Saturday, January 5, 2019

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

Generally speaking, I enjoyed reading this book.

But I’m going to pick a few nits.

“Mr. Langdon,” Vittoria said, turning, “I assume you are familiar with the Big Bang Theory?”

Langdon shrugged. “More or less.” The Big Bang, he knew, was the scientifically accepted model for the creation of the universe. He didn’t really understand it, but according to the theory, a single point of intensely focused energy erupted in a cataclysmic explosion, expanding outward to form the universe. Or something like that.

I like this. Like most people, Robert Langdon (world-renowned Harvard symbologist and protagonist of this and Brown’s more famous novel The Da Vinci Code) has heard of the Big Bang Theory and knows it has something to do with the beginning of the universe, but is a little sketchy of the scientific details. You know, something like that. But let’s read on.

Vittoria continued. “When the Catholic Church first proposed the Big Bang Theory in 1927, the--”

“I’m sorry?” Langdon interrupted, before he could stop himself. “You say the Big Bang was a Catholic idea?”

Vittoria looked surprised by his question. “Of course. Proposed by a Catholic monk, Georges Lemaitre, in 1927.”

“But I thought…” he hesitated. “Wasn’t the Big Bang proposed by Harvard astronomer Edwin Hubble?”

He doesn’t really know what the Big Bang Theory is … but he knows that Edwin Hubble proposed it? Gosh. Even I didn’t know that off the top of my head. Guess his Harvard pride is showing through.

That’s one. Here’s the next.

Vittoria pointed, and Langdon immediately realized why they had not found it earlier. The manuscript was in a folio bin, not on the shelves. Folio bins were a common means of storing unbound pages. The label on the front of the container left no doubt about the contents.

Galileo Galilei, 1639

Langdon dropped to his knees, his heart pounding. “Diagramma.” He gave her a grin. “Nice work. Help me pull out this bin.”

Vittoria knelt beside him, and they heaved. The metal tray on which the bin was sitting rolled toward them on castors, revealing the top of the container.

“No lock?” Vittoria said, sounding surprised at the simple latch.

“Never. Documents sometimes need to be evacuated quickly. Floods and fires.”

“So open it.”

Langdon didn’t need any encouragement. With his academic life’s dream right in front of him and the thinning air of the chamber, he was in no mood to dawdle. He unsnapped the latch and lifted the lid. Inside, flat on the floor of the bin, lay a black, duck-cloth pouch. The cloth’s breathability was critical to the preservation of its contents. Reaching in with both hands and keeping the pouch horizontal, Langdon lifted it out of the bin.

We’re 209 pages into Brown’s novel here, the 52nd of 137 relatively short chapters. At this point Vittoria isn’t the only one who wants Langdon to hurry up.

“I expected a treasure chest,” Vittoria said. “Looks more like a pillowcase.”

“Follow me,” he said. Holding the bag before him like a sacred offering, Langdon walked to the center of the vault where he found the customary glass-topped archival exam table. Although the central location was intended to minimize in-vault travel of documents, researchers appreciated the privacy the surrounding stacks afforded. Career-making discoveries were uncovered in the top vaults of the world, and most academics did not like rivals peering through the glass as they worked.

Uh huh. Interesting. And the pouch? What’s in the pouch?

Langdon laid the pouch on the table and unbuttoned the opening. Vittoria stood by. Rummaging through a tray of archivist tools, Langdon found the felt-pad pincers archivists called finger cymbals -- oversized tweezers with flattened disks on each arm. As his excitement mounted, Langdon feared at any moment he might awake back in Cambridge with a pile of test papers to grade. Inhaling deeply, he opened the bag. Fingers trembling in their cotton gloves, he reached in with his tongs.

“Relax,” Vittoria said. “It’s paper, not plutonium.”

Langdon slid the tongs around the stack of documents inside and was careful to apply even pressure. Then, rather than pulling out the documents, he held them in place while he slid off the bag -- an archivist’s procedure for minimizing torque on the artifact. Not until the bag was removed and Langdon had turned on the exam darklight beneath the table did he begin breathing again.

Too much detail, Brown. I’m glad you learned as much as you did about how archivists work, but a little less detail at this point might better keep your plot moving forward.

That’s two. But these are both just nits of Brown’s craft. Even the most accomplished writer will struggle eternally to rid his manuscript of the things that will tweak the sensibilities of the amateur writers in his readership. We can easily overlook all of these minor shortcomings in our general enjoyment of the work.

But there is one more nit I wish to pick.

The MacGuffin of Brown’s novel is a magnetically-sealed container of antimatter which, once removed from its docking station, begins an unavoidable countdown to its destruction and the destruction of anything within a few miles of it. It was the result of an experiment conducted by a God-believing scientist who wanted to prove the co-habitability of science and religion. His daughter, Vittoria, is one of his strongest champions.

“Matter,” Vittoria repeated. “Blossoming out of nothing. An incredible display of subatomic fireworks. A miniature universe springing to life. He proved not only that matter can be created from nothing, but that the Big Bang and Genesis can be explained by accepting the presence of an enormous source of energy.”

“You mean God?” Kohler demanded.

“God, Buddha, The Force, Yahweh, the singularity, the unicity point -- call it whatever you like -- the result is the same. Science and religion support the same truth -- pure energy is the father of creation.”

Brown’s prose is littered with conflations like this -- that matter created by God and matter accreted from the energy of the universe are the same thing. But of course they are not the same thing, because one requires an agency that needs an additional explanation and the other does not. A distinction that seems lost on a lot of characters in this novel.

And then there is the tragic -- and all too common -- conflation that science and religion are two different points on the same continuum of ideology; that they are different not in kind, but only in type. Nowhere is this theme more evident than in an impassioned, and somewhat trite, speech Brown places in the mouth of the Camerlengo of the Vatican. Not much context is needed here -- it has just been revealed that the Illuminati have poisoned the Pope, and his administrator, the Camerlengo, takes to the airwaves to rail against “science.” For the sake of some brevity, I will only include the words Brown puts in quotation marks below, but mark how frequently the implied comparison to religion is made, as if the leaders of “science” promised to deliver to their followers anything similar to the claims and protections of religion.

“To the Illuminati, and to those of science, let me say this. You have won the war.

“The wheels have been in motion for a long time. Your victory has been inevitable. Never before has it been as obvious as it is at this moment. Science is the new God.

There it is, right off the bat. The most obvious false comparison of them all. The religious can only construe reality through the prism of a God -- so those who “believe” in science must feel the same way. Science is their God.

“Medicine, electronic communications, space travel, genetic manipulation … these are the miracles about which we now tell our children. These are the miracles we herald as proof that science will bring us the answers. The ancient stories of immaculate conceptions, burning bushes, and parting seas are no longer relevant. God has become obsolete. Science has won the battle. We concede.

Hmmm. Is there any other difference, do you think, between “medicine, electronic communications, space travel, genetic manipulation” and “immaculate conceptions, burning bushes, and parting seas”? No? Then, you’re right. I guess they must both be “miracles.”

“But science’s victory has cost every one of us. And it has cost us deeply.

“Science may have alleviated the miseries of disease and drudgery and provided an array of gadgetry for our entertainment and convenience, but it has left us in a world without wonder. Our sunsets have been reduced to wavelengths and frequencies. The complexities of the universe have been shredded into mathematical equations. Even our self-worth as human beings has been destroyed. Science proclaims that Planet Earth and its inhabitants are a meaningless speck in the grand scheme. A cosmic accident. Even the technology that promises to unite us, divides us. Each of us in now electronically connected to the globe, and yet we feel utterly alone. We are bombarded with violence, division, fracture, and betrayal. Skepticism has become a virtue. Cynicism and demand for proof has become enlightened thought. Is it any wonder that humans now feel more depressed and defeated than they have at any point in human history? Does science hold anything sacred? Science looks for answers by probing our unborn fetuses. Science even presumes to rearrange our own DNA. It shatters God’s world into smaller and smaller pieces in quest of meaning … and all it finds is more questions.

There’s so much wrong with this paragraph I don’t even know where to begin. “Science may have alleviated the miseries of disease”. Let’s start there, because the dismissiveness with which this is offered is almost beyond my comprehension. Oh sure, science may have cured smallpox, polio, measles, yellow fever, malaria, typhoid fever, whooping cough, pneumococcal disease, tuberculosis, tetanus, diphtheria, and shingles (just to name a few), but now the 57 million people who annually died from those diseases at their deadliest heights have lost their sense of wonder when looking at the sunset. They “have been reduced to wavelengths and frequencies.” Why can’t science just mind its own business!

“The ancient war between science and religion is over. You have won. But you have not won fairly. You have not won by providing answers. You have won by so radically reorienting our society that the truths we once saw as signposts now seem inapplicable. Religion cannot keep up. Scientific growth is exponential. It feeds on itself like a virus. Every new breakthrough opens doors for new breakthroughs. Mankind took thousands of years to progress from the wheel to the car. Yet only decades from the car into space. Now we measure scientific progress in weeks. We are spinning out of control. The rift between us grows deeper and deeper, and as religion is left behind, people find themselves in a spiritual void. We cry out for meaning. And believe me, we do cry out. We see UFOs, engage in channeling, spirit contact, out-of-body experiences, mindquests -- all these eccentric ideas have a scientific veneer, but they are unashamedly irrational. They are the desperate cry of the modern soul, lonely and tormented, crippled by its own enlightenment and its inability to accept meaning in anything removed from technology.

This is perhaps one of those areas where the idea of non-overlapping magestrieums may make the most sense. First off, to say that “science” has not provided any answers is, frankly, ludicrous. Science, from my point of view, is the only thing that has provided any reliable answers -- at least about questions of how the universe works. But those are not the questions that the Camerlengo is talking about. He’s not talking about questions of “is,” but questions of “ought.” Science may have less to say in that space, but the false assumption on which his line of argument is based is that religion does. Philosophy, maybe, but religion is no more an authority on morality than the fanciful dogmas on which it is based. Science, at least, can give you a reliable answer if you start with an unproven moral premise. If I wish to reduce human suffering, how ought I act in this circumstance or that? Science can answer that question with the nuance it probably deserves. Religion is a much more blunt instrument, with only a handful of non-evidence-based answers that it clumsily applies to all situations.

“Science, you say, will save us. Science, I say, has destroyed us. Since the days of Galileo, the church has tried to slow the relentless march of science, sometimes with misguided means, but always with benevolent intention. Even so, the temptations are too great for man to resist. I warn you, look around yourselves. The promises of science have not been kept. Promises of efficiency and simplicity have bred nothing but pollution and chaos. We are a fractured and frantic species … moving down a path of destruction.

“Promises of efficiency and simplicity have bred nothing but pollution and chaos.” Really? Quick. Decide now. Which century would you rather live in? The 21st or the 11th? Are you sure? What about all that pollution and chaos?

“Who is this God science? Who is the God who offers his people power but no moral framework to tell you how to use that power? What kind of God gives a child fire but does not warn the child of its dangers? The language of science comes with no signposts about good and bad. Science textbooks tell us how to create a nuclear reaction, and yet they contain no chapter asking us if it is a good or bad idea.

Ummm. To quote the Wikipedia article on the same subject, “Nuclear ethics is a cross-disciplinary field of academic and policy-relevant study in which the problems associated with nuclear warfare, nuclear deterrence, nuclear arms control, nuclear disarmament, or nuclear energy are examined through one or more ethical or moral theories or frameworks. And a search for “nuclear ethics” on returned more than 47,000 results. As with so much in this painful little speech, assertions with no basis in fact are made time and time again, all with the apparent intention of appealing to the emotional responses of its audience.

“To science, I say this. The church is tired. We are exhausted from trying to be your signposts. Our resources are drying up from our campaign to be the voice of balance as you plow blindly on in your quest for smaller chips and larger profits. We ask not why you will not govern yourselves, but how can you? Your world moves so fast that if you stop even for an instant to consider the implications of your actions, someone more efficient will whip past you in a blur. So you move on. You proliferate weapons of mass destruction, but it is the Pope who travels the world beseeching leaders to use restraint. You clone living creatures, but it is the church reminding us to consider the moral implications of our actions. You encourage people to interact on phones, video screens, and computers, but it is the church who opens its doors and reminds us to commune in person as we were meant to do. You even murder unborn babies in the name of research that will save lives. Again, it is the church who points out the fallacy of this reasoning.

Wait. It is scientists who are proliferating weapons of mass destruction? Last time I checked it was dogmatic political entities that were the biggest culprits there, some of them with claims to a religious foundation. And although scientists may indeed be cloning living creatures, is it scientists who are encouraging people to interact on phones, video screens, and computers? Or murdering unborn babies? Scientists are doing these things? Who is the Camerlengo talking about? Oh, I know. He’s talking about “science,” the thing that doesn’t actually exist in the way that he needs it to for the purposes of his argument. He’s talking about science like it has autonomy and evil intention.

“And all the while, you proclaim the church is ignorant. But who is more ignorant? The man who cannot define lightning, or the man who does not respect its awesome power? This church is reaching out to you. Reaching out to everyone. And yet the more we reach, the more you push us away. Show me proof there is a God, you say. I say use your telescopes to look to the heavens, and tell me how there could not be a God! You ask what does God look like. I say, where did that question come from? The answers are one and the same. Do you not see God in your science? How can you miss Him! You proclaim that even the slightest change in the force of gravity or the weight of an atom would have rendered our universe a lifeless mist rather than our magnificent sea of heavenly bodies, and yet you fail to see God’s hand in this? Is it really so much easier to believe that we simply chose the right card from a deck of billions? Have we become so spiritually bankrupt that we would rather believe in mathematical impossibility than in a power greater than us?

Do we really still need to explain this? Whether or not there is a God, whether or not the Big Bang happened, we can only exist in a universe that has the conditions that are necessary for our survival. In another universe -- however it came into existence -- one with conditions that are contrary to human life, humans would not exist. It’s not like we had a deck of a billion universe cards and we just happened to pick the only one that would allow us to go on living. If I want to torture that analogy, it would be more accurate to say that either (a) The deck was dealt a billion times and humans grew up in the deal that was conducive to their existence, or (b) The deck contained a billion versions of the human-friendly card.

“Whether or not you believe in God, you must believe this. When we as a species abandon our trust in the power greater than us, we abandon our sense of accountability. Faith … all faiths … are admonitions that there is something we cannot understand, something to which we are accountable … With faith we are accountable to each other, to ourselves, and to a higher truth. Religion is flawed, but only because man is flawed. If the outside world could see this church as I do … looking beyond the ritual of these walls … they would see a modern miracle … a brotherhood of imperfect, simple souls wanting only to be a voice of compassion in a world spinning out of control.

And here, like any good clergyman, is where the Camerlengo switches from these unconvincing arguments to a more traditional sermon of simply asserted goodness and brotherhood.

“Are we obsolete? Are these men dinosaurs? Am I? Does the world really need a voice for the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the unborn child? Do we really need souls like these who, though imperfect, spend their lives imploring each of us to read the signposts of morality and not lose our way?

“Tonight we are perched on a precipice. None of us can afford to be apathetic. Whether you see this evil as Satan, corruption, or immorality … the dark force is alive and growing every day. Do not ignore it. The force, though mighty, is not invincible. Goodness can prevail. Listen to your hearts. Listen to God. Together we can step back from this abyss.

“Pray with me.”

Why did I spend so much time on this? After all, it’s just a Dan Brown novel, right? Well, it’s partly because Brown makes this such a pivotal moment in his narrative, the point where the world comes to the defense of a church that only a tiny minority actually believe has any moral authority over them. This speech, so riddled with fuzzy thinking and unsubstantiated assertions, is offered as something both eloquent and convincing. And that, at the end of the day, is just bad fiction.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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