Dan Brown
New York: Atria Books, 2003
ISBN # 0-7434-8622-6
571 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2009

Robert Langdon, a religious symbolist at Harvard, is called to the scene of a murder to give the “investigator” some advice. So opens Dan Brown’s novel, Angels & Demons. But questions arose in this reader’s mind immediately. What in the world is a religious symbolist and why might he be of interest in a murder case? More questions tumbled onto the floor and even some answers as the next few opening pages turned. Langdon studies ancient and historic religions and does so in great measure by looking at the sorts of symbols they use. He is famous for this work, and was mentioned in some recent literature on the subject of a (seemingly) long-past anti-Catholic group, The Illuminati.

Langdon is most hesitant to run off to wherever this murder site is on the basis of a telephone call, but the mention of The Illuminati and a couple details of the murder immediately perk his attention, and he agrees. The novel then explodes into another facet, wild science fiction-like details and machines as he gets on his way, whisked from Boston to Switzerland by some new supersonic jet in under an hour. The murder itself has taken place at a super secret research facility that studies various aspects physics, claims it’s head, Maximilian Kohler.

Leonardo Vetra has been murdered in his lab. He and his daughter Vittoria have been working on a very secret project of making anti-matter, as substance, perhaps best described as an anti-substance, which could be made into bombs of a sort never before imagined.

Not only was Vetra murdered, but he has a symbol of the Illuminati brunt into his chest. Thus Kohler’s call to Langdon and we are off.

And off we do go into a crazy and fascinating world of intrigue, murder, plots and counter-plots, secrets and betrayals, always led by the brilliant and goody two-shoes, Robert Langdon, and, oh yes, of course, joined in the search for the murdered is the lovely daughter of the murdered man, herself a force to be reckoned with. There is a great crisis of time since the murders are now possessors of the anti-mater material bomb. The main plot line takes us to Rome and the Vatican where the pope has recently died and a new one is about to be elected. But, the Illuminati seem to be on the verge of stopping this election and destroying Vatican City, the material base of Roman Catholicism. While Langdon and Vittoria Vetra are there to lend their expertise, he in religious symbolism, and she in her knowledge of anti-matter, the two of them become the leading actors of the “good guys” vs. “the bad guys.” It is a very face paced thriller with many twists and turns, many of them delightful and scary forcing the reader to read fast, whipping pages away, in a desperate rush to see how the world will be saved… Fun, but not terribly challenging or special, even if a great fantasy read.

At times Brown seems to be having fun with us. In the early few pages once Langdon arrives at the physics lab, Kohler, the director is showing him around and they pass a wind-tunnel experiment where a woman is floating in the room.

“Friction,” Kohler said. “Decreases her aerodynamics so the fan can lift her.” He stared down the corridor again. “One square yard of drag will slow a falling body almost twenty percent.”

That was it. That one quick sentence, and author Brown tweaks or kids with us by dropping a dramatic hint:

… He never suspected that later that night, in a country hundreds of miles away, the information would save his life.”

I don’t really care for that sort of cheap tool of trying to peak our interest in what comes, but Brown seems to like that sort of device.

For me the more interesting parts of the book have to do with one historical story and one theological / philosophical theme.

The historical story is that of the Illuminati. On Brown’s account this was a secret organization founded by Galileo and other scientists after Galileo’s trial. They form this secret society so that on the surface they can do what Galileo did, denounce his scientific theory in order to save his life, but at this secret level they can continue their scientific world and at the same time quietly and secretly battle the power of religion to interfere with science.

Historians of such groups, like Robert Langdon, our super hero, had thought the group had simply died out over the years, where it had, for some centuries, hidden itself inside the Masonic movement, something even most Masons didn’t know.

Now it seems they never really faded away, and now, with their possession of the anti-matter, they are in a position to do something about this conflict.

Brown details a history of this group. His treatment is quite persuasive and one finds oneself coming to think that this group might well be historical, and might really be what Langdon tells us it is. When that happened I had to quickly bring myself up short and say: whoa, wait a minute, this is a book of fiction, and Dan Brown is not Robert Langdon… At times that phenomenon, the bringing me to the edge of thinking of this as HISTORY, not FICTION, almost made me want to get on the web and see what was there about the Illuminati. Happily I resisted. First of all, to do the sort of historical research to figure out whether this was pure Dan Brown fiction or rooted in something historical, would have taken much more time than I was willing to spend, and probably involve skills I don’t have.

However, there was a second major theme about which I do know a good deal and do have lots of the skills. The central theme of religion versus science.

The central question is of the existence of God, and the origins of the cosmos. This is one question, not two in Dan Brown’s formulation. The battle is between the religious folks, especially in this novel, the Roman Catholics, who following scripture, believe God created the cosmos out of nothing, and the scientific community which tends not to believe in such a creating spirit, but is working on scientific explanations for the origins of the cosmos. The Big Bang theory won’t work as a solution since it puts off the question where did the matter come from that went “bang.” Even some Catholic theologians could accept The Big Bang, but still hold that God created the original matter and caused the bang to bang.

One of the theses put forward in the novel is that this work of Vittoria Vetra and her father with anti-matter, might be close to a solution to this old question in a way that satisfies BOTH the scientific community and the religious community, so that the old split between religion and science would be seen as bogus.

And, on the novel’s hypothesis, this explains the Illuminati’s involvement, since they are bitterly opposed to religion and wouldn’t want this accommodation to come to fruition.

Throughout the novel there is a running sub-theme of this question about the possible compatibility of scientific and theological understandings of the origins of everything, the cosmos, this planet Earth and the people on it. Kohler, the director of the physics lab sees these questions a being historically theological and religious questions, but increasingly scientific ones:

“And these answers are in a physics lab?”
“You sound surprised.”
“I am. The questions seem spiritual.”
“Mr. Langdon, all questions were once spiritual. Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called on to fill in the gaps that science did not understand. The rising and setting of the sun was once attributed to Helios and a flaming chariot. Earthquakes and tidal waves were the wrath of Poseidon. Science has now proven those gods to be false idols. Soon all Gods will be proven to be false idols. Science has now provided answers to almost every question man can ask. There are only a few questions left, and they are the esoteric ones. Where do we come from? What are we doing here? What is the meaning life and the universe?”
Langdon was amazed. “And these are questions CERN is trying to answer?”
“Correction. These are questions we are answering.”

The novel uses an omnipotent narrator, and Brown allows the discussion of these topics to remain at the surface and with a rather strong bias to the view that the scientific views on the question of the origins of the cosmos are inadequate.

On another issue he does the same sort of trivial move. Langdon asks the camerlengo (aide to the Pope) how is it that can God be both omnipotent and benevolent given what happens to people in the world – this is a version of the problem of evil argument: How could a good God allow such suffering in the world.

The camerlengo cites parenting and yet claiming even a good parent might let a child skateboard, when he might get hurt. Langdon answers that he would allow it but give the child some guidance and then let him learn on his own. The camerlengo replies:

“So although you have the power to interfere and prevent your child’s pain, you would choose to show you love by letting him learn his own lessons?”

Now, that reply might work to solve the problem of the benevolent parent allowing his or her child to use a skateboard, but it utterly ignores the question of a God who is not only supposed to be benevolent, but also omnipotent. And in the case the camerlengo sites, the child is willful about the skateboarding. The interesting cases are when people who do everything their God has asked, yet great misfortune, even death come to them. An omnipotent God would know this an, were the God truly benevolent, wouldn’t seem to be able to allow this to happen.

In another place one of the theologians attacks the positions of science:

“Who is the God science? Who is the God who offers his people powers 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? 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.”

This too is a trivial reply. It already assumes what it asks, namely that there must be an absolute and external source of this knowledge. However, it is even THEOLOGICALLY possible that the human beings must choose what is morally good and acceptable in the face of a world where we humans do know for sure what the answers to such questions are.

The frustration for me with this sort of theological / philosophical argumentation which Brown presents is that he gives it the appearance of sophistication, but the discussions remain at the level of the trivial.

It leads me to suspect the same situation may well be true of the scientific questions involved, but that I’m just not sophisticated enough in science to know where the lack of seriousness occurs.

Despite these quarrels, the novel, while perhaps not intellectually exciting, is certainly an excellent thriller. I read the 571 page book in about 3 days, and that is reading with some serious attention, not racing. I kept wanting to know what would happen next, and spent hours in my comfortable reading chair, nice glass of wine next to me, and enjoyed being transported into a world of dangerous fiction which I’d never want to participate in, but had lots of fun reading about it.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett