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The Atheist and the Code: An Interview with Tim O'Neill | Carl E. Olson | June 22, 2006

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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 Code".

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'.
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.

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, is history.

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 insane.

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 historical facts.

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 to injustice.

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: No.

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 illiterate.

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:

Danned If 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
Dan Brown 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 of Will 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.



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