The therapeutic culture exhorts us to substitute feelings for facts, to take personal testimony at face value, especially when it relates to searing personal experience, notably child abuse, sexual abuse. If we cross-examine someone offering testimony of abuse or question her credibility we’re accused of perpetuating the abuse. At the very least, cross-examination is considered a breach of etiquette. We’re expected to judge the truth of an assertion by the passion or apparent sincerity with which it is offered, as if people were never delusional or simply convincingly dishonest. We’re supposed to take stories about extraterrestrials, guardian angels, ghosts and other supernatural occurrences at face value, as well, and in fact the authors of pop-spirituality books depend on our willingness to suspend disbelief and take them at their word when they tell us stories about communicating with god, with the angels or their dead grandparents.

I can’t stress strongly enough how much this reliance on personal testimony and this mandate that we take personal testimony at face value contributes to the irrationalism that abounds today. It comes right out of popular therapies, and popular therapies took it straight from the religious tradition of testifying and the conflation of feelings about god’s immanence with facts about his existence. There are times, of course, when religious truths are appropriate and irreproachable. There are times when therapeutic truths or feeling realities are perfectly appropriate–in a therapist’s office, for example, although even therapists have to be concerned with distinguishing emotional and historical truths. A statement like “my father never understood me” is a subjective emotional truth. A statement like “my father raped me” asserts an objective truth. It’s a claim about a historical fact that needs to be investigated.

What are the dangers of confusing feelings with facts? Consider the results of importing therapeutic notions of truth into the courtroom. We saw a rash of wrongful child abuse cases in the 1980s and 90s and the imprisonment of people for crimes that were probably never committed. These cases reflected in part a failure of reason and the confusion of justice with therapy. Believe the children, people said. Take their stories at face value even when the stories were completely unbelievable. A courtroom ought to be a realm dominated by facts, not feelings; by reason, not faith. You should never be discouraged from cross-examining anybody who’s making an accusation of criminality.

So, when I talk about the rise of irrationalism, in part I’m talking about an inappropriate reliance on personal testimony as the source of objective truth. I’m talking about confusing the realms of faith and reason. As I’ve said, people derive a lot of comfort and maybe even some enlightenment from their subjective intuitions about unverifiable spiritual truths, and I don’t deny or even want to address the very private benefits of irrationalism. I’m interested in its public perils, in the perils of piety as well as the perils of all the irrationalism spawned by the New Age movements.

One obvious peril is the rise of sectarianism and the marriage of particular religious beliefs with government. Of course, politicians have a right to talk about their faith; but it’s irritating and unsettling to hear them use professions of religious faith as signals of their own essential goodness, and when they equate belief in God with goodness, it’s easy to suspect that they’re beginning to make the case that a good government is a godly one.

That’s a very popular belief, because many people do derive their ideals and visions for a just society from their religions, which is not necessarily something I lament. In fact, as a secular person, I’d feel a lot better about George Bush if I thought he really was a good Christian who followed the teachings of Jesus. There might be a lot less people executed in Texas if he were. He might actually become a compassionate conservative.

That’s another way of saying that we can learn a lot more about George Bush and all the others by studying their records and observing their behavior than by listening to their declarations of religious faith. The belief that godliness is essential to good government is, at best, inane. You can find people who love God on both sides of most of our controversial debates. So it would be nice if religious people, notably religious people in public life, would acknowledge that religion is not an exclusive source of moral teachings. They need to recognize that freedom from religion does not entail freedom from ethical constraints. I think we need to make clear to the extent that we can how the equation of faith with goodness results in a kind of moral shallowness.

And that brings me back, in conclusion, to Senator Lieberman. I want to spend a couple of minutes talking about his morality. What evidence do we have of Lieberman’s goodness? He’s pious and puritanical. He represents one traditional American model of morality, and that’s what’s so depressing. Because if Lieberman is such a deeply moral man who felt that he had to denounce Clinton two years ago because he had an illicit affair with an intern, why was he silent in 1992 when his good friend Bill Clinton rushed back to Arkansas during the presidential campaign to execute Ricky Ray Rector, a convicted murderer who had been effectively lobotomized by a self-inflicted bullet.

I’m not suggesting that no good people support capital punishment, though I do think it is an immoral practice that most good people would oppose if they had good information about it. But the execution of Rector was particularly heinous and most of all violated the religious norms that have shaped our rules about capital punishment. Rector had blown away part of his brain, so he didn’t understand what it meant to be executed. He asked if he could save his dessert for after the execution. Legal prohibitions against executing the insane reflect the religious notion that we shouldn’t kill people who aren’t aware of what they’ve done and don’t have an opportunity to repent and maybe achieve salvation before dying.

This particular drama of sin and redemption is a Christian one. I doubt, however, that Rector’s execution seemed appropriate to Joe Lieberman because he’s Jewish. I think that only an agnostic or an atheist would find a kind of mercy in the execution of someone who is incapable of anticipating his death. In any case, Jews are supposed to care about justice, if not mercy, and Lieberman has demonstrated very sporadic support for it. He strongly supported some of the most unjust federal laws of recent decades: the 1996 counter-terrorism bill, for example, which greatly limits the right to appeal state court convictions in federal court, and which also allows people to be imprisoned and deported on the basis of secret evidence. In other words, the FBI can come to your door in the middle of the night and say, “We’re putting you under arrest,” and when you ask “Why are you putting me under arrest,” they answer, “We can’t tell you. It’s a secret.” There are, I think, a couple of dozen people in jail under this provision, which targets Muslims and Arab-Americans, not surprisingly. (Prejudice does carve out exceptions to the conventional notion that religious faith makes people good.)

You don’t have to be religious to oppose laws like this. All you need is a moral code that mandates some respect for fairness and human rights. So I’d welcome a campaign that revolved around moral questions, like the morality of racial profiling, the nation’s prison system, or the war on drugs. But issues like these are political taboos. In their drive to control the center, Lieberman and other moderate Democrats have abdicated moral responsibility for criminal justice. It is, by the way, very important for atheists, agnostics, and skeptics not to retreat from the battleground of moral debate. Don’t be afraid of using words like morality and talking about what you think is right or wrong. How else can you make the point that you don’t have to be religious to care about morality?

It’s been nearly ten years since Democrats coopted Republican rhetoric and a Republican agenda on crime control, with some religious fervor. When Clinton signed the very repressive 1994 federal crime bill which includes new federal penalties for drug crimes, among other things, he said that he was doing god’s work. Recently Democrats have adopted what used to be a Republican posture on religion. Having thoroughly corrupted the justice system, politicians are now targeting faith. If I believed in the devil, I’d imagine him rejoicing.

Wendy Kaminer, Affiliated Scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is a columnist for The American Prospect and is Contributing Editor at The Atlantic Monthly. She serves on the National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union. A lawyer and social critic, she writes about law, liberty, feminism, and popular culture. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. Her commentaries have aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Her articles and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, The Nation and Newsweek. Her books include: Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety (1999), I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional and A Fearful Freedom: Women’s Flight from Equality.

Freedom From Religion Foundation