Is Ross Douthat Living in Dan Brown’s America?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 19, 2009 — 9 Comments

I’m not a fan of Dan Brown’s writing. I think he’s something of a hack, who lucked out by stumbling onto a deep yearning to embrace the divine feminine. The films, thanks partly to director Ron Howard, are far more entertaining, excising much of the tiresome lecturing masquerading as prose in Brown’s novels. One of my only real pleasures in considering the influence of Brown’s career is how he seems to make conservative Catholics (and quite a few conservative Protestants) spend countless hours debunking a popular fiction writer. Enter conservative (Catholic) columnist Ross Douthat, who in his zeal to slam the co-existence of Jesus with Brown’s various New Age/heretical theories does his own sloppy research.

“Brown’s … depiction of the Roman Church’s past constitutes a greatest hits of anti-Catholicism, with slurs invented by 19th-century Protestants jostling for space alongside libels fabricated by 20th-century Wiccans. (If he targeted Judaism or Islam this way, one suspects that no publisher would touch him.) … In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.”

Wiccan-fabricated libels? Oh! You mean the “Burning Times”, right? The old “nine million witches” killed thing. Funny thing about that, it wasn’t a libel fabricated by Wiccans, it was an estimate by an 18th century German scholar which was then propogated (in part) by a 20th century British anthropologist. While some debunking of that estimate already existed in academic circles, it was hardly common reading at the time it was picked up by feminists and early Wiccans (the 1960s and 1970s). In the last twenty years, as the number was successfully reevaluated, modern Paganism has mostly dropped that meme, and those who don’t are often criticiszed within the modern Pagan community. Even Charlotte Allen, who wrote the critical piece from 2001 that Douthat links to, admits that Wiccans and Pagans have mostly moved on from “The Burning Times”.

“Generally speaking, though, Wiccans appear to be accommodating themselves to much of the emerging evidence concerning their antecedents: for example, they are coming to view their ancient provenance as inspiring legend rather than hard-and-fast history. By the end of the 1990s, with the appearance of Davis’s book and then of Hutton’s, many Wiccans had begun referring to their story as a myth of origin, not a history of survival.”

Funny that Douthat, in his zeal to discredit Brown, engages in the very act of libel he seems to disdain. It’s also interesting that he remarks on the fact that Brown wouldn’t write about Judaism in the same manner he writes about Catholicism, since the Catholic Church recently dealt with a scandal regarding their lifting an excommunication from a traditionalist Catholic Bishop who endorsed the the ultimate anti-Judaism tact “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Glass houses and all that, right? In any case, all this talk about libel and blasphemy is really just a front. What Douthat is really upset about is the fact that we’re entering a post-Christian society where Catholic teachings aren’t given the same deference they once were, and “spiritual but not religious” types are increasingly on the rise.

“The polls that show more Americans abandoning organized religion don’t suggest a dramatic uptick in atheism: They reveal the growth of do-it-yourself spirituality, with traditional religion’s dogmas and moral requirements shorn away. The same trend is at work within organized faiths as well … These are Dan Brown’s kind of readers. Piggybacking on the fascination with lost gospels and alternative Christianities, he serves up a Jesus who’s a thoroughly modern sort of messiah — sexy, worldly, and Goddess-worshiping, with a wife and kids, a house in the Galilean suburbs, and no delusions about his own divinity. But the success of this message — which also shows up in the work of Brown’s many thriller-writing imitators — can’t be separated from its dishonesty.”

This is a man who is truly and deeply upset by the fact that he’s living in “Dan Brown’s America”. But I would postulate that he placed himself there. Heresy and eclecticism are the price of freedom, they have always existed and they always will. The vast majority of Americans are still Christian, and Catholics make up a whopping 24% of American adherents. What has changed is that the Catholic church, or any church for that matter, no longer has the power to silence heretics, ruin careers, or ban books. As for Brown’s warmed-over conspiracy theories, I agree with Matthew Yglesias who points out that the Catholic church is custom-made for a good conspiracy-themed fictional yarn.

“You could target Judaism or Islam for criticism in a book, but you simply couldn’t target Judaism or Islam “this way.” The Catholic Church has a centralized bureaucracy and an institutional continuity lasting over a thousand years. That’s good fodder for conspiracy theories. Other religions aren’t organized this way. Protocols of the Elders of Zion had to postulate not only a conspiracy, but the elders themselves, since you can’t have a conspiracy without conspirators.”

There is a very good chance that the Catholic Church was nothing more than a good vehicle for a conspiracy-laden tale that would transmit Brown’s feel-good divine feminine message. By writing one more angry editorial, Douthat not only proves that he’s living in Dan Brown’s America (and hating it), but that he’s willing to be a part of his promotional machinery (cast as the villain, of course).

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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