Dan Brown’s Fictional Conflict Between Faith and Science

(system) #1

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/guest/dan-browns-fictional-conflict-between-faith-and-science

(Phil) #2

Enjoyed the review. I have debated as to whether or not to read the novel,and this helps me rationalize that perhaps I should “just to be informed as to what the general public’s perceptions are.”

(George Brooks) #3

I’m not sure I understand Jeremiah Stout’s point. And certainly many people knew I would be saying so!

He asks if a fictional book about conflict between Religion & Science should even matter. Then he answers the question:

"Yes, it does. In fact, we should care because the book is popular fiction, not only in spite of that fact. Dan Brown has a huge audience. His books typically end up as international best sellers. With so many people reading his stories, it’s important that we recognize the problematic themes being presented. The popularity of Brown’s works make it all the more unfortunate that the story of Origin is driven by a false tension between religious faith and scientific progress."

This seems to be all twisted up in a plot that even Dan Brown would be proud of.

  1. By his own admission, author Stout states that Brown’s work is about “… a conflict that we at BioLogos are very familiar with, the conflict between faith and science.”

  2. And yet, at the same time, he dismisses the theme as somehow dangerous, foolishly mythical or fraudulent.

We live the conflict between Faith and Science every day. It’s certainly isn’t mythical. It certainly isn’t fraudulent. And many of us here are certainly aware of the danger of millions of Americans using religion to justify false ideas about the natural world, and about Earth’s future in particular!

If you read the review, you know how Dan Brown ends the story. It seems like a pretty nuanced ending… and not an ending to reinforce the stereotype that religious people are “terrible people”. Hmmm… that seems like the kind of ending we might have paid good money to be written!

If anyone has a gripe, it should be the Catholic Church. You can almost imagine one of the Archbishops . . . pacing back and forth like some teenage goat farmer worrying about his reputation!

“Yes, yes he snaps at his administrative cleric… we burned a couple of people, and the whole world just can’t seem to let it go!”

Yes… people are funny like that.

So, if the bad-guys nowadays are not the Catholics (but the Young Earth Creationists), why does Dan Brown put the onus of suspicion on the guy with the baloney skin hat? Remember, Dan Brown’s franchise is global now. And other than a relatively small number of “Protestant Dominanted Countries” (The British Commonwealth countries for the most part, plus the USA), the “perceived reality” for the rest of the world is that the Catholic Church cozies up to the political elites - - and nothing good comes of it!

And think of the millions of Muslims, eager to watch a good movie that seems to be gratify their every suspicion about the Church that single-handedly sent the Crusaders after their forefathers!

To me, it sounds like Dan Brown is helping us “carry the water” … showing that religion and science can find points of commonality.

If you really really dislike presentations of conflict between Faith and Science, I’m not quite sure you can cast such ideas as ridiculous exaggerations and then return to your laptop to attempt to refute a YEC who, for the hundredth time, posts that “Common Descent” is a meaningless circularity foisted upon an innocent public by greedy scientists!

(Mervin Bitikofer) #4

There is perceived conflict between faith and science. And then there might be actual warranted (or informed) conflict between the two. The former can exist independently of the latter. Few organizations would be more aware of this than Biologos. To deny that the latter substantially exists is not at all to deny the former. I think the author is warranted in fearing that Brown’s novels do much to spread the former kind by spending so many pages giving it fuel before adding any nuance at the end. In short, it would appear by crude page count that the novel generates more heat than light. And yes … novels and fictional narrative are powerful vehicles for truth claims.

(George Brooks) #5


There is a third category… the Real Conflict over Perceived Confliction.

And this is where some well-intended apologists for BioLogos fly off the rails!

(Mervin Bitikofer) #6

I just finished reading the “Galileo Goes to Jail” book edited by Ronald Numbers. The last essay (myth 25): “Modern Science Secularized the West” by John H. Brooke had this which seems related to what you argue here, George. Beginning on p. 227:

Instead of seeing science as intrinsically and inextricably secular, it is more correct to see it as neutral with respect to questions concerning God’s existence. Interestingly, this is how it was seen by Darwin’s most vigorous popularizer, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), from whom Dawkins has therefore to distance himself. For Huxley, science was neither Christian nor anti-Christian but extra-Christian, meaning that it had a scope and autonomy independent of religious interests. Hence his insistence that Darwin’s theory had no more to do with theism than did the first book of Euclid, meaning it had no bearing on the deeper question, whether evolutionary processes themselves might have been seeded in an original design. The pressing question is not whether Darwin’s theory has been used to justify unbelief – it has, many times-- but whether its use as justification conceals other, more important reasons for unbelief.

[Some citations were in original text that are omitted in the excerpt above.]

So again, George; nobody here (least of all any Biologians I suppose!) doubts that very real conflict exists around all these issues. What is contested is whether that conflict can be legitimately seen as rooted in science itself. I am persuaded that it is not. The essay from which the above excerpt comes goes on to give the main reasons given by polled scientists over why they had lost belief. And their given reasons had little to do with any science. Instead… they overwhelmingly site things like damnation doctrines (Darwin), inconsistencies between religions or within the Bible itself, or less-than-flattering Old Testament portrayals of God. None of these are scientific issues at all. They are religious / sociological ones.
In fact it has been the Bible itself that has driven more people away from faith (or at least from faith as recently portrayed by fundamentalist polemics). As I have observed elsewhere, if you want a simplistic and serene faith; the most dangerous book you should probably keep out of your house is the Bible.

In any case, science comes alongside all those prior issues and is taken up as a useful tool to help validate the beliefs and presuppositions that a person had already landed on from prior motivations. It’s been said: “the heart hath its reasons that reason knows not of.”

(George Brooks) #7

How interesting! @Mervin_Bitikofer, you write that BioLogians may contest whether “that conflict” can be legitimately seen as rooted in science itself. Isn’t that a peculiar turn of the phrase?

I believe that, in fact, BioLogians, when disputing the root of the conflict ask: is “that conflict” rooted in Religion itself!

Science is “trying” to do something. It just records facts - - in continuously revised editions and vintages of presentation to a curious world. It is “religionists” that appear to be “trying” to do something … hence the conflict.

Let’s compare these two positions:

  1. The true belief in Real Conflict as presented as an inherent conflict between what Science Claims over Religion and/or What Religion claims over science.

  2. The false belief in a Presumed Conflict inherent to the nature of Science and Religion.

I do not like either way of presenting the problem. I prefer a third option:

  1. The Real Conflict between the Ancient Camp [those who claim that the truths of Science are likely to be fraudulent because they ignore God’s role in human history]


the Modern Camp [those who claim that the truths of Science should trump the beliefs of Religion because the latter is based on ancient writings, while the former is proved and re-proved every generation by careful observations.

The framing of the conflict in Version (3) makes it clear that the conflict is quite real… but it doesn’t take a position of whether it is natural or inevitable. It merely points out that there is an interested faction on either side.

Both factions attempt to color their position by using rhetoric that the conflict is inevitable. But I don’t believe we can say that all participants on either side always uses that rhetoric.

And so white papers are written where the red herring of inevitability is disputed. But that is really beside the point. Despite the existence of the Victorian era group of Flat Earth enthusiasts (comprised of sincere men and women who believed it was a matter of their Faith to take a position), for the most part Flat Earth beliefs fell away as soon as convincing information on our Solar System became well distributed.

The conflict between Christians who held to a flat earth and the Christians who held the opposing view was not “inevitable” or “interminable”. The rise of the dispute was more or less surprising to much of the world. And the fact that the movement virtually disappeared was not surprising.

[Perhaps the only surprise is that there are some who have returned to the Flat Earth theory.]

So I reject the idea that Religion and Science are inevitably or interminably doomed to conflict. But I reject people who say “there is no conflict”, when obviously there is a conflict of some kind. What they should be saying is that there “need not be a conflict” if religious propositions do not fixate on the nature of the material world.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #8

In one sense, George, you are entirely correct (IMO). When scientists stick with the scientific method and don’t couple its findings with an atheistic or anti-religions worldview, what they do is of great value.

On the other hand, much of the cultural conflict about science and religion is either ignited or inflamed by scientists who hate religion and use certain pieces of science in support of their public agendas. That’s incontestable, IMO, and we saw some of that analyzed in Steven Snobelen’s great series on the New Atheists this past year. Dan Brown probably belongs in the same category as Carl Sagan, as (probably) an agnostic who hates religion and who believes that “science” (in the sense I have just spoken of) is a powerful tool to eradicate it. Yes, he’s a novelist: everyone knows that. But, novels can sway public opinion on very important matters. Harriet Beecher Stowe understood that perfectly well. They can have mass audiences, especially when they are turned into popular films, regardless of the intellectual merits of the views espoused by the authors of the books.

And Brown’s books have zero intellectual merit. None of them do. As works of fiction, I’m not bothered by that. My own reading list in that category (fiction) rarely includes anything of genuine intellectual merit, to the disappointment of several friends whose readings lists are more laudable. I just look for a clever plot and compelling characters. Brown does that very well. I liked a lot of The DaVinci Code myself, but I was appalled by the statement about evidence of historical authenticity that he put at the front of the book. Simply appalled. So much so, that I refused to buy a copy of the novel or the film. I read and viewed copies from a public library instead, so as not to let him have one cent directly from me–not that my contribution to his artistic endeavors would matter in the slightest. It was simply a matter of principle for me.

Why was I so appalled? B/c that book was just full of outrageous historical garbage presented as if it were actually true, to use the politest language I can. I could go on all day about this, but I’ll give just one example from my own area of expertise: Brown claims that Boyle and Newton were Grand masters of the “Priory of Sion.” All fine and dandy in a novel, and I’d have enjoyed reading about that if he didn’t pretend to have historical documentation for his storyline. What are the facts? Suffice it to say, if there were any genuine documents supporting this particular fiction, then I would know what they are (and would almost certainly have handled them myself at some point) for Boyle and Snobelen would know what they are for Newton. He has told me that they ain’t no such documents for Newton, and I’m saying ditto for Boyle.

None of this would matter, except that zillions of people just love that stuff and partly believe it. Brown does for the history of science and faith nearly the same thing that White and Draper did in the nineteenth century. He has written fiction while pretending it’s fact. White and Draper weren’t pretending, but they still wrote plenty of fiction, b/c as historians they were just incompetent, despite the fact that White was the first president of the American Historical Association. That’s a story I’ve talked about plenty here and elsewhere and I’ll give it a rest.

(Jon) #9

Goodness, is Dan Brown still a thing? The infamous “Da Vinci Code” came out way back in 2003. It was an obviously trashy read, with mangled history and wild conspiracy theorizing masquerading fact, originally claiming “99 percent of it is true”. I didn’t even bother reading more than a few pages of a copy belonging to a friend, since the writing was just so awful. I can’t see this book of his being any kind of improvement.

(David Heddle) #10

My two cents is this: I can deal with a work of fiction that is inaccurate in how it handles science and religion. But the book has to be interesting and clever. I though the Da Vinci code, with all its historical inaccuracies and distortions, was at least quite clever. Origin is just… boring. And that is the unpardonable sin when it comes to fiction.

(Jon) #11

To me the incredibly bad writing which hits you in the face from the very first page, is unpardonable in itself. It’s just awful. No wonder they sell this stuff at airports, where it’s going to be read by travel weary jet fatigued customers.

(Phil) #12

So, any good fiction books you guys have read? Still working on my Christmas list.


The Saboteur by Andrew Gross if you enjoy WWII spy novels. Loosely based on the actual raid I found it to be quite the page turner and it is short, compared to a Dan Brown novel.

(Jon) #14

Reading fiction is a luxury for me, and I tend to turn to the classics. I go through Dickens all over again about every two years, and pick up Les Miserables on about the same kind of schedule. For more modern fiction, I run back and forth through the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #15

Based on my bad taste (according to more literate friends and family) in fiction, I hesitate to suggest anything. However, I don’t hesitate to recommend Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which is not only deucedly clever but also historically accurate, as far as I can tell from my rather limited knowledge of medieval intellectual history. I really like Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost, a novel about intellectual life in Oxford in the 1660s. As clever as Eco, IMO, and also (as Eco) written by someone with serious academic training in the humanities (Pears is an art historian). It’s a murder mystery with two superb twists. First, it’s “post-modern,” in that the novel consists of four separate, often conflicting, stories of the murder, each narrated by a different character, two of whom (the antiquarian and gossip Anthony Wood and the great mathematician John Wallis) are real historical people. Wallis was a good friend of Boyle, and Boyle appears in the book several times in plausible ways. I’m no fan of post-modernism in general, but if this is what it means for writing murder mysteries I like it. Second, a principal character is based on the real person Anne Greene, who was hanged for murder in 1650. The true story of Anne Greene has an absolutely spectacular ending–there is no other way to describe it–and that features very prominently in the novel. The fact that Pears used her story as a central plot element is what led me to buy the book. Well, and Boyle’s involvement too. Many of the characters actually knew Boyle. The title comes from Francis Bacon. Highly recommended.

(Jon) #16

Strongly seconded. If you have the mental stamina, “Focault’s Pendulum” is another great Eco classic.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #17

Here’s a tickler about Anne Greene, in case you are hesitating to read Pears’ novel: http://www.drlindseyfitzharris.com/2010/09/28/news-from-the-dead-the-execution-resuscitation-of-anne-green/

(Dennis Venema) #18

Bingo. Well said, @TedDavis.

(George Brooks) #19


Let’s go with the premise that these scientists indeed exist. Even if I haven’t met them face to face, I know I have met them here on BioLogos!

The problem is with the Scientists, rather than the nature of Science.

And I would say the same thing goes for the other side of the coin. I reject the idea that Religion is inevitably doomed to “be in conflict” with Science. I wrote this in my last post, and I see no reason to change it.

So… can @TedDavis and I and a few others, all agree that neither Religion nor Science are intrinsically doomed to conflict? This is my position. I think it is the sensible position.

But it is also beyond doubt that because of human nature and how humans process faith and fact, we can fairly conclude that whether inevitable or eternal in nature, we are certainly in the conflict of our lives at the current time.

And if I were to be charitable, I think we can say that when the Conflict Thesis was born, we were in a similar (but not identical) phase of the conflict.

Lastly, I would like to believe that if Brown had it to do all over again, he would not have written that opening page in the first book in the same way. I myself have vivid reminders of Dan Brown’s opening page about what was historical and true. It was quite a shocker.

But if we are looking to his latest book, I would think we should now appreciate the nuanced delivery of the concluding pages of this new book.


I see your venom for Carl Sagan does not abate. You have quite the scruple when it comes to how someone presents the nexus between Religion and Science. The pendulum swings to and fro.

I’d like to see the Catholic Church escape it’s “baggage” from its old days… but when doing so, we should also have no compunction about commenting on the existing troubles between Religion and Science.

Do we blame scientists who have been infuriated by some religionists frank admonitions to ignore our perceptions of reality? Do we blame the religious who are so infuriated by the atheistic tendencies that their predecessors triggered in scientists.

This is like a bad soap opera about a toxic marriage. BioLogos arrives to minister to the situation. In the process, I suppose if we slap around a few atheistic scientists, it will accrue to our greater credibility with the YEC crowd…


I’d have to second Foucault’s Pendulum. Its sort of a meditation on the conspiracy theory mindset and it reels you in bit by bit. It ends up taking you for a ride through paranoia before finally dropping you right back into the real world with a bit of a jolt. Like a simulation of what it would be like to go from thinking all the conspiracy theorists are quacks to suddenly realizing they might be right after all. Haven’t read many books that managed to pull off that trick but I’ve been on the lookout. Thought the Prague Cemetery might do something similar, but found in difficult to like.