Monday, October 29, 2007


Sarah Andrews

from a letter to me entitled
Quotes for Editorials

Suppose you adhere to the beliefs of a religion. You have given up something--made a personal sacrifice--to do this. Say sex, or certain other pleasures or comforts. Then someone comes to you and tells you that it's all a sham. You react emotionally. You feel that your beliefs have been blasphemed. You get it? It's like a betrayal.

It took me a while, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew that the way blasphemy works stood at the center of “Fault Line” and of what I was struggling to understand by writing it; that when people have adhered to a belief on the strength of faith alone, they feel betrayed, and, worse yet, humiliated by the very idea that what they have sacrificed to support that belief is in vain. Note that I am not talking about the definition of blasphemy--an irreverence or deviling of God or anything else held sacred--but about how it functions.

My realization of the way blasphemy functions led me to a partial disproof of my theory that scientific and religious faith and practice are similar. Scientists may hardly disagree when their beliefs are challenged, and can grow quite emotional, but they do not accuse one another of blasphemy. Scientists do not accuse each other blasphemy because in the practice of science, it is assumed that the truth is not known, and efforts are directed toward uncovering it. This is done by forming theories--false gods, if you will--and trying to disprove them. The scientific method is, in fact, a system that encourages blasphemy--or shall I say heresy, which is a more dignified form of challenge--through an institutionalized testing of beliefs. At its best, the scientific method leads us to the discovery of truths, or at least closer to them, and often toward a profound perception and admiration of the divine (read Albert Einstein, or Stephen Hawking). At its worst, the scientific method grows stodgy and collapses into a sheltered workshop for poorly socialized intellectuals. Many religions, by contrast, grow up around truth and accompanying rules revealed through an adept (Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith), and, as the religion becomes institutionalized, the object becomes to accept on faith these truths and rules and adhere to them. At its most benign, surrender of individual wills to a religious ideal or leader leads toward enlightenment. At its worst, it becomes contorted and precipitates wars, or implodes into mass suicides, as happened in Jonestown. Before I enrage my readers with these generalizations, let me hasten to point out that I speak of religious practice, as contrasted to spiritual practice. Spiritual practice, more like scientific practice, usually lead the devotee a through a process of refinement and clarification toward a perception of ever larger and more universal truths.


Scientists do not like being told they're wrong, and much less do they like to face the public humiliation of having it proved it to them. They are no different with regard to the emotions behind these reactions than a member of any other culture, religion, or sports team. But because they presume everyone is playing the same game by the same simple rule--tell the truth as you know it--they do not gore each other with ancient jawbones over such humiliations; instead they bear up, examine the evidence, draw their own conclusions, and take their medicine when the time is right. They do not consider challenges to their beliefs to be blasphemous, simply because, as with spiritual devotees, their faith lies more in tune and their process than in their beliefs.

My husband once told me about scientific experimentation that apparently demonstrates that the human brain is hard wired to construct a context of logic--for example, a cause-and-effect linkage--about every experience it encounters. I think this is an important theory to consider, because it would mean we are compelled to interpret every experience we have, regardless of how incomplete or even misleading the data, and regardless of how sorely we are limited by the facts of who and what we are. The consequences of such an urge to interpret our experiences would impact every system of belief we have, be it scientific, cultural, religious, or even spiritual. The authors of the U.S. Constitution must on some level have known this when they guaranteed a separation of church and state

I am pleased to live in a country where each one of us has a chance to have his or her own thoughts, and follow his or her own heart to a place of truth.

Sarah Andrews is a mystery writer who is also a professional geologist, licensed pilot, and friend. Her latest book is “In Cold Pursuit: A Mystery from the Last Continent”. She is best known for her mystery series featuring forensic geologist Em Hanson.

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