Sunday, January 2, 2011


In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, the Director of the World State plans to make a public example of Bernard Marx, a rogue psychologist, by exiling him to Iceland. The Director plans to banish Bernard because he has become too individualistic and therefore has become a risk to the rest of their society. The Director tries to justify himself by saying:
"It is better that one should suffer than that many should be corrupted. Consider the matter dispassionately, Mr. Foster, and you will see that no offense is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behavior. Murder kills only the individual–and, after all, what is an individual?" With a sweeping gesture he indicated the rows of microscopes, the test-tubes, the incubators. "We can make a new one with the greatest ease–as many as we like. Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself. Yes, at Society itself."
In strikingly similar language, the Book of Mormon describes Nephi in justifying his murder of a drunken and defenseless Laban before stealing the Brass Plates from him. Nephi says to himself “Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” 

The two quotes highlight a characteristic feature of religion: the idea that individuality is wrong if it goes against the religious teaching of the group. Murder may even be justifiable for the wicked and dangerous outlier when faced with the greater threat to the community at large. Nephi justified murdering Laban, while the Director of Huxley’s novel justified banishment by exile of Bernard Marx, due to the greater benefit this would serve to society. This is dangerous morality that didn’t fully hit me in the face until I read Brave New World last month and noticed the striking similarities in the moral reasoning of Joseph Smith and The Director of the World State. 
If the individual gets in the way of the larger society - watch out since you may become collateral damage. In the believers mind, there is a matter of greater importance than the individual. Just as in the military, the mission always comes first. As the Director and Nephi teach us, individuals are expendable. 
Religions of all varieties preach an absolutist type of morality. Each claims knowledge of absolute truth via scripture or revelation to religious authority. It doesn’t matter that nearly every religion contradicts the next one, and that their “absolute” truth is not compatible. This does not dissuade the believer in preaching their absolute knowledge of God’s will for humankind - whether through their own personal revelation, or because of scriptural interpretation, or pronouncements of their religious authorities. 
So, when an individual strays from their religions outlined path, it can (to say the least) cause problems. Sometimes the consequence can be severe, as it is in many theocratic Muslim nations where the penalty of apostasy is death. Most other religions will excommunicate the individual who strays too far from the faith, while the Amish will shun individuals who apostatize or marry outside the Amish community. 

With this behavior of excommunication or shunning in mind, consider Jesus’s teachings in Matthew 10:34-39 where he says:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. I came not to send peace, but a sword. ... A man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.                         
Basically, what the scripture are asking us to do is to place the ideas and “truths” of religion before our own family in order of importance. If our family relationships come in conflict with our religious obligations or views, then it is family relationships that we are expected to sacrifice. 

This, of course, sounds pretty extreme. Good Mormons don't usually shun the way the Amish do, and they don't murder apostates like some Muslims do. What happens instead is that after an initial effort to reconvert the heretic,  religion becomes taboo to talk about. Differences of opinion, as they touch on religion, become very difficult to discuss. Rarely will family or friends attempt to get to know why you left the Church, what you believe in now, and what sort of person you really are at your core. Assumptions, which are easy, safe, and convenient, are made instead. 

However, this can feel just as painful as shunning to the effected individual, and largely has the same effect. It becomes very difficult for either person to open up, share feelings and personal thoughts, or feel unconditionally accepted and safe in exposing any vulnerability. Relationships, even those that were once close and intimate, become  characterized by formality, pretense, and superficiality. These kinds of relationships are not very rewarding, and so the people drift away. 

But, if religious people could learn to value the individual freedom of others, even if it contradicts their absolutist religious opinions of what is right and wrong (and they are only opinions), then much could be gained by everyone involved. 

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