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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Losing Our Religion?

Conventional wisdom has it that people who attend college are more likely lose their religion than those who don't. That was true for people born in the 1920s and '30s, but it isn't true of people born between 1965 and 1980. According to sociologist Philip Schwadel, it's the least educated individuals of that group who are most likely to leave their religion. Schwadel didn't include millennials in his study--namely Americans between 18-30 years old--because it's too soon to tell if they'll settle on a religious identity.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Has the Libertarian Movement Arrived?

I've written about libertarianism before ("What Do We Mean By Justice?" "Wealthy GOP (Libertarian) Donors Backing Same-Sex Marriage" "Libertarianism on Steroids" "PorcFest: Libertarianism to the nth Power"). Briefly, it's a philosophy that holds that human freedom is the highest good and thus it opposes almost any form of government intervention that places limits on that freedom. It's often associated with the Republican Party because they both champion free markets, dislike government regulations, and are skeptical of the efficacy of government-run social programs.

Conflating the two, however, is a mistake. Libertarians push for limited government in all areas of society, not just the economy. Thus, most libertarians opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, most support same-sex marriage and abortion rights (or at least oppose efforts by government to limit peoples' choices in such matters), most favor the decriminalization of marijuana, and most abhor anything that smacks of government heavy-handedness. For instance, in light of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, Senator Rand Paul wrote in an op-ed piece for Time ("We Must Demilitarize the Police"),
If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off. But, I wouldn't have expected to be shot. 
The outrage in Ferguson is understandable--though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting. There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response. 
Soldiers and police are supposed to be different. Police look inward. They're supposed to protect their fellow citizens from criminals and to maintain order with a minimum of force. It's the difference between Audie Murphy and Andy Griffith. But nowadays, police are looking, and acting, more like soldiers than cops, with bad consequences. And those who suffer the consequences are usually innocent civilians.
Or consider his views on the war on drugs ("Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?"):
I think the war on drugs has had a disproportionate racial outcome. Three out of four people in prison are black or brown. White people do drugs too, but either they don't get caught or they have better attorneys or they don't live in poverty. It's an inadvertent outcome, and we ought to do something about it. As a Christian, I believe in redemption. I believe in a second chance. I think drugs are bad. I think even marijuana is deleterious. However, a 20-year old kid who does make this mistake ought to get his right to vote back, ought not to be locked up in jail for 10 or 15 years.
Not your standard Republican fair, which is why it's highly unlikely he'll secure the Republican nomination for President.

The Libertarian movement was featured in a recent New York Times Magazine article ("Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?"). It presents a nice overview of the movement with interviews of some of its leaders and a few of its critics. However, as Nate Silver points out in an article on FiveThirtyEight ("How Viable Is Rand Paul for 2016?"), it is unlikely that the Libertarian moment (or a Rand Paul moment) has arrived.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Islam and the Separation of Church and State

There are many who believe that for Muslims, the separation of church and state, or in the case of Islam, separation of mosque and state, is an impossibility. And to be sure, for some Islamic groups, like Al Qaeda ("The Al Qaeda Reader") or ISIS ("What To Do About Iraq" "ISIS and Mosul's Christians"), this certainly appears to be true. However, it isn't necessarily a nonnegotiable feature of Islamic life. Or to put it in biblical terms, it isn't written in stone. About 1,000 years ago, the Muslim theologian and scholar Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali wrote,
Know that you can have three sets of relations with princes, governors, and oppressors. The first and worst is that you visit them, the second and better is that they visit you, and the third and surest is that you stay far away from them, so that neither you see them nor they see you.
Al-Ghazzali's use of the term, visit, should be understood as indicating who is subservient to whom. In this case, the one doing the visiting is the weaker party. He also writes from the perspective of the religious believer, so that "you" refers to religious individuals and "them" and "they" refer to governmental authorities ("princes, governors, and oppressors").

Thus, al-Ghazzali believes that the worst situation is when the state controls religion, and uses religion to pursue political goals. Examples of this include England after Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church, and Nicaragua into the 1970s when the Catholic Church gave its uncritical support of the the country's ruling elites. Better, according to al-Ghazzali, but still not the best, is a theocracy, when religion controls the state. Iran, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, is an example of this. The best situation, though, according to al-Ghazzali, is when religion and politics stay out of each other's way ("you stay far away from them, so that neither you see them nor they see you").

This, of course, is easier said than done since most people of faith are also citizens of the society in which they live, and it's unreasonable to think they'll leave their faith at the door when they enter the public square. In fact, most people don't care when faith communities advocate on behalf of a program, position, or policy with which they agree; it's just when faith communities take a position contrary to their views that they get their knickers in a twist. Thus, in the 1980s many on the left didn't take exception to the various religious groups (e.g., Sanctuary Movement) that protested the Reagan Administration's policies in Central America (see Christian Smith, "Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement"), while becoming unglued by the political activism of the Religious Right at the same time. Many people also forget that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was accused of "legislating morality" by Southern whites.

But I digress. The point is not so much that the practice of church and state separation is hard but that theological resources exist for predominantly Islamic countries to embrace the separation of mosque and state as well. Al-Ghazzali was no theological lightweight. He has been referred to by some historians as the single most influential Muslim after the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Thus, the possibility exists for his theological views to spread far and wide in the Muslim world. Let's hope they do.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Westfield Valley Fair Mall: A Tale of Two Cities

When I was growing up in San Jose, there were two outdoor malls essentially across the street from one another (although there were a few houses in between--see photo to right): one where Macy's was the primary store, and one where The Emporium was. Eventually, these two malls were combined into one, enclosed, and renamed Valley Fair (see the photo below and to the right).

Valley Fair still exists although the Westfield chain bought it out a few years ago. If you walk around the mall, it would probably strike you as a typical mall. It includes "standard" department stores (Macy's, Nordstrom's), a number of specialty stores (e.g., Apple, Sport's Authority), and a food court. What isn't at all obvious (not that it should) is that the current mall lies in two cities. One part lies in the city of San Jose; the other in the city of Santa Clara.

This generally isn't a major issue, but in 2012, San Jose raised its minimum wage from $8 an hour to $10 an hour. This change created two economic worlds within a single building. This meant that employees working in different locations in the mall but doing essentially the same work were sometimes paid different wages, and one store, The Gap, actually lies in both cities, which raises the interesting issue as to what wage the employees should be paid. This unique situation is the subject of a recent Planet Money podcast ("A Mall Divided"), which you can download from iTunes or listen to at the Planet Money website.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why Would Anyone Cut Off Their Nose to Spite Their Face?

Have you ever wondered what lies behind the phrase, "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face"? It isn't for certain, but it likely has its roots in medieval Europe when nuns would disfigure their face so they wouldn't be raped by barbarian invaders who often raided monasteries and convents. As Stephen Dubner notes, "for a nun, rape was especially problematic, aside from the obvious reasons. Rape violated a nun’s chastity—which meant that, as a bride of Christ, she might be forbidden entry into Heaven." So to prevent this from happening, apparently some literally cut off their noses to spite their face:
The abbess with an heroic spirit took a razor and with it cut off her nose together with her upper lip up unto the teeth, presenting herself a horrible spectacle to those who stood by. Filled with admiration at this admirable deed, the whole assembly followed her maternal example and severally did the like to themselves. When this was done, together with the morrow’s dawn, the pagan attackers came. On beholding the abbess and the sister so outrageously mutilated and stained with their own blood from the sole of their foot unto their head, they retired in haste from the place. Their leaders ordered their wicked followers to set fire and burn the monastery with all its buildings and its holy inmates. Which being done by these workers of iniquity, the holy abbess and all the most holy virgins with her attained the glory of martyrdom.
This is the topic of a recent rebroadcast of a previous Freakonomics podcast ("“What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have in Common?"). As the podcast's title suggests, the podcast covers is about more than medieval nuns. It explores the nature of spite: why people do it when the costs are often higher than the rewards (or at least at first glance it appears that way). It includes insights from game theory and a very interesting segment on Bo Jackson, who (apparently out of spite) signed with the Kansas City Royals Professional Baseball Club for $1 million instead of with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers for $7.66 million.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What To Do About Iraq?

In one of my very first posts ("Leaving Afghanistan Smartly") I recounted a remark by counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, who was one of General Patraeus's advisors in Iraq during the "surge" and an opponent of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the first place: "Just because you invade a country stupidly doesn't mean you have to leave it stupidly (see Tom Rick's book, "The Gamble" page 29).

We would have been smart to have heeded Kilcullen's advice. Unfortunately, we didn't. Although the invasion of Iraq was ill-advised, it was just as shortsighted to leave the country in such a hurry. Rather of removing all of our troops, we should have left a small force behind that could have continued to secure the safety of the Iraqi citizens.


Instead, we now have a humanitarian crisis on our hands. ISIS is showing no mercy to religious minorities, who have been told to leave or die. Many in the West have seen video clips of Iraqi Yazidis fleeing for their lives (see above), and for the first time in 1600 years, there are no Christians living in Mosul ("ISIS and Mosul's Christians").

What should we do? Dr. John Arquilla, chair of the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School (where I teach) and author of numerous books on military history and strategy, argues that President Obama's three-prong strategy is on the right track ("Obama's 3-part Policy Can Ease Bloodshed"):
  1. Deploy a very light military contingent, composed primarily of special operations forces
  2. Drive a wedge between the majority of Iraqi Sunni insurgents and ISIS by urging al-Maliki to give Sunnis a much greater voice in their country's governance
  3. Coordinate with Iran, which wields considerable influence over Baghdad
This is the topic of a recent episode of KQED's Forum ("U.S. Launches Airstrikes in Iraq"). In addition to John Arquilla, guests include Borzou Daragahi, the Middle East and North Africa correspondent for the Financial Times and Peter Mansoor, chair in military history at Ohio State University, former brigade commander in Iraq and author of "Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War". The episode can be downloaded from iTunes or you can listen to it at the KQED Forum website ("U.S. Launches Airstrikes in Iraq").

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Future and Past of the Religious Right

I thought I knew quite a bit about the "Religious Right," but after listening to the recent Research on Religion podcast interview with political scientist, Hunter Baker, from Union University in Jackson Tennessee ("Hunter Baker on the Past and Future of the Religious Right"). Baker explores the historical and theological roots of the Religious Right, events that helped spur its emergence, some of its more influential figures, its "hey-day" (or maybe "hey-days"), its relationship to the Tea Party, and its future.

Baker believes that now that individuals such as Chuck Colson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson have either passed away or are beginning to pull back from public life, the intellectual baton has passed to Robert P. George, a professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University and the former chair (and current vice-chair) of the US Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF).

George is an interesting character. He began his political life on the ideological left, twice serving as Governor of the West Virginia Democratic Youth Conference and attending the 1976 Democratic National Convention as an alternate delegate. He moved to the right in the 1980s, primarily because of his views on abortion and his increasing skepticism about the effectiveness of the Democratic Party's "Great Society" programs. Interestingly, George is very good friends (and co-teaches classes) with Cornell West, who clearly does not share George's ideological convictions. However, they are both Christians and have a great respect for one another's commitment to the truth.

Coincidentally, George was the guest on the previous Research on Religion podcast ("Robert P. George on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom"). Both podcasts can be found at the Research on Religion website. They can also be downloaded from iTunes.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

ISIS and Mosul's Christians

Not too long ago around 60,000 Christians lived in Mosul, Iraq, but times have changed. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the jihadist group that captured Mosul about a month ago, has "cleansed" the city of Christians. ISIS initially told Mosul's Christians that they had until July 18th to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, leave, or be have “nothing but the sword,” but it changed its mind. On July 18th, all Christians were told (via loudspeakers) that they all had to leave by the next day or be killed.
The Arabic letter for N for Nassarah, meaning Christian, was spray-painted on their houses, with stencils declaring them to be “Property of the Islamic State”. Monks from the monastery of Mar Behnam, near Qaraqosh, south-east of Mosul, were allowed to take only the clothes they were wearing. “You have no place here any more,” the jihadists are reported to have said (The Economist, July 24th).
So, for the first time in at least 1,600 years, no Christians will be living in the city (the Mar Behnam monastery dates from the 4th century). They aren't the only religious groups being treated harshly by ISIS. So are Shia Muslims and Yazidis, the latter of which have ties to Zoroastrianism.

Monday, August 4, 2014

NFL Players Aren't As Bad As You Probably Think

I've written previously about how what social psychologists call "heuristics" guide (usually unconsciously) the conclusions we draw. One, for example, is priming, which is where our subsequent actions are affected by prior cues. For example, in an experiment students at New York University were asked to assemble four-word sentences from a set of five words. For one set of students, the scrambled words included words associated with being elderly (e.g., “forgetful,” “Florida,” “wrinkle”), and when they were asked to walk to a room down the hall, those who had assembled sentences using "elderly" words walked more slowly than those who had not. Anchoring is another. Most of us make our judgments in comparison to alternatives. For example, a $25 bottle of wine seems expensive next to $5 bottles but cheap next to $150 ones.

Still another is the availability heuristic. This is the tendency to make judgements about the frequency of an event based on how easy it is to recall similar instances. As the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman notes (Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 130),
A salient event that attracts your attention will be easily retrieved from memory. Divorces among Hollywood celebrities and sex scandals among politicians attract much attention, and instances will easily come to mind. You are therefore likely to exaggerate the frequency of both Hollywood divorces and political sex scandals.
This heuristic explains why most people probably overestimate how often professional football players are arrested. In fact, a recent study by FiveThirtyEight ("The Rate of Domestic Violence Arrests Among NFL Players") found that the arrest rate for NFL players is much lower compared to national averages for men in their age range, as the graphic below illustrates:


The blue dots indicate the rate for NFL players; the red dots indicate the national average. For almost all types of arrests, the NFL rate are lower than the national average (i.e., the blue dots are to the left of the red dots). These results may prove to be an inconvenient truth for those who dislike professional sports, but they are what they are.