The “market appeal” of Ramadan

Why demanding religions win.

Mehdi has already posted informatively about Ramadan, concluding that the month of daily fasting "is an act of worship and a spiritual act; it is also an act of social solidarity". As he indicated from his comment about his groaning stomach, it is a testing time, as well as one whose shared nature lends it other joys -- as anyone who has witnessed the breaking of the fast can testify. A drink and a nibble on a date is often soon followed by a lavish spread, certainly at the Buka Puasa dinners in Kuala Lumpur I've attended.

Not all Muslims necessarily deserve such indulgence of an evening during Ramadan, of course; not everyone is that rigorous in their fasting. I mention this because some people seem to think that Muslims are uniquely strict in their religious observance. "Drinking alcohol -- but they're Muslim!" is an interjection I've heard more than once. But both Pakistan's Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Malaysia's Tunku Abdul Rahman were fond of whisky, and Jinnah of pork, too.

And last Ramadan, the former's distant successor as his country's leader, General Musharraf, was spotted tucking into Peking duck washed down with a bottle of Châteauneuf-du Pape 2006 in a Kensington restaurant at lunchtime. Not halal at all.

It would be wrong to suggest, however, that any of the three did not consider themselves "proper" Muslims. Why should it? After all, probably a majority of Mass-attending Catholics in western Europe cheerfully ignore their Church's rulings on contraception, and consider themselves none the more sinful for it.

I digress, however, as the point I wish to concentrate on is the demands that Ramadan places on Muslims. The very word "demand" suggests an onerous quality. Something to be avoided, surely? In their new book, Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow, and Why It Matters, the academic Mark van Vugt and the journalist Anjana Ahuja appear to be of that view . . . and then demonstrate why the opposite may be true.

"Paradoxically," they write, "the costlier the rituals associated with a belief system, the more enduring it is. One study of religious communes in 19th-century America showed that those making the most extreme demands on their followers -- giving up worldly goods, celibacy, shunning contact with outsiders, relinquishing certain foods and alcohol -- were the most enduring. Such sacrifices ensure that only the most loyal and committed adherents become followers. After that, the follower remains tied to his leader through the wish to be consistent with his previous, group-oriented actions."

This echoes a similar point made by the philosopher (and friend of Dawkins) Daniel Dennett in his 2006 book Breaking the Spell: Religion As a Natural Phenomenon. He quoted a University of California study by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke in which they wrote: "Herein lies the secret of the strength of higher-tension religious groups: despite being expensive they offer greater value; indeed, they are able do so because they are expensive."

Explains Dennett: "An expensive religion is one that is high in 'material, social and psychic costs of belonging'. It doesn't just cost time spent on religious duties and money in the collection plate; belonging can incur a loss of social standing and actually exacerbate -- not ameliorate -- one's anxiety and suffering. But you get what you pay for; unlike the heathen, you get saved for eternity."

Going back to Stark and Finke, who lack Dennett's sarcastic endnote: "Not only do more expensive religions offer more valuable product, but in doing so, they generate levels of commitment needed to maximise individual levels of confidence in the religion -- in the truth of the fundamental doctrines, in the efficacy of its practices, and in the certainty of its other-worldly promises."

I can't say I particularly care for the use of words such as "product" and "value" in this context, but the argument is persuasive -- as is Dennett's noting that affiliating to more demanding religions can isolate and make life more difficult, demonstrated in England by the experience of Catholics, Muslims and Jews over the course of many centuries. Whatever persecution those groups suffered, they still deemed it worth holding to their "higher-tension" faiths rather than succumbing to an Anglicanism whose demands I have always found bewilderingly minimal (however attractively broad-minded its liberal prelates).

So, to return to my starting point, there is yet another benefit to Ramadan from the Muslim perspective. It may be too late for the declining C of E to think about whether it should demand more of its followers rather than seek further compromises to keep a fracturing Anglican Communion together. What, however, can atheists draw from this? What demand can they make, and what can they offer?

Of those they wish to discard faith, they ask a very high price indeed: loss of belief can entail struggle, guilt and a sense of having thrown away a sacred treasure with which the believer had been entrusted. What they offer are the comforts of reason and then a long "mouldering in the grave".

Atheists may reject the very notion of having to compete in terms of "value". I sympathise with that view, but would also conclude that in this particular market their "product" has scant appeal -- even for those who have to spend one month of the year with an aching stomach and parched lips.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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In the race to be France's next president, keep an eye on Arnaud Montebourg

Today's Morning Call. 

Good morning. As far as the Brexit talks are concerned, the least important voters are here in Britain. Whether UK plc gets a decent Brexit deal depends a lot more on who occupies the big jobs across Europe, and how stable they feel in doing so.

The far-right Freedom Party in Austria may have been repudiated at the presidential level but they still retain an interest in the legislative elections (due to be held by 2018). Both Lega Nord and Five Star in Italy will hope to emerge as the governing party at the next Italian election.

Some Conservative MPs are hoping for a clean sweep for the Eurosceptic right, the better to bring the whole EU down, while others believe that the more vulnerable the EU is, the better a deal Britain will get. The reality is that a European Union fearing it is in an advanced state of decay will be less inclined, not more, to give Britain a good deal. The stronger the EU is, the better for Brexit Britain, because the less attractive the exit door looks, the less of an incentive to make an example of the UK among the EU27.

That’s one of the many forces at work in next year’s French presidential election, which yesterday saw the entry of Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, into the race to be the Socialist Party’s candidate.

Though his star has fallen somewhat among the general public from the days when his opposition to halal supermarkets as mayor of Evry, and his anti-Roma statements as interior minister made him one of the most popular politicians in France, a Valls candidacy, while unlikely to translate to a finish in the top two for the Socialists could peel votes away from Marine Le Pen, potentially allowing Emanuel Macron to sneak into second place.

But it’s an open question whether he will get that far. The name to remember is Arnaud Montebourg, the former minister who quit Francois Hollande’s government over its right turn in 2014. Although as  Anne-Sylvaine Chassany reports, analysts believe the Socialist party rank-and-file has moved right since Valls finished fifth out of sixth in the last primary, Montebourg’s appeal to the party’s left flank gives him a strong chance.

Does that mean it’s time to pop the champagne on the French right? Monteburg may be able to take some votes from the leftist independent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and might do some indirect damage to the French Thatcherite Francois Fillon. His supporters will hope that his leftist economics will peel away supporters of Le Pen, too.

One thing is certain, however: while the chances of a final run-off between Le Pen and Fillon are still high,  Hollande’s resignation means that it is no longer certain that the centre and the left will not make it to that final round.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

The government began its case at the Supreme Court yesterday, telling justices that the creation of the European Communities Act, which incorporates the European treaties into British law automatically, was designed not to create rights but to expedite the implementation of treaties, created through prerogative power. The government is arguing that Parliament, through silence, has accepted that all areas not defined as within its scope as prerogative powers. David Allen Green gives his verdict over at the FT.

MO’MENTUM, MO’PROBLEMS

The continuing acrimony in Momentum has once again burst out into the open after a fractious meeting to set the organisation’s rules and procedures, Jim Waterson reports over at BuzzFeed.  Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder, still owns the data and has the ability to shut down the entire group, should he chose to do so, something he is being urged to do by allies. I explain the origins of the crisis here.

STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE  BEFORE

Italy’s oldest bank, Monte Paschi, may need a state bailout after its recapitalisation plan was thrown into doubt following Matteo Renzi’s resignation. Italy’s nervous bankers will wait to see if  €1bn of funds from a Qatari investment grouping will be forthcoming now that Renzi has left the scene.

BOOM BOOM

Strong growth in the services sector puts Britain on course to be the highest growing economy in the G7. But Mark Carney has warned that the “lost decade” of wage growth and the unease from the losers from globalisation must be tackled to head off the growing tide of “isolation and detachment”.

THE REPLACEMENTS

David Lidington will stand in for Theresa May, who is abroad, this week at Prime Ministers’ Questions. Emily Thornberry will stand in for Jeremy Corbyn.

QUIT PICKING ON ME!

Boris Johnson has asked Theresa May to get her speechwriters and other ministers to stop making jokes at his expense, Sam Coates reports in the Times. The gags are hurting Britain’s diplomatic standing, the Foreign Secretary argues.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas! And to help you on your way, here’s Anna’s top 10 recommendations for Christmassy soundtracks.

MUST READS

Ian Hislop on the age of outrage

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Why I’m concerned about people’s “very real concerns” on migration

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Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.