Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Q&A Wendy Kaminer: Seance and Sacrament

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate).

   Some atheists will make the . . . argument that religious rituals endorse and encourage irrationalism. You can hardly praise religion for keeping people sane, they say, when it sanctifies their delusions. But that wrongly assumes that it is possible for us to rid ourselves of all supernaturalism. I'd treat religious cravings homeopathically. The cure is the disease, in small doses.
   "Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety" (1999)

HB: We've had calls for a new spiritualism for a long time now. Do you think it might be time to call for a new anti-spiritualism? Do you think this country has enough religion?

WK: Obviously, we've been in a revivalist period for the last ten or fifteen years and what is frustrating about it is the media really has put a kind of tacit ban on being critical of religion.

In the '80s there was criticism of the press for not covering religion. About ten years ago, I was at a meeting of newspaper editors and Shirley MacLaine was giving a keynote address; she was filling in for her "good friend the Dalai Lama," who couldn't make it. It was a very funny scene because it was predominately middle-aged male, and they didn't care what Shirley MacLaine said; they were just creaming at the fact that she was talking to them. She was exhorting them to give more coverage to religion.

It was a fairly common complaint at the time. Religion was so important to American life, and the press was supposedly such a hotbed of secularism and didn't cover it. Today, if you look at newspapers you will find an increase in the number of religion editors and religion columns. They started covering it more, but they cover it in a very reverential way. They don't cover it critically. They cover individual religious leaders critically sometimes -- Jimmy Swaggart.

HB: Elmer Gantry is always a story.

WK: Right, Elmer Gantry is always a story, and cults are always a story. But there is this tacit and widely observed prohibition against writing critically or even irreverently about mainstream religion. It's very strong and it's reflexive; it's not something they even think through.

HB: How do you account for it? Why does the media tread so softly on this subject?

WK: I don't know if it has to do with the kind of religious tradition they've grown up with. I don't know if has it do with their having bought into this widespread assumption that religion is good for us, and that, after all, religion is sacred. And there is an exaggerated fear of giving offense. Of course, they don't mind offending Moonies or people who follow various cult figures. They just don't want to offend members of established churches.

HB: So it's permissible to take on cults as long as we leave the major denominations alone.

WK: Cults and any kind of new age spirituality. I wrote briefly, in "Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials," about my experience doing an op-ed for the New York Times. They invited me to write something critical about Hillary Clinton's conversations with the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt. They expected me, they essentially invited me, to make fun of New Age practices. My piece said, why are we making such a fuss over this? Why is it so strange that Hillary Clinton talks to Eleanor Roosevelt when millions of people go to church and talk to Jesus and he's been dead for a long time? I said that to an atheist, a seance is not necessarily any sillier than a sacrament.

The reaction from the editor was immediate. The piece came back to me with all references to established religion deleted. I argued with them about it and pressed them to tell me why they were taking this out and the editor kept saying, it's gratuitously offensive. And I kept saying, it's not gratuitous.

HB: What were they afraid of?

WK: Well they're risk averse because they're afraid they're going to get sued for libel. I may not agree with their judgment but I understand it; at least there's something of a rational there. If Jesus were a living person and I were making derogatory remarks about him, I would understand why they wouldn't want me to make those remarks.

But really, what were they afraid of? That they were going to get a lot of letters? I mean, they're the New York Times! Angry readers write letters all the time. I kept pressing to get them to tell me why they wouldn't print it, and the only answer was, it was offensive.

HB: Is it new, this tendency to tread softly around religion?

WK: I can tell you that people like it when I write critically and irreverently about New Age spirituality. You can make fun of that but you're not allowed to be satirical about established religion. And I can't tell you why because they can't tell me why. It's partly that they look at making irreverent remarks about established religion the way they look at racial epithets. It's the same kind of instinctive taboo, except it's not an epithet. Epithets are thoughtless, they convey nothing, they're nothing but hurtful. But if you're conveying an idea, or simply stating the fact that an atheist thinks a sacrament is as silly as a seance, well, that's not even saying anything critical.. It's just an observation.

But they're very afraid of it. Maybe they're all afraid of going to hell.

HB: I don't think there was the same timidity in the past.

WK: It certainly wasn't true when H.L. Mencken was writing.

HB: I grew up under Kennedy and Johnson, and don't remember religion suffusing politics the way it does now.

WK: No. It didn't.

HB: There was nothing like Clinton having to go to his pastor every day, as you recall he did during the Monica affair. The Republican Party was being run by fundamentalists, who were running him out of office, and, as if he hadn't had enough religion, he would go his pastor. Religion was everywhere. It seemed like you couldn't take a position without couching it in religiosity.

WK: Popular piety has merged with popular therapies. We were already living in a therapeutic culture, say, in the 1980s. Therapy played an important role in defining popular culture. The recovery movement was quite spiritualized. The 12 step movement, in fact, came out of the evangelical movement, and was based on surrendering to higher powers and to spiritual authority. So there were two very powerful forces coming together, the one the therapeutic movement, the other religion.

HB: How well undersgtood are the links among pop culture, therapy and religion?

WK: I wrote critically on therapeutic culture in "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional" (1992). And the critiques of the cult of victimization have become cliches. But you won't see people making the connection between popular religion and popular therapy, partly because not many critics pay serious attention to books on pop spirituality, and that is where you see the connection most clearly.

It's hard to find a critic who will read these books. I am one. I find them highly entertaining.

HB: Is there anything in them as satisfying as fiction?

WK: No.

HB: Romance fiction?

WK: No. They're too painfully stupid. At most you can find them funny. I alternate between being amused and depressed by them. When I was reading self-help books ten years ago, while writing "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunction," I might occasionally come across a book I could respect. I could understand why intelligent people might find them useful. But I can't say that I've ever read a pop spirituality book that engaged me, except as a critic. And it's one of the interesting things about this phenomenon that there are a lot of intelligent people who read these books and take them seriously.

HB: Well, religion and intelligence are not mutually exclusive.

WK: I'm not talking about religion. I'm talking about "The Celestine Prophecy" (1993). I think if I had read it when I was fourteen years old, I would recognized it as really stupid. It's a dime novel adventure story, the writing is very childish, and the ideas are borrowed from all the pop psychology and pop spirituality of the last ten years. And there are some very intelligent and accomplished people who read it and like it.

It shows me that intelligence and existential anxiety, or spiritual need, are very compartmentalized. People they don't respond with their critical intelligence when they read "The Celestine Prophecy." They're reading it out of some kind of anxiety or need not connected with thinking.

HB: Somewhere along the line in "Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials," you say that the current emphasis on feeling and on subjectivity makes it hard to think things through rationally. But isn't it the case that scientific rationality, rationality of any sort, just can't satisfy all our needs?

WK: That goes without saying. But what we get from therapeutic culture is the facile notion that it's a zero sum game, that you're going to be completely rational or completely emotional, that reason and emotion must compete with each other.

That's an idiotic notion. It doesn't work that way. It seems to me obvious that you have both emotional needs and intellectual perception. The self-help books tell you to think with your heart and not with your head; and it seems to me quite obvious you need to think with both.

HB: Not everyone is going to enjoy the universe according to Einstein. It may be an astonishing place but it's very mediated by science, very intellectual. There's a need to get it on a more immediate level, to learn it without calculus.

WK: I understand that. I'm not out to denigrate religion or spiritual experience. What concerns me about religion in our society is its pervasiveness. There are realms where faith is appropriate and realms where reason is appropriate. We seem to be taking a faith-based approach to problems that really demand empirical analysis. It's fine to believe that Jesus is the son of God. You can only have faith in the divinity of Jesus, that's not an assertion amenable to empirical proof.

 But the relationship of mandatory minimum sentences to drug use is not something you should take on faith. That's something you give careful empirical analysis. You don't take it on faith that executions deter murder. And yet, we do. Our policy arguments are conducted as if they were arguments about articles of faith.

HB: So it's essentially the erosion of separation between church and state that worries you, politics being faith carried out by other means.

WK: I would never say that religious people shouldn't be active politically or that people who are active politically shouldn't be motivated by their religious beliefs. Religion frames ideals and morals for a lot of people. It's what motivates them to go out in the world and do they do politically.

What I'm talking about is the inappropriate appeal to faith at times when you want to be appealing to reason. I'm saying you don't approach political questions the way you approach religion questions. Policy questions need to be understood rationally unlike religion questions that need to be understood instinctively or emotionally. You take on faith that God parted the Red Sea for Moses or that Jesus is divine, but you don't take on faith that cutting off welfare benefits will end teenage pregnancy.

HB: It was pretty frightening, after the Littleton shootings, to hear Tom DeLay, say, well, what can you expect from kids who are taught they are descended from monkeys?

WK: And what did Congress do? It passed a law saying we have to put the Ten Commandments up in our schools. There's this widespread assumption that we can't be virtuous without religion, and by religion people don't mean the Moonies or any number of what they would consider marginal faiths. They mean Christianity, for the most part, maybe Judaism, maybe Islam, mainstream religions palatable to the majority of middle class Americans. There's a widespread belief we can't be good without these faiths. And nobody wants to challenge that belief.

You get into a discussion about this and you say, let's just look at the Crusades, the witch hunts -- obvious examples in which religion didn't lead to virtue but to violence. And people say, oh, that's just a bunch of cliches. They don't engage the issue. Mary McCarthy said that religion is good for good people. I think that's the most you can say about it. For some people it's a source of compassion. For some people it's a source of murderous brutality and tribalism.

HB: What would happen if all traditional religions were suddenly forgotten in some huge outbreak of amnesia? Would be better off? Would we reconstruct something equally loaded?

WK: We would reconstruct. People need to worship.

HB: But we would not have thousands of years of tribal rivalry piled on top of religious belief.

WK: I try never to answer impossible hypotheticals but I think the question you're asking is, is religion an historical accident or something that comes naturally to us? My answer is that it comes very naturally to us.

I want to get back to what you were saying about Clinton publicly responding to the Monica Lewinsky affair, and how that response seemed so governed by religion. It was, but it was also governed by the ethic of the therapeutic culture. You see it in Clinton turning to his three counselors after he makes his public confession that he did have an affair with this young woman. You hear it in his language. He uses both the language of the therapeutic culture and religious language about confession, and they fit together beautifully.

HB: So religion becomes more popular as it's dressed up as therapy. And vice versa.

WK: Right. After all, he was getting counseling, pastoral counseling. One of his counselors is a self-help writer.

HB: I can't imagine this bunch of politicians doing anything like instituting a separation of church and state, as in the Constitution.

WK: It is very frightening. It would not happen today. You have the Democrats as well as Republicans advocating faith-based social services, which means giving government money to church groups. Al Gore has found it necessary to declare his own religiosity and his own disapproval of atheism and agnosticism. He had to put it on record that he thought secularism was hollow and really not very good for us. You're right. It's impossible to imagine the current crop of politicians ever writing the First Amendment.

I think that secularism is precious. It's essential to public life in a pluralistic society, and I think it's very frightening to see it under attack, and to see it associated with immorality. I think it will get better after the millennium. I think if we can just get through Y2K, some of this will just disappear.

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