Recentish Reading: Market Appeal of Religion

The ‘Market Appeal’ of Ramadan by Sholto Byrnes (New Statesman, 15 Aug. 2010).

Byrnes uses the occasion of Ramadan, with its demand for fasting from sunup to sundown, to illustrate a point (a point first made in 1994 by economist Laurence Iannaccone in an essay titled “Why Strict Churches are Strong;” more at Slate, 2005): The more expensive a religion or ritual is — the more costly and sacrificial it is in terms of money, time, social, psychic and emotional requirements — the higher the level of commitment adherents will feel to it, because expensive religions “generate levels of commitment needed to maximise individual levels of confidence in the religion.”

In other words, if I am willing to sacrifice so much to belong to this religion, then it must be a worthwhile belief system; otherwise, I would be wasting my time and making life harder for myself for no reason, and I wouldn’t choose to do that.

Byrnes reminds us of the experience of Catholics, Muslims and Jews in England throughout the 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.”

Not only do people hold firm to belief in spite of persecution, but it’s likely that undergoing persecution for one’s beliefs is just another sacrifice that increases a believer’s commitment, making the belief or faith that much more expensive, a pearl of great price, a cause worthy of enduring scapegoating.

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