Author Archive | Colby Hess

What is Freedom?

Picture: Pascale Riby (CC)

There’s a great line from the film Easy Rider, where Dennis Hopper’s character, Billy, asks, “What the hell is wrong with freedom?  That’s what it’s all about,” and Jack Nicholson’s character, George, replies, “Oh, yeah, that’s right.  That’s what’s it’s all about, all right.  But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things… they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom.  But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.”

Living in a post 9-11 world, where it’s normal for elderly grandmothers to be submitted to invasive pat-downs before boarding a flight, where peaceful protests are met by legions of armor-clad riot police, where tweets and Facebook postings are routinely tracked by Homeland Security, and where anyone looking vaguely Hispanic must carry government-issued ID with them at all times if they happen to be living in certain states, it seems pertinent to ask the simple question, “What is freedom?”

If you look up its meaning in a dictionary, you’ll generally find something along the lines of, “exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc.; the power to determine action without restraint.”  That doesn’t seem like something that should require a PhD in philosophy or political science to make sense of, yet what does it really mean for everyday people living everyday lives in a country that proudly brands itself as the “land of the free”?  How does this concept guide and shape our thoughts, our actions, our beliefs and our society?… Read the rest

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Islamophobia vs. Racism

Picture: KSheer (CC)

According to the FBI’s database of Hate Crime Statistics, in 2010 (the latest year for which numbers are available) there were 160 hate crime incidents involving anti-Islamic bias in the United States.  Such incidents have seen a marked rise following the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001 and have recently made headlines with various incidents around the country, ranging from arson attacks on mosques to pig parts being thrown at the site of a proposed Islamic center.

Such trends are rightfully worrying in an increasingly multicultural society which supposedly prides itself on freedom, equality, and justice for all.  There is however, another closely related issue, which is in its own way nearly as disturbing.  It is the hyper-politically correct reaction to such so-called “Islamophobia,” specifically, how it is consistently and fallaciously labeled as “racism.”  Setting aside broader discussion of the overall subject of Islamophobia in all its complexity (including its root causes and any possible merit or lack thereof), let’s examine this charge of racism.  Without in any way condoning or defending the ridiculous actions of the small percentage of angry, spite-filled bigots who lash out at those whom they fear solely on the basis of superficial differences, the fact remains that this particular assertion of racism is simply ludicrous.… Read the rest

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Lightning & Disease: A Primitive Thought System Overturned

For most of human history, life has been a struggle – a struggle against predators, against disease, against natural disasters, and against our fellow human beings as we find ourselves all thrown together on a single planet, vying for limited resources.  In the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life for the many has been “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Foremost among our ongoing challenges, however, and rising above all the others, is the struggle against our own ignorance.  Like newborn infants, naked and helpless, humans have been thrust into this world without the benefit of any instruction book to show us the way.  It is only through patience and ingenuity (and a fair amount of dumb luck) that we have managed to rise above our brute animal nature to occasionally achieve something resembling peace and civility.  Obviously, we still have a long way to go, but if we as a species hope to continue our stumbling progress towards a happier, healthier future, we must acknowledge the various pitfalls and dead ends we’ve encountered along the route, starting with those of the distant past.… Read the rest

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Dancing On Pinheads

Many people have at some point heard, or are at least vaguely familiar with the question, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” – a reference to the pointless theological debates that consumed much of European academia during the latter half of the Middle Ages.  Although it turns out this particular phrasing was most likely never actually discussed (not appearing in print until hundreds of years later as a retroactive jab at Thomas Aquinas and his “scholastic” brand of philosophy) it continues to serve as a handy metaphor for any dubious intellectual endeavor lacking in apparent practical value and without any foreseeable means of resolution.

Questions of this sort, while no longer at the forefront of serious scholarly inquiry, haven’t completely subsided in the modern age, especially in the United States where we have the unusual distinction of being by far the most religious of any advanced, industrial nation.  As the so-called “culture wars” rage on unabated in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election (with back and forth volleys ranging from Rick Santorum’s failed candidacy to President Obama’s recent declaration of support for gay marriage), the subject of religious belief and its role in American politics has been pushed to the forefront of national discourse, and with it has come a revival of interest in a wide range of formerly obscure ideas relating to God and his role in the universe.… Read the rest

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Doubt and Denial in Pursuit of Reality

“Does God exist?” Of the near-limitless variety of questions that can be posed by human beings, few are as profound, as important (or to certain fanatical Nietzsche lovers, as inane and tiresome) as this one. Few other questions have such a powerful effect over daily life, politics, and human interactions as this one simple query, and any given individual’s reply to it speaks volumes about his or her worldview.

For billions of people on planet Earth, its answer is a resounding “Yes!” – a declaration of faith so central to their lives that even a moment’s hesitation or doubt can induce feelings of severe guilt and internal conflict.  For a large and growing multitude however, the answer to this question is instead a confident but qualified “No.” And yet, for many others still, the only sensible reply is “Maybe,” “I don’t know,” or even “It’s impossible to say.”

Although plenty of people simply don’t care one way or the other, rolling their eyes and far preferring not to talk about it or even think about it, that’s just dodging its repercussions.… Read the rest

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Slandering the Heretics

Heretics“There is a war going on for your mind;” a war being fought on battlefields and on billboards, in universities and Sunday schools, in blogs and boardrooms, capitol buildings and city parks. From Wall Street to Main Street, from Kabul to Kansas City, the combined facts of seven thousand years of civilization and seven billion human beings struggling to eat, breathe, live and believe are all coming to a head. It has many names and many forms, running the gamut from Terror to Women to Drugs to Christmas—all inextricably linked by the immense power of ideas and the belief systems that propagate them.

In the United States, as we move unsteadily into the second decade of the new millennium, there are two reigning champions vying for supremacy over the American soul. These sometimes united, sometimes conflicting ideologies are called Christianity and Consumerism—the Pillars of Hercules for the modern age—shakily supporting the fading glory of the last of the global superpowers.… Read the rest

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The Problem With Moderates

Plato And AristotleIn a world of ever-widening extremes – from weather patterns to wealth disparities to polarized politics – what does it mean to be a moderate? More specifically, how does this term apply to religion?

Viewed in the context of most everyday activities and situations and in line with Aristotle’s idea of the “Golden Mean” (which states that virtue lies at the midpoint between two vices; i.e. courage lies between cowardice and recklessness, etc.), it could be said that a moderate stance is generally better than an extremist one. For example, being a moderate drinker seems to strike a pretty good balance between being healthy and having fun, as opposed to the opposite extremes of being an ascetic teetotaler or a raging alcoholic. Likewise, being politically moderate, if nothing else, tends to generate far less strife during dinner conversations amid mixed company or at large family gatherings.

Then again, for some activities moderate is still too far from the bell curve – particularly in cases where conventional wisdom has taken up residence at one of the distant ends of the spectrum of possibilities.  For example, while being moderately racist may be an improvement over being a hate-filled white supremacist neo-Nazi skinhead, it still leaves a lot to be desired if hoping to join enlightened humanity in recognizing equal rights for all people based on our shared human condition.… Read the rest

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Why The Rest of the World Should Tell the U.S. to F*cK Off

UnicornHere are some uncomfortable historical facts that are largely ignored, glossed over, or blatantly suppressed in most American school curricula:

1) The United States government (largely through the CIA and its predecessors) is directly responsible for the overthrow of at least half a dozen democratically elected governments around the world over the past hundred plus years.  Among these are many of our neighbors in Latin America such as Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, and Chile in 1973.  Further afield we have Iran in 1953, which is particularly ironic considering the dire straits of our present day relationship.  This list doesn’t include the toppling of non-elected governments (almost all of them replaced by brutal dictators) such as Syria in 1949 and Ghana in 1966.  It also doesn’t include direct invasion by U.S. troops such as the Philippines in 1898, Panama (first in 1895 and again at least eight more times since), Grenada in 1983, and most recently, Iraq in 2003.  Although many Americans cannot even point these countries out on a world map and remain blissfully ignorant of American interference with their internal affairs, the residents of these countries have certainly not forgotten and in many cases haven’t completely forgiven us either.  Can anyone blame them?… Read the rest

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Phishing For Trolls With Jesus

JCThis is a test. This is only a test. Had this been an actual religious emergency, the omnipotent creator of the universe would surely be sending plagues and pestilence, lightning bolts, or perhaps a herd of stampeding unicorns to trample all of the blasphemous infidels slandering his good name. But …. being as no such divine punishments have thus far materialized, I guess we’ll just have to settle for the inevitable intervention by a mob of his angry, self-proclaimed minions here on Earth. Or, failing that, I suppose any highly-opinionated Internet surfers will suffice.

Before jumping straight into throwing rocks at the hornets’ nest though, it might be useful to first define a few key terms just so there’s not any confusion among a certain segment of combative readers as to what particular words actually mean. Semantics, after all, is extremely important if language is to be anything other than meaningless noise.… Read the rest

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The Politics of Belief

Aboriginal War Veterans Monument

Photo: Padraic Ryan (CC)

A tribal shaman was once interviewed by a skeptical anthropologist and asked whether or not he actually believed in the truths behind the spiritual medicine he practiced. The shaman’s reply was surprisingly candid, for he admitted that his technique was completely fraudulent, and yet he still defended it for the simple reason that it often seemed to heal the patients.  This brief exchange cuts to the core of the issue of why some people are religious and others are not. It all boils down to two simple questions – “Is it true?” and “Is it good?”

An atheist is someone who answers “no” to the first question, and usually (but not always), “no” to the second question as well. As such, there are a variety of tactics that atheists will employ in promoting arguments against religion. Charles Darwin, for example, was supposed to have been nudged permanently over the cusp into disbelief after having studied the behavior of a certain species of parasitic wasp.… Read the rest

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