I recently had an opportunity to see The Da Vinci Code, the movie based on Dan Brown’s novel that alleges a sensational plot by the Catholic church to cover up the truth about the origins of Christianity.
First things first: Yes, I did enjoy the movie, and I do recommend it. Without a doubt, its plot mixes historical fact, speculation and pure fantasy in a slipshod way, and anyone who believes events literally happened that way is taking it far too seriously and giving it credibility that it does not deserve. (To be fair, I think the same thing about Christianity.) However, when viewed as the work of fiction it is, it is well worth seeing. Its plot is coherent and fast-paced, not at all boring, and the filmmakers manage to keep up a sense of portentous dread with every new revelation. I do not know why the reviews have been as heavily negative as they were; perhaps the reviewers were piqued at not being granted advance screenings.
However, a few poor reviews are nothing next to the worldwide protests, boycotts and censorship the movie has attracted. The Catholic church has urged a boycott, imploring its members not to read the book or see the movie; one Vatican archbishop deplored the fact that the book’s “lies” remain “unpunished“. Lebanon and Pakistan have banned the film altogether, as have parts of the Philippines and India. Even communist China banned it, after a brief but successful run in that nation. (Evidently the state-run church wants to show lay Catholics that it can be just as paranoid and censorship-happy as the Vatican.) Other countries have demanded that certain parts of the film be cut or that disclaimers be added stating that it is a work of fiction. Fortunately, in the United States our strong guarantees on freedom of speech prevented religious authorities from censoring the movie, although some individual theater owners made a game effort:
Speaking of the South and that strong literalist view, The Smoky Mountain Cinema — Waynesville’s only theater — will not now or ever show “The Da Vinci Code.” A recorded message explains: “A lot of people have been asking us when we’re going to be playing ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ The answer to that is never. No way. No how. The reason? We feel that this movie mocks God. We feel that this movie calls the Bible a book of lies…. To this movie we say ‘kiss my grits.’ Hollywood, you’ve gone too far on this one for this Southern Baptist boy.”
—Dave Russell, “Russell checks in on old friends, Gallup polls and ‘The Da Vinci Code’ again“, from the Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times, 24 May 2006
Why this fearful reaction? The movie’s popularity (it has now exceeded Passion of the Christ in worldwide gross) is part of it, but that would not explain anything unless some churches already sensed a threat.
The explanation, I believe, is that The Da Vinci Code presents a competing narrative, one that seeks to explain the events at the origin of Christianity in a different way. This, more than anything else, is what the churches fear. As a general rule, I find that Christian religious leaders are not afraid of rational arguments against their faith, because most believers’ minds are not structured or encouraged to think that way. Our society does not value critical thinking and skepticism highly, but rather steadfast faith and decisions based on emotion. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that rational arguments against Christianity or any other religion have made relatively little headway.
On the other hand, what can and does flourish in such an environment is another story, one that appeals to people on the same emotional level as Christianity and taps the same feelings: the emotional appeal of the triumphant underdog, the sense of being part of something greater than oneself, the idea of great and sacred mysteries that will be revealed to the initiate. The Da Vinci Code competes with Christianity on its own turf, so to speak, and so it is no wonder the churches fear it as they do.
Even more so, these Christian groups do not just fear an alternative story; they fear an alternative story that turns one of their most effective and insidious tactics against them. It has always been part of Christianity that those who believe differently are not just seekers on a different path to God, or sincere but misguided souls, but rather agents of evil trying to hide the truth and trick the believer into straying from the true path. This belief is strongest in cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who view everyone and everything outside the Watchtower as under demonic sway, but appears to some degree in every Christian sect. It is little wonder that this tactic has proven effective: by convincing believers that any deviation from the party line is a Satanic deception, churches arm their flock in advance with a powerful reason to ignore external criticism regardless of its content.
The Da Vinci Code uses the same tactic, but reverses it: it portrays the secret cult of Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail as the virtuous insiders who possess the real truth, and the Catholic church and orthodox Christianity in general as the villains who are out to suppress that knowledge and must not be believed. Again, it is no wonder that churches fear this. When believers are not taught how to reason logically or critically analyze evidence, one delusion will look as good as another, and the only way to ensure their allegiance is by inculcating a strong a priori allegiance to one belief that will cause them to dismiss all others (which is why the holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain verses strongly proclaiming that theirs is the last ever revelation from God and no other gospel should be believed). When a religious meme enters the mind through the loophole created by a lack of critical thinking skills, it naturally tries to seal that gap behind itself so that no other can enter the same way and oust it. (Some computer viruses do the same thing.) But that gap can never be entirely closed. There is always the possibility that another meme will gain entrance the same way, and that is what we are now seeing.
In the long run, will The Da Vinci Code be a good thing for atheism? Certainly, to the extent it fosters competing views on the origin of Christianity and weakens the influence of rigid, unbending faith on society, it will help our cause. But in the long run, it is not solving the basic problem of faith being used as a basis for decision-making, only adding another alternative to the multiplicity of faith systems already in existence. What we really need is a movie that draws on the same narrative themes to teach the virtues of skepticism and the value of decision-making based on evidence.