May 29, 2011
If this year’s Arab freedom movements had a soundtrack, it’d be an eclectic assortment, from the densely operatic story line that saw the deposement of Hosni Mubarak, to the thunderous mortars and bomb blasts of Libya, to the staccato work of government snipers in Syria. The most recent track would likely prove to be among the more modest: the car horns currently being honked across Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has largely been immune to the uprisings and revolutions sweeping the region: Minor rumblings by the Shiite minority in the Eastern Province were quickly quieted, and the government handed out billions of dollars to citizens in a pre-emptive measure to quell any would-be dissent. But a campaign by Saudi women claiming the right to drive — the conservative Gulf monarchy is the only country in the world that forbids women to operate automobiles — threatens to shake up the status quo.
As in neighboring countries, the protests are relying on civil disobedience: One of the organizers of the movement, Manal al-Sharif, was arrested by Saudi authorities on Sunday, May 22, after twice filming herself driving a car in her hometown of Dammam and posting the videos to YouTube. Despite the demonstrative arrest, the movement shows little sign of slowing down: A lively Twitter campaign named Women2Drive is calling for women across Saudi Arabia to take to the streets (in automobiles) on June 17.
The stakes may not seem as high as those that have toppled dictators elsewhere in the region, but the Saudi monarchy is quickly moving to extinguish the threat to its absolute rule. And that includes offering a blanket defense of the status quo, women-free roads included. From Riyadh’s perspective, there are apparently plenty of good reasons — theological, sociological, biological — that women shouldn’t be allowed to get behind the wheel. The Saudi monarchy has seen fit in recent months to trot each out for a spin in the national media (exclusively owned, natch, by Saudis close to the royal family).
All in all, it’s an impressive display of pseudo-intellectual apologetics. Judges for the Saudi Pulitzers have no doubt already taken note, but here’s a digest for the rest of us…
The good god guide: Tentatively, scientists are asking: exactly what is religion, and what is it for?
May 29, 2011
RELIGION is ubiquitous but it is not universal. That is a conundrum for people trying to explain it. Religious types, noting the ubiquity (though not everyone is religious, all human societies have religions), argue that this proves religion is a real reflection of the underlying nature of things. Sceptics wonder why, if that is the case, it comes in such a variety of flavours, from the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to the cargo cults of Papua New Guinea—each of which seems to find the explanations offered by the others anathema.
To bring a little scientific order to the matter, researchers taking part in a multinational project called Explaining Religion have spent three years gathering data on various aspects of religious practice and on the sorts of moral behaviour that religions often claim to govern. The data-collection phase was wrapped up at the end of 2010, and the results are starting to be published.
At the moment, most students of the field would agree that they are still in the “stamp collecting” phase that begins many a new science—in which facts are accumulated without it being clear where any of them fit in. But some intriguing patterns are already beginning to emerge. In particular, the project’s researchers have studied the ideas of just deserts, of divine disapproval and of the nature of religious ritual.
One theory of the origin of religion is that it underpins the extraordinary capacity for collaboration that led to the rise ofHomo sapiens. A feature of many religions is the idea that evil is divinely punished and virtue is rewarded. Cheats or the greedy, in other words, get their just deserts. The selflessness which that belief encourages might help explain religion’s evolution. But is the idea of universal just deserts truly instinctive, as this interpretation suggests it should be?
To test that Nicolas Baumard (then at Oxford, now at the University of Pennsylvania) used a computer to check people’s reactions to a modern morality tale. Dr Baumard’s volunteers read about a beggar asking for alms, and a passer-by who did not give them. In some cases the pedestrian was not only stingy, but hurled abuse at the poor man. In others, he was skint and apologetic. Either way, he went on to experience some nasty event (anything from tripping over a shoelace, via being tripped up deliberately by the beggar, to being run over by a car).
The question asked of each volunteer was whether the second event was caused by the passer-by’s behaviour towards the beggar. Most answered “no”, the assumption being it was the shoelace, or the beggar’s foot, or the car. But Dr Baumard also measured how long each volunteer thought about the answer—and he found that when the passer-by had behaved badly to the beggar and then suffered an unrelated bad incident, volunteers spent significantly longer thinking about their answers than when the passer-by had behaved well, or the beggar had tripped him up deliberately.
Dr Baumard’s interpretation, though he cannot prove it, is that the volunteers were indeed making a mental connection, during this extra thinking time, between the passer-by’s actions and his subsequent fate. In other words, they were considering the idea that he was getting his just deserts, dished out by some sort of universal fate.
That interpretation will require a lot of further testing. But it tallies with a second result from the project, which looked at the idea that God is always watching you.
To investigate this, Dr Baumard teamed up with Ryan McKay of the University of London and Pierrick Bourrat of the University of Sydney. Together, they checked whether subtle cues about being observed had an effect on people’s behaviour.
In this case they invited their volunteers to rate the acceptability of two acts—keeping the money from a lost wallet and faking a résumé. Half the volunteers were given the task written on a piece of paper which also included a picture of a pair of eyes. The other half saw an image of flowers with their instructions. The upshot was that those who saw the eyes rated both misdemeanours as more serious than those who saw the flowers.
Again, that proves nothing. Prying eyes need not indicate a supernatural watcher, and people are well-known to have their consciences pricked when they are under non-divine scrutiny as well. But it does indicate a mental process that religious ideas of a judgmental, omniscient god would be able to tap into.
To explore that idea further, Dr Bourrat joined forces with Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland. Together, they pored over the World Values Survey, a poll of 87 countries that asks respondents, among other things, about their religious beliefs and the acceptability of a range of infractions, from littering to adultery. The upshot of Dr Bourrat’s and Dr Atkinson’s analysis was that people whose religion includes an omniscient, judgmental god (Christians, Muslims and so on) regard the whole range of such transgressions more harshly than those, such as Buddhists, whose religion does not. (Agnostics and atheists think like Buddhists.)…
May 29, 2011
It was just a matter of time before the successful Navy SEAL operation against Osama bin Laden on May 1 provoked a complaint that SEAL teams are all-male. Sure enough, Washington Post pundit (and founder of the feminist website Jezebel.com) Anna Holmes came through last week with a column denouncing the “paternalistic, discriminatory” exclusion of women from special-operations units and comparing that exclusion to racial segregation. If you’d like to get a full picture of feminist thought today, just combine Holmes’s column with the ongoing farce at Yale University, which is under federal investigation for allegedly denying female students equal educational opportunities. Not only has the rise of women to positions of power and control in American society not dented feminist irrationality, it seems to have exacerbated that irrationality.
Two of Holmes’s sources concede that female recruits trying to join special forces would have to be held to the same physical standards as males (a hollow admission, given the lowering of physical standards in fire departments across the country to accommodate women). But mental stamina is just as important to a special-ops team member, who needs the fortitude to withstand threats, verbal and physical abuse, and possibly even torture—and that’s just in boot camp. Here is where the Yale situation comes in. According to a federal civil rights complaint filed this March by 16 Yale students and recent alumni, female undergraduates at the college experience adversity so acute that they cannot get a full education.
The federal action, filed under Title IX with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, rests on a few juvenile frat-house pranks deliberately designed to violate feminist taboos. On October 13, 2010, the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity forced its pledges to chant “No means yes, and yes means anal” while marching blindfolded in the freshman quad. In 2009, some athletes and fraternity brothers circulated an anonymous e-mail ranking female freshmen by the number of beers the sender would have to drink before having sex with them. And in 2008, 12 pledges to the Zeta Psi fraternity photographed themselves outside the Yale Women’s Center, the wellspring of the college’s most unhinged feminist agitation, holding small signs that read WE LOVE YALE SLUTS.
Here are a few possible responses to these incidents. Roll your eyes at the immaturity of boys and go back to studying for your chemistry exam. Stage counter-demonstrations outside the DKE and Zeta Psi fraternities giving out the toll-free number for Viagra prescriptions as an antidote to the brothers’ well-known performance problems. Announce a sex boycott of the offending fraternities and athletes until they send every freshman girl roses and chocolates.
That wise precept, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” has obviously long disappeared among the sisterhood, however. So, too, has the idea of keeping things in perspective. The DKE brothers’ tasteless pledge prank was just that: a tasteless pledge prank. What is the most provocative thing you could say on a college campus today, the thing most likely to outrage the largest and most influential power bloc? “No means yes.” To inflate this incident into a symbol of anything beyond an unfunny effort at transgression on the part of a trivially small (and marginalized) number of individuals requires a willful blindness to the reality of Yale. (The administration doesn’t even recognize fraternities.) The university constantly sends the message that “no means no,” whether through such formal bodies as its Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education Center, its Sexual Harassment Grievance Board, and a 24-hour sexual-assault hotline or through informal channels such as freshman orientation and public pronouncements. Yale president Rick Levin and Yale College dean Mary Miller condemned what they called the pledges’ “appalling language.” “We will confront hateful speech,” they stated in a press release, “in no uncertain terms: No member of our community should engage in such demeaning behavior.” Last week, Yale banned DKE from conducting any activities on campus, including use of campus e-mail, for five years on the ground that it had engaged in “harassment, coercion or intimidation.” Yale also announced that individual frat members had been disciplined for their speech. If the pledge chant represented official thinking on campus, or was in any way sanctioned by the authorities, obviously there would be cause for concern. Clearly, that is not the case.
To the civil rights complainants, however, the DKE incident and Yale’s allegedly inadequate response to it “precludes women from having the same equal opportunity to the Yale education as their male counterparts,” in the words of signatory Hannah Zeavin. (The signatories also want to gut further Yale’s already ludicrously inadequate due-process protections for those accused of sexual assault or harassment.) Yale has one of the greatest library systems in the world; it showers on students top-notch instruction in almost every intellectual discipline; it lavishes students with healthy food, luxurious athletic facilities, and rich venues for artistic expression. All of these educational resources are available on a scrupulously equal basis to both sexes. But according to the Yale 16 and their supporters, female students simply cannot take full advantage of the peerless collection of early twentieth-century German periodicals at Sterling Library, say, or the DNA sequencing labs on Science Hill, because a few frat boys acted tastelessly. Thus the need to go crying to the feds to protect you from the big, bad Yale patriarchy. Time to bring on the smelling salts and the society doctors peddling cures for vapors and neurasthenia.
Reality check: there has probably never been a more female-friendly community in the history of humanity than today’s Yale. Virtually all of its professors and administrators are dedicated to the proposition that women deserve the same opportunities that men do—if not more opportunities. I graduated from the college in 1978. If ever there were a trace of sexism there, it should have been in that first decade of coeducation, before the rise of an increasingly feminist-dominated bureaucracy and professoriate. Not once, however, did I receive anything other than full encouragement from my teachers and the other adults in authority. Since then, the college has added a seemingly endless number of administrative offices, faculty and student organizations, working groups, and academic programs explicitly dedicated to the advancement of women and so-called women’s issues. The idea that Yale could have become less female-welcoming than in the 1970s is preposterous…