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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.