Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Trials of Being Agnostic

Published in Books & Culture on January 1, 2000


Wendy Kaminer talks with Michael Cromartie about the peculiarity of beliefs.

Wendy Kaminer is the author of five previous books, including I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional (1992), a witty and widely quoted look at the recovery movement that firmly established her credentials as an urbane but unsparing social critic. In her new book, Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety (Pantheon), Kaminer turns her attention to what she regards as another species of human folly: the penchant for the irrational, by which she means everything from High Church Anglicanism to a credulous fascination with UFOs. (The belief that Elvis lives, Kaminer says, is no more irrational than the belief that Jesus rose from the dead; both beliefs are irrational, but one enjoys greater prestige than the other.)

Christians and other religious believers are likely to experience considerable cognitive dissonance when they hear Kaminer on the talk-show circuit decrying “the trendy deference toward religion” that plagues our land. “What’s striking about journalists and intellectuals today,” Kaminer writes, “is not their mythic Voltairian skepticism but their deference to belief and utter failure to criticize, much less satirize, America’s romance with God.” Michael Cromartie spoke with Kaminer in October in Washington, D.C.

I’m struck by how radically at odds your take on religion is with the conventional wisdom. I was just reading, in a recent issue of The New Republic, Andrew Delbanco’s review of a collection of American sermons. In the tone of a man stating an obvious truth, he says that belief is really not an option for thinking people today. From the other side of the divide, Christians and observant Jews see an America in which religious belief is thoroughly under attack. Now along comes Wendy Kaminer saying that American society suffers from too much deference to religion, to such an extent we are threatened with a cultural turn away from rational thought. Why the discrepancy? Why do so many people, believers and unbelievers alike, look at America to day and see a picture so different from what you describe in your book?

I don’t think we suffer from too much religion. I think we suffer from too much religiosity. Especially too much public religiosity. Religion is an indescribably powerful phenomenon—not just in this culture—and no indescribably powerful phenomenon ought to be immune from public criticism and public debate, just as a matter of course. People tend to confuse criticizing a religious practice or religious belief with an attempt to deprive somebody of the right to engage in the practice or the right to hold the belief. I don’t. I am really very protective of people’s individual rights to practice or not practice whatever religion they choose, however they choose it, as long as it doesn’t involve things like human sacrifice. (I’ll draw a line somewhere!)

But when it comes to public debate, we really shouldn’t hold anything sacred. We need to be civil, we need to be courteous, we need to talk about ideas and not make ad hominem attacks on each other. But I don’t think we should hold anything sacred, and I’m troubled by the way religion or religiosity is held sacred in the public debate.

How does this square with the notion cultural conservatives have, that we live in an excessively secular society? I think that when they say that, they are primarily talking about their sense of the popular culture. Well, they’re right. They are, in a way, under siege by the popular culture. Sexual mores have changed, maybe irrevocably. Gender roles have changed—for the better, I think, but many conservatives would not agree. So it’s accurate for them to say that they feel besieged if they’re talking about sexual and social mores. It is not accurate for them to say that religion is under siege in America because we are still an extremely religious country.

The sociologist Peter Berger has said that India is the most religious country in the world, Sweden is the most secular country in the world, and America is a country of Indians ruled by Swedes. He means that the elites are largely secularized, but the populace is not. Would you agree?

That might have been true 30 years ago. I don’t think it’s true anymore.

You think the elites are less secularized today than they were 30 years ago?

I’ve often been asked, are we more irrational today? My response is always I doubt that we are. Irrationalism is built into us in the same way that compassion is and pacifism is and violence and aggression are. It is part of who we are. Obviously we go through periods when reason is on the ascendent and periods where irrationalism is on the ascendent, but they’re both always there.

What has changed in recent decades is that intellectual elites are becoming more and more religious, and more and more infused with their own religiosity. When people like Christopher Lasch or more recently Stephen Carter, who I think is a pretty thoughtful guy, complain that elites don’t respect religion, I hear them talking about John Dewey, I hear them talking about H.L. Mencken. I hear them talking about people who have been dead for decades. There was a period in American history around the twenties and thirties when it was true that intellectual elites were sometimes, as in the case of Mencken, quite openly contemptuous of religion. Mencken would not be published today. You know how quickly he would lose his job if he wrote any one of those essays today—if he talked about how stupid the clergy were, and how corrupt the clergy were!

The press today simply will not take on established belief. Does Hollywood? Movies will take on religious institutions. Hollywood will take on the Catholic Church. Hollywood will make Elmer Gantry movies. Neither religious institutions nor individual religious leaders are immune to criticism in the public square, but established religious belief is pretty much immune to criticism.

Let me tell you about my experience writing an Op/Ed piece for the New York Times. I was invited to write something mocking Hillary Clinton’s supposed conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt. I was happy to write about her conversations, but in the original piece that I submitted I said, essentially, why are we so derisive of Hillary Clinton for having imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt when lots of people go to church and talk to Jesus Christ, and he’s been dead a lot longer than Eleanor Roosevelt? And then I said, at some point in the piece, that to an atheist, the Christian sacraments are as silly as a séance. When the edited piece came back to me, all of those remarks—everything with any expression of irreverence toward established religion—had been excised. I had a big fight with the editor about it. I thought I was making a useful point about our double standards. The editor kept saying, You can’t say that. It is gratuitously offensive. And I kept saying, It is not gratuitous. Why are you so afraid of offending people? You’re the New York Times! What do you think is going to happen to you? And she said, Well we get angry letters. You get angry letters all the time, I said, and her only response was, You just can’t say it. It was the kind of reaction I would have gotten if I had written a column filled with racial epithets. They would have said, You just can’t say that. You just can’t use those words.

So your argument is that the mainstream press and the media are overly civil and fair in their coverage of religion?

I don’t think they’re fair. I think they’re deferential. There’s a big difference.

When religious people stand up and say, What do you mean they defer to us? They’re throwing cow dung on the Virgin Mary and they’re showing priests having homosexual affairs with each other and abusing ten-year-old boys. What do you mean they defer to us? I see their point, but that is not exactly what I’m talking about. What you won’t find is a discussion on any mainstream talk show, or any real serious articles in mainstream publications that criticize religious beliefs, say, in the way that Jesse Ventura criticizes religious belief. If you can imagine an intelligent, judicious version of that, you’d be hard pressed to find it in the mainstream media. You’d never hear it from a politician, except for Jesse Ventura.

And even though I think that Ventura’s comments were stupid and simplistic, I have to tell you that I also found them incredibly refreshing because you just don’t hear politicians saying things like that which are critical of religious belief, unless they are talking about David Koresh or Reverend Moon. We have all of these double standards. It is fine to make fun of New Agers and it is fine to make fun of anyone who is associated with anything which is labeled a cult…

…and it’s fine to make fun of fundamentalists or evangelicals.

Michael. You can find exceptions. And maybe this is an example.

You say: “Western religious faith or supernaturalism is the primary subject of this book. I was graced with relatively little of it and have sometimes regretted my resistance to believing in a supreme being and various visions of immortality. I’m not oblivious to the comfort that supernaturalism may provide or unimpressed by the powerful human impulse to believe; nor am I utterly secure in my disbelief. Skepticism is attitude, not dogma.” What do you mean here?

I can’t tell you, absolutely, that God does not exist. I can’t tell you absolutely that the traditional teachings of traditional Western religions are nonsense. I don’t have any sense that God exists. I don’t have any sense that the Bible stories are true. I think they are metaphors, at best. Do I have a sense of absolute certainty about it? Not exactly.

Which is why you’re listed as an agnostic on the Celebrity Atheist List.

Yes, after I wrote to correct them! They had me listed as a [celebrity] atheist.

You say: “To believe that society can successfully rid itself of religious belief, you have to regard faith as essentially voluntary, and I suspect it is more like an instinct or reflex, a reflection of taste and temperament.” Cannot the same be said for atheism or agnostic ism? Is agnosticism also a matter of taste or temperament? Are we really just reflecting our taste? And if so, what’s the point of the kind of reasoned argument that you so highly value?

Taste is probably a trivializing word in this context. Temperament is not as trivial and can encompass a lot. I think I understand how, to a religious person, that seems like a really blind remark. To somebody who has a conviction that God exists, who feels that she has communication with God, for me to say that she is temperamentally inclined to believe in God completely misses the point. She has an experience that feels as real to her as this table. I understand that. My only answer is that I don’t have that experience. I don’t have that sense of reality, and I don’t think that I am capable of believing in God. I don’t think that it is in me to be lieve in God. Of course it would make my life easier. There is a little bit of truth in what Jesse Ventura is saying if his point is that part of the reason that people are religious is that such faith helps us to get over our terror of dying. I think that is indisputable.

You’re concerned that atheists are demonized in our society. You say that there is a popular hostility toward atheism. Yet you also cite survey evidence from Robert Wuthnow that indicates a dramatic rise in tolerance for atheism over the past 50 years.

I don’t believe it.

So you’re citing it, but you don’t believe it?

It is hard for me to evaluate it be ause I don’t know how the questions were asked. I think that when you essentially ask people whether or not they’re tolerant, for the most part they’re going to say yes. It is like if you were to ask people if they will vote for an African American candidate or female candidate, you’ll have many more people saying yes than would really cast their votes that way because people really dislike admitting their biases. There are ways that you can pose the question about atheism that would make a condemnation of atheism seem like a bias. I don’t know how the questions were posed. But I felt that in the interest of fairness I had to cite that survey because it is evidence on the other side.

Alan Wolfe feels the same way, that we’ve become a non-judgmental society. The eleventh commandment is “Thou shalt not judge.”

I know. He’s engaged in some honest work. But I’m not sure I would make of his surveys what he makes of his surveys.

Let’s just say that Wolfe and Wuthnow are right. You’d be encouraged?

I’d be delighted! Completely delighted! But if you survey Americans and ask them if they think that people need to be religious in order to be virtuous, my guess is that the great majority of them would answer yes. This is one of the main concerns of my book. When you start saying yes to that question, then you’re on the road to demonizing atheism, because the implication of that is that atheists can’t really be good.

You’d be pleased to know that there are a lot of people in the mainstream religious traditions who believe, through a doctrine known as “common grace,” that people who are nonbelievers can do virtuous things.

I would want to think that if there is a God, and if you guys are all right, then nonbelievers can get to heaven.

Well, that’s a whole other book [both laugh].

Earlier you asked about my notion of faith as being a gift or a talent, and what I think about the existence of God—my own certainty or lack thereof. Frankly the question doesn’t feel relevant to me. I know that sounds odd. In some ways I regret my lack of belief, as I said before, simply because you can find a lot of comfort in religion. I don’t have that comfort. I don’t think I will ever have that comfort.

You might. You can’t ever tell. God works in mysterious ways.

Well, maybe. But it’s hard to imagine.

C.S. Lewis felt the same way.

But apart from the comfort I might find in religious belief, when I think about the question, “Does God exist?” I put it in the category of things I can’t worry about. Questions I can’t know the answer to. My feeling is that, even if God does exist, it is really not my job to worry about him. If God exists, he’s going to exist whether or not I believe in him. He’ll be fine without me.

Something that greatly bothers me about public religiosity is the mandate to worship. I don’t have a lot of respect for the view of God as some authority figure who wants you to come and kneel before him every week. There’s this sense that you are to go to your church or your synagogue or your mosque or wherever it is that you go and, in some way, abase yourself before the Lord. That seems to me to be such a demeaning way of seeing God—such an expression of human vanity! When human beings imagine God, they imagine a king. They imagine a flawed human being who needs to be worshiped.

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