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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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