As the nation remains fixated on a series of so-called “religious freedom” laws being enacted at the state level, the irony of this phrase is apparently lost on many. For in religion, there is no freedom but the freedom to do what god tells you. No more, no less. The most popular conception of god in the United States and indeed the world is the Abrahamic one – a particularly petulant and nasty deity who commands the mortal souls of some 3.8 billion people worldwide primarily through inducements and fear of eternal damnation.
The very reason some business owners are fretting over losing their “freedom” to deny certain services to gay customers is because they’ve already surrendered their freedom as freethinking rational agents. When pizzeria owner Crystal O’Connor says her religious freedom entails being protected against discrimination claims after turning away gay customers, what she is actually saying is that she has no freedom in the matter. God, as she sees it, has deemed homosexuality an abomination, and to abet such wickedness is to be complicit in sin. For her, that is not an option. In this way, her free exercise of religion is actually emblematic of her complete lack of metaphysical freedom.
It might be objected here that not everyone agrees that god condemns homosexuality in this fashion. While this is certainly true, it misses the point. When one surrenders his will and reasoning faculties to what he believes to be the immutable and unerring word of an omnipotent and judgmental god, he insulates himself from arguments that might otherwise cause him to doubt his faith or its accompanying moral tenets. As such, the free exercise of religion is a manifestation of an underlying mental totalitarianism that is far more controlling than any tyrant could ever hope to be.
God, as he is conceived in the Abrahamic traditions, is a cosmic despot whose omniscience renders him able to read the mind of every man, woman, and child on Earth, and judge them for thought crimes. Recall that Jesus, meek and humble of heart, announced that one need only think about committing adultery or thinkangry thoughts to be subjected to the lord’s righteous judgment even if one didn’t actually act on those thoughts.
The tale of Jesus itself is a fine lesson in this type of totalitarianism. Two millennia ago, the story goes, god sent his son earthward to be tortured and executed for the sins of humankind. Though this brutal act is often referred to as a “sacrifice,” the fact is that god asks for something in return: acknowledgment of this blessed deed as evidence of his glory and beneficence. And that would seem to defeat the whole purpose of a sacrifice, which is usually committed without expecting something in return. Additionally, to not accept the terms of the exchange at all is tantamount to throwing one’s lot in with Satan. In other words, you can choose what to believe, but just remember that all beliefs except one lead to permanent torment. (Islam’s Allah demands a similar tribute: believe in him or endure the hellfire.)
It’s easy to cast the Crystal O’Connors of the world in a bigoted light because the shoe does fit after all. But though O’Connor insists that she should have the freedom to cater to whomever she wants, it would do well to remember that she actually has a total lack of freedom. This isn’t to say she should be allowedto turn away customers as she pleases, but the root of her prejudice speaks to much larger and more embedded problem. Rather than emphasize freedom of religion, which is already protected by the Constitution, we should be stressing the importance of the freedom of rational inquiry. Perhaps then we as a society will realize that god isn’t the source of morality, but instead quite often a hindrance to it.