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The Atheist and the Code: An Interview with Tim O'Neill |
Carl E. Olson | June 22, 2006
A few weeks ago, at the
end of May, I received a surprising e-mail from an Australian named Tim
O'Neill. It stated, in part:
As a medievalist, I have
been bemused and frustrated by the way Brown's novel [The Da Vinci Code] has been taken as historical fact since I first had
the displeasure of struggling through his turgid prose in late 2004.
Since then I have found myself in discussions/debates with Da Vinci fans
regarding the many and various historical errors in the novel both online and in
'real life'. In many of those online discussions I have pointed people to
online resources on the subject as well as to the small library of books on the
novel's claims. I have often recommended your
The Da Vinci Hoax and several of the online articles by yourself and
Sandra Miesel, particularly "The
'It's Just Fiction!' Doctrine: Reading Too Little Into The Da Vinci
O'Neill's site, www.HistoryvsTheDaVinciCode.com,
explains that he has had an interest in ancient and medieval history for about thirty
years. He was born in New South Wales, Australia, and grew up in the state of
Tasmania. He was awarded a B.A. from the University of Tasmania in 1989,
writing his dissertation on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He then pursued a research Master of Arts, with a
thesis on John Gower's Confessio Amantis, and was awarded that degree in 1993. He's lived in Sydney, Australia,
for the last thirteen years, where he runs an executive recruitment company
specializing in the banking and finance sectors.
Inevitably, the response
to these recommendations has often been that you and writers like you are
simply "dupes of the Vatican" (something Darrell Bock would, no
doubt, find highly amusing) and that you are simply defending your faith
because you are scared of the 'revelations about history' that the Code
supposedly makes. These people usually assume that I am a Christian as
well and are often confused when I explain that I'm an atheist.
Frustrated by this, I set out about 18 months ago
to produce an online resource which examines
the claims made in the DVC from a purely historical, religiously-neutral
perspective. This has been partly to counter the idea that only
Christians disagree with this novel's silly claims, partly to show that
religious critics like yourself make arguments which are soundly based on
historical research and partly to provide a resource that non-Christians can
regard as 'unbiased'.
He writes: "I've maintained my interest in the study of medieval history, medieval literature
and ancient history, with a particular interest in the origins of Christianity,
the formation of the Bible and the history of the early Church. I am an atheist
whose interest in religious history is purely from a historian's perspective."
After exchanging e-mails
with O'Neill, I asked him if he would be interested in an interview with
IgnatiusInsight.com. He kindly obliged.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What was your first encounter with The Da Vinci Code (DVC)? In general, what has been the reaction to
the novel and movie in Australia?
Tim O'Neill: I first saw it in a bookshop in late 2003 and picked
it up because I thought it might be an historical novel about Leonardo. A
quick scan of the blurb on the back gave me a hint as to what Brown had
actually written and, on turning to the 'FACT' page's pronouncements about the
'Priory of Sion', my suspicions were confirmed. I briefly wondered what sort
of unimaginative hack would bother writing a thriller based on Holy Blood
Holy Grail and put the book down.
Then, in the next few weeks
I found myself coming across people talking about this novel in reverent tones
and assuring me that 'You HAVE to read it!'. Some quick scouting around on the
internet turned up a few articles which made it very clear that not only was
this a rather poor novel, but it was also a lazy pastiche of Holy Blood-style pseudo history; cleverly marketed as
'factually based'. So, simply to see what the fuss was about, I gritted my
teeth, bought a copy and read it in one afternoon. And the rest, as they say,
The novel has been a huge
bestseller in Australia, where the slick marketing of Doubleday has done a
great job of getting the sales they were seeking. The movie has probably had
less of an impact, largely because Australia has a much more secular culture
than the US. There was a brief media frenzy in the lead up to the film's
release, the standard responses from the major churches and then the movie died
away, largely due to poor word-of-mouth.
There is a definite feeling
here that the only people who dislike this novel are Christians and that they
only do so because they 'feel threatened'. Many people have wondered,
therefore, why on Earth I'd bother devoting a website to the novel's claims if
I'm not a Christian. My long-suffering girlfriend refers to it as 'Tim's weird
history thing', with the heavy but affectionate implication that I am slightly
IgnatiusInsight.com: What is your
educational background? How would you describe your beliefs about theism in
general and Christianity in particular?
O'Neill: I have a Master of Arts in medieval literature from
the University of Tasmania and have maintained an interest in medieval
literature, culture and history for over twenty years. I am an atheist (of the
entirely undogmatic, fallibilistic variety), though one with a fascination with
religion in general and the origins and history of Christianity in particular.
I suppose my historical interest means I always try to view the subjects I
study with neutrality and without value judgments -- which is why I often find
myself correcting rabid anti-Christians and anti-Catholics about the
Inquisition or the supposedly 'medieval flat Earth' teachings of the Catholic
Church. I tend to dislike it when people let bigotry and ignorance obscure the
IgnatiusInsight.com: So why would
an atheist be concerned enough about The Da Vinci Code to create an entire
website devoted to refuting it?
O'Neill: Two main reasons, I suppose. The first was that,
whatever else you can say about this silly novel, I suddenly found myself at
dinner parties and so on being asked about the Council of Nicaea and the
origins of the Knights Templar. While some fans of the DVC often didn't like
what I told them about these subjects, it seems this novel had sparked a
genuine interest in them. When I began writing my website in 2004 there were
many articles and some brief information on the history behind the novel, but
they tended to leave a lot of questions unanswered. They also tended to be
from a Christian perspective and so, in some people's eyes, could be dismissed
or distrusted as 'biased'. I wanted to present a site where a person reading
the novel could check what was real and what was not without them feeling I had
a religious axe to grind.
The other reason was that I
saw Christians who objected to the novel's claims being disregarded on the
grounds that they were doing this merely because these claims challenged their
faith. But these people were using precisely the same arguments and
information that I, an atheist nonbeliever with no 'faith' at all, was using.
This struck me as entirely unfair and pricked my very Irish (over)sensitivity
IgnatiusInsight.com: What sort of
response do you get from people when they find out that although you aren't a
Christian/theist you are bothered by the Coded Craziness? Do many people simply
assume that only "conservative" or "right-wing" Christians
are annoyed by the novel and movie?
O'Neill: That seems to be the perception and many people who
haven't looked carefully at my site assume (without question) that I am a
theist and/or a Catholic. They tend to look at my site more carefully when I
point out that my site aims to be entirely neutral on religious issues.
Several people have written to me and said that mine was the first challenge to
the DVC that they had bothered to read 'because all the others are by
Christians'. The irony here, of course, is that the 'ones by Christians' make
almost precisely the same arguments as mine.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you think
that if the novel had focused on Judaism, Islam, or even, say, atheism, it
would have received so much positive attention from readers and reviewers?
O'Neill: Probably not, but I don't think this is entirely due to a cultural backlash against Catholicism or
Christianity generally. One thing I've noticed in talking to DVC fans is that,
for many of them, this is the very first time they have ever been presented
with an alternative story about Jesus in which he is a mortal and yet still
retains the attractions of wise moral and social teachings. Many of these
people seem to have had some kind of Christian upbringing and education, but
never really developed a formal, informed faith. So they've had this nebulous,
semi-realised Jesus -- part-Sunday school Christ, part-Jesus Christ Superstar hippy -- floating around in the back of their minds.
Then along comes Dan Brown
and offers them a supposedly 'historical' framework whereby they can reconcile
this vaguely holy/nice Jesus with a view of faith that holds 'organized
religions' in very low regard. Clearly this is very attractive to people who
are living in what is, in many ways, a post-Christian culture. The Jesus of the
DVC is sort of 'Jesus Lite', with a side serving of New Age 'Divine Feminine'.
It's unchallenging, preprocessed and undemanding, while also managing to be
both comfortably familiar and slightly exotic.
And then there is an
undeniably strong undercurrent of good old anti-Catholic bigotry in the novel.
Many people who have read the book seem to have some highly cartoonish ideas
about 'the Vatican' and Catholicism, and Brown's novel panders to them
perfectly. And then there are other readers who are ex-Catholics of various
varieties and who are often without fond memories of the Church. Casting the
Catholic Church as the villain, therefore, appeals to a very broad swathe of
the reading public and plays on some highly unsophisticated and rather ugly
prejudices in the process. All without fear of fatwas and car bombs.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Have you
seen the movie? If so, what did you think of it? How does it compare, in
content, to the novel?
O'Neill: Sorry, but I haven't bothered to see it. I'll wait
until it's a weekly DVD and someone else pays for it.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you know
of any historians who would take seriously the historical claims in Dan Brown's
novel? Or Brown's sources, such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail?
O'Neill: I can give you a very brief answer to this question:
In both the marketing of the
novel and in the book itself Brown manages a deceptive sleight-of-hand to
create an illusion of scholarly foundation to his claims. Throughout the novel
Langdon and Teabing keep up a slow drip feed of (vague) references to
'historians,' 'art experts', 'scholars' and 'experts' who agree with them, all
without mentioning who these people may be. It's not until Chapter 55 that
Teabing finally reveals who some of them are: Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh,
Henry Lincoln, Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince and Margaret Starbird. Any
historically literate reader would immediately recognise this as a list of
amateur conspiracists and New Age kooks, but the average reader assumes they
are real 'experts'. There is, of course, not a single scholar amongst them.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Why do you
think the novel and movie have been so popular?
O'Neill: I guess my reply above about the appeal of 'Jesus
Lite' is part of the story. Then there is the ageless appeal of feeling,
somehow, that you are 'in the know' and have had the 'real story' revealed to
you. In an age and a culture where traditional authority is mistrusted, where
many authority figures seem fake or duplicitous and where a vague
pick-and-choose, undemanding 'personal spirituality' is more attractive than
organised religions, this novel seems to have, for many people, a resonance far
beyond its clumsy prose and clichéd plot. It seems to confirm some deeply-held
misgivings that many people have about religion.
The careful packaging, slick
marketing, codes, puzzles and gobbets of art pseudo-history spice this up and
make it even more palatable, but I think it's the offering of an unthreatening
and undemanding alternative to Christianity which appeals to many in a culture
which is still 'Christ soaked' but is also religiously and historically
It's this historical
illiteracy that concerns me personally; which is why I wrote my website. I'll
respectfully leave the implications of that religious illiteracy and general
abstraction from and distrust of traditional expressions of faith to those who
are religious believers.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
You Do, Danned If You Don't | Carl E. Olson
Meeting the Real Mary Magdalene
| An Interview with Amy Welborn
What Do Christians Know?
Carl E. Olson
The "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine
Carl E. Olson
The Da Vinci Code's Sources |
Carl E. Olson
Reveals How Little He Really Knows | Sandra Miesel
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous
Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic
Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, and two children.
Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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