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Reason, Sex, and Science

Wendy Kaminer deconstructs pop culture and piety


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 4.


Wendy Kaminer, attorney, social critic and Public Policy Fellow at Radcliffe College, has been an astute commentator on pop nonsense and an influential advocate for social change and secularism. In her forthcoming book, Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), she continues her systematic attack on the current trends toward unreason and religious pretensions. In the following interview, Kaminer spoke with Free Inquiry’s Erika Hedberg about New Age spirituality, junk science and the paranormal, empiricism, and the pop stampede toward faith.

FREE INQUIRY: One of the most important distinctions that you make in Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials is between spirituality and religion. How do they differ?

WENDY KAMINER: I never know exactly what people mean by “spirituality,” since it is something of a Rorschach test of a word. That’s why people like it, because it can mean whatever they want it to mean. It’s ecumenical. Often they use it to refer to some intimation of transcendence, some sense that there is something more to life than this material world. People from different faiths can all share in their spirituality, even though they may have very different theologies. In some ways the vaguer it is, the more harmless it is, and also the more marketable it is.

When I think about religion, I think of established and often institutionalized theologies. When pop-spirituality authors think of religion, they think of institutionalized hierarchies with sets of rules that they’re not following because they don’t want to be bound by a particular sectarian theology. But religion, from my perspective, is simply spirituality institutionalized.

FI: How do religion and New Age spirituality differ in their relationships to science?

Kaminer: There are a lot of religious people who understand empiricism who don’t apply the habits of faith to empirical questions. One hundred years ago, religion was quite shaken by Darwinism. But today, putting aside the creationists, many educated religious people have made their peace with Darwin because science addresses empirical questions with empirical processes, and religion addresses existential questions, something very different.

In some ways New Age movements are trickier because they pretend to appropriate science. New Age claims are filled with pseudoscience so as to present themselves as a kind of science—which makes Deepak Chopra, for example, so hilarious when he talks about “quantum exercises” or “taking you beyond the quantum.” He uses the word quantum in completely nonsensical ways.

I think that New Age movements have a lot more to fear from science education than religion does. To a certain extent, established Western religion has reconciled itself with science—though obviously there are pockets of it that have not, there are people who have not, and there are still creationists out there. But New Age—I don’t know what else there is to New Age except pseudoscience.

FI: Do you mean that there are no boundaries to what is permissible in the realm of the New Age “spirituality buffet?”

Kaminer: It’s not that there are no boundaries, but there’s no core that can be easily separated from science. There’s sort of a core to mainstream religion that can be untouchable by science: there is a core of faith, there are sets of beliefs about God, about immortality. That’s why religion looks silly when it tries to use science, when it takes the Shroud of Turin, for example, and claims that scientific tests show that this was really worn by Christ.

FI: You have pointed out that women comprise the predominant population of New Age spiritualism. Why do you think that is?

Kaminer: I don’t believe that women are any more prone to irrationalism than men, but women have always been the primary consumers of personal development literature, whether it is books about dieting, relationships, family life, codependency, or angels. From a publishing perspective, such books have always been geared towards a predominantly female market.

The world of interpersonal relationships is a world that women have been delegated to throughout history, and so there are all kinds of cultural reasons why women have been more involved than men. And religious institutions have traditionally been male-dominated institutions. In the nineteenth century in this country, spirituality movements involved a great many women partly because they were open to women.

FI: It is apparent that most people who embrace popular spirituality don’t have a practical understanding of science. How does this affect their ability to determine a claim’s credibility?

Kaminer: That is a very big problem. People don’t have much sophistication at all about science. We live in this therapeutic culture where people testify to their own personal experiences, and we’re supposed to take their testimony at face value and assume it establishes some sort of truth. My instinct is to always test it out empirically, in whatever way I can, even if it just means cross-examining the person, trying to get my own sense of their credibility.

This therapeutic culture promotes the idea that we measure truth by the passion and sincerity of the believer. That is a ridiculous notion because passion and sincerity have nothing to do with truth; they can have a lot to do with delusion.

FI: And passion and sincerity can make testimonials really convincing.

Kaminer: Yes, and that is why it is so easy to circulate stories about alien abductions and guardian angels and all these other supernatural occurrences. People are not accustomed to testing these assertions because they don’t have even a loose understanding of the scientific method, of some kind of empirical analysis.

FI: With so many belief systems in society—religious, spiritual, and otherwise—is it possible for all of us to share a set of secular moral values?

Kaminer: Yes. There are a set of shared beliefs which people adhere to in varying degrees. You won’t encounter much dispute that murder is wrong, and people across religious sects, in this country anyway, generally share a belief that violent assaults are wrong, that stealing is wrong.

We have some very difficult battles over issues like abortion and the right to die where we don’t have a shared moral consensus. I think that issues like abortion underscore the importance of keeping church and state separate, of maintaining a secular body politic. The more secular we are, the more pluralistic we can be.

It is very important for religious people who are active politically to understand that, if they want to forge consensus, they need to find a way to appeal to a common ideal that is shared by people who don’t have religious compunctions akin to theirs. I think that, as a matter of good citizenship, as a matter of civics, it is important for people who are motivated by sectarian ideals to find some larger, broader ideals that they can appeal to in a pluralistic society.

FI: Should the responsibility of imparting morality be a parental responsibility, or do we as a society have a vehicle for imparting broad moral concepts to children without introducing religion, so as to keep our society and its virtues secular?

Kaminer: Parents will try to impart values in their children, and I think most of us would agree that parents have a responsibility to impart values to their children.

Are there other social institutions that should try to impart values? I think that’s what public schools are for, in a way. I think private associations impart values to people, or at least teach them to function cooperatively.

Do I think it’s possible to inculcate virtue in people without religion? Of course, but conventional wisdom says very strongly that religious belief is essential to virtue, and I think that’s a statement that needs to be constantly challenged. It’s true that, for a lot of people, religion is a source of virtue. But religion is not an essential source of virtue, nor is religion the only source of virtue. Religion is also a source of great strife and vice and viciousness for a lot of people. It’s simply wrong to say that we can’t be virtuous without religion, that we can’t be good without God, but I think that is the prevailing view today. And that is a dangerous view because that demonizes secularism.

FI: The separation of church and state is one of your perennial concerns. Just to take one flash point in the debate, what are your views on “charitable choice,” the idea that the government should subsidize religious organizations that want to offer public services?

Kaminer: We’ve had lots of social programs over the years that were administered by nonsectarian, nonreligious bodies, by governments, by secular welfare organizations. We’ve even had welfare programs that were administered by organizations that were affiliated with religious institutions, but they’ve had their own independent governing boards.

When people think about charitable choice, and they think about money going to religious institutions, they often think about money going to the religious institutions they like. But the money is also going to go to the religious institutions they don’t like.

Generally the rule has been that government money is not supposed to go to what are called “pervasively sectarian institutions,” but that is beginning to change, and I think that is very dangerous.

FI: Another social issue that you have addressed is the war on drugs. You have talked about the problems that arise because of the current policy’s lack of pragmatism. What should the public policy be? Should we embrace some form of legalization or decriminalization?

Kaminer: The short answer is yes. I use the example of drug policy because it seems to me one of our most glaring examples of a thoroughly irrational public policy. One of the things that I am speculating about in my book is that the habits of faith, or the habits of unreason, that people develop in the religious realm are carried over into realms that really require empirical analysis. These habits of faith and unreason end up determining questions of public policy quite inappropriately.

The drug war seems to be the prime example of this because it is not a reasoned effort at crime control. It is an anti-vice crusade and is completely irrational. We put people in prison for unspeakably long periods of time for merely possessing cocaine or heroine. We have prisons filled with basically nonviolent, law-abiding people who are serving 10 and 20 years in prison for nothing. It’s not just a misallocation of resources; it’s a gross and a cruel injustice.

It’s really a government war against its citizens as much as it is a war against drugs. It’s allowed to continue because people are completely irrational on the subject and because they have so many biases about drug use that it has made it impossible for us to have a rational conversation about what could work.

If someone suggests that alternative ways of remedying our nation’s drug problem involve decriminalizing, or even greatly lessening the penalties for using these drugs, people won’t have the conversation because it’s like sanctioning a sin. I am generally in favor of decriminalization, but I don’t think it is a simple problem. You have to do a very complicated cost-benefit analysis about the effects of various legal reforms.

FI: Censorship, specifically of pornography, is another key issue for you. Just as Rudy Giuliani lambastes New York City’s sex industry, many anti-pornography feminists say that censoring porn will not only improve our quality of life, but will also help to promote more virtuous, moral attitudes towards women. Are there any harms that anti-pornography “feminists” are creating for feminism?

Kaminer: The feminist movement has always been a very complex movement, and there have always been puritanical strains within it. The problem of sexual violence has always made a lot of women anti-libertarian, at least when it comes to sexual misconduct by men. There have always been a lot of feminists who thought that the way you achieve equality was not by expanding the rights of women so much, but by restricting the rights of men, or by restricting the rights of men while the rights of women were expanded.

I am staunchly opposed to any kind of censorship, so to the extent that the anti-porn movement makes censorship seem more respectable, or even progressive, I think it’s deplorable.

In the early 1980s, Phyllis Schlafly started using feminist rhetoric when she talked about sex education. She had always been on a crusade against sex education in the schools, and she started using the feminist rhetoric about pornography to talk about these things. She started talking about how sexually explicit material is bad because it subordinates women. A lot of feminist language about pornography, and a lot of the feminist ideology about pornography, got coopted by people on the right. There are a lot of women out there who think that censorship is good for women, and I find that very unfortunate.

FI: I will switch gears one last time. You have written that there are responsible ways to own a gun, but that there are some inherent, unavoidable harms without gun control legislation. Why do you say this?

Kaminer: Gun ownership is a fact of life. I don’t own guns, I don’t want to own guns, and I would be personally happy if nobody owned a gun. However, when I talk to people who are passionate about the right to gun ownership, they sound a lot like people who are passionate about free speech, and I understand the passion about free speech. They believe that owning guns is essential to their individual autonomy, and I think that sense needs to be respected.

My own sense is that we need gun control, and that gun controls are constitutional, but that it might be possible to recognize some underlying rights of people to own guns while still imposing regulations. As long as people who own guns believe that people who want to regulate the ownership of guns are really intent on confiscating all the guns, they will never even sit down at the table with us. 


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