Wendy Kaminer's righteousness gives skepticism a bad name; ON BOOKS


Wendy Kaminer -- journalist and activist -- was a leader in skepticism about the "recovered memory" movement. Enraging many important fellow-feminists, she attacked a widening hysteria that suggested vast numbers of children, particularly girls, had been abused sexually in early life and had repressed their memories of that abuse.

Advocates of this pernicious fad insisted that it was their duty to urge these ostensible "victims" to remember abuses -- whether they were real or imagined. Their efforts produced testimony (much of it later repudiated) that was then presented as criminal evidence against parents and other care-givers. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of decent people were wounded. Even now, spuriously convicted innocents are working their appellate ways out of prisons.

Kaminer, who teaches at Radcliffe College, has written, among others,the 1992 volume, "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional," which was important and catalytic. Now comes her latest: "Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety," (Pantheon, 272 pages, $24).

She deals with the "recovery" movement in a 30-page chapter, the most reasoned, compelling section of the book. "Social change," Kaminer rightly insists there, "is forged by people who are not afraid to insult or offend their neighbors deeply and harass upholders of the status quo. That is one important lesson of history." Right on!

In another chapter, "Junk Science," she does a careful and convincing job of exploring the immensely lucrative gibberish of self-help guru Deepak Chopra -- and demonstrating the absence of anything even remotely scientific in that and the work of dozens of other motivational Elmer Gantrys. She skewers the angel fad and alien-abduction cults. She damns "New Agers," "validation" seekers, enthusiasts for "holistic" anything, faith-healing movements -- the entire commerce and collective of narcissism merchants.

This is all fine -- reasoned, persuasive and clearly stated. But that is all that is fine.

Sadly, in my opinion, the bulk of Kaminer's book is a wailing, pathological tantrum of True Believerism that is based more on blind-faith than anything she criticizes.

The very thought that anybody could believe in anything -- except her own way-out political correctness doctrine -- drives Kaminer to inconsolable baying at the moon.

She does that with sneering condescension, without a grain of irony. Snideness of tone masquerades as wit. There is not a hint that anyone who does not subscribe to her own catechism could be anything but mindless, heartless -- or, more likely, utterly, corruptly hypocritical.

Early on, she writes: "If I were to mock religious belief as childish, if I were to suggest that worshiping a supernatural deity, convinced that it cares about your welfare, is like worrying about monsters in the closet who find you tasty enough to eat, if I were to describe God as our creation, likening Him to a mechanical gorilla, I'd violate the norms of civility and religious correctness. I'd be excoriated as an example of the cynical, liberal elite responsible for America's moral decline."

And then she does precisely that, for more than two-thirds of the entire book.

Kaminer cites figures from "polls taken in the 1990s" about Americans and beliefs. She presents this data as apparently accurate and responsible: "Almost all Americans (95 percent) profess belief in God. Only 4 percent identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. Fifty-nine percent say that religion is very important in their lives; 29 percent rate it fairly important. Seventy-six percent imagine God as a heavenly father who actually pays attention to their prayers. Forty-six percent believe in the biblical account of creation."

This enrages her, at worst. At best, it seems to make her feel ecstatically superior to these ignorant "believers." She relates that she is an "agnostic" -- apparently finding atheism too doctrinal. "Nor am I utterly secure in my disbelief," she writes. "Skepticism is an attitude, not a dogma."

But then she declares unequivocally that belief in "Christ's ascent to heaven" is irrational -- pathological -- identical to the contention by 39 Heaven's Gate cultists in 1997 that once they had committed suicide, "a flying saucer would whisk them to a better place."

I am not religious. That is a complex, private matter, but it is necessary, I suppose, to state it here. Nonetheless, some -- many -- of the most intelligent, culturally sophisticated, worldly-wise and knowledgeable men and women I have known in my life are devout.

The disappointment of this book is that it could have been useful. When her prose is not tortured by condescension or internal illogic, it can be clear and bright. Kaminer often intelligently lays bare much pop spiritualist literature, like the hugely successful and transparently shoddy "The Celestine Prophecy" and its clones..

But she sweeps into the same dustbin a grand inventory of ideological betes noirs of ultraliberalism: school choice or vouchers, welfare rationalization, narcotics prosecution and so forth. She dismisses Alcoholics Anonymous and other "faith-based" programs. Again, the sneering is chilling: "While belief in God is commonly presumed to inculcate virtue in everyone, welfare recipients and billionaires alike, evidence of religion's auspicious effect on character is scarce."

Finally, she declares that a healthy and humane society must be a skeptical one -- that "rationalism is founded on skepticism ... and a capacity to tolerate doubt." Yet the body and balance of the book is rigidly doctrinal. It contemptuously dismisses and ridicules any hint of skepticism or doubt. If Wendy Kaminer -- in this book at least -- is not a chanting, howling dogmatist, I have yet to meet or read one.

It is terribly distressing to witness -- even in one book -- what amounts to doctrinal hysteria conquering a writer and a thinker of previously exciting promise.

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