In his newly released novel, Origin, Dan Brown takes his readers for a ride through an action-packed adventure. As the story unfolds into a maze of plot twists, it simultaneously weaves together a glut of thematic archetypes. It’s a story of friendship and forbidden love amidst conspiracies of a murder-mystery. All of this happens while the reader is bombarded by not-so-subtle references that make good on the author’s assurance that “all art, architecture, locations, science, and religious organizations in this novel are real (4).” Despite all this narrative and thematic misdirection, the larger theme of the story is simple: conflict. But the conflict is not that between lovers (platonic or otherwise), nor that between conspirators and detectives. Rather it’s a conflict that we at BioLogos are very familiar with, the conflict between faith and science. (Warning: spoilers ahead)
The battle between scientific innovation and religious faith that overshadows the entire book is best shown by taking a brief look at two of the story’s main characters. The first of those characters is Edmond Kirsch, a wealthy tech entrepreneur who is the embodiment of modern, anti-religious scientific materialism. In the story, he is world famous for his eccentric personality and his bold claims in support of atheism. He drives an auto-piloted Tesla and his closest companion is an artificial intelligence. And as if his sweeping claims and gadget-filled lifestyle weren’t enough, we are also given a glimpse of his apartment, where his library is full of titles like The Biology of Belief and his walls are adorned with quotes by Friedrich Nietzsche.
When we first meet Kirsch, he is on his way to the Montserrat Monastery where he plans to meet with the leaders of the big three religions of the Western world: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. He gives them a private showing of a presentation he’s planning to soon release to the public in a choreographed, widely broadcast event. It’s a presentation that will a reveal a discovery he believes would force the world to “realize that the teachings of all religions did indeed have one thing in common. They were all dead wrong (10).”
As the story develops anticipation around Kirsch’s iconoclastic presentation, it also builds up the tension between Kirsch and his opponent, Bishop Valdespino. Just as Kirsch embodies scientific atheism, so Valdespino represents organized religion. He is the leader of the Catholic church in Spain (where the story is set) and also a close advisor of the Spanish royal family, giving him tremendous political influence. He is portrayed as traditional to a fault, pious and well educated but suspicious of technological advancements and resentful of the declining religiosity of the younger generations. After the private meeting with Kirsch, he quickly emerges as the leader of the religious men strategizing to stop the presentation from going public. All of these factors make him a prime suspect when an assassination leaves Edmond Kirsch dead, moments before he could announce his discovery.
Throughout the story’s narrative, readers are faced with a clear, binary conflict between these two mutually exclusive opponents. Modern science (Edmond Kirsch) is on a mission to use scientific discovery to disprove, once and for all, religious belief. Meanwhile, it seems as if organized religion (Bishop Valdespino) will stop at nothing to prevent that from happening. Even though Kirsch is killed early in the story, the bulk of the plot is devoted to the drama between the revelation of his religion-ending discovery and the interference coming from religious leadership.
At this point, some readers might be asking: Why is BioLogos analyzing themes in a Dan Brown novel? After all, Dan Brown is a writer of fiction, not a public intellectual. He is neither a scientist nor a religious scholar. And his readers are certainly not buying his books to learn about the history and nature of the conflict thesis between science and religion. They just want to enjoy a thrilling story. So if Dan Brown is just a popular author and Origin is just an exciting story, does the narrative presented here, of conflict between faith and science, really matter?
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.
But the novel’s surprise conclusion gives reason for hope. After spending four hundred pages fanning the flames between science and religion, Brown takes the last fifty to qualify everything that came before. In the end, we discover that it was not, in fact, Bishop Valdespino that orchestrated Kirsch’s assassination, but rather Kirsch’s own artificially intelligent companion. And after Kirsch’s discovery goes public, instead of ruining organized religion, it sparks constructive debate between religious and scientific leaders. While most of the previous plot twists were relatively unsurprising, this final narrative turn is enough to throw the reader off-balance. Was Brown just taking advantage of the opportunity for one last “gotcha” moment? Or is there something else going on here?
To identify Brown’s voice among the throng of vocal characters (if that’s even possible), we can look to one more central figure that has yet to be mentioned. Professor Robert Langdon (yes, the same character from The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons) appears early in the story and remains a voice of sober moderation throughout. He is an aging professor of religious symbology and a long-time mentor to Edmond Kirsch. With his endless knowledge of art and literature and his appreciation for modern art and technology, he initially appears to simply be a tool for explaining the countless artistic and literary references littered throughout. But Professor Langdon quickly emerges as much more than a static tool. His knowledge and relationships place him at an ideological intersection. While he is a close friend of Kirsch and respects Kirsch’s work, he also has a rich understanding of religious history and expresses genuine concern for the consequences of Kirsch’s discovery. It’s no coincidence that he has a deep respect for the work of Gaudí, an architect famous for his desire to reconcile the natural with the religious.
As the novel winds down, Langdon’s character seems almost to rise above the story in which it just participated, assuming a refreshing, reflective voice. It’s this reflective voice that helps the reader make sense of the novel’s surprising conclusion. In the closing chapters, his character is the one to remind us that religious traditions are valuable, that science should be respected, and that, at the end of the day, “dialogue is always more important than consensus (442).”
But even with its encouraging conclusion, Origin still leaves much to be desired. Its portrayal of religious individuals as antiquated and fanatical and its treatment of modern science as inherently atheistic remains extremely problematic. This review is, in no way, meant to endorse the book, or any other volume in Brown’s controversial canon. Yet we should rejoice that Origin ends with a call to conversation between science and religion, rather than conflict. And we can hope that some of those readers encounter the BioLogos message that scientific progress and biblical faith are not at odds.