Angels and Demons:
A Study in Science versus Religion
By Ken Stevens
I recently previewed the new cinematic release of Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” at a local movie theatre. While it is indeed a fast-paced thrill ride and entertaining in a somewhat mindless way, “Angels and Demons” is a highly improbable sequel account of the 2003 fabrication, “The Da Vinci Code.” Less offensive than its predecessor, in “Angels and Demons,” Christ’s divinity is never questioned. The visuals and cinematography are really majestic throughout, and in spite of the film’s implausibility, it’s never a dull ride. It is, in fact, an intense movie, focusing on the actions of the Illuminati, a heinous organization that plants an antimatter bomb somewhere in Vatican City, which threatens to annihilate a conclave of cardinals and countless others who are meeting to elect the papal successor. The secret organization begins to torture and kill four kidnapped cardinals in a pattern of grotesque executions every hour on the hour until the bomb is expected to detonate in a horrendous coup de grace at the stroke of midnight.
While a fictionalized account, the script is filled with a dizzying array of complex details about the centuries-old conflict between the Church and the Illuminati, a cult of anti-Catholic intellectuals (whose members reputedly included Galileo, Michelangelo, and Bernini), who are hell-bent on revenge for age-old church perceptions that are anti-science. Tom Hanks reprises his role as a Harvard academic, avowed atheist, and symbologist, and is immediately summoned to decipher the secret codes that could stop the llumanati's madness before all hell breaks loose with release of the bomb.
In large measure, this is a study in the ongoing conflict of science versus religion. In actual fact, history records that the real-life Illuminati was a short-lived secret brotherhood of 18th century “enlightened” thinkers who rejected the church’s proclamation of revealed truth. Both book and movie insinuate the churches’ supposed opposition to all forms of scientific progress, and the church is portrayed as historically opposed to scientific research. But in actuality, the church revisits only those scientific practices that offend the dignity of the human person, and generally only by peaceful means.
The movie does beg a number of questions we can ask ourselves. Over the centuries, how has the Church has been able to relate to modern scientific endeavors? Is it possible that the church in fact played a part in actually encouraging scientific inquiry in the course of history? Through the centuries, there have been countless church members committed to the religion-science dialogue and to a partnership for theologians and scientists where critical issues in science vs. religion can be addressed and resolved. The sincere efforts of many have focused on deepening the dialogue between religious scholars and scientists and to teach all faithful church members about the compatibility of science and religion on many fronts.
A 2007 article on “God, Science, and Religion,” in The Hellenic Voice by Fr. Stanley Harakas, a retired priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, who taught Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts for 30 years, suggests that,
“...the Eastern Orthodox Christian must realize that the scientific effort is constantly changing. Previous views are corrected, revised, updated and more deeply understood. The Eastern Christian perspective acknowledges that and respects it. But Science is out of its method when it seeks other kinds of meaning. People who turn science into philosophy or even into religion, as some try to do, not only confuse and distort science, they do it a disservice. When science describes the world as it is, it fulfills its goal. When technology uses science to improve human life, it accomplishes its mission. When both seek to become sources of revelation themselves, they corrupt themselves and their methods, and those who do it betray their disciplines.”
In the final analysis, no one except God is omniscient. Therefore, there will always be new conflicts to be discussed and resolved between scientists and theologians and interpreted with a view towards God’s perspective and based on our limited knowledge of the changing world of scientific discovery as we know it.
I am happy to report that the closing scene in “Angels and Demons” presents a positive portrayal of the Church, and actually sets forth an affirmative note from a faith perspective. And in the same scene, the new Pope (this tidbit doesn’t give away the real “surprise” of the movie) takes the name of “Luke” for the first time in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. As a proud member of St. Luke OCA, I found that concluding note perhaps somewhat optimistic for the movie’s final scene.