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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How our actual real-life adult politicians are mourning Big Ben falling silent

MPs are holding a vigil for a big bell.

Democracy in action in the Mother of Parliaments has always been a breathtaking spectacle, and today is no exception. For a group of our elected representatives, the lawmakers, the mouthpieces for the needy, vulnerable and voiceless among us, will be holding a silent vigil, heads bowed, for the stopping of Big Ben’s bongs for four years.

That’s right. Our politicians are mourning an old bell that won’t chime for a limited period.

Here’s everything ludicrous they’ve been saying about it:

“Of course we want to ensure people’s safety at work but it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years.

“And I hope that the speaker, as the chairman of the House of Commons commission, will look into this urgently so that we can ensure that we can continue to hear Big Ben through those four years.”

- The Right Honourable Theresa May MP, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, head of Her Majesty’s Government.

“There’s going to be a small group of us standing there with bowed heads in the courtyard… a group of like-minded traditionalists.

“We’re going to be gathering outside the members’ entrance, gazing up at this noble, glorious edifice, listening to the sounds rolling across Westminster, summoning true democrats to the Palace of Westminster.

“We’ll be stood down there with heads bowed but hope in our hearts.”

- Stephen Pound, Labour MP for Ealing North, Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland Where There Are Actual Issues.

“Why can’t they switch the bells back on when they stop working at 5pm or 6pm or whenever it is? Also why is it taking four years?… My own view is that Big Ben, whether it be the Elizabeth Tower or indeed the bell inside, it’s not just one of the most iconic British things, it’s one of the most iconic world things, it’s on a Unesco site.”

- Nigel Evans, Conservative MP for the Ribble Valley and Adult Human Person.

“Four years to repair Big Ben?! We could have left the EU twice in that time.”

- The Right Honourable Lord Adonis, formerly of the No 10 Policy Unit and ex-Secretary of State for Transport.

“I think Big Ben ought to be kept striking as much as possible during the repairs as long as it doesn’t deafen the work force.

“It would be symbolically uplifting for it to sound out our departure from the EU as a literally ringing endorsement of democracy.”

 - The Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset and Our Future Overlord.

“We are being liberated from the European Union superstate and Britain will again be a completely self-governing country. Where will the eyes of the world be? On Parliament and Big Ben. It would be very strange if at midnight on that day it does not chime out, very bizarre. It is the heart of our nation.”

 - Peter Bone, Conservative MP for the Unfortunate Doomed of Wellingborough. 

Others have responded:

“[Silencing the bell is] not a national disaster or catastrophe.”

- The Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn MP, Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition (to broken clocks).

“When you see the footage [on Monday] of our colleagues who gather at the foot of Big Ben you will not see too many colleagues who have careers ahead of them.”

- Conor Burns (by name and by nature), Conservative MP for Bournemouth West and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary.

“I think we should respect people’s health and safety while we’re at work.

“To be honest, there are more important things to be worrying about. We’ve got Grenfell Tower, we’ve got thousands of people across our country let down who don’t get access to proper mental health care, and so on and so forth.

“Quite apart from what’s happened in Barcelona, let’s just get a life and realise there are more important things around.”

- The Right Honourable Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, former Health Minister, and National Voice of Reason 2017.

I'm a mole, innit.