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
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