Welcome to the next post in this little series of one-word-wrongness in religion.

To scientifically minded thinkers, authority is a shortcut for time and convenience. If I want to know the answer to a physics question, I can ask a physicist with appropriate letters after his name and published peer-reviewed articles attached to his name. A doctorate degree and peer-reviewed publications generally indicate that the person has done the hard work needed to understand physics and has demonstrated that understanding to the scientific community. So there is a basis for trusting in the accuracy of his answers if I want to save time and effort researching it. If I want to investigate deeper, instead of relying on the physicist’s authority, I can choose to read the accumulated literature to find a consensus or even perform the experiments myself if I’ve got the resources. If the physicist abuses his authority to push unproven or disproved hypotheses as if they were proven, he will be criticized by his peers, hopefully making people more hesitant to just trust his credentials.

To people with secular morality and politics, authority is generally given by social consensus. We vote for our leaders, and in theory, they are obligated to serve our interests. If they fail in that task, we can vote for a different leader next term. If a leader abuses his authority and works against the public’s interests, we can feel justified in resisting in various ways, whether it’s public criticism to sway voters and lower his chances of being reelected, mobilize other officials as checks against the abuses, or, in the most extreme cases, openly rebel against their authority.

In both these cases, authority is provisional and circumstantial instead of absolute, and the possibility of abuse is acknowledged. In religion, however, this often isn’t the case. Gods are often given absolute authority, and the “Big Three” Abrahamic religions are well-known for it. Being an American, and particularly a Texan, I’m pretty familiar with Christianity’s take on it, and there are a lot of recurring themes in attempts to justify it that are equally applicable in other religions.

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Logistics, not Tactics

There’s one annoying trend I see whenever a particular topic comes up. This problem is born of small, short-sighted thinking, and an overdose of Hollywood romanticizing of the topic. I’ll tell you the topic after a bit of explanation. There are three general levels in planning: Logistics, strategy, and tactics. Tactics are about what you’re doing at the moment of a struggle with what you have on hand. In military terms, that means what you’re doing in a particular battle or skirmish. Strategy is the next level up, and it’s about how you achieve bigger goals through those individual battles.

I recall a show about Hannibal’s attack on Rome, and from that depiction, it looked to me that Hannibal was a tactical genius and a strategic idiot. He could beat Rome’s armies out in the open quite consistently and even while outnumbered, demonstrating his tactical ability. It didn’t do him any good, however, because he apparently failed to think about what he’d do once he had gotten to Rome: He wasn’t equipped to put the city under siege. Rome’s armies outside the city could keep their distance while skirmishing with Hannibal’s foragers to slowly starve and demoralize the rest of his army.

That brings us to the next level: Logistics. Plans need resources and support. In military terms, soldiers need food, tools, weapons, ammunition, transportation, and so on. Logistics is about how you get those resources where you need them. Good tactics and strategy make the most of what you have, but without supply lines, there’s a limit to what you can do. If you can’t feed and equip your soldiers, it’d be insane to go to war.

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Settling for Second Worst

That phrase popped into my head just now to describe an argument that’s popular with religious fundamentalists, misogynists, and other assorted trolls.

One example that’s been in my blogosphere is Amanda Todd, and how a guy calling himself The Amazing Atheist demonstrates that you don’t have to be religious to be an asshole. Amanda was driven to suicide by an online stalker, but apparently we shouldn’t feel sorrow because she had it better than women in radical Islamic countries.

A similar attitude from the opposite direction is an argument from Gary Bauer that feminists should pipe down because they’re better off than Malala, who was shot by the Taliban for advocating women’s education. In another example, a number of bloggers were criticizing an unconstitutional heavily Christian school district, and a troll came in to ask if we’d prefer the school to be heavily Islamic, as if there were only two choices.

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One issue that’s been bothering me for a long time is the use of torture. It disturbs me that it’s an issue at all. Not only is it obviously evil, it’s worthless.

There’s one popular scenario a lot of pro-torture people will bring up, often called the Ticking Time Bomb scenario: There’s a bomb about to go off, you have a suspect in custody, and allegedly the only way to stop the bomb is to torture the suspect for information. It’s never as simple as they think it is.

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Asking for Suggestions: Ayn Rand

I’ve all too often bumped into overt Randroids and trollishly extreme libertarians that remind me of the Randroids. Rand infests wingnut politics as well as quacks and their blind followers who don’t want to be bound by ethical review boards. It’s used to substitute objective measurements of reality with reports of market penetration. Large corporations, banks, and so forth use Rand’s philosophy to justify deregulation and short-term gains at the cost of economic stability. It’s used to demonize the common people who do the actual work at maintaining society’s infrastructure. It’s used to ridicule scientific research as a waste of government money. It’s used to justify huge salaries for useless or even corrupt managers. I see failures in history, the actions that led to those failures, and then I stumble on some Randroid who didn’t learn from that history. Sometimes, it seems like nearly everything I’m for or against has an apparent Rand lover arguing the opposite position.

So I’m thinking of making some long post or possibly even a series about Ayn Rand. The first difficulty is that I’ve heard some horror stories about how bad her writing actually is, so that makes me reluctant to slog through the primary sources. I’d like suggestions for alternatives to pinching my nose and diving into a library copy. Of course, links to other people writing about Rand would be appreciated.

One idea I think might be worth mentioning is that I’ve seen an Atlas Shrugged movie show up on Netflix. It might be tolerable to riff it along with my brother, and write a stream of consciousness post like I did on the “Under the Microscope” posts on the old blog.

“Potential” People

I was reading the comments at one of PZ’s posts when I thought of this:

1. Anti-abortionists often ask the rhetorical question, “What if your parents had chosen to abort you?” to implicitly assert that abortion is wrong because a hypothetical past abortion would result in the non-existence of a fully sentient person in the present.

2. Many people are the product of premarital sex.

3. If the parents of these people had chosen premarital abstinence instead of having sex, they would not exist, therefore hypothetical past abstinence would result in the non-existence of a fully sentient person in the present.

4. Therefore, by the same logic, abstinence before marriage is immoral. And yet, belief that abortion is immoral quite often coincides with a belief that premarital abstinence is a moral obligation.

Of course, the “logic” is absurd and relies on a variation of the Historian’s Fallacy, viewing past decisions as if the participants had the same hindsight a person from the present does, instead of judging the decisions based on the information available to the people at the time they made their decisions. We do not have the luxury of being able to see into the future to see which sex acts will result in the next generation. This is the real world, not Star Trek: we don’t have people from the future popping in to inform us which decisions are the “right” ones.

All I know for sure is that the past and present contain real people. The people of the future are on much shakier ground. If the future’s fixed, the question is moot, since there’s nothing that will prevent them from becoming real. If it isn’t fixed, why should one possible future person have superior rights to another possible future person?

If the future isn’t fixed, every decision, not just abortion or contraception, has an impact on which future is realized. This would mean that if abortion is “murder” because it prevents a future person from developing, so would seemingly inconsequential decisions that end up doing the same thing. Staying home on a Saturday instead of going out and unintentionally meeting the woman of my dreams and thus potentially raise a family would have the same sort of consequences for potential people as aborting them. Even if you enter explicit intention into it, it gets into the problem in the opening of this post: Abstinence would be “murder” because it’s an act that would obviously prevent the development of potential persons.

Of course, a big part of the main debate is about whether zygotes/fetuses/embryos are “persons” or not, or about when in development they become persons, but that’s a different argument for a different post. This one’s specifically about the fallacious rhetorical value of the “potential person” argument.

Doggerel #2: “You’re a Girl!”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless. Today’s Doggerel entry would be simple to write in a fair and just world, but there’s a lot of nasty sentiments that are typically involved. Though I resolved to write the series in a calm tone, I think this is an important entry worth making an exception.

The simple response is this: An arguer’s gender has nothing to do with the validity of his or her arguments or the quality of evidence presented.

The more in-depth response:

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Bill Maher is Crap

Crap. I don’t like Bill Maher. I know he’s said some clever pro-atheism/anti-religion things, but my charity towards him pretty much vanished when I found out about his anti-vax stance along with some miscellaneous altie canards he spread around. The misogyny I later found out about didn’t help his case, either. There’s probably more crap that’s shown up since the time I started mostly ignoring him.

I want to make it clear that I don’t consider him a role model, and that I wouldn’t want him to speak for me, politically, scientifically, or philosophically. I’d rather avoid being lumped with him whenever possible. I know that I can’t expect anyone (even myself) to have perfect reason, but Maher falls too far outside my range of tolerance for a supposed leading atheist.