The Rise of Irrationalism and

The Perils of Piety

By Wendy Kaminer

Pantheon. 278 pp. $24

Reviewed by John Crowley

Wendy Kaminer is best known for her witty and effective demolishment of the self-help movement, I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, whose title became almost as well known as the one it parodied. Now she widens her net, or her aim, and takes on what she considers to be a general refusal of the use of reason in our society, whose manifestations range from the effusions of piety required of political candidates to the acceptance of alien abduction and the fatuities of pop spirituality.

Kaminer's "critique of irrationalism" is pretty even-tempered, maybe too much for its own good. It begins with the disarming admission that she is herself a practitioner of homeopathy, a practice that she cannot justify, having no grasp of the chemistry involved. Her plea is that at least she isn't preaching her personal irrationality. Everybody else she discusses is.

The special cleverness of Kaminer's book is to toss all religious or spiritualist phenomena into the same basket. She points out that it is thought to be perfectly acceptable to make fun of New Age beliefs in ESP, astrology or aliens (beliefs that large segments of the population entertain to some unascertainable degree) but not to make public fun of Christianity. When Hillary Clinton's channeling of Eleanor Roosevelt was a subject of general hilarity, Kaminer could note in a New York Times column that millions of Americans talk to long-deceased Jesus, who talks back to them, but she wasn't permitted to point out that to an atheist sacraments are as silly as seances. The rage for "faith-based" social services provided by Christian churches surely wouldn't extend to others, Kaminer notes; "editorial writers [aren't] suggesting that we teach troubled teenagers channeling or encourage them to don saffron-colored robes and chant."

The Christian right and those politicians who wish not to offend it claim that religion and spirituality are ignored and spurned in America, if not actively mocked; Kaminer is clear that it's the other way around and that skepticism about the value of religious belief is hard to find even among educated elites. Virtue is back, God and religion are omnipresent and treated respectfully on TV, and in left-wing theorizing personal feelings of injury and insult are regarded as evidence of actual damage done.

Kaminer knows that religiosity in America, like personal spiritual questing, is as old as the nation; Christian Science, Norman Vincent Peale and Think and Grow Rich are all in her book. But there is a kind of journalistic convention that requires a writer who is Viewing with Alarm to treat whatever distressing social phenomenon (or assortment of same) is under discussion as "pervasive" or a mass movement or at least dangerously on the increase. "Becoming" is the key word: America is becoming more irrational; addiction therapy is becoming an addiction in itself; astrology or bigotry or angel-worship is becoming universal, or at least "widespread." If this isn't a trend being spotted, why write about it?

A case can be made, though, that it's just the reverse. The Christian right has actually been beaten back lately, the Kansas school board that forbade the teaching of evolution was a laughing-stock almost everywhere, and the recent frightful witch hunt involving imaginary sexual abuse of children and Satanic ritual has largely guttered out. Belief in supernatural or non-human agencies out to help or hurt us is probably at its lowest ebb in history. Phenomena like alien abductions, or the recent outcries in Iceland over construction projects that may harm the dwelling places of Little People, are noticeable because they're out of the ordinary.

Kaminer opposes faith and reason, but though many of her anecdotes express it, she doesn't clearly make the more important distinction that runs through American spirituality: the distinction between faith and experience. The disruptive power and passion of American religion arises because it is based so often not on the acceptance of established doctrines and the daily practice of piety -- on faith -- but rather on personal experience of God's love. God is most present to Americans when we are most alone with Him, utterly free. The self can be alone with God because in a sense the self already is God. This hubris runs through American believers from Emerson to Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy down to the present moment. (For an analysis of it, well beyond Kaminer's powers, search out Harold Bloom's wonderful The American Religion.)

Reason and skepticism, Kaminer claims, are the hard but true way. But tough-minded as she wants to be, she sometimes tends to a kind of journalistic evenhandedness that's not quite the same thing as hard-won wisdom. It may not really be possible to rid ourselves of our supernatural delusions or illusions, she admits, and most religious people aren't "glassy-eyed, relieved of all doubt, or bereft of the capacity to question." Religion, therapy and belief systems provide many people with emotional stability. "Touched by an Angel," she notes, actually presents an all-embracing and forgiving Deity who believes in second chances; maybe watching it, or going to church once a week, can actually temper religious fanaticism: a little homeopathic dose, hair of the God that bit us.

"The average man doesn't want to be free," she quotes H.L. Mencken as observing. "He simply wants to be safe." Kaminer calls Mencken, one of our few prominent public atheists, "misanthropic" and "injudicious," but she needs more of the iron Mencken had in his soul. There's a little too much in her book for everyone to agree with. Now that Madeleine Murray O'Hair has been captured by aliens or is asleep in Jesus, somebody's got to pick up the banner of outrageous common sense.

John Crowley is the author of many novels and stories about fairies, magic and aliens.