June 2001

Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“A rational society is one that values argument and considers virtually all points of view subject to debate. It promotes inquiry, experimentation, and empiricism, maintaining some faith in objectivity–which is not the same as certainty. The search for evidence is not the same as a search for indisputable proof. Rationalism is founded on skepticism–a commitment to testing all beliefs, including your own– and a capacity to tolerate doubt. People hungry for absolutes are more likely to choose supernaturalism or unadulterated emotionalism over any system of free inquiry. What is revealed to you in a moment of oneness with your Higher Power is absolutely reliable. What you know ‘in your heart’ is rarely open to question. What you manage to figure out, given the limits of your knowledge and intelligence, is more tentative.

“That fundamental religious beliefs are not generally subject to debate is part of their charm, and part of the reason alliances of church and state are so alarming. Public officials who are absolutely certain of their own rectitude are less likely to tolerate criticism or dissent than officials who are only relatively sure that their beliefs are true, and just.”

With this statement Wendy Kaminer opens her chapter, “The Therapeutic Assault on Reason and Rights” in her stimulating book, Sleeping with Extraterrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety. She asks, if religion soothes people, protects them from debilitating fears of death, and enables them to endure, does it matter if its stories aren’t true? To some extent we do judge religion, as we do therapy, by its effects. Major Western religious traditions are seen as essential sources of virtue, while the outré beliefs of small minority faiths are disparaged because of being associated with irritating behavior like chanting and panhandling, because of mental or emotional imbalance like the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, because they attack traditional family life by encouraging members to break away from their families, and because outsiders question the apparent contentment of members. Cults are presumed to threaten society and harm individuals, but mainstream religions are presumed to improve individuals and support the social order. How do we judge religious beliefs that allegedly help individuals, at the expense of families, communities. or culture?

Rationalism, she says, requires control of the emotions and temperamental biases that help shape belief, but not their elimination: you take your convictions seriously and act on them as if they were true. But you acknowledge the possibility of being wrong. A rational society tolerates and even encourages dissent and freedom of expression. It values argument over resolution.

Kaminer argues that the therapeutic culture shaped by the recovery movement is profoundly irrational. “It seeks not truth in debate but in revelation. It values bolstering people’s self-esteem over challenging their ideas. It assesses proposed truths partly by the passion with which they are held and partly by their alleged therapeutic effect. True beliefs are those that help you ‘heal.’ “What is troubling about it is its celebration of victimization, hostility toward reason, and absurdly expansive notions of addiction and abuse. Countless thousands have testified it has saved them from the disease of codependency. One of its more destructive legacies has been the virtual sanctification of individual testimony of abuse. A decade ago a wave of accusations of incest supposedly experienced in childhood and recalled in adulthood, combined with bizarre tales of satanic ritual abuse and conspiracy theories, was in full swing in the United States. “Believe the women” and believe the children” were rallying cries for followers of recovery, including many feminists, who believed that incest and other forms of child abuse and family violence were practically ubiquitous. If you questioned a self-proclaimed victim, or tried to reason with her, and declined to believe her story was true, you were likely to be accused of collaborating in her abuse. Seventy percent of people surveyed by Redbook in 1994 believed in the existence of abusive satanic cults, even though police investigations and a government report found no evidence of the cults’ existence. Many believed “the FBI and the police ignore evidence because they don’t want to admit the cults exist.”

“The recovery movement valorized paranoia,” says Kaminer. The mere suspicion that your father had raped you provided entree into the community of survivors, where you were likely to be praised for your bravery in confronting your abuse, and cutting yourself off from family members who had conspired in it.” That children routinely buried their worst memories of abuse, which they recovered years later in therapy, was not an established scientific fact. Even common sense might question such a belief. Repressed memory therapy became a highly profitable industry, costing insurance companies (and ultimately consumers) hundreds of millions of dollars. Publishers sold millions of books about recovered memory. People actually were imprisoned when a rash of these accusations hit the courts in the 1980’s, only to have their convictions thrown out, in some cases only years later, when it was discovered that there was insufficient evidence for conviction and that a trial is primarily a search for facts, not idiosyncratic feeling realities. Multiple personality cases proliferated.

It is not Kaminer’s purpose to minimize the problem of abuse but to point out the irrationalism of the recovered-memory movement. “It is not reason but uninformed emotionalism that exhorts us never to question the account of self-proclaimed victims and leads…survey respondents to believe stories about satanic cults,” she says.

Kaminer posits the following as contributing factors in helping foster the recovery movement: 1. Supernaturalism, in the case of the notion of multiple personality disorder, which closely resembled possession and had strong links to spiritism and reincarnation. People who claim to have recovered memories of their past lives might feel inhabited by their own multiple prior selves. 2. Popular feminism. The belief that fathers routinely molested their daughters was the hysterical extension of feminism’s critique of the patriarchal family. The assumption that mothers aided and abetted their daughters’ abuse was based on the view of women as “enablers,” or codependents. The original enablers were women married to alcoholic men, who helped maintain the fiction of normal family life. Adults, taught to label themselves ”’adult children,” were encouraged to base their identities in early experiences of victimization, at the hands of their parents. With the help of their therapists, women were triumphing over their mothers, giving birth to themselves, and sometimes their alters.

Kaminer’s views are provocative, and like many views of human psychology and behavior are discussible and debatable.

Romantic Love: Myths and Realities

Professor Deen Chatterjee provided a philosopher’s tour of the myths and realities of romantic love at the May general meeting of the Humanists of Utah.

With many humorous asides, Dr. Chatterjee described the evolution of romantic love from the Greeks, through the early Christians, the courtly love of the Middle Ages, and even the views of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther. Then he shared his thoughts on the wonderful nature of romantic love.

Plato viewed romantic love as a type of disease; a wise person could not be under its spell. A contemporary of Plato, Aristophanes, taught that humans were once combinations of male and female, until Zeus split them apart. Forever more the halves will be searching for each other, seeking completeness. This contributes to the strange idea that there is a unique other person somewhere, for everyone; and that life will be lonely and incomplete without a romantic partner.

The idea of romantic love being “forever” comes from Christian/Platonic views on the unchanging nature of idealized things. Christianity had difficulty with romantic love competing with the love of Christ. Romantic love was also viewed as sensual, impure, love for its own sake-and thus a threat to the virtuous life governed by the love of God and his son. During the Middle Ages, romantic love came to be associated with illicit liaisons or in its “Platonic” form as worship from afar.

Even the modern era is ambivalent about romantic love. Today we view it as a necessity for happiness, which perhaps is a cultural assumption that should be re-examined. Happiness is possible without such relationships. In our commodity/consumer culture, everything is meant to be bought and sold. In a reaction to materialism and commercialism, we try to find something sacred in love. If we make it too sacred, it loses its nature and force and is more of a burden than a celebration. In modern life, it is a way to access spontaneity. It’s a scary thing and an attractive thing, magical and mystical.

Professor Chatterjee asserted that “Romantic love is not a goal, it is a process; it is not a thing, it is a form of loving.” It can be a celebration of individual autonomy and freedom. It is not based on a supernatural force; there is a moral, ethical element which asserts itself against the vulgar deflation of romantic love.

Romantic love recognizes the individual; requires equality; and makes possible the shared self. Romantic love starts with a desire, but requires reciprocity to continue. It also cannot survive on illusion.

There is a profound difference between fantasy and illusion:

“Fantasy is good for us, requires creativity and imagination; illusion is not the same, illusion is unreal. Illusions hurt us.”

The professor urged us to free ourselves from the illusions of romantic love and enjoy it in all of its delicious reality.

The Day That Counts

Are you one of the 27 million? That’s how many people in America describe themselves as Atheists, Agnostics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists — people who are non-religious, or have serious doubts about religious deities, teaching and practices. Now, federal and state faith-based initiatives would impose a Religion Tax, and compel us to open our wallets and purses in order to fund faith-based social programs across the country.

It’s time that we “closed ranks” and let our voices be heard on this important public policy issue. Up to now, the “debate” over public funding of faith-based programs has been monopolized by religious groups who quibble over details, and often ignore the important constitutional and public policy issues involved.

Some are eager for public funding, but only if other religious groups are excluded. Others have no problem confiscating our tax money for their creed-based outreaches, and worry only about government “entanglement” and possible financial accountability. There are 27 million of us, however. That’s more people than are counted as members of most leading religious denominations in the United States. Isn’t it time that Congress and the White House paid attention to US? That’s why we are launching a new campaign, THE DAY THAT COUNTS. on July 10, 2001, we invite representatives from the nation’s atheist, freethinker and humanist groups to speak out at a press conference in Washington, DC, and send a message to the White House and Capitol Hill — we oppose public funding of faith-based social programs! on July 17, 2001, we ask that letters, phone calls and faxes flood Congressional and Senate offices in our nation’s capital expressing opposition to the faith-based initiative! While American Atheists has organized THE DAY THAT COUNTS campaign, we invite other atheist, freethought and humanist groups to join us in Washington, DC on July 10, and lend their names in endorsing this effort.

We also invite individual atheists, freethinkers and other persons-of-no-belief to endorse this action, and “sign” our statement of support. For more information on THE DAY THAT COUNTS campaign, visit our website. Join us as America’s nonbelievers speak out to make their opinions count on Capitol Hill.

–Chris Allen

Anti-humanism, Politics, and Science

“We must not confuse the Kingdom of God with our country. To say it another way: ‘We should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.’

“None of this, however, changes the fact that the United States was founded upon a Christian consensus, nor that we today should bring Judeo-Christian principles into play in regard to government.”

-Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1981), pp. 120-121.

When Francis Schaeffer died in 1984, American evangelical Christians had many reasons to be demoralized. The “born again” president whom conservative Christians had hoped for was a disappointment. Not only was Jimmy Carter a liberal, but he freely admitted his faults as a human being. The next political savior of the evangelicals, Ronald Reagan, did not seem as eager to mount an assault on the secular state as his theocratic supporters. What was the Christian right to do?

During the Carter-Reagan years, a politically aggressive group of Christians banded together: Their leaders were Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Cal Thomas and Phyllis Schlafly. They founded the Moral Majority and the Council for National Policy, the Concerned Women of America and the Eagle Forum. They helped Paul Weyrich form the Free Congress Foundation. With funding from the Coors and Scaife and other fortunes, they poured money into conservative Christian think tanks, in the process forging bonds with the embryonic Focus on the Family of James Dobson and the Family Research Council of Gary Bauer.

These groups grew restless during the years of George H. W. Bush, but during the “wicked” Clinton years, they were energized and organized into a formidable force; and today, their favored candidate occupies the White House.

So what is the next objective? According to the Discovery Institute, it is the “renewal of science and culture.” The Discovery Institute is a powerful new force of the Christian Right, with ties to American Spectator owner George Gilder and Charles Colson of Watergate and prison ministry fame. The Center for Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC), a Discovery organization, is assailing the teaching of evolution and modern cosmology, pressing instead for the teaching of “Intelligent Design Theory” (IDT). On May 10, 2000, a presentation by IDT proponents was made to select members of the U.S. Congress. Arguments for the teaching of “creation science” alongside “secular science” have been made by a Senate Majority leader and the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives.

As the administration of George W. Bush promotes “faith-based” services without empirical evidence, what will be next? Will we witness “faith-based” sociology, psychology, astronomy, biology and law?

Will the 21st century bring a “Second Reformation?”

–Richard Garrard

The Pale Blue Dot

~Book Review~

In 1989 both Voyager spacecraft had passed Neptune and Pluto. Carl Sagan wanted one last picture of Earth from “a hundred thousand times” as far away than the famous shots of Earth taken by astronauts from the moon during the Apollo series.

The result is stunning. In Sagan’s words, “Because of the reflection of sunlight off the spacecraft, the Earth seems to be sitting in a beam of light, as if there were some special significance to this small world. But it’s just an accident of geometry and optics. The Sun emits its radiation equitably in all directions. Had the picture been taken a little earlier or a little later there would have been no sunbeam highlighting the Earth.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”

–Carl Sagan
Pale Blue Dot