CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne
Dan Brown’s Origin has been greeted by some horrible reviews, arguing that the novelist has lost his golden touch and now produces boring, unreadable books. As an old critic of Brown, I beg to disagree. In his genre, the elementary-alimentary, Brown succeeds admirably, and the book is highly recommended for those who like a simple story with a modicum of adventure and thrill, nothing memorable but enough not to sleep. Aficionados of detective novels should avoid Brown, though. He really seems pleased with himself when he reveals in the last pages who really dispatched the assassin who killed his main character, a visionary scientist and a militant atheist, and probably believes the denouement would come as a big surprise to his readers. Those truly specialized in solving whodunits probably had figured out the solution two or three pages after the scientist was confirmed dead (see Robert Walker’s review in The Week). I am less specialized, but came to the obvious conclusion before reaching half of the book.
The problem with Brown is that he dabbles insistently with religion, and has an almost infallible instinct for picking up the worst sources, then claiming in small characters at the beginning of each book that “all religious organizations in this novel are real.” Of course they are real, in the sense that organizations with these names do exist, but what Brown makes of them is definitely non-real or surreal.
There are two groups of interest for scholars of religion in Origin, the militant atheists and the followers of the Palmarian Church, a splinter Catholic group in Palmar de Troya, Spain, which separated from Rome in 1976 and elects its own Popes since 1978. Atheism is at the very center of the novel. Atheists of the militant variety described by Brown do exist. Some of them are dumb, but few are as dumb as Edmond Kirsch, who is assassinated at the beginning of the novel. A billionaire genius, Kirsch is so much clueless about real-life religionists that he believes world religions would disappear when he would reveal to the world that how evolution can produce life from inorganic matters has now been discovered. Just for this, he almost deserves to be assassinated.
At the end of the book, the world is informed of Kirsch’s discovery and religions obviously do not disappear. Fundamentalists simply do not believe that Kirsch’s theory is true, while the others state that a God capable of programming such spectacular evolutionary chemistry should be a great God indeed. As a Roman Catholic, for instance, I cannot imagine Pope Francis becoming unduly concerned about such a discovery, but rather hailing it as very good for believers, not to mention for ecology, and giving a cheering interview to his atheist journalist friend Eugenio Scalfari commenting smilingly on Kirsch. As for the other “discovery” of Kirsch, that in the future humans would merge with the machines and will be somewhat absorbed by them, several Hollywood B-movies had suggested this already in the 1950s.
To his credit, Brown attributes to his The Da Vinci Code hero, Robert Langdon, Kirsch’ mentor who tries to rescue his discoveries for humanity after his death, the same healthy skepticism about the possibility that scientific discoveries would one day eliminate religions. But then, why the possibility should be seriously entertained for most of the novels in the first place?
Knowing Brown, it is not surprising that he relies on anti-cultists about the Palmarian Church. He even cites the ant-cult organization Dialogue Ireland, which would probably be pleased for the quote but is not responsible for the wrong information that the Palmarians canonized Adolf Hitler as a saint – they only canonized Francisco Franco, and this was probably enough. Kirsch’s anti-cultism is paranoid and obsessive (we learn that this is because his mother “disappeared” and committed suicide in the “cult”), and by the end of the novel even Langdon seems to realize that this is indeed the case. In the meantime, the Palmarian Church has been portrayed as more important than it really is. In fact, it is a fringe movement unlikely, contrary to what the book argues, to influence Spanish politics, to have secret supporters about the conservative Catholic clergy, and in general to be a big deal in Spain.
Brown can claim that the only scholarly book on the Palmarian Church, A Pope of Their Own: El Palmar de Troya and the Palmarian Church, by Swedish historian Magnus Lundberg (Uppsala: Uppsala University Department of Theology, 2017) was published after he wrote the novel. But he could have consulted articles by the same Lundberg, PierLuigi Zoccatelli, and Jean-François Mayer. He didn’t, and read quickly the anti-cult sources only.
The novel is generating some novel interest for the Palmarian Church, which was probably not Brown’s plan but is welcome, if it leads his readers to seek for serious sources about the larger archipelago of fringe Catholicism. In general, however, this new effort by Brown confirms that he is fascinated by religion but lacks the basic tools for understanding it. Since he sells anyway, he probably doesn’t care.