George Walford: The Enduring Base

A constant theme of the intellectuals is that people generally are becoming less inclined to accept what they are told by authorities and traditionalists, more inclined to guide their behaviour by their own critical thinking. Against this, systematic ideology draws attention to the weight of evidence showing that the mental attitude favoured by the intellectuals remains confined to a minority, that the great majority, of whatever social class, whatever level of education, persist in their identification with beliefs stigmatised by the intellectuals as irrational, one of the more prominent being the belief in supernatural powers.

The following letter was printed in the October Ethical Record, journal of the (humanist) South Place Ethical Society (SPES). No comment on it has yet appeared, although the question raised would seem to be one deserving the attention of people who maintain that understanding (in their sense of the term) is spreading:

Dear Editor,

In the July / August issue of the Ethical Record the editor says, rightly, that “Stephen Houseman, in his lecture ‘Why Man Must be Rational,’ asserts that ‘understanding is unique among goals, in that once achieved, it spreads indefinitely amongst mankind.'”

The same editorial says (again, rightly) “A Billy Graham can bring out hundreds of thousands for irrational beliefs.”

After generations of humanist effort, a humanist meeting attracting a few score is reckoned an encouraging success while meetings to promote irrational belief attract hundreds of thousands. This does not look as though the understanding humanists are trying to promote is spreading indefinitely. It looks, rather, as if the belief that such understanding spreads indefinitely is one of those irrational beliefs the humanist movement, and SPES in particular, is bound to oppose.

Yours, etc.

The Observer Sunday 25 November: Simon Hoggart reports the annual conference of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He says that a few years ago the Committee would have ignored what they now go to the trouble of opposing; this hardly suggests that it is tending to disappear, and it is in fact described as “thriving all over the world,” with Britain not behind the rest:

Ordinary shops carry two or three books on serious astronomy but scores on astrology and ‘sun signs.’ Libraries which have 200 books backing the occult sometimes have not a single one to present the other case.

Rationalists reading that will of course reply that this disproportion is one reason for the prominence of irrational belief, but their own presence disproves their argument. All adults now alive grew up, and formed their beliefs, in a society in which there was more pro- than anti-supernatural influence. Yet a minority became rationalists. Rational thinking shows that when people react differently to a given condition it cannot be that condition which determines their reaction. The preponderance of pro-supernatural literature is rather a result than a cause of the presence of a majority not accepting the rationalist viewpoint.

The reason for the presence of that majority lies in the ideological structure of society (“the ideological pyramid“) and, deeper even than that, in the relation out of which that structure has developed in the course of time, the relation between society and its environment. A society in an environment which is at best neutral and sometimes actively hostile requires people concerned with rational thinking, but it can tolerate only a minority of them. Such thinking, valuable as its products can be, tends to produce disunity; it is characteristic of intellectuals that they oppose one another. The primary condition for ensuring the survival of society, what must always be there for society to fall back on in time of need, is the ability to present a united front against the environment, and this requires a majority identified with the mode of thinking, the cohesiveness, the tendency to accept what one is told and to refrain from independent critical thinking (making for divisive action) that tends to produce belief in the supernatural.

from Ideological Commentary 15, December 1984.