Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials is not a new book, but it’s just the kind of old book that this blog was designed to reintroduce.
Despite the passage of time, or perhaps because of it, Kaminer’s well-reasoned set of chapter-length essays engagingly illustrates her subtitle: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety.
One of the more interesting things about Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials is how little the passage of time — and a decade and a half is a very long time in today’s world — has blunted Kaminer’s arguments. The public power of what should be private religion, the “victim culture” that still dominates much social and moral discourse, and the irrational influence wielded by “junk science” remain important issues today.
What struck me first about Kaminer’s book was how much I agreed with what she had to say. What sticks with me now that I’ve finished the book is how clearly and reasonably Kaminer makes her case. There is conviction here, and humour, but there is neither cant nor sarcasm. Kaminer outlines her issues, then she makes her case for one position or another. It’s easy to imagine someone who disagrees with most of what she says nevertheless liking and respecting her. The absence of polemical rhetoric in Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials is a considerable plus in today’s contentious social, political, and moral conversations.
From the first chapter, “Pious Biases,” here’s one example of Kaminer’s clearly-focused, reasonably-expressed analysis:
Of course, whether or not nonbelievers are, in general, better or worse citizens than believers, neither the formation of individual character nor religious belief is the business of government. It has no missionary role. Government is not competent or empowered to ease our existential anxieties; its jurisdiction is the material world of hardship and injustice.
It can and should make life a little fair, and in order to do so, it necessarily enforces some majoritarian notions of moral behavior — outlawing discrimination, for example, or a range of violent assaults. But in a state that respects individual privacy, law can address only bad behavior, not bad thoughts, and cannot require adherence to what are considered good thoughts–like love of God: civil rights laws don’t deny you the right to harbor prejudices; they deny you the right to act on them. Government can’t force you to like people of different races; it can require you to treat them fairly. It can help make people comfortable, ensuring access to health care, housing, education and the workplace. But government cannot make people good.
The idea that government has a responsibility to intervene to ensure fairness surely will bother some on the right. And the claim that government can enforce only behaviour, not morality, surely will annoy some on both sides. It’s no secret that my left-leaning friends can be as doctrinaire and intolerant as their rightist opponents.
Indeed, Kaminer is perhaps most well-known for her split with some of her more radical feminist sisters over the “recovered memory” fiasco of the 1990’s. In this book and elsewhere she has also criticized the self-help and “new age,” new spirituality movements, accusing them of offering a hierarchical and doctrine-driven road to an illusion of self-empowerment. And she again distanced herself from some other feminists over the claim that to feel abused is a sufficient condition for the presence of abuse.
Kaminer consistently takes stands like these because her chief aim is to protect the rights of individuals against the power of groups, and that inclination when combined with her progressive social goals makes her something of a “libertarian liberal,” if such a creature is possible.
Standing behind each of Kaminer’s arguments is her fundamental commitment to rational thought, her belief that only thinking often and thinking well can protect us from the irrationality endemic to our culture. In a late chapter called “Cyberspacy,” Kaminer writes once more from the perspective of the individual, this time threatened by the illusory glories of the egalitarianism of cyberspace.
The debate between respective representatives of new and old media is often couched as a conflict between direct and representative democracy. Netizens are cast as populists and the punditocracy as the ruling class.
However, she warns, “Direct democracy on the grand scale isn’t necessarily all that democratic. Majority rule always threatens individual rights and the interests of minorities.” And, perhaps even more worrisome for a rational thinker:
The benefits of cyperspace — interactivity, speed of communication, spontaneity of discussion, access to information and opportunities to disseminate it widely — all have obvious costs. Interactivity can easily devolve into hyperactivity. Spontaneity of expression can be the enemy of thoughtfulness. The power of every individual or group to disseminate facts is also the power to disseminate rumors. … The ersatz populism of the wired (who are apt to feel infinitely superior to the unwired) interferes with efforts to screen information and publish only what, at lwast, approximates truth.
Fifteen years old, but not at all fifteen years out of date, Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials is worth a trip to the library or a search for a good used copy at Abebooks.com — that’s where I found my very good hardcover copy for just a very well-spent buck!