On Christmas

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Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1

Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think my favorite Christmas special is the Charlie Brown Special, in which Linus reads from the Gospel of Luke–the story of “what Christmas is all about,” and at the end the children sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The theme of the show was against the commercialization of Christmas. That trend has continued to the point that for retailers, “Christmas” begins in September. That is a shame. For Western Catholic Christians, Christmas begins December 25 and continues until January 5, and then there is the Feast of the Epiphany (the coming of the Wise Men) on January 6. The time before Christmas is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, with the focus being on the Second Coming more than the first.

For orthodox Christians of whatever stripe, Christmas is about the coming of God into man, in which God Himself, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was born as a baby in a manger over 2000 years ago. The notion of a being who is fully God, fully man is an offense to many in the intellectual classes–Kierkegaard recognized this in his writings. The belief seems absurd. Yet the Christian faith teaches the coming of the eternal into time, the infinite into the finite, the God-man. Because of that, sin and death are overcome and human beings have not only the hope of salvation from sin, but of salvation from death. Salvation is far more valuable than anything than Santa Claus can bring! I have no problem with children believing in Santa Claus as long as they are taught the true meaning of Christmas–God, born like the rest of us, as a newborn baby who grew up, struggled as we do with temptation, taught a “more excellent way,” was crucified, died, and was buried, and was raised from the dead. Now God the Son remains incarnate, fully God, fully man, for all time. It is an incredible message, that is for sure. I believe it to be true. For those readers who also believe it to be true, consider the wonder of it and thank God for the gift of Himself for us.

Belgium: The Return of “Useless Eaters”

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English: Skull and crossbones

English: Skull and crossbones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At http://www.france24.com/en/20121218-belgium-looks-euthanasia-minors-alzheimers-sufferers is an article on a proposal that will most likely pass Belgium’s legislature that allows euthanasia for minors and for Alzheimer’s patients. Increasingly secular, godless Europe is finally passing laws that reflect the decline of the remnants of Christian ethics that held on for a while after the decline of religious belief. The phrase “useless eaters” was coined by a Nazi doctor who was discussing Nazi Germany’s euthanasia program. It had no problem killing minors and people with senility of whatever cause. With no clear cut behavioral diagnostic difference between Alzheimer’s Disease and senile dementia in general, the new law, when passed, could de facto be applied to some non-Alzheimer’s senile patients.

What are the limits on the age of minors? Apparently none–any minor deemed “too sick to live” by a doctor and by parents or guardians could be killed. The slippery slope that supporters of euthanasia claimed would not happen is already fact. Next door in The Netherlands, voluntary euthanasia quickly led to involuntary euthanasia, and there was, for a time, a proposal on the table to have a “quality of life threshold” below which a person would no longer have the right to live. It may just be a matter of time before the severely mentally retarded will join the list of “useless eaters” and euthanized. A godless society only gives life a utilitarian value. Although Kant tried to set up a secular system that allowed for intrinsic human dignity, his dream died, at least in some European countries, and the remnants of the Christianity that still influenced Kant died away. Now there is no bar to making decisions regarding euthanasia not based on alleged “mercy,” but on a person’s ability to “contribute” to society. The fittest survive; those considered unfit will be eliminated. The most frightening instances of murder are those murders that use mercy to justify them. The only “mercy” involved may be for the family to get a burden off their back and the state to save on medical bills due to fewer patients requiring long-term care.

The United States, for now, has enough residual Christian belief to avoid Europe’s direction for now. However, given the responses of most of my medical ethics students to questions regarding the moral rightness or wrongness of physician assisted suicide, it seems that those supporting PAS will win in the long run. If they do, it will be no surprise if PAS leads the way into voluntary active euthanasia and eventually to involuntary active euthanasia. Society will be at last be in part of a eugenics movement that will make the earlier movement in the first decades of the twentieth century seem like child’s play. God help us all if that happens–and it will happen in Western Europe (and probably in Canada) before it happens in the United States. But with 30% of young people in the U.S. classifying themselves as “irreligious,” the road toward Europe may be wider than one might think.

Atheists forget, when they catalog the crimes of religion, that the mass murderous regimes of the twentieth century were atheistic: Nazi Germany, the Stalinist Soviet Union, Maoist Communist China, North Korea, and Cambodia when it was under the rule of Pol Pot. The sanctity of human life does not make sense in an atheistic framework; the value of human life must be instrumental and not intrinsic in a consistent atheistic system. It is no surprise, then, that Belgium and the Netherlands are going the route toward allowing more and more classes of people to potentially be subject to euthanasia. The Nazi world of alleged “useless eaters,” a world Europe once claimed to eschew for good, is coming back to haunt a godless society. The price paid for such folly will be very high.

Missing the Point on Atheism and Mass Murder

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Pat Buchanan

Pat Buchanan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speak...

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speaking to a gathering at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Atheists have reacted with outrage to Mike Huckabee‘s statements (http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151207029493634) as well as Pat Buchanan‘s column (http://buchanan.org/blog/the-dead-soul-of-adam-lanza-5428) on the role that atheism might play in such tragedies as the school murders in Connecticut. Some comments I have read suggest that atheists believe that Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Buchanan are attacking them personally or saying that atheism directly led to the school shooting. A more careful reading of Huckabee and Buchanan, however, reveals that their claims are more nuanced. The point they make, and I think they are right, is that a godless society is more likely to put the primary focus on the self and its desires. Now I am aware of James Q. Wilson‘s work on sociobiology and altruism, but more people are likely to have heard of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Most “lay atheists,” even highly educated or intelligent atheists, may not be aware of either work, but one motive for atheism among some (though not all) atheists is the desire to be free of divine judgment in order to fulfill the desires of the self. Kant was a theist of sorts, at least most of his life, and the remains of Lutheran divine command theory kept his principle of autonomy from degenerating into subjectivism–the identical moral law, Kant believed, was given to each individual by that individual self. With the remains of Christianity removed from autonomy, autonomy becomes the right to do whatever the self desires. Now that often comes with the caveat that one can do what one desires “as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else,” but without a divine judgment it is only internal conscience developed by habituation that prevents evil personal desires from being expressed. Ted Bundy made it clear to one of his victims that without a God to judge him, he believed that he should fulfill his personal desires to murder his victims and sexually violate their dead bodies. Without a sense that one’s actions can have consequences beyond this life, including negative consequences, it is easier for disturbed people such as Adam Lanza to act on their evil desires. Now he may have acted anyway–we cannot know for sure–but the point is that with one less barrier to fulfilling personal desires, it is easier for an evil or severely disturbed person to “go over the top” and act on his twisted desires. This does not imply that all mass murderers are atheists, nor does it deny that many atheists have moral lives that put some Christians to shame. In a way, the atheist who seeks only fulfillment of the self is acting more consistently than the one who affirms a larger social responsibility to the group. I am aware that evolution recognizes the nature of humans as social beings, and that a lack of all concern for others would prevent human genes from being carried on to the next generation. Yet there is no transcendent meaning to life in atheism, and as Bertrand Russell recognized, all human achievements would be lost in the final ruin of the universe. In such a meaningless world, hedonism may seem like the best option, as with Russell, but with less stable people egoism may be the course they take. Thus the point made is a general one: a society that eliminates any deity is more likely to produce more people like Mr. Lanza that one that accepts ethical monotheism.

The Unpredictability of Human Behavior

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When you think of mental illness, is this what...

When you think of mental illness, is this what you see? (Photo credit: JenXer)

Some of the comments on Internet discussion boards suggest that mental health professionals should have been able to tell that Adam Lanza was dangerous and that they should have had him detained at a mental health facility. Such statements reflect a fundamental ignorance about the nature of mental illness and the predictability of human behavior. There are a few–and only a few–cases in which mental health professionals can be reasonably certain that a person will break the law and/or harm another person. Pedophiles are notoriously difficult to treat–it is well known that their recidivism rate is high. Psychopaths, who lack empathy, often hurt people, although most do not become murderers. A person known to have a violent temper who has behaved violently all his life is likely to engage in violent behavior again. However, in most cases of mental illness, no one can predict with any degree of accuracy whether or not a person will engage in violent behavior. The vast majority of mentally ill individuals, even those with psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, never engage in violent behavior. Even a paranoid schizophrenic who is aware of his condition and realizes that any hallucinations he has are not real may not be at serious risk for violent behavior. Sometimes “normal” people engage in terrible acts of violence, such as a North Carolina man a few years ago who, without warning, beheaded his eight-year-old son. To say that psychologists and psychiatrists and others around Mr. Lanza should have predicted that he would become violent is both unrealistic and ignorant. Mental health professionals cannot read people’s minds. There are many unusual or quiet individuals who do not fit into society’s pigeon holes of normality, and almost all of them will lead peaceful lives. On the other hand, someone who robs and murders multiple people over a period of time may do so without any sign of mental illness per se.

Eccentrics often are the most creative people in a society–Beethoven, Einstein, Thelonious Monk–all were eccentric people who made incredible contributions to science and to music. To say that people who are different or who have certain “mental disorders” should be locked up because of an alleged potential for violence is a view that is not based on facts. Americans want predictability, want order–they want reality to fit into a pigeonhole. Evil actions are often what philosophers call a “surd,” something that cannot be explained. How can someone, without getting into Mr. Lanza’s mind, have possibly known he was going to commit such an act. If his mother had heard him brag about specific violent acts, then there would a problem, but thus far, there is little evidence of that occurring. These murders point out the limits of human knowledge, limits that people do not want to acknowledge–and such a failure to acknowledge limits is used to justify stereotyping the mentally ill (including, as I noted in my previous post, people with Asperger’s Syndrome) as violent. People should do good research before expression opinions that are both wrong and potentially subversive to the rights of entire classes of people.

Asperger’s Syndrome is not Why Adam Lanza Committed Murder

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Autism Awareness

Autism Awareness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Members of the media often love simplistic thinking–it makes it easier to create headlines and “talking points.” As I have watched and read the media coverage of Adam Lanza’s horrific murders of young children and adults, including his mother, there are more stories about Mr. Lanza’s having Asperger’s Syndrome. Although, to be fair, some of the stories have a disclaimer that points out there is no causal connection nor any correlation between Asperger’s Syndrome (soon to be labeled as high functioning autism spectrum disorder) and violence. From the online comments sections, it is clear that many people do not read the disclaimer, nor do they have any understanding of Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s Syndrome may account for Mr. Lanza’s shyness and his membership in his high school “Tech Club,” but it does not account for his committing murder. He clearly had other, much more serious, mental problems that were heightened by his parents’ divorce. God only knows Mr. Lanza’s motivation for sure. The act was that of a twisted mind–Mr. Lanza may not have been legally insane, but his view of reality was skewed. I believe he retained free will and was thus morally responsible for his actions. His actions were evil and represent a mind so utterly focused on self that the lives of twenty-seven human beings did not matter to him. The cold-blooded way in which the murders were carried out reflects a mind that was most likely incapable of feeling emotional empathy for another person–the classic sign of a psychopath.

Although some individuals on the autism spectrum have less empathy, at least that is visible to others, people with Asperger’s Syndrome often have a great deal of empathy, and children and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome are capable of great love. They share the tendencies to good and evil that all human beings have, but their levels of crime and violent crime are no higher than the rest of the U.S. population. What I fear is that the news stories that lead people to falsely believe that Asperger’s is a sign of a tendency to violence will encourage mistreatment by civilians and by law enforcement of individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome. The coverage may also cause children who are “different” or “strange” to be signaled out for surveillance. Adults may face the same treatment–and that would raise problems of civil liberties. It is simplistic, ignorant, and dangerous to link Asperger’s Syndrome with the brutal murders in Connecticut. The press has a moral responsibility not to mislead, even if unintentionally, people to falsely associate Asperger’s Syndrome with a tendency toward violence.

The Injustice of the “Racial Justice Act”

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Location of state of XY (see filename) in the ...

Location of state of XY (see filename) in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On September 23, 1997, in broad daylight on Interstate 95 in North Carolina, two brothers, Kevin and Tilmon Golphin, murdered North Carolina Highway Patrolman Ed Lowry and Cumberland County Sheriff’s Deputy David Hathcock in cold blood. They then took off in their vehicle, and a civilian chased them as they fired on his car multiple times. Police tracked them down to Dunn, NC, where after a shootout with police, they were captured. They were sentenced to death, but Kevin Golphin, who was seventeen at the time of the murders, had his sentence commuted after the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could not be applied to those who committed crimes as minors. Now Tilmon’s death penalty is commuted.

In 1999, Christina “Queen” Walters was convicted and sentenced to death. She and her accomplices murdered two young women and shot another woman eight times, severely wounding her, as part of their initiation rite for a gang. Interviews with her in prison have shown her to be a self-centered psychopath without remorse who only cares about herself. Her death sentence is now commuted.

Quintel Augustine murdered Officer Roy Turner on November 29, 2001. He was sentenced to death. His death sentence is not commuted.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks is responsible for the commutations. He was following the “North Carolina Racial Justice Act,” barely passed by a (then) Democratic Party controlled legislature and signed by Governor Bev Perdue (who has consistently shown her disdain for the will of the people of North Carolina). The law puts the onus of proof on prosecutors in death penalty convictions to show they were not racially biased in striking black jurors.

Judge Weeks clearly had an agenda from the beginning when he took all three cases. I agree with Al Lowry, the brother of the murdered highway patrol officer, who yelled at the judge, “Judge, you had your mind made up the first day.” Judge Weeks was aware that both the prosecution and the defense have only a set number of strikes, and that both must accept a jury before it is seated. He was surely also aware that jurors in any case may be struck for any number of reasons unrelated to race. In death penalty cases, prosecutors want jurors who are not opposed in to the death penalty. To assume racial bias because more black potential jurors were excluded from a jury than white jurors is itself a sign of racial bias. Different reasons were cited by the prosecution for striking the black jurors from each of the juries–and white jurors were struck, too. The so-called “civil rights leadership” seems to have no problem with predominately black jurors convicting whites–neither do I–but their double standard is telling.

I believe that in cases of psychopaths are are clearly guilty, as the defendants were in these cases of brutal murder, the death penalty is justified. Appeals to the teachings of Jesus while ignoring Paul in Romans 13 artificially separate the teachings of Jesus from His apostles and are therefore theologically suspect. If a person has a conscience and is salvageable, then I am all for a life sentence, even in a brutal murder. However, defendants such as those in these cases who clearly have no conscience are beyond help, at least in this life. Study after study has shown that psychopaths remain psychopaths, and lack conscience, a fundamental trait of being a moral creature. Jurors saw this, and that is why these people were convicted. To imply that they were treated unjustly is an insult to the integrity of the prosecutors and an insult to the integrity of the jurors.

The “Racial Justice Act” should be repealed, although cowards in the NC State Legislature who are afraid to stand up to ideological thugs may keep this from happening. The law itself is unjust. Judge Weeks’s rulings were unjust. God bless the families of the victims of these brutal crimes who have been raked over the coals once more by an unfair criminal justice system.

The Need for Practical Wisdom in the Federal Bureaucracy

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Washington DC - Capitol Hill: United States Ca...

Washington DC – Capitol Hill: United States Capitol (Photo credit: wallyg)

With the massive growth of the federal government comes growth in a complex bureaucratic structure that creates multiple layers of administration between government agencies and what they are designed to do. In the 1950s it was relatively easy to begin the interstate highway system–the government was more simply run and the number of “checkers” was reasonable. These days it takes years from conception to finish to build a small limited access route around a growing city. This is not only an issue of environmental regulation–it is an issue of paperwork, finding the right codes, administrator egos, and too many layers of management. In addition, any bureaucracy operates on a system of strict rules. In the case of the federal government, these rules are said to be necessary to protect the public from fraud, from unsafe products, from incompetent health care, or from shoddy construction on buildings and roads. Rules are essential to any organization–it would be irrational to deny that. People, left to themselves, are not often an orderly lot, and efficient, competent operation requires rules. However, beyond rules that are absolutely essential for safety or another vital value, rules often get in the way of common sense. A needed highway may be delayed by the failure to fill out some obscure paperwork that very few people knew about at the time. People in a local area may realize that what they request is badly needed, but someone in the bureaucracy nicks the request. Often, the requests of local people who know the needs of the communities inĀ  which they live are overridden by someone who has never set foot in a particular community. The current trend in the federal government seems to be to follow the model of private business and focus on efficiency. Admittedly the federal government could do a better job of being efficient. However, efficiency should not trump service, and federal supervisors from upper management to “ordinary” employees should be given enough discretion to use practical wisdom to react in the proper way to a particular situation. As Aristotle pointed out, practical wisdom has to do with the local, the particular, rather than with an overarching universal. It is all too easy for federal officials to get caught in their abstract language and multiple abbreviations and lose sight of the very people that pay their salaries and whom they are to serve in a caring, responsible way. Discretion in spending of money should be broadened. Civil service should be reformed in such a way that seniority does not imply that an incompetent person or someone abusing his authority cannot be fired. But there should also be room for dissent and questioning of the decisions of middle and upper management as long as it is done in a respectful way. For example, suppose a federal employee lives in a community where a new bridge is supposed to be built. The employee knows that the road over which the bridge will be build will be re-routed so as to avoid the need for a bridge–at cost savings to the community. Higher federal officials say, “Congress appropriated the money for a bridge, and a bridge you shall have.” What would be wrong with local federal employees who know the situation informing their managers and those managers going up the chain of command so that Congress can allow the community to use the money appropriated for the bridge for re-routing the road? It is not insubordination to question a ruling. Not following a ruling after a final decision has been made would be wrong–but questioning if there is good reason to question should be a right of any American citizen including one who works for the federal government.

Some government programs work well; most do not. Why not work with those who do not to improve them, and if they are not viable, eliminate them? Federal programs, like federal employees, seem to be self-perpetuating no matter how useless or incompetent they are. This demoralizes good employees and empowers the cynical. Instead of focusing on “Which set of rules must we follow now,” focus on “What is the best thing to do in this particular situation?” The best thing will depend on the particularities of the situation and will require practical wisdom, learned by experience, rather than a list of rules to reach the best decision. This implies good observation and evaluation skills as well as the skills to creatively find ways to stay within the rules while stretching them to fit the limits of a particular situation. Experienced local officials should be trusted, unless they have proven untrustworthy, to make prudent decisions. Normally middle and upper management should, if sufficient funds are available, yield to the suggestions of the people who know an area and its problems best. Civil service, designed in the Chester Arthur administration to prevent political favoritism, should not be used to maintain the incompetent, the arrogant, and those managers who harm others by their laziness in performing their tasks. At the local level, conversations in the workplace between different units should be as open as possible so that “the right hand knows where the left hand goes.” Wise decisions are based on the most accurate and thorough information possible. Hopefully federal employees can then go beyond mere rule-following and exercise their discretion

Should the Label “Asperger’s Syndrome” Have Been Removed from the DSM?

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Published by the American Psychiatric Associat...

Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-IV-TR provides a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association will be without the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.” Instead, what was once called Asperger’s will be grouped under “Autistic Spectrum Disorders” without a specific name attached to it. Although there will not be an “official” label, it will most likely be informally considered “high-functioning autism,” or “mild autism.”

As someone formally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, it makes no difference in my condition whether I am labeled as “Asperger’s” or as being a high-functioning person (or someone with “mild autism spectrum disorder”) on the scale of Autism Spectrum Disorders. It was difficult to distinguish between patients diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and those diagnosed with “high functioning autism,” so the American Psychological Association (APA) decided to simply matters by grouping Asperger’s as a form of autism.

Although I understand the reasons for the change in diagnostic terminology, the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” served a useful purpose by distinguishing individuals who could function well overall, yet who had excessive interests and quirks, the inability to look people in the eye, the “little professor syndrome” and so forth, from those individuals with more severe forms of autism.

The new labeling system wreaks havoc on the various Asperger’s social groups online, and some say that they will continue to use the older label. In addition, although autistic people deserve the same respect that any other individual deserves, sadly, there is a stigma attached to the word “autism” that has not yet been attached to the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.” If someone were to notice eccentric behavior and ask me, “What in the world is wrong with you? Are you having a complete conversation with yourself?” it would be difficult to say, “I’m sorry I disturbed you. I’m mildly autistic.” The natural reaction is either to (1) consider me a liar since “everyone knows that autistic people can’t communicate with others, or to (2) think that autistic people are “crazy” and back away. The implications for encounters between law enforcement and individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome–which has been a mixed experience at best with some people with Asperger’s being shot to death–are unknown. How would a police officer react to a self-report of high-functioning or mild autism? Would the reaction be different from an officer who hears the words “Asperger’s Syndrome?” In the case of students, would teachers use a different methodology teaching a student with “mild autism” vs. teaching a child with “Asperger’s Syndrome?” Would parents react differently? What about companies–would they be less likely to hire someone diagnosed as “autisic” than someone diagnosed with Asperger’s? Although autism has an organic basis in structural changes in the brain, the classification of conditions and diseases by medicine is in part objective, in part subjective. Labels may have a basis in reality, but they also help shape public perception of a disease or a condition. Consider the term “AIDS” and the negative connotations it brings. “Autism” also has emotional connotations that are not as evident in the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.

Overall, I see no need for the new changes in the DSM to go into effect. It would be better to keep the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” with all its ambiguity rather than to replace it with another, even broader label.