From author of 'Da Vinci Code,' a novel sure to spark debate over new atheism | Opinion

op1plumer15-11102017-0001
Tom Hanks as symbologist Robert Langdon and Audrey Tautou as Sophie Neveu, a police cryptographer, in 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

Dan Brown’s latest thriller, Origin, is mainly about science and religion, and will no doubt continue to spark even more debate over the new atheism.

The book’s main character, Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconography, will not disappoint fans. Langdon never takes himself too seriously, which helps Brown’s novels avoid seeming pretentious. And in Origin, set in Spain, our protagonist serves the reader as a genial guide to Spanish art, architecture, and history.

Whether or not readers are unfamiliar with sites such as the Basilica of the Sacred Family in Barcelona, Brown’s descriptions will make them want to see more and learn more on the internet. This book is well worthy of a special illustrated edition.

But despite secondary themes dealing with Spanish history, politics, and culture, this novel should also renew the current lively debate between science and religion.

Brown does not present the arguments in a pedantic way, but rather, without interrupting the rapid flow of the novel, he develops them by interspersing fascinating ideas that raise important questions. It is up to readers to pursue these ideas and questions outside of the novel for themselves.

Origin rekindles the debate spearheaded by the 2006 book The God Delusion by the Oxford biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins. Together with atheistic manifestos by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, “the new atheism” has sparked intense discussion ever since.

The book focuses on the attack by the new atheists on Christian fundamentalism, a.k.a. creationism, which interprets the Bible’s first story of creation as accurate history and science. While many might have thought this view hopelessly out of date, it is held by nearly half of all Americans today and is on the rise worldwide — despite the fact that evolution is accepted by virtually all accredited biologists.

The overwhelming scientific consensus with regard to evolution is the reason for its acceptance by the Catholic Church and for its inclusion in all Catholic universities, which seek to give a place to all branches of knowledge.

In contrast to the creationists, the Catholic Church teaches that the first story of creation absolutely should not be interpreted as history and science. To do so, it claims, represents a profound misunderstanding of the original purpose of the story (which, incidentally, dates from some 2,000 years before the rise of modern science with a Catholic priest (!) by the name of Copernicus).

The essential message of the first story of creation is one of faith. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “The Bible … speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relations of man [sic] with God and with the universe.”

Science and religion also appear in Origin’s brief but crucial reference to the recent work of MIT physicist Jeremy England, who has garnered international attention by theorizing that life may have arisen spontaneously and almost inevitably from lifeless matter, simply owing to the laws of physics, especially the second law of thermodynamics.

If so, this could mark a scientific advance comparable in its importance to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Some have argued that England’s theory, if verified, will overthrow a central argument based on the second law of thermodynamics that has long been used by creationists in their war against the theory of evolution.

England himself, whom the novel notes is an Orthodox Jew, views his theory strictly as science and leaves the questions of its religious and spiritual ramifications to philosophers and theologians.

A scientific theory that life may have arisen without the direct activity of God is not only momentous in itself but ought to provoke as much thought and discussion among readers of Origin as the material on Jesus and Mary Magdalene in The Da Vinci Code did.

Eric Plumer is a professor of theology and religious studies at the University of Scranton and author of  “The Catholic Church and American Culture: Why the Claims of Dan Brown Strike a Chord.” eric.plumer@scranton.edu