Monday, May 11, 2009

Myth and Fact in Angels and Demons

Film critic Stephen Graydamus dispatches several of the numerous historical inaccuracies in Dan Brown's Angels & Demons:

The historical Illuminati was was not founded in the 1500s, and its membership did not include Copernicus, Galileo or Bernini, all of whom died long before the Illuminati existed (in Copernicus’s case, well over two centuries; in Bernini’s, nearly a century).

The Illuminati was an Enlightenment-era secret society. It was founded in the late eighteenth century, in 1776, the same year as the founding of the United States. Its members were politically minded freethinkers with no particular interest in science.

Although the Illuminati were not friendly toward religion, there were no “vows of revenge” against the Church for “crimes against scientists like Galileo and Copernicus.” On the contrary, one would be hard pressed to come up with any evidence of any ecclesiastical “crimes” committed against Copernicus, and while the Galileo affair is certainly a black mark on church history, his fate (lifelong house arrest) was not the sort of outrage that tends to inspire murderous vows of revenge centuries after the fact.

Copernicus was never at odds with Church authority. A cleric and bishop’s nephew, Copernicus published his six-volume work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres at the urging of the Cardinal Archbishop of Capua, Nikolaus von Schönberg, and dedicated the work to Pope Paul III. Years earlier, Copernicus was invited to advise the Lateran Council, invoked by Leo X, regarding reworking the calendar, and his work informed the Church’s eventual reformation of the calendar. Although his writings proved controversial for a time after his death, the controversy centered on a few passages and isolated words.

Copernicus died at the age of 70, of a stroke. The claim that he was “murdered by the church for revealing scientific truths” is sheer fiction, even libel.

If the larger picture of the Catholic Church’s opposition to science and systematic persecuting scientists like Copernicus — the meta-narrative around which Angels & Demons is constructed — is almost completely without reality, it is also not a mere “product of the author’s imagination.” Just as The Da Vinci Code’s reading of history is drawn from sources like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Angels & Demons exploits a misconception with long roots in American anti-Catholicism: a kind of anti-Catholic master myth celebrated in books like Charles Chiniquy’s 1886 diatribe Fifty Years in the Church of Rome.

Chiniquy’s nineteeth-century polemic claims that Blaise Pascal as well as Copernicus was excommunicated, while Galileo was publicly flogged and sent to a dungeon. None of this is true (Pascal may have had heretical leanings, but never faced excommunication, while Galileo suffered nothing worse than house arrest, and was never flogged, tortured or imprisoned in a dungeon). Nevertheless, even today the picture of the Church systematically persecuting and executing scientists is popularly perceived as having some basis in history.

Read the rest here.

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