(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Wendy Kaminer is a Public Policy Fellow at Radcliffe who is also a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly and has published articles and reviews in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Nation, and The New Republic. This is her sixth book, with much of her previous work devoted to various aspects of the women’s movement.

Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials consists of eight essays in which Kaminer attacks a number of targets that are usually considered untouchable. Her primary subject is Western religious faith, which she prefers to term “supernaturalism.” Her own position is that of a liberal agnostic, although her arguments can well be deemed those of an atheist. She does admit that organized religion can offer people psychological comfort and community, as well as needed social services, but fiercely opposes its assaults on public policy and secular government. She balances the benefits of religious belief, such as courage, compassion, confidence, and stoic endurance of hardship, with the horrifying malevolence of religious wars, intolerance demonstrated by book burnings, inquisitions, witch and heretic burnings, endorsement of slavery in nineteenth century America, and terrorism in the Middle East today. She proudly calls herself a secularist, determined to maintain an impenetrable wall between religion and the state.

Kaminer’s favorite sage is H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), who attacked religion and the clergy in scathing terms that no commentator will proffer today. He called religious belief “a peculiarly puerile and tedious kind of nonsense.” Challenges Kaminer, “Name one widely published intellectual today who dares to write like that. Name one mainstream journal that would publish Mencken’s assault on religion today.” She also yearns for outspoken philosophers in the vein of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who declared the absence of God and an afterlife a virtual certainty.

These days, she says, both Russell and Mencken would be dismayed at the suffusion of public discourse with piety. Conservatives routinely invoke “Judeo-Christian” ideals (thereby excluding other faiths and unbelievers), while many liberals call themselves communitarians, regarding religious affiliations as essential wellsprings of morality. Virtue is commonly presumed to derive exclusively from religious teachings, with character often seen as a function of religiosity. She cites surveys taken in the 1980’s that show only one quarter of the adult population willing to protect the right of atheists to oppose religion in public places, with intolerance of atheism even stronger than intolerance of homosexuality.

According to polls taken in the 1990’s, 95 percent of Americans profess a belief in God, 46 percent credit the biblical account of Creation, and three quarters rate their chances of going to heaven as excellent or good; only 4 percent expect to end up in hell. Yet both conservatives like William Bennett and liberals like Yale law professor Stephen Carter charge that liberal intellectual elites disdain belief in God, opt for moral relativism, and are biased against religion. Kaminer has tried in vain to identify even one class of atheistic intellectuals exhibiting such intolerance.

She regards religious belief as an exceedingly powerful social and political force which has largely escaped critical examination, let alone satire. She notes that when she wrote a 1996 New York Times op-ed article on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “conversations” with Eleanor Roosevelt,

I was not allowed to observe that while Mrs. Clinton was criticized for talking to Eleanor Roosevelt, millions of Americans regularly talk to Jesus, long deceased, and that many people believe that God talks to them, unbidden. (At least Mrs. Clinton didn’t imagine that Mrs. Roosevelt answered back.)

This citation fairly represents Kaminer’s tone and attitude: She is iconoclastic, witty, tart, and provocative, eager to pound her computer keys against what she considers unexamined piety, spiritual smugness, and mental vapidity.

She scorns the popular view that people cannot be good without gods, preferring Mary McCarthy’s (1912-1989) observation that “Religion is only good for good people.” From her liberal perspective, organized religions sometimes brand homosexuality and family planning as sinful, encourage gross discrimination against homosexuals and heterosexual women, condemn racial integration, demand censorship of the arts, and fear science, sex, and untrammeled human creativity. Thus religions will sometimes divide humankind and even make hatred seem holy. Balancing the scale, she allows that some religions have also been forces of liberation, as in the civil rights and abolitionist movements, resistance to the Vietnam War, and the maintenance of social welfare programs. She resolutely refuses, however, to accept the proposition that religion is a source of our values; after all, secularists have values, too.

Kaminer fervently defends the wall between church and state, which is enshrined in the First Amendment’s prohibition on establishing a state religion. She worries about Stephen Carter’s advocating, in The Culture of Disbelief (1993), that the government extend preferences akin to affirmative action programs to religious groups, and...

(The entire section is 2183 words.)