From the Indy star

Christ almighty, Indiana.

On “religious freedom”, the erosion of empathy and creating a society of assholes.

A story published yesterday in the Indy Star suggests the Indiana state legislature is set to pass a “religious freedom” bill this week that will most likely be signed by Governor Mike Pence. That bill “would prevent state and local governments from ‘substantially burdening’ a person’s exercise of religion unless the government can prove it has a compelling interest and is doing so in the least restrictive means,” according to the article.

Detractors say SB 101 would enable business owners with deeply held religious beliefs about whatever social ill, be it sinful lifestyle or activity, to engage in discriminating business practices based on dogma.

From a strictly libertarian reading, limiting a state’s role in private business affairs seems largely benign. After all, why should we care if some cake decorator with deeply held beliefs about the evils of homosexuality decide he doesn’t want to make a wedding cake for Adam and Steve? Can’t they just go down the block to someone who isn’t bigoted? If they can’t (small town, etc.), then what’s to stop them from going online to order one? Or just going cakeless? After all, those calories, boys… A moment on the lips, as they say.

So what if there’s a fundamentalist Christian anesthesiologist who refuses to prep a woman for an abortion, or a man for a vasectomy? Or a fundamentalist Muslim gym owner who refuses to let non-veiled women work out? Or a fundamentalist Wiccan, um… Carwash owner, who… Refuses to wash non-electric vehicles? Just go with it…

In a free market system, it would seem, anyone who sees a potential customer base could essentially open an inclusive business to serve those who are being left out. So isn’t this bill actually an opportunity to serve the people in Indiana who will be marginalized? And if they have to pay more for the service because that’s the only place open to them, isn’t that only fair?

The hypotheticals could be asked ad nauseam (you may argue they already have been. See above.), but after a very small amount of thinking down the road of “religious freedom” laws, something becomes clear rather quickly: They will most likely lead to a further siloing of American belief communities building theological walls between themselves and those who they feel their God has demanded they ostracize.

In my opinion, the question we need to ask then becomes “Is that good for us as a country?”

The answer to me is apparent.

“No.”

The reason behind that answer takes a bit of unpacking. The problem, as I see it, is that the more walls we build between ourselves and others reduces our capacity for empathy. An increasing erosion of “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” should be a frightening prospect, no matter who you happen to be. It’s not a great leap to go from lack of empathy to human rights abuses, death, imprisonment, murder, concentration camps, extermination. After all, it is a lack of empathy that allows humans to do monstrous things without a thought, and often in the name of religion.

Am I saying that Indiana’s SB 101 will directly lead to some kind of holocaust? No. But what I am saying is that it adds to a societal compartmentalization that is already on fast-forward. Every day we interact with social media algorithms that feed us the information we are most aligned with. It’s why I never see an NRA post on my feeds, unless it’s something that has been posted by an outraged liberal friend. That sharing only feeds any outrage I might have already had. That outrage, amplified, further erases any kind of understanding of NRA members as human beings who have their own view of a world so frightening they must be armed to protect property and family, whom they obviously love. Or who live in a world where using guns to hunt is critical for the feeding of their families and communities, who they obviously care for.

So instead of asking, “How can I understand those feelings of love and help ease the fear of my fellow human beings wherever they might live?” or “How can I better understand the way people care for and feed themselves and their families, as alien as it might be to me?” I think, “Man those NRA members are just monsters.” And in calling them monsters, they are dehumanized. And in dehumanization, I begin to lose care for their life, liberty and happiness.

And so it goes in their news feeds. And yours. And your neighbors. And down the line. So, when this compartmentalization of beliefs moves from the server to the service industry, how much more will our empathy towards our neighbors deepen into antipathy?

My argument against SB 101, then, is not built on religious grounds, (despite my belief in a gospel where Christ was intensely empathetic and welcoming, particularly to the “other”. Thus finally explaining the title of this piece). It is instead built on my belief that human psychology is fraught with frailty.

It appears too late for Indiana, but other states are developing similar bills. I would hope that we reconsider. And so I’ll sum up my anti “religious freedom” bill sentiments in one easy to read slogan: “Stop creating laws that enable us to be assholes.”

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