Novelist tugs on tension of religion and science

If we could induce religious experiences, should we?

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionJune 8, 2013 

Jeffrey Small's thriller centers on a scientist who creates a God machine.

Can religion be a double-edged sword? Atlanta author Jeffrey Small delves into the debate between science and religion in his second novel, The Jericho Deception, a thriller about a scientist who creates a God machine that can bring about religious ecstasy and madness.

His first novel, The Breath of God, won the Nautilus Book Award Gold Medal for Best Fiction.

The Jericho Deception explores the different brain mechanisms that can bring about religious experiences and whether those experiences are real or just electrical misfirings of the brain.

"Because it's a thriller, we get into the question of can we induce the religious experiences of people and can that be misused as well," Small said. "There are two sides. One side brings us peace, but we also see religion misused through various forms of fundamentalism."

Below are excerpts of an interview with Small:

Question: Is science at odds with religion today? Just look at the recent controversy over human cloning.

Answer: I do think there is this science and religion dialogue that is constantly going on. Science, at its heart, is amoral. It's morality neutral. It may give us answers as to how things work, but it doesn't tell us what we should and should not do. It often doesn't answer the question of meaning and why things are.

Q: You take your research seriously. For your first book, The Breath of God, you actually spent a year in Bhutan.

A: Not a year, but I was there for an extended period. I spent a year at Oxford University getting a degree in world religion. For this novel, I took two trips to the Middle East because many things take place in Egypt and Dubai. I also spent a fair amount of time talking to neuroscientists about the brain and some of the research that is happening. There's a very significant Muslim character in the book, and I wanted to portray him fairly and accurately, so I spent a lot of time researching Islam as well.

Q: The Jericho Deception has a Logos machine that can give people religious experiences. How close are we?

A: The novel is based on real neuroscience research being conducted right now. We've identified certain regions of the brain that are active when people are having a religious experience. The question is by stimulating these areas could we induce religious experiences? If we go into the lab to have those experiences, what would be the dangers of controlling religious experiences through a machine? ... The idea behind the Logos machine in the book is that there is a positive and negative just as we see in the real world with religion today. There are the positive unification aspects of religion, but there is a cautionary side as well. We see how religious fundamentalism can cause wars, intolerance and prejudice.

Q: There might be a huge market for Logos.

A: We've seen certain tribal religions use different teas or mushrooms to induce spiritual journeys in people for thousands of years. But if you can have a mechanical way to induce these experiences, would people flock to such a thing? In today's time, there's such a yearning for spirituality today, and even though we're becoming less religious as a culture, there is that deep want for a greater dimension to our lives and a search for the meaning of life.

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