Street Credulity / An A to Z: The moving finger points

Andrew Brown and Paul Vallely continue their dissection of modern beliefs with a look at spiritual gains and material losses
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slam

The one subject about which we wouldn't dare attempt flippancy. That's what everyone knows about slam. t is treated with the respect that a six-stone psychiatric nurse would accord a 16-stone, knife-wielding schizophrenic. (Only joking, guys.) We are so careful not to upset Muslims that we never bother to find out what they actually believe. So we never notice that slam can actually be spelt without "ic fundamentalist" on the end.

There are about 1.5m British Muslims and 314 mosques, as well as uncounted halal butchers. Those who believe all Muslims are fundamentalists should ask themselves how many curry houses here forbid alcohol. The truth is that slam in Britain is by and large a benign and privatised religion by contrast with states where it takes a more theocratic manifestation, as the putative Mrs mran Khan may soon discover.

British slam forms a unique melting-pot. The base of believers from the ndian sub-continent is leavened with large numbers from Africa, Arabia, and a few white converts. Fundamentalists form a noisy minority which is difficult for slamic moderates to challenge, but most British Muslims seem to be synthesising the best of their religion with the parts of the surrounding culture they find attractive.

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Jobbery

Professionalism is now the closest most people have to an idea of virtue. We may not agree on what it is to be a good man, but we know what it is to be a good accountant, plumber, or even journalist. t is not just essential services that are privatised for profit, but every part of our lives. Life has been fragmented so that it is now possible for us to divorce the values of work from the values of society, family and personal integrity.

Disintegration is what jobbery is all about. n the 18th century, the word meant turning a public post to private advantage. Modern jobbery elevates work to the highest sphere of value.

Nowadays, the belief that managerial competence is the queen of virtues allows us to excuse politicians who move from positions of public trust to private profit, and to regard it as axiomatic that a man who cheats on his wife would not therefore cheat on his colleagues (or vice versa). Jobbery also tells us that a good plumber who cheats on his taxes is no worse a man for that; whereas an accountant who will not cheat on our taxes is a totally pointless human being.

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Kit

Stuff, tools, equipment - anything, in fact, in the way of things. Kit is the object of materialistic worship. t is the stuff that really makes the world go round: money is increasingly converted into self-esteem by being spent on something that will be admired. Expenditure on clothes doubled in real terms over the past two decades, according to the 1995 Social Trends report, and spending on leisure, household and personal goods has risen steadily.

Kit is the only subject of most magazines, whatever their ostensible purpose. A magazine about fishing will tell you about fishing kit; a magazine about motor-cycling will tell you about leathers. So will a magazine of human relations. Kit defers only to the body in the modern hierarchy of values, as in "Get your kit off!" (see Fitness, above).

Kit, like true love, is inexhaustible. You can never have it all; you can never even have enough. Somebody, somewhere, will have better and newer than you. Old-time guys called this a hunger for the eternal - but what did they know? They never had the technology.

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Lottery

The lottery is a tax on stupidity. As such, huge numbers of people believe in it. Twenty-five million consenting adults play every week, spending £62m. t is a truly inspiring transfer of resources from the poor and needy to the rest of us. Who would have thought that the underclass cared so much for opera?

But the lottery does not just make difficulties for democrats and socialists. t is a hard thing for the religious to get around. The lottery represents the operation of divine providence in its purest form: it is difficult to know whether a God who directs lottery payouts is more frightening and repellent than one who doesn't. And, of course, most religious people believe that they could choose worthier winners than God does.

How to explain this triumph of irrationality? One answer is that we cannot calculate probability, and so worry about scheduled airline flights but not about driving home after a couple of glasses of wine. But the deeper explanation is that hope will always triumph over self-interest - especially when it only costs £1 a throw.

Tomorrow: Miracles, Near-Death Experiences, Opiates and Pre-Millennial Tension.

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