The power of unreason

Are all believers really stupid?

I have just returned from two weeks in Malaysia and Indonesia, where Chinese New Year has been in full swing. Signs reading "Gong Xi Ca Fai" and red lanterns were in evidence everywhere, particularly happily so in Jakarta, the scene just over ten years ago of a vicious anti-Chinese pogrom during the chaos surrounding the downfall of Suharto.

It is now the Year of the Tiger -- the significance of which is shared to a surprising extent by the non-Chinese local populations, as my wife and I discovered when talking to friends about the baby we are expecting in the summer.

An early scan suggested it was a girl. People congratulated us with what seemed to be normal warmth. However, a later scan showed our child is a boy. And then the real reactions came out. "Thank goodness," was a common response. "We didn't want to say, but a Tiger girl is very bad luck, you know."

This came not just from those of Chinese extraction, but from Malays as well. And it is taken very seriously. Local hospitals recorded high bookings of Caesarean sections in the run-up to Chinese New Year, precisely to avoid female babies being born as tigresses.

In China itself, so many couples chose not to deliver in the last Year of the Tiger (1998) that, according to the China Daily, the average birth rate (over a 12-year period) went down from 0.66 per cent in 1987 to 0.6 per cent in 1998.

What to make of all this, this mere superstition, as some would have it? I bring it up because many who respond to postings that suggest some respect for religion argue in terms that suggest rationalism must trump all.

 

Aggressive rationalism

Anyone with a clear head, goes the line, could not possibly believe in varying sorts of mumbo-jumbo involving "your imaginary friend" or "myths" created by societies that lacked the benefit of a scientific explanation of the world. Indeed, quite a few contributors put it in rather stronger terms than that, pretty much saying that you'd have to be stupid to have faith, whether that be in one of the Abrahamic religions or in the Chinese zodiac.

I can understand that position, not because I agree with it, but because there was a time when I came pretty close to it. And I think it is a position that carries greater force in parts of Europe, or anywhere in which the tradition has been that the enquiring mind should reject that which it cannot justify by reason and science.

What, however, do you say to societies in which reason is not rejected, but neither is it elevated above ancient beliefs and customs?

The temptation in the past would have been to dismiss, for example, the Highlands tribes of Papua New Guinea (whose existence was not even known to the local coastal population until the 1930s) as primitive, uneducated people: and that's why they believed that their land was tied to the spirits of their ancestors.

But is that really what anyone wants to say about the millions upon millions in south-east Asia (and much of the rest of the world, of course) whose education merely sits alongside and has not excised their deep supernatural beliefs? Does anyone want to say that about the former prime minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra, whose belief in astrology is well known and who is reported to have consulted a Burmese soothsayer with the delightful name of "ET" (real name E Thi)?

Does anyone want to level that charge against the numerous tertiary-educated world leaders who participate in ancestor worship, who believe in spirits or who have faith of any kind? For this is what the rationalist argument, at its most aggressive, demands: that we condemn as "stupid" those billions whose beliefs extend far beyond anything reason can support.

 

Whose truth is it anyway?

Maybe it appears that I'm putting this a bit strongly. But it does seem to me that much of this discussion is contained within strongly rationalist spheres of the globe, in which such a charge is more easily made.

This underestimates what one might call the power of unreason, or non-reason (which is only a derogatory way of putting it if one prizes reason above all else), over the vast majority of the world's population.

Let me be clear: I don't doubt that many who do, in fact, think that any kind of non-rational belief is ill-informed, foolish or stupid do so sincerely and without any intended condescension.

Yet it is one thing to confront those "hard-wired for the sacred", as Ariana Huffington put it on the Huffington Post the other day, in those countries with strong traditions of vigorous debate about belief and non-belief, and in which atheists often -- wrongly -- assume that most people are not really serious about their faith. (As, for instance, with Muslims who drink; curious that this line is never taken about Catholics who use contraception.)

It is quite another to do the same thing in those parts of the world where Homo religiosus is the norm.

I do not suggest that those who think all believers are wrong-headed hold their tongue or fail to stand up for their principles, should they find themselves in those climes. I would like to know, however, if in that situation they could really feel justified in telling themselves that the beliefs of nearly everyone they encountered were false and primitive, and that they alone held the truth in a sea of delusion.

You would have to be very, very sure of yourself, I think, to do that.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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The Republican nightmare shows no sign of ending

The Republican establishment is no closer to identifying the candidate who can stop Trump or Cruz, while Hilary Clinton finds herself in a similar position to Barack Obama eight years ago.

After being cruelly denied by the people of Iowa, we were finally treated to a Donald Trump victory speech in New Hampshire last night. While Trump’s win will come as a “yuge” shock to anyone waking up from a yearlong nap, it was very much in line with more recent expectations. More surprising is John Kasich’s second place finish ahead of the tightly packed trio of Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Rubio’s underperforming his polling average by about four points at time of writing (with 89 per cent of precincts reporting) – perhaps partly the natural erosion of his post-Iowa bump, perhaps also due to his mauling at the hands of Chris Christie in Saturday night’s debate. Meanwhile Ted Cruz’s 12 per cent compares favourably with past Iowa winners’ New Hampshire performances: Mike Huckabee got 11 per cent in 2008 and Rick Santorum 9 per cent in 2012, but neither came close to winning the nomination.

The result offers little help to those “establishment” Republicans who’d been planning to coalesce around whichever of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Marco Rubio emerged from New Hampshire in the best position.

Christie and Carly Fiorina are probably done. Both got less than 2 per cent in Iowa; both finished in single digits in New Hampshire after focusing heavily on the state; both are stuck at the bottom of the national polls, and neither has raised all that much money (relatively speaking). Christie is heading back to New Jersey to “take a deep breath”, “get a change of clothes” and “make a decision” tomorrow.

But who will party elites rally around to stop Trump and Cruz? Kasich, who came second in New Hampshire but is on just 3 per cent nationally? Rubio, who beat expectations in Iowa and is best of the bunch in national polls but disappointed badly tonight after a terrible debate performance? Or Bush, who’s had more than $75 million spent on him by the “Right to Rise” super PAC with just three per cent in Iowa and 11 per cent in New Hampshire to show for it? Nobody has won either party’s nomination in the modern primary era without a top-two finish in New Hampshire – does either Rubio or Bush really seem like the candidate to break that trend?

Jeb does have plenty of money and organisation, and is guaranteed some extra support from one prominent establishment Republican in South Carolina: his brother. George W has recorded an ad for the Jeb-supporting “Right to Rise” PAC, calling his brother “a leader who will keep our country safe”, which is already running on South Carolina TV (and which ran in New Hampshire during the Super Bowl). He will also join his brother on the campaign trail in the run up to the primary. Bush 43 left office very unpopular and remains the most disliked former President, but he is very popular with Republicans. A Bloomberg/Selzer poll in November found that 77 per cent of them have a favourable opinion of him, making him far more popular than any of this year’s candidates. (Jeb calls his brother “the most popular Republican alive”, which is a bit of a stretch. Nancy Reagan? Clint Eastwood?)

Trump leads convincingly from Cruz in the most recent polls in both South Carolina and Nevada, but there haven’t been any polls from either state since the Iowa caucus. Neither state is as friendly territory for “establishment” candidates as New Hampshire: South Carolina’s electorate is much more evangelical, and Nevada’s much more conservative. Newt Gingrich won South Carolina handily in 2012 and Huckabee came a close second in 2008. Cruz and Trump are doing best with evangelicals and very conservative voters this time around. Thanks to the state’s winner-take-all rules, whoever prevails in South Carolina will get the small ego boost of going into Super Tuesday with the most delegates.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders secured a big win over Hillary Clinton (60 per cent to 38 per cent with 90 per cent of precincts reporting). What seemed incredibly unlikely a year ago has been almost certain for the past week or so. As he heads south and west, though, Sanders faces a new challenge: winning over African American voters.

Just two per cent of those who voted in the two Democratic contests so far have been black; in the next ones that number will be a lot higher. (In 2008, it was 15 per cent in Nevada and 55 per cent in South Carolina). In national polls, Clinton holds a 58-point lead among African American voters compared to her six-point lead with white voters, and she’s 31 points ahead overall in FiveThirtyEight’s average of South Carolina polls (all taken pre-Iowa).

Ironically, Clinton now finds herself in a similar position to the one Barack Obama was in when battling her for the nomination in 2008: heading to South Carolina, having won Iowa but lost New Hampshire, hoping African American voters will help her win big and regain the momentum as we head towards Super Tuesday.