We often hear that science and religion are two things that just do not go together. One relies on facts which can be proven. The other relies on faith and intuition. However, science and religion have a lot in common. They both inspire wonder, questioning, and seeking truth.
To at least one man about 250 years ago, the Unitarian Joseph Priestley, religion and science were two ways of exploring the world and seeking truth. To him, they were not polar opposites in conflict with one another but two complementary avenues of discovery.
Joseph Priestley is best known as the scientist who “discovered” the presence of oxygen. He discovered that plants and trees generate oxygen, and he determined that living creatures need oxygen to breathe. Today we take this idea for granted, and maybe you have already learned it in school. But back in his day, trying to prove the existence of something you could not see, smell, hear, touch, or taste was difficult indeed.
In those days, the Unitarian religion already was a home for people who believed we each can discover our own faith truth. And Joseph Priestley was a Unitarian minister. He saw no contradiction between seeking truth through faith and intuition and seeking truth using the methods of science. During the years he was using science to explore air, gases, electricity, and other physical matters in our world, Joseph Priestley also wrote about religious matters. In one, he proposed that the soul was a Divine substance, incomprehensible to human beings. He even taught the two subjects together at prestigious universities in England.
But lots of people disagreed with his ideas—particularly his religious beliefs. In 1791, an angry mob destroyed his family’s home, along with two places Joseph Priestley sought truth: his laboratory and his church. The buildings burned to the ground, along with many important papers, books, and experiment notes.
Joseph and his wife had no choice but to flee England and seek refuge across the ocean in the newly established United States of America. You might think having lost everything and being forced to start over in a new country would make Joseph less interested in pursuing his freethinking ideas. You would be wrong. Even as his family resettled, he continued his experiments in science and his explorations in faith. He discovered the poisonous gas carbon monoxide in 1799, and for this he is known as the father of modern chemistry. And, he continued to pursue his love of religion. The first Unitarian minister in the United States, he helped found the Unitarian Church in Philadelphia.