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Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety Hardcover – September 21, 1999

3.4 out of 5 stars 50 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"It's easy to imagine a TV sitcom making fun of a character who visits psychics and astrologers and channels Sarah Bernhardt," opines Wendy Kaminer, "but virtually impossible to imagine it laughing at anyone who takes the Bible literally and believes that someone named Jonah once lived in a whale." She goes on to demonstrate that, despite the complaints from many religious people that the "secular media" mocks their beliefs, American culture still shows a high degree of respect for the faithful and pious, while popular hostility towards atheists continues to rise. But "why should it be socially acceptable to make fun of psychics and not priests?" That's one of many provocative questions Kaminer raises in Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, a critical assessment of the extent to which U.S. society has succumbed to the irrational.

Kaminer goes on to sift her way through pop spirituality "classics" like The Celestine Prophecy and Conversations with God and visits seminars by New Age gurus (leaving her "amused and dismayed by the painful stupidities that people embrace to ease their fears of death"), but Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials is not merely an assault on religion--Kaminer also attacks purveyors of junk science, the influence of the recovered-memory movement on both feminism and the American court system, and the "cyberspacy" claims made by boosters of technological progress. Whether she's considering the extensive belief in UFOs and alien abductions or wondering why so many people worshipped Princess Diana in the hour of her death, Kaminer shows how an unrestrained culture of faith "encourages passivity, gullibility, and a childlike craving for authority." Rationalists will find her skepticism a refreshing tonic. --Ron Hogan

From Publishers Weekly

In this provocative collection of eight essays, social critic Kaminer grapples with the many manifestations of "irrationalism"Abelieving in something without material proofAin contemporary culture. The targets for her witty, unsparing critiques range from the New Age spiritualism of Deepak Chopra and The Celestine Prophecy, contemporary angel lore and accounts of alien abduction to the recovered memory movement, from school vouchers to the "junk science" basis for the "war on drugs." Kaminer makes clear that she is not criticizing the personal beliefs of individuals (and admits that she herself believes in the benefits of homeopathy, contrary to most scientific opinion), but rather is concerned with "the possible public consequence" of such beliefs, especially when held by a dominant or influential group in the body politic. With unrelenting logic and easy grace, Kaminer poses questions that may upset many readers. For instance, she asks why Americans were dumbfounded by the suicides of the Heaven's Gate "cult" members who presumed they would go to heaven in a flying saucer, when only a few weeks later millions of people celebrated the "irrational" belief in "Christ's ascent into heaven." Kaminer is most entertaining when debunking commonly held pieties, such as when she contends that we often ignore that organized religins "sanctify bad behavior, along with the good." Behind her cool prose and entertainingly casual manner loom important and necessary questions about what it means to live in a democracy based on justice and reason. Agent, Esther Newberg, ICM. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (September 21, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067944243X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679442431
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,544,954 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Davis on November 28, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This not simply a case of an academic type looking down her nose at the ignorant masses. Wendy Kaminer provides compelling evidence why we should be disturbed by the creeping rise of irrationalism-especially when it affects public policy.
Police departments are hiring psychics to investigate murders, and prosecuting sex crimes based on "recovered memories" of alleged victims; public school boards, even in the 1990s, are emboldened by community consensus to force sectarian religion on students.
Kaminer asks the obvious questions that everyone else seems afraid to ask. Why should religious ideas be above public criticism? Why is it OK to ridicule Sun Myung Moon or New Age channelers, but not Billy Graham or the Pope? Are their beliefs any less silly?
The jabs at irrationalism aren't limited to traditional religion. Kaminer has done her homework, sitting through self-help seminars of New Age gurus and tracing the history of positive-thinking, inner-child and codependency therapy, alien abduction accounts, and guardian angel garbage.
The biggest laughs in this book come in quotations from the psychobabble of the 12-step recovery industry, and from the bestsellers of pop spirituality, such as Conversations with God, and The Celestine Prophecy. In Embraced by the Light, readers learn that people's souls may volunteer to be victims of accidents and murders to further some greater part of God's will.
Thanks to the average American's scientific illiteracy, technological advances are viewed as "miracles," and New Age claims about "energy transformation" and "vibrations" seem as plausible as valid science. (As Elaine Boosler once observed, even popcorn is a miracle if you don't understand it.
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Format: Hardcover
This is the type of book that will infuriate narrow-minded religious extremists who are convinced, even though they have absolutely no proof or even half-way decent evidence, that their one little segment of religiosity is the absolute and final truth. In this courageous book, Wendy Kaminer takes on not only the New Age, which is something of an easy target given its silly excesses, but also organized religion and the simple, childish faith most Americans have in God and the afterlife. Kaminer points out that in modern America, open skepticism of religion is met with disdain and often hostility. (Think of it: What major politician, except for the quite possibly unhinged governor of Minnesota, has in recent times dared to say anything even slightly negative about religion?) Independent thinkers will love this book; the close-minded, WWJD-wearing absolutists who worship manical TV preachers, bash gay people, harass abortion clinics, advocate creation "science" and burn to make our country a theocracy instead of a democracy will hate it. More power to Wendy Kaminer's pen!
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Format: Hardcover
The very first words in the introduction by Kaminer are: "Before I begin my critique of irrationalism, I have a confession to make: I go to a homeopath." She then goes on to explain how homepathic medicine has helped her. She also states in her defense that "I have [only] the vaguest understanding of antibiotics." One hour on the Internet would have provided her with a wealth of sites explaining in laymen's terms how antibiotics work.
Later on she dismisses out of hand any research into differences between men and women stating: "Of course, my own perspective on research on cognitive sex differences is bound to be colored by my belief in the justice of sexual equality.These are puzzling statements from one professing to make the case for rational thinking. To confuse equality with sameness is almost a point of disqualification for one professing to be an expert in this area. Of course, she could believe in sexual equality and still see that men and women have cognitive differences. She seems quick to dismiss any empirical evidence that she thinks might challenge one of her cherised beliefs, something she criticizes others for doing throughout the book. There is a ton of good solid research in this area (much of it being done by women, surprised?) that she ignores or dismisses out of hand as being sexist in nature.
The book on the whole is about average. If you have read or are familiar with much of the current thinking in the skeptics or rationalists movement most of her points will be old hat. There doesn't seem to be any central themes or points she wants to make, and it mostly comes off as one reviewer says here as a rant. It also comes off as books often do, as note cards strung together.
For a dollar or two more buy:
Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder By Richard Dawkins. It's a much better book and the writer does not confuse his on desires with rationalism.
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Format: Hardcover
Wendy Kaminer delivers a wonderfully sardonic attack on the masses of Americans who eagerly rush to embrace the latest form of irrationalism. She targets new age spirituality, public religious piety, junk science, and cyberculture fanatics. In many ways, the tone of this book suggests Wendy quietly observing people declaring their allegiances to the bizarre and unfounded, her arms folded and patiently waiting for any small scrap of credulity, and then rolling her eyes knowingly at the reader. That's the entertaining aspect of this book.
Unfortunately, this effort strikes me as another example of "preaching to the converted." Kaminer is actually tackling topics so diverse (under the umbrella of irrational thought) that the reader may find herself/himself wishing that she had undertaken several separate books, not one. She defends rational thought, but I think she needs to state more explicity what its advantages are, and why it is crucial to the human condition. Then too, she seems to overlook many of the ironic connections between the rational and the irrational. For instance, a drug addict may embrace an irrational belief in a "higher power" but is not the end result -- changing self-destructive behavior -- a very rational outcome? And then there is the issue of rationalism's shortfalls -- with all our rational and scientific progress, we find such malaises like alienation, loss of meaning, and decline in civility. Perhaps the irony is that irrational realities like myths and spiritual beliefs are somehow a core component of a balanced social world.
Okay, now back to the great things about Kaminer's book: She very effectively points out the absurdity and hypocrisy of many irrational belief systems.
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