Many of the articles analyzing Angels and Demons discuss it in one of two related lights: as a mass-market phenomenon, or as a sequel to/continuation of The Da Vinci Code. Such articles tend to limit themselves to reporting the number of copies sold or to commenting on the upcoming film version (2009) again starring Tom Hanks. A few manage to discuss the influence of Angels and Demons without really commenting on the novel’s quality, instead focusing only on the content.
The more substantial discussions focus on the thorny issue present in all of Dan Brown’s novels: his claims to a factual basis for his works. In Secrets of Angels & Demons: The Unauthorized Guide to the Bestselling Novel, Dan Burstein, as summarized by Carol Memmott, pointed out how Brown had bent the facts in Angels and Demons to better serve his plot. (Brown’s indication that the camerlengo cannot be made pope is not accurate, nor is his description late in the novel of election through adoration.) In an article for New Scientist, James Gillies discusses Brown’s scientific inaccuracies, which extend to his descriptions of CERN (and the science involved in antimatter). Writing for Money magazine, David Futrelle uses Brown’s novel as an entry into discussing the symbolism on American money, implicitly granting Brown some legitimacy as a researcher. In his review of the novel for Currents in Theology and Mission, Bruce P. Rittenhouse slides from discussing primarily the factual or nonfactual basis of the novel to critiquing Brown’s understanding of Christianity and apparent failure to distinguish Catholicism from Christianity in general.
It was as if the priest had patted Einstein on the head and chuckled, “Never mind, Sonny, some day you’ll understand.”
“Angels & Demons,” a prequel to “The DaVinci Code,” also directed by Mr. Howard and starring Mr. Hanks, and based on a mega-selling book by Dan Brown, opened at No. 1 at the box office in May despite lackluster reviews, and is still doing respectably.
It’s not likely that all those people flocked into the theaters to ponder the relationship between science and religion. is a -style thriller, in which Mr. Hanks and his fellow traveler, a biophysicist played by Ayelet Zurer, race the clock following clues left around Rome by the Renaissance artist and sculptor Bernini to find out who is killing a group of cardinals and has vowed to blow up the Vatican.
The new movie has torture, gorgeous cinematography, including cool shots of the collider firing up, bizarre plot twists and turns, and, like the earlier movie, Mr. Hanks dashing into the library (in this case the fabled Vatican archives) at crucial moments to retrieve and decode in a few ticking minutes some long-lost document.
But it is the ages-old conflict between science and religion that supplies the framework for all this action. Since the early 17th century, the story goes, a secret network of scientists and skeptics known as the Illuminati, who have included and Bernini, have been engaged in an underground war against the church.
My first response upon reading the book earlier this year was to wonder if any part of this history could be true. I was disappointed but not particularly surprised to find that the short answer is no. Mr. Brown is so successful at spinning his fables that a whole industry has grown up around debunking him.
There was indeed an organization called the Illuminati formed in in 1776 — too late for Galileo or Bernini — but according to historians it died out a decade or so later. Nevertheless the Illuminati have lived on in the imaginations of conspiracy theorists.
For Mr. Howard, who has been lauded for getting things right in movies like and the vagueness between what is real history and what is made up in Dan Brown’s books is part of the fun. “He doesn’t invent things, he creates suppositions,” Mr. Howard said.
The church did burn Giordano Bruno at the stake for various heresies, including espousing the Copernican sun-centric view of the solar system, in 1600, and sentenced Galileo to permanent house arrest as “violently suspect of heresy,” in 1633. But in recent times Catholics have gotten better about science, especially compared with some of their fundamentalist cousins in the . The church has been cool with the Big Bang origin of the universe since 1951, and the current pope, Benedict, has signaled his acceptance of evolution, at least as an explanation of how humankind came about, if not why.
In a recent interview, Mr. Howard said that he didn’t think there was any conflict between science and religion. Both are after big mysteries, but whatever science finds, he said, “There’s still going be that question: ‘And before that?’ ”
I don’t really mind that the movie and book have rewritten history, and the movie takes fewer liberties with science than much science fiction.
But I can’t help being bugged by that warm, fuzzy moment at the end, that figurative pat on the head. After all is said and done, it seems to imply, having faith is just a little bit better than being smart.
Maybe I am making too much of this cinematic grain of sand to see the whole history of science and religion in it. But I have a feeling the scene wouldn’t work if the boyish Mr. Hanks were replaced by someone more formidable, say, or or .
Part of what gives the movie its kick is the old Henry Jamesian notion of a headstrong American encountering old European tradition. We’re still in awe of all that tradition, even as we insist, like teenagers exclaiming that Dad is an out-of-it old fogey, that it’s a new world.
And they are still patting us on the head.
Why should wisdom and comfort inhabit a clerical collar instead of a lab coat? Perhaps because religion seems to offer consolations that science doesn’t.
The late physicist John Archibald Wheeler once said that what gives great leaders power is the ability to comfort others in the face of death. But the iconic achievement of modern physics is the atomic bomb, death incarnate.
Moreover, since the time of Galileo scientists have bent over backward to restrain their own metaphysical rhetoric for fear of stepping on religious toes. Indeed, many of them were devout believers convinced they were exploring the mind of God. , the late paleontologist and author, famously referred to science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria.”
The lament, voiced often in the movie and even more in the book, is that science, with its endlessly nibbling doubts, has drained the world of wonder and meaning, depriving humans of, among other things, a moral compass.
The church advertises strength through certitude, but starting from the same collection of fables, commandments and aphorisms — love thy neighbor; thou shalt not kill; blessed are the meek for they will inherit the Earth — the religions of the world have reached an alarmingly diverse set of conclusions about what behaviors, like gay marriage, are right and wrong.
If science drains the world of certainty, maybe that is invigorating as well as appropriate. The cardinal is free to revel in the assurance of his absolutes, while Tom Hanks and I can be braced by the challenge of being our own cosmologists, creating our own meanings.
Meanwhile, America is not so young and innocent anymore, and science has its own traditions and, yes, wisdoms, stretching back to antiquity.
In science the ends are justified by the means — what questions we ask and how we ask them — and the meaning of the quest is derived not from answers but from the process by which they are found: curiosity, doubt, humility, tolerance.
Those fatherly pats on the head sound comforting, but as an answer to life’s struggles and quests, they lack something.
I miss my dad, but I’m glad I stood my ground and kept flailing at a writing career when he wanted to rescue me and set me up in a family business. Mr. Hanks should hold his ground too.Continue reading the main story