Mulims by Default

The Costs and Benefits of Belief


Mulims by Default
by varjavand

It may sound a bit unorthodox, but the intended purpose of this article is to examine whether or not the rule of economic rationality applies to non-economic decisions such as choosing a religion. That is, do people actually assess the costs and benefits of committing to a certain belief system before choosing it, given they are free to do so? First I provide some background information by discussing some key economic ideas and then address issues in conjunction with some empirical evidence.

Rationality is one of the core ideas of economics, suggesting that given the available information on pending costs and benefits, individuals make decisions that best serve their objectives of maximizing their gain and/or minimizing their loss. People habitually follow the rule of rationality for most of the decisions they make no matter how critical or trivial they may be. When in a grocery store, for instance, it is hard not to notice how customers move around with their shopping carts in search of the shortest cashier’s line. Why do people do this? The answer is simply that they are looking for of an opportunity to minimize the cost of the time spent waiting in line. Even if a person is unemployed, his or her time seemingly has some value. It may not necessarily be a monetary gain that is valued, but rather the desire to do something more pleasurable with his or her time instead of waiting in line. The existence of several cashier lines in big stores like Wal-Mart, for example, makes waiting in line similar to participating in a competitive market that offers a number of choices. Just as a person seeks to buy goods and services from dealers having the lowest prices, a person tries to find the shortest line in a grocery store, the one that minimizes the amount waiting time.

Undoubtedly, information plays a significant role when it comes to making any rational decision. If, for example, you see a customer with many items in his shopping cart in a cashier’s line, or if you anticipate a problem in a particular line that may prolong your wait time, you try to avoid staying in that line. People will continue to move around in search of finding the shortest line until all the lines have eventually the same length, implying that further movement is no longer advantageous. As an economic dictum, weighing the costs and the benefits allows consumers to implement the rule of economic rationality.

It can be postulated that behaving selfishly when it comes to our own economic welfare is hardwired into our brain. Just as consumers have an innate tendency to search for dealers offering the lowest priced goods and services, business people spend a great deal of resources collecting what they think is trustworthy information on the expected costs and the benefits before making an important decision such as investing in a particular project. In light of this, I venture to argue that cost-benefit calculation plays a significant role in people’s decision- making concerning all kinds of life matters, including getting married and having children. A cost-benefit calculation even impacts our decision to choose a religion, or how strictly we will follow its religious codes. The economics of this sacred life matter is what I will specifically explore.

Obviously, if commitment to a particular religion is governmentally compulsory and choices are not available or are extremely limited, people may assume the pretense of faithfulness to the prevailing religion, while deep down they have less regard for it and don’t practice it the way they are directed to. This happens especially in certain Islamic countries like Iran. Under its authoritarian Islamic government, participation in the official religion is mandatory and, therefore, superficial allegiance has become a survival strategy for many. Superficial allegiance is merely camouflage—a life-saving safeguard to avoid persecution, public harassment, and even harsh punishment given the fact that open infidelity or conversion to another religion is apostasy and potentially punishable by death. I can claim confidently that out of the official statistic of 98% of so-called Muslims in Iran, a great percentage of them are what I call Muslims by default, an army of pretenders. Since they are born into a Muslim family and raised in Iran, they inherit the family’s religion and thus automatically become Muslim. Had they been born in a Western country to a Christian family, they would have been Christian for sure. On the other hand, if freedom of religion is protected, as it is in democratic societies, then weighing up the costs and benefits of religious affiliation certainly matters, especially to those who are marginally attached to a religion.

Although the monetary benefits of piety or religiosity are considerable, it is undeniably the non-monetary benefits of religious practice that entice most people, the promise of heavenly rewards and an eternal blessed life after death. Nonetheless, that does not mean that pecuniary benefits do not matter. They do, especially for underprivileged followers who seek security through social affiliation and capitalize on financial gains such as receiving charity, government handouts, cheap or interest-free loans, etc. These worldly benefits, and not necessarily the promise of paradise, may explain why some people espouse a religion so vehemently. Furthermore, the emergence of Islamic governments in a few Muslim countries, especially following the triumphant uprisings in some Arab countries, has given momentum to a new kind of radical congregate of Muslims. These people who have been suppressed or have been kept silent by a secular government up until now have moved to the center of power, and are enjoying recognition and political and social power. They are now experiencing revival, are becoming a decisive force in governance systems, and are deadly serious in their convictions. Although very small in number, they have acquired a great deal of power and political clout. They are willing to do anything and everything for the sake of their faith.

Because of more stringent requirements imposed under such regimes, going along with stricter religions like Islam entails big explicit as well as opportunity costs for true followers. Accordingly, such religions may appeal better to lower income people who do not have much to lose by spending a great deal of time performing mandatory prescribed duties such as daily prayers, fasting, dietary restrictions, and fighting temptations. This may explain why a strict religion like Islam is more popular in poor countries and why poor people are attracted to this religion.

Knowingly or unknowingly, religion has effectively used reward and punishment, carrot and stick policies for centuries to winnow fervent believers from spurious ones, policies that have become tools for polarization and transforming religion into a self-serving organization. For instance, by using segregation tactics like dividing people into believers and non-believers, faithful and infidels, Mojaheds (worriers for the faith) and Monafeghs (cowards), Islam has been successful in creating a fictive, albeit appealing, bond to keep its devotees connected. It has also cunningly catered its reward system to the popular needs and the expectations of its followers. This tactic has also served to confine naive devotees to the sunken cocoon of isolation and away from exposure to the opportunities they may find in the outside world. The Islamic government in Iran, for example, has chosen to solidify its power by investing handsomely in creating a new variety of diligent aficionados like Basiji (mobilized) and the Hezbollah (the party of God). Both of these organizations recruit young Iranian volunteers who are primarily from low income families or live in rural areas. They can be mobilized on short notice to assist the regular police force in imposing Islamic morality codes or to crush anti-government demonstrators. In exchange for this assistance, they receive monetary benefits supplied by the government or receive preferential treatment when it comes to allocating public services.

Fearful of losing creditability and followers under the threat of modernity, scientific discoveries, and secularism major religions have reacted differently and have implemented new strategies. Christianity has to some extent responded by modernizing and modifying some ideas that seemed impractical in the 21st century. Islam has responded by fomenting extremism and propagating new generations of young radicals who are ready to take any drastic actions for the cause of their faith. This Islamic tactic seems to have worked well so far. Islamic authorities have raised the bar by increasing their pressure on zealous disciples and creating a clan-like mentality to lure new loyal followers who are truly committed to stringent rules, ready to endure hardships, and make sacrifices even to the point of taking up arms. Thus, it can be argued that when some religions are threatened by science or secular forces, a successful response is to fire up and empower its radical followers. It may sound a bit counterintuitive, but there seems to be a positive correlation between how demanding a religion is and its appeal to certain groups of people. Unlike ordinary businesses and in defiance of the law of economics, religion can actually increase price and still retain loyal customers and/or generate new ones. This tactic has been successful for the same reason that people purchase high price items or join expensive social clubs; they do it just for the connotation, the snobbish appeal, achieving a particular life style, and cultivating a sense of belonging to certain elites and creating fictive kinships.

What's more, it can be argued that by lowering the cost of compliance by making requirements less stringent, some religions have attracted a massive number of well-off followers and effectively prevent them from defecting despite lack of any consequences for doing so. However, in the absence of such an approach, most followers believe in the principle ideas of their religion, but may not strictly follow its time-consuming requirements or the inconvenient tenets of its theology. According to a public survey by Pew Forum conducted in 2007, while 92% of Americans believe in God, only 58% of them pray at least once a day. This percentage is inversely correlated to the level of personal income, with 64% for those with an income level of less than $30,000 and only 48% for those with more than a $100,000 annual income. Further inquiry into the same survey reveals that the percentage of people who pray frequently is high, 70% and higher, in low income states such as Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, and Tennessee, while this ratio is much lower, between 40 to 50%, for high income states including Massachusetts, Main, Connecticut, Alaska, and New Jersey. Such findings lend further support to the proposition that the degree to which people practice a religion varies indirectly with their level of income. These findings also help to explain why in economically advanced nations like the U.S., the percentage of people believing in core ideas of religion and belief in God is so high. Believing in God has no cost, but instead has a lot of benefits. However, when it comes to fulfilling the costly stringent requirements of belief, the percentage of followers shrinks to a lower level as the opportunity costs rises.

Prudently, some Christian religious leaders have tried to grapple with 21st century challenges and have made some modifications that may have kept some of their marginally attached followers from deserting. Islamic rulers, on the contrary, have refused to do that or have reluctantly made slight changes. This is why Islam is dominated by a small flock of hard-core, noisy believers and an army of pretentious followers, the by-default Muslims who have no choice but to pretend that they are faithful. Consequently, the minority of noisy followers control the life of the silent majority who deep down do not agree with the minority’s gloomy version of Islam.

If valid, the preceding argument ascertains a positive correlation between the strict demands of a religion such as Islam and its appeal to low income devotees, those who fervently fulfill religious duties and can amply spend their time without incurring much opportunity cost. Thus, religion becomes an obsession for poor zealous followers, and a necessary life-saving or a social status event for the rich. The rich may occasionally attend places of worship like mosques just to fake their support, or to protect themselves and their fortunes from potential harm that may be inflicted upon them if they are labeled as non-believers. However, they are less enthusiastic about the tedious details of compliance, which are quite costly for them. These Muslims, by default, get a free ride and enjoy the benefits of religion without incurring much of the cost of personal sacrifice.


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Soosan Khanoom

I am a woman,and I am muslim and

by Soosan Khanoom on

I am slave to no one.     Of course your point would be true if I  think as mullahs ( shiae) or sheiks  ( sunnies ) as my gardians.   If that is the case for a woman which unfortunately is for many  then that is due to these women lack of education and complete ignorance about their own religion.  You have to stand up  and be heard    Not allowing yourself to be passive as many Muslim women do.  You do not have to let go of your religion but your own ignorance in that matter.    Have you read Beenazir  Butto's  autobiography?  I can not think of any better example  than her.  A proud Muslim woman who fought all sort of ignorance.  What Islamic world needs today is more of these kind of women ; cause the religion is there and will go no where, then we might as well instead of fighting with the concetpt of religion fight woth the concept of being submissive to men and  being slave to our  own ignorance   



by Latina on

When it comes to selecting a religion, I can tell you from what I have seen up to this point in my life, the costs or economics of the choice are never thought of.

Also, many are born into a religion and are expected to remain in the religion by their family and in most cases the society that they live in.

My family expects me to remain a Christian so long as I breath.  They have difficulty in accepting my choice to not attend Church all these years. 

Thank you for writing about it. It is a very interesting view point.





Dear Anahid,

by varjavand on

thank you for your kind words af support and encpuragement

WHishing you a continuous success, Reza 


Dear Mr, Bahmani

by varjavand on

Thanks for your very insightful comment containing many legitimate points which I wholeheartedly support. Finding a sensible commenter, like you, in this site is more difficult than finding a picture of an elegant lady in bikini sitting on a Mullah’s lap!

I believe it is incumbent upon us, Iranians who live in free societies, to use the ntellectual resources at our disposal to unveil what is behind the chicaneries added to Islam by the Mullahs who have no purpose but to wield power and to muster economic gains.

Unfortunately there are so many dull-witted people who buy whatever Mullahs offer them at their face value.

Anahid Hojjati

Thanks for a great article Mr. Varjavand

by Anahid Hojjati on

Very informative.  Thanks for sharing.


Yes, religion is a really smart manipulation

by bahmani on

Loved your piece. It certainly explains why people who normally do mostly logical things would act in such an illogical manner.

The other issue is how Religion shapes Culture. Now, if you notice, Islam is not just a religion these days, it has also managed to successfully convert itself into a socio-economic (sharia)-ethnic-cultural player as well.

Wearing the cloth veil or chador or roosari is not only a symbol of adherence to the concept of the Hejab, it has now become a "traditional" and "cultural" element in most Arab/Islamic states, and everyone seems to now remember that during the Shah's time, when the Hejab was not a law, or enforced, everyone's Grandma used to wear it freely as a natural and normal "choice".

Everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten the original Man who invented/interpreted it, and the numerous threats and intimidatory unofficial and off the record side street enforcements the Mollahs have done throughout the years, to insert their influence on "Culture" and "Society".

Sadly, Modernity, the Rule of Law, Fairness, Equality, and above all Justice, seems to have become the sacrificial lambs to Islam's greater glory and greater intent.

Which I am pretty sure now, is total domination, absolute rule, and intolerance towards the slightest objection.

Often people sell Islam as a faith that unlike Christianity has no conversion element. There are no Islamic Mormon sales teams roaming the countryside converting the faithless. There are no Islamic Missionaries in Africa.

However, Islam has the built in automatic conversion tools of birth and marriage, 2 of civilizations' most effective growth hormones. That combined with an utterly locked in rule against objection, or the slightest interpretation of the tiniest insult to the prophets or any of the lesser leadership, all but ensures complete, utter, total ensnarement and the complete lockdown of power and control.

You may very well finally get into heaven in Islam, but you are going to have to be a total slave in a hell on earth before you get there.

Especially if you are a woman.

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