Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In the Name of Religion

I've been reading Steven Johnson's book The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. Although I wouldn't consider it a biography Johnson uses the life of Joseph Priestley-- a renowned scientist and minister, and a contemporary and friend of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson--to explore the concepts of what fosters innovation, how ideas are shared and disseminated, and what impact ideas and knowledge have on mankind.

Priestley was instrumental in discovering the makeup of air, hence the title of the book. He was also a minister and most closely affiliated with the Unitarian Church. His views on Jesus Christ were significantly different than the state sanctioned views in England where he lived. Many people were irritated by his writings and eventually his life was threatened and his house burned. This led Priestley to immigrate to the United States.

Priestley considered himself Christian, but he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. What fascinates me is it was professed Christians who threatened his life.

Although Priestley's views on Jesus Christ were as far as possible from those of Joseph Smith--the first leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--the result of each publishing his beliefs led to a very similar response from their contemporaries.

For perspective, Smith was born in America right at the time of Priestley's death. Priestley's troubles originated in England, Smith's originated in the United States.

What is it about human nature that so frequently brings violence to bear when someone is viewed as being different? Especially when the perpetrators profess a belief in treating others as you would like to be treated yourself. (I assume most of us would like to be treated kindly.) The problem goes beyond just being different though.

Much of our society is based on excluding others. In education only the smartest or most capable of meeting certain criteria are allowed to advance. People are divided into socio-economic layers depending on their wealth, income, or opportunities for education. As much as we pride ourselves on espousing principles of being open and accepting of others we really haven't made much progress. Some cannot stand the idea of allowing gay couples any kind of legal recognition of a commitment to one another for purposes of sharing health care options or retirement benefits. (In private industry you have been able to purchase a life insurance policy on any one you have a relationship with or designate any beneficiary you want on a policy you own. The world has not fallen apart as a result.) The gay community seems just as inflexible. They demand full acceptance by all outsiders, but seem unwilling to accept those outside their social sphere.

I'm not advocating that we have to pretend there are no differences between people or groups, but do we have to throw up barriers and every turn?

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