I Pray for a Better 2011

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New year - which direction?

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Another year has passed, and the older I get, the faster time seems to pass. I pray that the world will be a better place in 2011 than it was in 2010. As a Christian, I am thrilled by the rapid spread of Christianity in Africa–and African Christians, unlike American Christians, can pay a steep price for their faith. Their dedication in facing persecution, in walking twenty or more miles in the mud to get to church, is a model for all of us to follow.

I pray that there will be fewer wars and that the American people will wake up to the power of what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.”

I pray for the unborn, that God would protect them from the scourge of abortion. I pray for marriage–that it will continue as a permanent union between one man and one woman. I pray for parents to be good fathers and mothers, to be affectionate for their children, to praise them when they do well, and discipline them when they do wrong. I pray that the trend toward physician-assisted suicide and toward active euthanasia will be reversed. I pray that Americans realize that older people have just as much intrinsic value as young people–and they often have more wisdom.

I pray that colleges and universities will recover some of the sanity that they once have. I pray that young people will learn the great classics of literature, philosophy, and religion. I pray that more traditional Christians strive for teaching and research careers in higher education.

I pray that the American people will take more responsibility for their actions and not blame others for all their misfortunes. I pray for greater courtesy between people. I pray that mediating institutions that stand between the person and the state–churches, civic organizations, and clubs–will grow and prosper. I pray that Americans realize that there is a life beyond both big government and big business.

I pray that we all stop and enjoy the beauty of nature, that we realize that environmentalism is not contrary to Christianity, but recognizes the goodness of the earth and the plants and animals God created. I pray for less cruelty toward animals, that people realize that humans are not the only animals with intrinsic value, that even if humans have more value than other animals, that does not imply that animals be mistreated. I pray for more free range animals and fewer factory farms. I pray that people treasure their pets, and I pray that God in His mercy will raise them from the dead when He reconstitutes the world in a perfect form.

I pray for the salvation of all people, recognizing that there is a possibility of eternal damnation–I pray, though, that Hell will be empty. I pray that we will forgive without excusing, mete justice but balance it with mercy when mercy is warranted. I pray that Americans will realize that people are more important than material possessions, that the accumulation of riches alone will never make a person happy. I pray that all people will strive to have virtuous characters, and that God will reach down and touch the most damaged of souls, all those with intractable vices or mental illness, all those who suffer from the sin of narcissism, those who suffer from borderline personality disorder, even those who are psychopaths.

I pray that the New Atheism will show forth its shallowness and not convince people that God does not exist.

I pray for the success of Sam Parnia’s study of Near-Death Experiences, that his findings will suggest that a spiritual realm truly does exist.

I pray for my family, my friends, for every person that they will cooperate with God’s grace to become all they are meant to be. And to the readers of this blog, may God’s richest blessings descend on you in 2011.

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Animals Have Feelings: Against Neocartesianism

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If you step on a dog’s tail and it yelps, does it feel pain? Are some intellectuals so thickheaded that they cannot see the obvious? Yes and Yes.

People in both the ancient and medieval worlds believed that all living things had souls. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the greatest Christian thinker of the Middle Ages, accepted Aristotle’s view that plants have vegetative souls, animals have sensitive souls, and human beings have rational souls. Aquinas would have no problem admitting a dog feels pain when someone steps on its tail. He believed that animals have emotions that parallel human emotions, and although he did not discuss the issue directly, I have no doubt he would have said animals are consciously aware of themselves and the world, especially higher animals such as mammals.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed that only human beings have souls and that only human beings are conscious and aware. For Descartes, animals are automatons, machine. So a dog yelping in what appears to be pain is no different than a mechanical toy with a sensor causing a yelping sound when someone steps on it. It is hard to believe that Descartes actually owned a dog!

A few years ago an article appeared in the scholarly journal Faith and Philosophy that defended God from the charge that He created a world with extreme animal pain–“nature red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. They referred to scientists who defend Neocartesianism, a contemporary view that animals either lack consciousness or their consciousness is so limited compared to us that they experience either no pain or very little. The same would follow for other feelings, emotions, and thoughts.

I must admit that my first reaction on reading the article was fury. These Evangelical Protestant scholars were so intent on getting God off the hook for animal pain that they were willing to deny the fact of animal pain, or at least minimize the amount of feeling a nonhuman animal could have. But in doing so, reality, like an angry dog, bites them in the face.

We share similar brains and nervous systems with animals, especially mammals. Just as an animal withdraws from painful stimuli, so do we. Just as animals cry out when in pain, so do we. Just as some animals become aggressive when in pain, so do some of us. My thoughts are if something looks like it’s in pain, acts like it’s in pain, and cries out like it’s in pain, that is sufficient evidence to say it feels pain. Neocartesian scientists and their defenders accept what C. D. Broad called “a silly philosophy,” that is, a philosophy that would send anyone outside of academia to an insane asylum. I suppose if Neocartesians are consistent, they would support the most violent research on animals; after all, if they are automatons or near-automatons, why not vivisect them–without anesthesia, too! But I doubt the Neocartesians would go this far. One never knows.

Of course we cannot enter an animal’s mind to know for sure what its thoughts and feelings are. But neither can we enter into another human being’s mind in that way. We have to rely on behavioral evidence to identify an animal’s emotions just as we do with human beings. Now humans also have language, but the fact that animals lack a language in the sense that humans have one does not imply that they are without thoughts and feelings.

In defending God from the charge that He created a world with excessive suffering, one should never ignore reality. That is intellectual cheating, and that is precisely the crime of which the Christians who wrote the article in Faith and Philosophy are guilty. Reality is what it is no matter how much humans try to deny it. Animals do feel, and without the strong rational sense that humans have in the way, they most likely feel emotions in a rawer and more intense fashion than human beings. Only a Neocartesian is intellectually obtuse enough to deny that.

North Carolina: Inhospitable to Animals

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Some of the weakest laws concerning animal welfare in the country are found in the state of North Carolina. Dogs and cats are routinely killed in cruel gas chambers used by county animal control organizations. Dogs and cats are placed into the chambers, the lid is closed, and the gas released. One can hear the howls of the dogs as they gasp for air. A law to forbid gas chambers and require human euthanasia via injection failed to get past committee in the North Carolina state legislature.

In addition, the state allows county shelters to routinely get away with violations, but threatens private no-kill shelters with the most inane regulations. The state is always a hair’s breadth away from closing no-kill shelters. Any attempt at reform is opposed by several county animal control offices.

The state legislature is considering–again–this fall, a bill that would regulate dog breeding in way that is more humane for dogs. This bill has been opposed by special interests, including the hog farm industry.

Speaking of hog farms, pigs are reared in close quarters in factory farms, with sows genetically modified to continually produce more offspring than they could via their natural design alone. Hormones increase their muscle mass above what their bones can handle. The same sort of treatments are given to chickens, who are also packed in close quarters rather than being free range. Those who are unhealthy are killed on the spot. Hog and chicken factory farmers routinely say that “those hogs [or those chickens] are treated better than your dog or cat at home.” They are lying–and they oppose every attempt at reform of their industry.

Why is such treatment of animals accepted by many in North Carolina. I believe it is due to the unhealthy influence of toxic Fundamentalist Christianity, a twisting of orthodox Christianity that holds that animals are the slaves of man. Ignoring the Bible’s claims that man is a steward of the animals, such Christians believe that man has the right to treat animals in any way he sees fit. Christians should read Matthew Scully’s book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy for an animal-friendly interpretation of the Christian tradition. A person does not have to deny some priority to man to accept that non-human animals also have intrinsic value. The twisting of Christianity to justify cruel treatment of animals is evil. I believe that if this toxic religion were replaced with a Christian orthodoxy that affirms the value of non-human animals, the people of North Carolina would be far more willing to pressure legislators to pass laws that protect animal welfare. If this happens, even the powerful lobbyists of factory farms and the influence of unethical county animal shelters can be stopped. The state of North Carolina can become hospitable to animals–but only if we the people of North Carolina change our hearts and our actions toward animals–and then lobby legislators to do the right thing. Stop gas chamber killings of animals. Stop fighting no-kill shelters every step of the way. Support humane dog breeding. Stop the abuses of factory farming. It can be done.

Animal Welfare and a Red Herring

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A young male cat

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Many years ago, to train hunting dogs, trainers would throw a red herring in front of a dog to try to draw it off the trail. When properly trained, the dog would continue to follow the scent of its prey rather than to follow the red herring. Thus the “red herring” fallacy occurs when someone throws out an argument that is not relevant to the argument a person is making in order to change the subject, to draw the argument away from the real issues.

When I argue that human beings should treat animals in a humane way, and that the present system of animal welfare, especially concerning stray dogs and cats, is broken, some people throw out a red herring. The red herring is “Why do you worry so much about the treatment of animals when there are so many people in need? Do you care more about animals than people?”

This is an easy way for people to avoid the arguments I make in favor of animal welfare–that there are too many stray dogs and cats, that the pet population should be controlled by spaying and neutering, and that the killing of healthy dogs and cats at “animal shelters” should cease. I could also go into the issue of the treatment of chickens and hogs at factory farms, but for brevity’s sake I’ll limit my focus to cats and dogs.

There are two strategies to use in answering this red herring. One strategy is to ignore it and continue giving my main argument: Cats and dogs, like other mammals and birds (and probably many other animals) are sentient creatures. That is, they are not automatons as Descartes and the behaviorist psychologists think (and even some Christian philosophers who want to get God off the hook for animal pain). Dogs and cats have emotions–joy, sadness, love, anger, and grief. In a way, they feel more deeply than humans–we have a developed sense of reason to control our emotions. Animals, though they have some rudimentary reasoning skills, do not have the level of reasoning and humans, and their emotions therefore stand out more. I remember a photo in the 1980s from the Memphis Commercial Appeal. A hunter had died of a heart attack, and his dog remained by his side, even after rescue units arrived. Loyalty, love, and grief were summed up in one photo. When my cats look up at me with eyes that seem full of love (at least at times when they’re not hungry), some biologists would accuse me of anthropomorphism, of transferring human qualities to the animal. But
why throw out the idea that the cats are showing affection or something akin to love? My two cats love each other–they are friends, they groom each other, sleep by each other–sometimes one cat will wrap its paw around the other.

Now if dogs and cats are sentient and have a high degree of emotion, then it is wrong to inflict pain on them without a great deal of justification (such as to cure an illness or treat an injury). Plus, dogs and cats are not only valuable because of their interaction with humans, but they have intrinsic value. As living, sentient, emotional beings, animals have more than mere utilitarian value.

Beings with intrinsic value require a high threshold before they can be killed. Now I do not believe that non-human animals have the same degree of value as human beings–I differ with many animal rights advocates on that point. But I do believe that dogs and cats should not be killed unless they are so sick or injured there is little chance of recovery, or if their treatments would cause them so much pain (which they would not understand) that is is more human to euthanize them. But killing healthy dogs and cats, puppies and kittens in shelters seems to me an obscenity. A society that mistreats animals is twisted in itself, but it can also quickly more to devaluing and killing people it considers to be a burden.

One could also attack the red herring directly. To say that our primary concern should be with human welfare does not imply that we should not be concerned with animal welfare; this “argument” is a non-starter from the beginning. The issue is not whether to treat “non-human animals or humans” with dignity and respect; the issue is whether to treat both humans and non-human animals with the dignity and love they both deserve.