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
Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's offer to EU citizens leaves the 3 million with unanswered questions

So many EU citizens, so little time.

Ahead of the Brexit negotiations with the 27 remaining EU countries, the UK government has just published its pledges to EU citizens living in the UK, listing the rights it will guarantee them after Brexit and how it will guarantee them. The headline: all 3 million of the country’s EU citizens will have to apply to a special “settled status” ID card to remain in the UK after it exist the European Union.

After having spent a year in limbo, and in various occasions having been treated by the same UK government as bargaining chips, this offer will leave many EU citizens living in the UK (this journalist included) with more questions than answers.

Indisputably, this is a step forward. But in June 2017 – more than a year since the EU referendum – it is all too little, too late. 

“EU citizens are valued members of their communities here, and we know that UK nationals abroad are viewed in the same way by their host countries.”

These are words the UK’s EU citizens needed to hear a year ago, when they woke up in a country that had just voted Leave, after a referendum campaign that every week felt more focused on immigration.

“EU citizens who came to the UK before the EU Referendum, and before the formal Article 50 process for exiting the EU was triggered, came on the basis that they would be able to settle permanently, if they were able to build a life here. We recognise the need to honour that expectation.”

A year later, after the UK’s Europeans have experienced rising abuse and hate crime, many have left as a result and the ones who chose to stay and apply for permanent residency have seen their applications returned with a letter asking them to “prepare to leave the country”, these words seem dubious at best.

To any EU citizen whose life has been suspended for the past year, this is the very least the British government could offer. It would have sounded a much more sincere offer a year ago.

And it almost happened then: an editorial in the Evening Standard reported last week that Theresa May, then David Cameron’s home secretary, was the reason it didn’t. “Last June, in the days immediately after the referendum, David Cameron wanted to reassure EU citizens they would be allowed to stay,” the editorial reads. “All his Cabinet agreed with that unilateral offer, except his Home Secretary, Mrs May, who insisted on blocking it.” 

"They will need to apply to the Home Office for permission to stay, which will be evidenced through a residence document. This will be a legal requirement but there is also an important practical reason for this. The residence document will enable EU citizens (and their families) living in the UK to demonstrate to third parties (such as employers or providers of public services) that they have permission to continue to live and work legally in the UK."

The government’s offer lacks details in the measures it introduces – namely, how it will implement the registration and allocation of a special ID card for 3 million individuals. This “residence document” will be “a legal requirement” and will “demonstrate to third parties” that EU citizens have “permission to continue to live and work legally in the UK.” It will grant individuals ““settled status” in UK law (indefinite leave to remain pursuant to the Immigration Act 1971)”.

The government has no reliable figure for the EU citizens living in the UK (3 million is an estimation). Even “modernised and kept as smooth as possible”, the administrative procedure may take a while. The Migration Observatory puts the figure at 140 years assuming current procedures are followed; let’s be optimistic and divide by 10, thanks to modernisation. That’s still 14 years, which is an awful lot.

To qualify to receive the settled status, an individual must have been resident in the UK for five years before a specified (although unspecified by the government at this time) date. Those who have not been a continuous UK resident for that long will have to apply for temporary status until they have reached the five years figure, to become eligible to apply for settled status.

That’s an application to be temporarily eligible to apply to be allowed to stay in the UK. Both applications for which the lengths of procedure remain unknown.

Will EU citizens awaiting for their temporary status be able to leave the country before they are registered? Before they have been here five years? How individuals will prove their continuous employment or housing is undisclosed – what about people working freelance? Lodgers? Will proof of housing or employment be enough, or will both be needed?

Among the many other practicalities the government’s offer does not detail is the cost of such a scheme, although it promises to “set fees at a reasonable level” – which means it will definitely not be free to be an EU citizen in the UK (before Brexit, it definitely was.)

And the new ID will replace any previous status held by EU citizens, which means even holders of permanent citizenship will have to reapply.

Remember that 140 years figure? Doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?

0800 7318496