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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation