Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Criticizing religious immorality

Randy Cohen, in his “Moral of the Story” column that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on October 26, 2009, argued that American society would not accept the moral standards of the Roman Catholic Church from any non-religious organization. In particular, Cohen berates the news media for not criticizing the Roman Catholic Church for its misogyny and homophobia. He recognizes the former in the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to ordain women as clergy and the latter in the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude toward same sex relationships.

Cohen prefaces his observations by noting the Constitutional protections afforded religious belief and practice. However, he contends that those Constitutional protections do not justify an absence of public moral discourse about religious beliefs and institutions. (Randy Cohen, “Can We Talk About Religion, Please?New York Times, October 25, 2009)

Cohen’s observations are timely and accurate. Given the diametrically opposing views of social justice found in secular United States society (women and men have equal rights and legal standing) and in the Roman Catholic Church (women inherently lack the ability to stand in Christ's place at the altar), one must ask, “Who is right?” Both secular society and the Roman Catholic Church cannot be right on this point.

Identifying the image of Christ with a priest’s genitalia trivializes the broader theological concepts undergirding the Roman Catholic understanding of priesthood. Furthermore, science increasingly views gender as a spectrum rather than two distinct categories, male and female. Refusing to ordain women lacks any sound theological rationale.

Anglicans who subscribe to the same view, opposing the ordination of women, are even more inane. Anglicanism emphasizes three sources of authority: the Bible, tradition, and reason. This “three-legged stool” presumes that each source informs and is informed by the others.

The Bible teaches that menstruating women are unclean and should live outside the community until a ritual cleansing following the end of their menstrual period. The Bible also teaches members of the faithful community to stone blasphemers, i.e., those who misuse God's name. Usury – the charging of interest, no matter the rate – is forbidden. I do not know a single Anglican who follows any of those teachings. Menstruating women remain in their homes. Blasphemers not only find toleration but also attend worship with impunity. Most people loan money at interest in the form of interest earning bank deposits or of owning bank stocks (even if indirectly through a mutual fund). In each case, tradition and reason appropriately shape the interpretation of scripture.

In other words, refusing to ordain women based on scripture that culture shaped is misogyny, pure and simple. Should religious organizations in the United States have the legal right to refuse to ordain women? Absolutely yes. I proudly served in the U.S. Navy for twenty-four years to defend that right.

Should other Churches and the secular media boldly name that refusal the sin it is? Absolutely yes. Sin is sin, whether in secular society or in the Church. More columnists need the courage and honesty to echo Randy Cohen.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Solving the mind-body problem

Recently, I attended a lecture at Duke Medical School by Niall McLaren, an Australian psychiatrist. McLaren proposed a solution to the mind-body problem with which Western intellectuals have struggled since Rene Descartes. If the mind is different than the brain (a purely physical entity), then what is the interface between the mind (non-physical) and the body (physical)? How does the non-physical interact with the physical?

That question seems particularly acute for those who posit the existence of a human soul that is non-physical. Is the soul something that God interrupts biological processes to insert into an embryo at some point? If so, at what point does the insertion happen? How do we know that? How does the insertion occur? Once inserted, how does the soul interact with the body? The Roman Catholic Church answers some of these questions by Papal fiat and ignores the rest. Most Protestants blithely ignore these troublesome questions, thoughtlessly positing a human soul, accepting evolution and other biological processes, and never grappling with the interaction of the physical and non-physical.

McLaren suggests a helpful alternative to both of those options. If the human mind is an emergent property of the brain (i.e., if brain function is greater than the sum of the individual molecular components of the brain), then a two-directional interface might reasonably occur at the molecular level.

In support of his conclusion, McLaren relies heavily upon the work of David Chalmers who takes human consciousness seriously. Chalmers, capitalizing on Benedict Spinoza’s idea of property dualism (e.g., a dime has the dual properties of metallic composition and of financial currency), suggests that the mind has dual properties. The mind’s property of experience is private, vivid, and ineffable. Nobody can really know what another person experiences. On the other hand, the mind’s property of knowledge is public, silent, and communicable. Two people can agree that an apple is red (knowledge) but be unable to share their personal experience of the same particular apple (experience).

Thus, the brain, McLaren argues, has dual properties: that of mind and that of brain, i.e., the emergent consciousness and its physiological basis. This conclusion seems to finesse the previously unsolvable conundrum of mind-body dualism neatly without creating additional philosophical difficulties. For more on McLaren’s work, visit his website (

McLaren’s approach coheres nicely with my proposal that the human spirit, the imago dei, consists of those aspects of homo sapiens, developed through the evolutionary process, that are uniquely human, e.g., self-awareness and linguistic capacity. Other species may have developed these traits to some degree, but not to the extent that humans have. Indeed, given the evolutionary process, no other species having developed these characteristics to some degree would be very surprising.

Similarly, these conclusions connect with the work of biologist John Holland, which he describes in his book, Emergence: From Chaos to Order. Holland argues for a progressive understanding of evolution, moving from chaos to order, from simplicity to complexity, offers a view of evolution compatible with belief in a creative designer giving impetus and direction to the move from chaos to cosmos and with the notion of mind-body dualism premised on property rather than substance.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cellphones: Bane or Blessing?

According to a recent Pew Internet and American Life Project, 85% of American adults have a cellphone. For that substantial majority, the cellphone has become an essential appendage that ensures constant availability to friends and to family, email, timely information, and more. The majority of adults without a cellphone do not have one because of cost. However, a surprising number of people do not have a cellphone because they prefer to live without the cellphone’s alleged benefits. (Claire Cain Miller, “Their Numbers Are Dropping - the Cellphone Refuseniks,” New York Times, October 23, 2009)

I confess that I happily live without a cellphone. For two decades, I constantly carried first a pager and then a cellphone. Sometimes I referred to that device as my “leash.” Yet I found the pager and especially the cellphone genuinely freeing. I could be available when needed without being confined to an office waiting for a need to emerge. When I retired from the Navy, my wife and I generally spent out time in close proximity – no need for a cellphone. My extended family was at a distance. Even if they contacted me in an instant of need, I would not be present for the hours it took to buy a plane ticket, fly, and arrive at their location – no need for a cellphone, as they should call someone locally in case of emergency. Now that I’m returning to parish ministry, I suspect that I will soon find a cellphone indispensable, both giving me more freedom of movement and helping me to respond to people in a more timely fashion.

Two articles in the same issue of the New York Times that reported the cellphone story prompted additional reflections about cellphones. First, an article about addicts helping addicts recover featured the story of a fifty-four year old man who first entered rehab at nineteen. Not until a year ago did that man realize that if he died nobody, absolutely nobody, would care. That realization was the catalyst for his beginning the long journey toward health. (Erik Eckholm, “Battling Addiction With Those Who Know It Best,” New York Times, October 23, 2009)

How many people rely on a cellphone for a much-needed sense of connection to other people? To what extent has the cellphone become the adult equivalent of a child’s beloved teddy bear? Accessibility and frequency of communication do not equate with true intimacy. In my pastoral counseling work, I have more than once discovered a frightened loner hiding behind an extroverted façade.

Second, an article about a opposition cleric in Iran boldly voicing protests against the Iranian government when it described this godly man as having a cleric’s “calm demeanor.” (Michael Slackman, ”Lone Cleric, Mehdi Karroubi, Emerges to Defy Iran’s Leaders,” New York Times, October 23, 2009) Few clerics develop a “calm demeanor” apart from a longstanding habit of frequent prayer. Prayer, by definition, requires adjusting one’s focus from worldly concerns to God. Interruptions, including cellphone ringing or buzzing, intrude and disrupt that focus.

How many people find silence, time alone in which to explore self and to commune with God, difficult? To what extent does a cellphone become a welcome relief to the much harder work of the interior life, substituting a busyness of the moment for the ultimately important business of God?

I am not advocating a Luddite approach to cellphones. Instead, I am suggesting that cellphones, like any tool, can have beneficial and harmful uses. The good life is a rich, dynamically balanced life in which the person intentionally creates time for God, for self, and for others. When cellphones helpfully connect us to the people important in our lives, enriching and deepening relationships, then cellphones have an important role. When cellphones create an illusion of health and relationships that are in fact only busyness and superficiality that prevent developing genuine intimacy, then turn the cellphone off.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Who cares?

Who cares? Who cares that Pope Benedict XVI has authorized some minor accommodations to ease the transition of Anglicans from Canterbury to Rome?

First, the Pope’s gesture is less than generous. The issue is not and has not been whether Anglicans are Christian. Baptism with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit combined with faith (the baptized’s or the parent’s) is what makes one Christian, not the identity of the one administering the baptism. The Pope’s pronouncement does not address any of the substantive differences between the Roman Catholic Church and Anglicanism. In other words, the Pope’s move in no way advances any ecumenical agenda or process. Some will even argue the opposite, that the Pope’s move actually undercuts ecumenism.

Second, the vast majority of people who will exit the Anglican tradition for the Roman Catholic Church in response to this announcement have already left Anglicanism in everything but name. For their sake, I’m pleased at the prospect of their finding a community that they believe will be more supportive of their faith journey. For my sake, I’m pleased at the prospect of unproductive controversy and dissent within Anglicanism diminishing. Gender and gender orientation no more determine a person’s vocation or calling to holy orders than do ethnicity or race. Jesus welcomed absolutely everybody and we rightly emulate him when we practice a radical hospitality and inclusivity.

The people who care little about the Pope’s pronouncement are the very people to whom Jesus ministered: the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, and the marginalized. The religious establishments and their leaders of Jesus’ time largely rejected these people and cared little about their plight. Jesus was radical precisely because he loved the peasants, the unclean, and the aliens.

Unfortunately, the plight of the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned and the marginalized is unlikely to change. New controversy will arise in England about ownership of Church property; existing controversies in the U.S. are likely to continue if not perhaps worsen. Instead of being about the business of being the Church, the body of Christ – his hands, feet and voice – too many Anglicans and Roman Catholics will focus on issues of structure, property, etc.

In other words, the new policy of the Roman Catholic Church may ameliorate the status of dissenters and those perturbed by current conflicts, but in no way does the policy alter the basic religious landscape or improve life for the least among us. I very much doubt that God greatly cares about what the Pope has done.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Is happiness contagious?

Is happiness contagious? Two Harvard researchers, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, believe the answer to that question is a resounding YES! based on their exhaustive analysis of data from the Framingham heart study of fifteen thousand people. Christakis and Fowler meticulously traced family and friendship links between the Framingham study subjects and found perceived closeness strongly correlated with health habits. For example, if a person’s co-workers quit smoking, the person is likely to do the same. If close friends/family of the same gender become obese, a person is likely to follow suit.

Christakis and Fowler believe that emotional mirroring (I want to be like that person) and peer pressure explain the correlations, interpreting social networks as a causal factor in human behavior. “People are connected, and so their health is connected,” they conclude.

Critics contend that the study highlights correlation rather than causation. Homophily (wanting to be with like people) and environment provide two better explanations of the health commonalities among friends and family.

To defend their work, Christakis and Fowler analyzed data from five hundred pairs of twins. That data supported their contention that social networking directly effects one’s health, for better or worse. Furthermore, they argue based on that additional research that perhaps as much as half of a person’s connectedness to others is a function of genes; highly connected people removed from one network tend to gravitate toward the center of another network. Changing behavior by understanding the influence of connectivity is thus not easily done, especially among people who tend to be loners. (Clive Thompson, “Is Happiness Catching?New York Times, September 12, 2009)

The conclusions of Christakis and Fowler’s research dovetail with the research that shows people who are active in a religious organization tend to be healthier than people who are not involved in religion (click here or here to link to my blog on some of that research). Most religious communities constitute affirming, mutually supportive networks in which people seek to develop and to sustain healthy lifestyles. Religion generally promotes an optimistic view of life.

Two important implications emerge from their research. First, people who wish to develop or to sustain a healthy lifestyle should actively cultivate relationships with healthy, optimistic people. Second, one practical way to love one’s neighbors is to encourage them to develop and to sustain relationships with healthy people.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Comments on "progess on healthcare"

In response to my last post, I received the following email:

I’m one of those persons who may appear to have an “egregiously unhealthy lifestyle” although I do, in fact, exercise six days a week and have test results (glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure, etc) that would satisfy any MD. Conversely, I have friends who are supremely healthy in their habits of consumption but nevertheless suffer from diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, and hypertension, making them a poorer risk statistically than I.

We know that genetics predispose some persons to illnesses that are not influenced by behaviors. Insurance companies have already tried to discriminate against such persons on exactly that basis, although legislatures have generally disallowed it. We also know that some persons’ behaviors – homosexuality, for example – have roots in biochemistry and that those roots are motivations for others to be tolerant, even affirming, of behaviors even if they personally the behaviors objectionable if not repulsive.

The debate about alcoholism as a disease, as distinct from a behavior, is mostly over. It’s a disease, although behaviors arising from the disease are criminalized. So is the debate about homosexuality, which few people now consider to be a disease although hardly anyone considers it to be arbitrary behavior, either. Each debate played out over decades. Where obesity and nicotine addiction will ultimately be categorized, and when, is difficult to predict. There are researchers who believe that genetic predispositions for obesity and nicotine addiction, as well as alcoholism, exist as surely as genetic predispositions for homosexuality.

My rejoinder to your position is: do we really know enough to begin pricing insurance like this? It’s not what happens in Canada or most of the rest of the industrialized world. And if we do start such a pricing regime, are we not stepping on a slippery slope towards “insurance eugenics” for every condition that is shown to have genetic predispositions? Or, do we operate under a presumption that a given syndrome has no basis in genetics until proven otherwise -- and then let it fall under a must-not-discriminate rule?

My response: I think this person has an excellent point. Distinguishing between those things that a person can control through changes in behavior and those things over which a person has no control (genetic predispositions, for example) is difficult given the present level of scientific knowledge. Market mechanisms are appropriate in the case of behavioral issues and inappropriate otherwise. In the absence of certain knowledge, erring on the side of treating all equally seems preferable.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Progress on healthcare

Quality of life is directly proportional to a person’s health. Obviously, health is not the only determinant of quality of life. Other factors that contribute to a person’s quality of life include loving, meaningful relationships, the presence of beauty, freedom, etc. Yet without health, the ability to live fully and to experience the greatest possible quality of life diminishes. In the extreme, the person whose condition confines him/her to bed has a greatly diminished quality of life.

The pivotal role of health in determining quality of life makes access to affordable healthcare vitally important. Thanks to the courageous vote of Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican from Maine, healthcare reform now has an improved prospect for passage this year. Five different Congressional Committees have sent healthcare reform to their respective House. Few people, if anyone, view any of these bills as ideal; none of the proposed legislation is a panacea. However, all of them represent a step forward from a nation in which approximately 1 in 6 people lacks healthcare coverage.

People sought Jesus to heal them or a loved one. However one understands that healing (psychological, psychosomatic, spiritual, physical, etc.), the gospel witness is undeniably clear: people experienced God's healing love in Jesus. God similarly calls the Church – the incarnate body of Christ on earth – to heal people. This calling does not mean to substitute prayer for modern medicine. This calling compels us to support legislation that moves toward ensuring everyone, absolutely everyone, has guaranteed healthcare coverage.

Our Baptismal vows emphasize that God made every human – citizen or not, old or young, straight or GLBT – in God's image. Every human is therefore worthy of dignity and respect. God intends each person to have life and to have life abundantly, a desire possible only when a person enjoys the best possible health, allowing each to maximize her/his quality of life.

Individual responsibility for one’s own self is important. Recent research demonstrates that people who exercise moderately have better health, e.g., higher resistance to cold and flu viruses. (Gretchen Reynolds, “Phys Ed: Does Exercise Boost Immunity?,” New York Times, October 14, 2009) Government cannot compel citizens to exercise regularly anymore than government could compel citizens not to drink.

However, utilizing market mechanisms to encourage healthy behaviors can effectively encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles. North Carolina has rightly modified the healthcare coverage for state employees so that those who smoke or are obese will pay more for that coverage. As one might expect, howls of protest are now heard from those opposed to this approach, e.g., lobbies for the obese, smokers, etc. North Carolina should ignore those protests and stay the course. Egregiously unhealthy lifestyles diminish that person’s quality of life and increase the cost of healthcare for that person. To the extent that the unhealthy lifestyle results from medical problems, the healthcare system should treat the problem and proportionally lower the additional healthcare premiums that person pays. Market mechanisms have a proven record of successfully encouraging lifestyle changes in people.

The moral problem with relying upon market mechanisms to encourage people to purchase healthcare coverage has two dimensions. First, we as a society should never deny anyone necessary and appropriate healthcare. Currently, the law requires hospitals to treat people without healthcare coverage. Those people obtain care in hospital emergency rooms, the most expensive source of medical attention. Taxpayers and those of us with healthcare coverage pay for most of that care because the significant majority of people without healthcare coverage do not have the financial resources to pay for their own care. In other words, taxpayers and those with healthcare coverage pay the bill, a much more expensive bill than if everybody had some form of healthcare coverage.

Second, most people without healthcare coverage avoid seeking medical care as long as possible. These people not only receive little or no preventive care (an important way to minimize costs) but also allow illness/injury to require more extensive, more costly treatment than if the person had sought help sooner. Both of these factors combine to drive the already high costs of society providing healthcare for those without healthcare coverage higher than for other people.

In sum, allowing individuals to decide whether to have healthcare coverage carries with it a significant, adverse impact on everyone else. Mandating healthcare coverage for everybody improves the quality of life for all and reduces the total healthcare costs. With mandatory healthcare coverage, everybody wins. Without mandatory healthcare coverage, everybody but the very rich and the fortuitously healthy lose.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Rethinking Columbus Day

Columbus Day is now sometimes referred to as Discoverers Day, commemorating all of the European explorers who “discovered” the Americas. That change appropriately recognizes that Christopher Columbus was not the first and certainly not the only European to venture across an unknown ocean and locate a land about which the Europeans knew nothing.

The change, however, ignores the Native Americans that had already “discovered” and then occupied North and South America. In other words, the holiday inherently embodies a European bias, inferring that true history and progress have an exclusive Euro-centricity prior to European conquest.

Holidays are good. Giving people well-deserved breaks in their normal routines enhance the quality of life for individuals and society. Let’s not cancel the holiday. However, whether called Columbus Day or Discoverers Day the holiday implicitly ignores and thereby denigrates Native Americans. Furthermore, European conquest brought much tragedy (e.g., widespread disease, slavery, and impoverishment) with it.

Instead, let’s transform this holiday into an opportunity to celebrate the people who first inhabited this land and the gifts that they offer and have offered to more recent immigrants. Other days afford opportunity to celebrate the gifts that more recent immigrants have brought. Transforming the holiday into “First Americans Day” will constitute a step toward actualizing the equality envisioned in the U.S. Constitution and Christian Scripture.

Friday, October 9, 2009

More on the price of diversity

A Wake County, NC, reader responded by email to my last posting:

One factor is that in the past, WCPSS [Wake County Public School System] had a reasonably good way to attain diversity: they operated “magnet schools” in what were formerly minority neighborhoods, thereby [creating an incentive for] kids from the suburbs to volunteer for bus rides. In turn, WCPSS put some minority kids on the bus to occupy the seats in “neighborhood schools” that were vacated. Everyone seemed happy with this swap. However, as the population of Wake County continued to grow, the far-flung suburbs like Holly Springs and Wendell began getting many more school-age children. Compared to where you and I live, it’s a much longer bus ride into central Raleigh from those small country towns that have become suburbs. The magnet school plan began to fall apart. My kids attended magnet schools throughout.

Meanwhile, parents became frustrated with WCPSS over conversions to year-round schools – specifically the inability of WCPSS management to promise parents that if their children were attending different year-round schools (elementary, middle, high) WCPSS would keep their tracks aligned so that the kids in one household could “track out” in sync. WCPSS basically tossed its hands in the air and said “that’s too hard”. There are other issues that parents have with WCPSS, like the Wednesday early release program that caused inconvenience to working parents. Thus we have an election in which a number of parents who didn’t feel passionate about the diversity issue (one way or the other) voted their frustrations about WCPSS management and the hesitance of the school board, in particular, to represent the voice of the customer. We don’t run exit polls on races like this week’s, so we don’t know how many people voted on the basis of frustration rather than policy.

What’s interesting to me is that the minority neighborhoods -- who presumably have a lot to lose if the system re-segregates -- sat on the sidelines in the election. With turnout as low as it was, a high turnout by African-Americans could have swayed the outcome. But they didn’t vote. Are they ambivalent about busing? I don’t know.

In response to that email, I replied:
My guess is that many low economic status African-American voters feel disenfranchised from the entire political system. That feeling of disenfranchisement, in my estimation, represents a far more significant and intractable problem to address directly. Consequently, possible solutions, even at the cost of skipping a generation, may offer a more realistic possibility for change.

My correspondent then replied:
Possibly, but those same A-A voters turned out in massive numbers last November to push North Carolina into Obama-land.

I didn’t read the today’s N&O until after I emailed you, but there is a story that mentions a pre-election poll. A-A voters had mixed feelings about the current policy. Not surprising. Our neighborhood school, Lynn Road Elementary, gets A-A kids from southeast Raleigh… probably a 45-minute bus ride for those kids, one-way. Although my kids went to southeast Raleigh schools by choice, those A-A kids are coming to my neighborhood without a choice. Many of their parents have limited transportation and can’t make it to PTA meetings, teacher conferences, etc out in the suburbs.

Even the magnet school program has its limitations. Enloe (one of the top 100 high schools in the nation, and a school that many Nativity kids have attended) has two nearly segregated student bodies under one roof. The highly competitive college-bound kids – 95% white or Asian -- are taking calculus, Russian, etc while the neighborhood kids are in entirely different classes. They don’t even mix much during lunch in the cafeteria, based on my observations. Enloe goes into the statistics as a fully integrated school, but I wonder if that kind of statistical integration is really changing attitudes.

My reply to this second email was:
The federal government intended the Head Start program to create a level playing field in kindergarten. By high school, the gap between achievers and non-achievers has become too wide to permit more than a few to cross. I think Head Start has fallen short of its goals, but do not know enough about it to speculate about why it failed. Programs that do not work benefit nobody. I am not opposed to ending busing. I am opposed to giving up the struggle to integrate society more fully, which is what I perceive to be the likely outcome of the recent elections.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What price diversity?

This week Wake County, North Carolina, elections have produced a School Board likely to end the extensive school busing in Wake County currently intended to create economic diversity in Wake County public schools. Downsides of busing include long, time-consuming rides for school attendees, substantial costs to taxpayers, disruption of family life as children in the same family may attend different schools, and minimizing some parents’ ability to involve themselves in their child’s public school. However, the busing has produced small improvements on standardized test scores among Wake County’s less advantaged children. Those results contrast to Charlotte public schools’ test results for similar students, a public school system reliant upon neighborhood schools.

Determining the actual cost-benefit effectiveness of the Wake County busing is very difficult given the abstract nature of most the costs and benefits. The significant costs and the small test score improvements have caused many to doubt the program’s efficacy.

Economically diverse schools have moral and practical value. Early exposure to and friendships with children from different backgrounds promotes lasting cultural diversity and sensitivity. Shared educational experiences have the potential to create a higher degree of social cohesion that do schools segregated by income level. Historically, the public education system in the United States has functioned as a powerful engine for enhancing upward mobility, social cohesion, and national identity.

One path to that goal entails creating economically diverse neighborhoods, a frustratingly elusive goal. Requiring new developments to include low-income housing can sometimes help to achieve economic diversity. For large projects, the developer creates economically segregated neighborhoods within the project. Developers usually vehemently argue against including significant numbers of low-income housing, afraid that will make selling other units problematic.

Another step toward economic diversity might be zoning that promotes higher housing densities rather than the Wake Country and various municipal zoning that has heretofore promoted population dispersal. Higher densities should bring at a minimum bring diverse economic populations in closer proximity, permitting neighborhood schools that draw from multiple economic strata.

A second path toward diverse public schools is the busing Wake Country utilizes. Everyone agrees that this path has produced disappointing results. Complicating the situation is that economic status has a high degree of correlation with race in Wake County. Real progress in achieving racial integration has occurred. I frequently see inter-racial couples of various ages. People of different races share tables in restaurants, engage in commercial dealings, mingle in public spaces, etc. Wake County has come a long way in the last sixty years. Yet Wake County still has a long way to go. Race and economic status in a truly colorblind, just society will not correlate with one another.

Public discourse needs to focus on identifying a constructive path – or even possible paths – toward that elusive goal. Rhetoric in the school board election featured polarized positions, some advocating maintaining the status quo and others advocating neighbor schools. The latter declared their commitment to diversity but offered no suggestions on how to achieve. Moral declarations that are not linked to practical steps for actualizing those values or moral standards ring deceptively hollow.

What price diversity? Whatever price achieving diversity requires is my answer. No matter how high that price may seem, the cost of not achieving diversity is even higher. The failure to realize diversity in the U.S. led to the Civil War and the social upheaval of the 1960s. The failure to continue moving toward fuller diversity may carry an even higher price.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More pressure for an Afghan surge

Media reports indicate that pressure is building on President Obama to send more military personnel to Afghanistan in response to a request from the U.S. Commander there, General Stanley McChystral, for an additional forty thousand troops.

Yet dissenting voices that echo opinions I have previously expressed in this blog continue to be heard. Some argue that no nation can construct or impose a form of government on another nation (James Traub, “The Distance Between ‘We Must’ and ‘We Can’,” New York Times, October 6, 2009). Others contend that “surgical strikes” have proven more effective than direct occupation while costing less in lives and dollars (Peter Baker, “Surgical Strikes Shape Afghanistan Debate,” New York Times, October 6, 2009).

Reinhold Niebuhr articulated an approach to Christian ethics known as Christian realism. Although I do not agree with every aspect of Christian realism, I strongly agree that any ethical theory that lacks a solid grounding in reality and that is impractical will never find widespread adoption. God intends for people to live in the world. The path to the good life, Aristotle’s eudaimonia, is therefore necessarily a path that many people can tread. Whatever the meaning of the gospel saying that the path is straight and narrow, that few will choose that path, the saying certainly does not mean that few are able to walk that path. God does not set an impossible task before God's people. Christian ethics are not simply another version of Quixotic tilting at purported windmills.

Creating a Western style democracy in Afghanistan is a wonderful goal. It is also a completely unrealistic goal in the foreseeable future. A continued U.S. occupation of Afghanistan will become, progressively and ever more rapidly, another Vietnam-like quagmire. “Surgical strikes” – what I prefer to think of as military interdictions whose goal is to apprehend for trial if possible (or to kill if apprehension is impossible), persons accused of committing criminal acts (terrorism, drug smuggling, crimes against people).

Interdictions are ethically justifiable when a nation lacks the rule of law necessary or other resources required to apprehend and adjudicated persons accused of committing crimes. Treating terrorists as criminals helps to deny terrorists the renown, revenge, and reaction they seek while undermining their credibility among the people whom they hope to convert into a supportive constituency.

Effective interdictions rely heavily on police tactics including: use of minimum force; respect for the wide variety of people likely to be present (accused criminals, witnesses, people who willing aid and abet, those coerced into aiding and abetting, innocent, oblivious bystanders, etc.); minimizing “collateral damage;” etc.

Strategies and tactics built around military interdictions, which covert intelligence agencies may also effectively conduct, have a far more solid ethical foundation than strategies and tactics that require invading and occupying other sovereign nations. The egregious treatment of women and many other people by the Taliban is painfully and regrettably a problem that the United States cannot solve. Attempts to do so will prove hugely costly in terms of lives and resources on all sides.

Friday, October 2, 2009

God and the brain

Andrew Newberg, MD, recently spoke at Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health on “How God Changes the Brain.” He and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have conducted many brain scans using Single Photon Emission Computed Technology (SPECT) to determine how God changes the brain.

Newberg’s research does not necessitate defining God or postulating belief in God. He rightly recognizes that the former is often impossible. When asked to draw God, fifteen percent of his subjects leave the paper blank. Some do so because they are atheists. At least an equal number do so because they believe it impossible to draw God, even symbolically. The latter, postulating belief in God, is meaningless without an agreed upon definition of “God.”

SPECT involves injecting a small amount of low radiation dye into a person’s bloodstream. After a few seconds, the dye fixes itself in the brain allowing researchers to take a “picture” of what is happening in the brain at that moment. The resolution of detail is only half of that Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FRMI), an alternative technology for conducting brain studies (6 mm vs. 3 mm). However, SPECT does not require the subject to lay down on a platform surrounded by a very noisy, distracting machine. Instead, the subject has an IV tube inserted before the experiment begins; the experimenter can then add the dye without distracting the subject. Similarly, taking the “picture” of the brain with the dye happens without the subject’s immediate awareness.

Newberg’s research suggests that God is good for the brain. For example, in one study he had people practice a simple form of meditation known as Kirtan Kriya. He divorced this practice from its Hindu theological roots while keeping the technique. Subjects meditated by repeating four syllables: Sa, Ta, Na, Ma. With each syllable, the subject would touch a finger on the right hand to the right thumb, beginning with the index finger and ending with the small finger. In eight weeks of meditating ten minutes per day, brain scans showed that subject’s parietal lobes became more active. Research conducted on yoga practitioners produced results that are even more pronounced.

God, like religion in general, is good for human health. Newberg’s research on a wide variety of subjects engaging in diverse spiritual practices ranging from glossolalia, to traditional Christian prayer, to Buddhist meditation consistently supports that conclusion.

For more on Newberg’s research, consult and