Dan Brown: “I Just Gravitated Away From Religion”

Today is the day Dan Brown‘s newest book The Lost Symbol comes out. (Screw brilliant prose. I can’t wait to read it.)

Brown did an interview with James Kaplan for Parade in which he discussed his religious beliefs.

To no one’s surprise, he’s not very religious. But it’s always nice to hear someone say as much in public:

Q: Are you religious?

A: I was raised Episcopalian, and I was very religious as a kid. Then, in eighth or ninth grade, I studied astronomy, cosmology, and the origins of the universe. I remember saying to a minister, “I don’t get it. I read a book that said there was an explosion known as the Big Bang, but here it says God created heaven and Earth and the animals in seven days. Which is right?” Unfortunately, the response I got was, “Nice boys don’t ask that question.” A light went off, and I said, “The Bible doesn’t make sense. Science makes much more sense to me.” And I just gravitated away from religion.

How many of us have had that same epiphany…?

Brown does admit he has a spiritual side, though:

Q: Where are you now?

A: The irony is that I’ve really come full circle. The more science I studied, the more I saw that physics becomes metaphysics and numbers become imaginary numbers. The farther you go into science, the mushier the ground gets. You start to say, “Oh, there is an order and a spiritual aspect to science.”

I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. But Brown knows as well as anyone: if you make it sound deep, people will assume it’s deep.

There is a beauty to science and math. But to coat it in spirituality just lessens their natural beauty for me.

(Thanks to Ashley for the link!)

  • Shawn

    I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. But Brown knows as well as anyone: if you make it sound deep, people will assume it’s deep.

    God of the Gaps? Only instead of invoking it at a middle school level, invoking it at a university level?

    Or maybe he’s just trying not to bite the hand that feeds him.

  • Doreen

    I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. But Brown knows as well as anyone: if you make it sound deep, people will assume it’s deep.

    There is a beauty to science and math. But to coat it in spirituality just lessens their natural beauty for me.

    I was just having a debate with a religious person where I brought this idea up. It’s of those debates that turned from trying to prove their religion wrong, to just explaining what non-theism is and how people who don’t believe in any god can be good people and lead meaningful lives.

    One argument I used was that we have the same feelings as religious people that they would term “spiritual”, but we just prefer not to use that term and our thoughts that lead us to those feelings are quite different. It’s the pantheistic side to atheism.

    I won’t bet my life Dan Brown was talking about that specifically and just used “spiritual” out of ease, but it is a possibility.

  • Chris

    With “metaphysics” and “complex numbers” he is likely talking about quantum theory. Unfortunately, so few of us in science get it, and Truesdell put it so eloquently:

    A theory is a mathematical model for an aspect of nature. One good theory extracts and exaggerates some facets of the truth. Another good theory may idealize other facets. A theory cannot duplicate nature, for if it did so in all respects, it would be isomorphic to nature itself and hence useless, a mere repetition of all the complexity which nature presents to us, that very complexity we frame theories to penetrate and set aside.

    People try to use quantum theory outside of its domain and are forced to make quite ridiculous statements. For too many people (really, one is too many) quantum theory is a dogma and for them it’s obviously true because it’s “science”.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    There will always be aspects of reality that will lie forever outside the ability of our “monkey brains” to comprehend. To assume that the human species is capable of understanding EVERYTHING is quite arrogant. Mature scientists probe the unknown to add to our knowledge base while having the humility to admit that the job will never be all the way completed and there will always be gaps. The more we learn, the more gaps we will find. This will always be the case. The rational mind will just accept it and learn to live with the knowledge that at some point, we have to say “I don’t know”. The religious mind will point to the gaps and posit supernatural deities, invent religions, and craft scriptures to help perpetuate the god meme from generation to generation. It all comes down to how you deal with the unknown.

  • Christophe Thill

    There’s nothing mystical about imaginary numbers. For a mathematicians, they’re just as real as real numbers… And “complex” numbers are actually not complicated. It’s a shame that this kind of loaded term was chosen long ago.

  • http://anti-mattr.blogspot.com/ mathyoo

    I often use “spiritual” out of ease, because I haven’t found a better word. I’m always careful to define it, though. To me, it’s about developing an intimate connection with the world around me. Sounds a bit woo-ish, but it’s difficult to find the right terminology. It involves being active and engaged as a husband and father, trying to live “in the moment” rather than dwelling on the past or living in anticipation of the future. To me, embracing science is a form of the “spiritualism” I’m talking about-understanding the wonder and beauty of nature and the natural processes that form our universe.

    This post at rhetoric sans pariel says it much more eloquently than I:

    http://rhetoricsanspareil.wordpress.com/2008/11/13/the-emotional-impact-of-my-atheism/

  • dersk

    Even his non-religious books are absolute crap. I remember getting to about ten pages from the end of Digital Fortress and just throwing it across the room because it was so badly written – and had so many technical errors, despite him writing in the foreword that he’d gotten such great information from the NSA.

    Go read Foucault’s Pendulum (with a climax in a museum of science and technology!) or some Scott Turow for better thrillers.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Brown’s new novel concerns Freemasonry, so it is worth noting that the Masons share a selective form of religious bigotry with the Boy Scouts, the American Legion, and other organizations:
    Freemasons await Dan Brown novel `The Lost Symbol’

    Masons are praised for their religious tolerance

    Brown told The Associated Press during a recent interview. “In the most fundamental terms, with different cultures killing each other over whose version of God is correct, here is a worldwide organization that essentially says, `We don’t care what you call God, or what you think about God, only that you believe in a god and let’s all stand together as brothers and look in the same direction.’

    The Masons, Crociata and others emphasize, are not a political or religious organization. No theology beyond the belief in a divine being is required

    I think you should do a full post on this topic.

  • Deanna

    Thanks, Hemant. I read the same Parade interview and when I got to Brown’s “full circle” comment, I thought, “what the heck does that mean?”. Talk about circular logic. I wonder if Dan Brown is just hedging his bets with his book audience, being vague enough to not piss off his Christian fan base. Do you know of any widely popular openly atheist fiction novelists? I mean, if the “Creation” museum can’t even get a US distribution, is it any wonder than Dan Brown won’t flat out state something?

    Plus, it’s Parade magazine. Its audience skews older in demographics. Truly, how many people in their mid-20s and younger buy the Sunday paper, and then read “Parade”? Most people under 30 who read “Parade” magazine are visiting relatives, with not much reading material.

  • http://bornagainblog.wordpress.com justin

    I’m with mathyoo above. Except I like using the word “spiritual” because it creates a common ground from which lots of meaningful conversations can spring. Not using that word out of a preference for a less woo-based word doesn’t really help anything, does it?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    justin: Not using that word out of a preference for a less woo-based word doesn’t really help anything, does it?

    Yes it does, it helps clarity. “Spiritual” is ambiguous, as sometimes it is used to include notions of the supernatural and sometimes it isn’t. Most of the usage of “spiritual” with which I could agree can be covered by a more specific word, such as “emotional.”

    If you do not value clarity in communication, then perhaps the advantage will be lost on you.

  • Mike Ashe

    Change “spiritual” to “sense of wonder” in Dan Brown’s quote, and it makes perfect sense to most scientific non-theists.

  • Aj

    Some people use “spiritual” just to mean provoking awe or wonder, or something mysterious. “Spiritual” is such a poorly defined word. For instance “I’m spiritual not religious” means “I’m superstitious and credulous like religious people but distrustful of mainstream authority and established order”.

    I read part of the Da Vinci Code, and I haven’t come across such bad writing for adults before or since. I’m not a good writer, I’m not even that brilliant a reader, so if I find something to be that awful it must be pretty bad. I saw a “documentary” on the Da Vinci Code and it was pathetic. Dan Brown was interviewed and he was saying a lot of crap about the historical accuracy of his novel. Stephen Colbert’s portrayal of the “logic” used to make “connections” is actually not too exagerated.

    Someone who had read Angels and Demons told me about about the computer related content and it was so confused it was meaningless to me. Some science blogs I read took apart Angels and Demons for the “science” in it, which from my viewing of the trailer is actually the only redeeming factor I could see, it’s unintentionally hilarious.

    It’s much like the problem with Derren Brown or Medium, as entertainment it’s not so much different to most other entertainment but the way it’s delivered encourages the credulous into believing falsehoods.

  • False Prophet

    “Spirit” also has non-supernatural connotations: we can try to emphasize those definitions when bandying the word about.

    @dersk,

    Even his non-religious books are absolute crap. I remember getting to about ten pages from the end of Digital Fortress and just throwing it across the room because it was so badly written – and had so many technical errors, despite him writing in the foreword that he’d gotten such great information from the NSA.

    I was actually offended by Digital Fortress: the NSA are noble guardians of truth while the EFF (full disclosure, I’m an EFF donor) are irresponsible pirates and terrorists? Also, Digital Fortress had pretty much the same plot structure as Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. I made a prediction of Lost Symbol’s plot back in April; I’m curious to see how accurate I was.

    Oh, and this gets my vote for Tweet of the day:

    RT @ELDING In a brilliant move to reclaim his Catholic audience, #DanBrown’s new book claims Martin Luther was really a Nazi cross-dressing gay Muslim.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Jeff:

    There will always be aspects of reality that will lie forever outside the ability of our “monkey brains” to comprehend. To assume that the human species is capable of understanding EVERYTHING is quite arrogant. Mature scientists probe the unknown to add to our knowledge base while having the humility to admit that the job will never be all the way completed and there will always be gaps. The more we learn, the more gaps we will find. This will always be the case. The rational mind will just accept it and learn to live with the knowledge that at some point, we have to say “I don’t know”.

    That’s a hell of an assertion, to say with absolute certainty that we can’t and won’t ever know everything.

    And when did “arrogant” come to mean “wrong”?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    That’s a hell of an assertion, to say with absolute certainty that we can’t and won’t ever know everything.

    A finite mind will not be able to completely understand an infinite reality. There is no getting around that. One has to form simplified models of reality. Religion offers bad models. Science offers good (and improving) models. All I’m saying is that the map will never be the territory.

    One can be arrogant and right and also arrogant and wrong.

  • Erp

    The Freemasons are somewhat different from the Boy Scouts (of America) in that belief in the Great Architect is a central part of their rituals. For most atheists joining them would be a bit like a vegetarian joining a dining club that has meat in all its dishes. Also the American Legion doesn’t prohibit atheists; the Veterans of Foreign Wars use to but changed their policy back in 2004.

    BTW there are Freemasonry groups that do allow atheists (and women).

  • Colin

    So, this is his argument:

    I originally was told it was impossible to find the square root of a negative number.

    But, then I learned about imaginary numbers, and know that the square root of -4 is 2i.

    Therefore, god exists!

    Interesting post though. I’ve managed to keep my distance from the Dan Brown phenomenon – I had always assumed that there was some underlying religious message in the books. But maybe he’s more of a fellow traveler than I originally though.

  • DSimon

    A finite mind will not be able to completely understand an infinite reality.

    (a) What’s your reason for thinking that reality is infinite? I’m not saying it can’t be, I’m just saying it’s not a given.

    (b) Just because something is infinite doesn’t mean that it requires an infinitely large mind to describe or understand.

    For example, if I somehow had an infinitely long strip of paper which just repeated the letter “a” over and over again along its entire length forever, it would be entirely possible to understand and describe it completely it with only a finite mind; all I’d need to do is completely describe the first discrete non-repeating section (in this case, the first letter “a”), and finish up by saying “… and it just keeps on going forever”.

    Similarly, even though pi is infinitely long when expressed as a decimal number, it can be described and understood in a finite way: it is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, full stop.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    @DSimon

    You picked some very special cases (pi and a simple repeating entity). Just to take a simple case, what about all the irrational numbers between .0001 and .0002. It can be proven that there are an infinite number of irrational numbers between these two rational numbers. I challenge anyone to list them all or even to come up with a non-random algorithm for approximating even one of them to a desired length that is not a ratio involving another known irrational number. The best you could do is just come up with random numbers between those values but with no knowledge about what irrational number they approximate.

    You may argue that math is just “in the mind” and reality may be discrete and finite. Well, even if that is the case, I doubt that the finite circuitry in our brains can encode for the finite relations of the real world that are orders and orders of magnitude larger and more interconnected.

    My point is that it is a false dichotomy to say either we (atheists) can explain everything or there is a God. Religious people like to present that strawman. Don’t play into it.

  • Siamang

    Jeff,

    You don’t have to even argue infinites to make your case.

    The universe has a greater number of atoms than our brains.

    Therefore no individual, nor even the collective knowledge of all human beings, whether encoded in wetware or hardware or software, can come close to an exhaustive knowledge of the entire universe. The universe itself is the only complete model of the universe that fits comfortably in the universe. And it’s an efficient storage tool as well! Every particle’s velocity, charge and spin is modeled accurately by one particle! “Try THAT, human brain!”

    To reformulate your statement

    “A finite mind will not be able to completely understand an infinite reality.”

    How about this: “A finite mind will never be able to completely understand a reality that is larger than the mind itself.”

  • http://keenabean.blogspot.com Kaleena

    Hehe!! I added his new book to my hold list at the library a few days ago. It might take a while since I’m number 653 on the hold list…

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Erp: “Also the American Legion doesn’t prohibit atheists

    Has this always been the case? When they were chartered in 1919, their preamble began with the phrase For God and Country

  • http://www.cstdbill.com/ Bill

    Brown: “…numbers become imaginary numbers.”

    Oh, please! I remember a bit from an Azimov essay in which he told about arguing with a math teacher who had claimed that i was “unreal” in the everyday sense. Azimov argued that i was just as “real” as 1/2 and challenged the teacher to give him half a piece of chalk. The teacher broke a piece of chalk in two and handed Azimov one of the two pieces. 8-)

    Hemant: “There is a beauty to science and math. But to coat it in spirituality just lessens their natural beauty for me.”

    eiπ + 1 = 0 … Wow! What are arguably the five most important numbers in the universe are all related in a single equation. Just wow! That there exists a proof, which makes it something I can actually know, is more wow, not less! (*sheesh*)

  • DSimon

    Jeff, I picked those specific examples because it was easy to demonstrate how to compress that information. The same techniques are applicable to more complicated information as well, although not all information is compressible.

    I doubt that the finite circuitry in our brains can encode for the finite relations of the real world that are orders and orders of magnitude larger and more interconnected.

    I totally agree with this! But, it’s way different from what you were saying before. Maybe our own universe is like pi or the infinite sheet of “a”, but nobody has found the algorithm yet.

    Suppose the universe can be represented as an algorithm consisting of a complete, deterministic theory of physics and the initial state of the universe pre-Big-Bang. If both those things are compressible small enough to fit in our minds, then we could potentially understand the whole universe, right?

    My point is that it is a false dichotomy to say either we (atheists) can explain everything or there is a God. Religious people like to present that strawman. Don’t play into it.

    I agree with this, too. But, I don’t see what this has to do with your original statement. Whether or not we’re theoretically capable of understanding the entire universe, nobody is saying that we currently do or are even close.

    The strawman argument is “Atheists think that they understand everything.” The proper response is “Nah, not yet, but we’re working on it.” :-)

  • http://www.cstdbill.com/ Bill

    No, I did not write “eiπ + 1 = 0”; my <sup></sup> tags got lost in the posting (although they worked OK in the preview…curious). Anyway, it’s e to the power of (i times pi).

  • Richard Wade

    The farther you go into science, the mushier the ground gets. You start to say, “Oh, there is an order and a spiritual aspect to science.”

    So mushy = spiritual.

    Yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty good definition of “spiritual.”

    So people should say, “I’m not religious, but I am mushy.”

    Or, “People will always have mushy needs.”

    Or, “Science will never be able to fully delve into the depths of mush.”

    If the ground feels mushy under your feet, you’re either stepping into quicksand or bullshit. Better backtrack onto dry, hard earth, and clean off your shoes.

    Unless of course you want to sell more books. Mushiness has always sold more books than solidity.

  • muggle

    ” Do you know of any widely popular openly atheist fiction novelists?” How about Twain? Rand? I’m sure if I cared enough to, I could dig up some more.

    And, frankly, I don’t buy Dan Brown is. Not really. Da Vince Code! Gimme a break. (Disclaimer, I haven’t read it. But you can’t escape hearing enough about the nonsense. Unless you are living under a rock.)

    Spirtual? Bah, humbug! We’re just talking about emotion. I’m not spirtual when I’m moved. I’m passionate. About things. About life itself. I love life. But that’s purely emotion.

    Obviously, it serves a logical purpose. If I love life, I’m more apt to preserve it than destroy it. Evolution rocks!

  • http://www.bluefrogdesignstudios.com/thebluefrogsays/ The Big Blue Frog

    I think it’s one of the reasons why so many of us continue to study religion even after we “lose faith.” The more we learn about religion, the more we “gravitate away” from it.

    Also, I think there’s something satisfying about studying religion and the supernatural from an objective point of view. I realized I was an atheist when I was in High School, but I’ve continued to study religion and other mystical subjects, including divination, various religious scriptures and the same secret societies that Dan Brown writes about. I read about them, not because I share their beliefs, but because the sway that they hold over people and the influence they’ve had on our culture and society is both pervasive and fascinating.

    I’m not a fan of what little Dan Brown I’ve read, but I have thoroughly enjoyed Umberto Eco, who deals with the same concepts but with much more literary skill.

  • ChameleonDave

    For instance “I’m spiritual not religious” means “I’m superstitious and credulous like religious people but distrustful of mainstream authority and established order”.

    Quoted for truth.

  • Heidi

    I read part of the Da Vinci Code, and I haven’t come across such bad writing for adults before or since.

    I read the whole thing. You didn’t miss much. I actually kind of like the way his writing flows. It’s not clunky; it’s just empty. Like trying to eat air for dinner.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Personally, I will be thrilled to read any novels penned by any of the Dan Brown critics here before I ever read another Dan Brown book. But until any such novels are written by said critics, I might spend a couple of days and read his new one. I read his books knowing full well that he will take literary liberties with the facts for sake of creating a story line.


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