According to Dan Brown, God's days are numbered. If proof is required, says the megaselling novelist, all one has to do is look back at the world's bygone deities. "It's my belief that if you look at the historical timeline," he says, "it's naive for us to think that our current gods will survive."
He runs through a list of once-mighty almightys and the moment they lost their influence. Thor, the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder and lightning? "Science figures out, 'Oh, wait a minute, that's just static electricity in the atmosphere,' and Thor is banished. Same with Poseidon and the tides – all of the gods in the ancient pantheons fall to science, mainly because the questions that these gods answered were answered by science."
Such provocations should come as no surprise, really; Brown has been a thorn in the side of organized religion – and, specifically, the Catholic Church – ever since his novel The Da Vinci Code, which turned the search for the Holy Grail and Jesus Christ's possible descendants into an over-the-top, can't-put-it-down conspiracy-laden thriller, was published in 2003. It became one of the bestselling novels of all time, with tens of millions of readers taking as gospel the every word of "Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconography" Robert Langdon, while critics attacked Brown's book as historically inaccurate, or blasphemous, or just not very good.
His new novel, Origin, which will be published around the world on Tuesday, will probably satisfy those same readers who adore Brown's work, and will most likely annoy the non-believers who still can't understand why he's one of the world's most popular authors.
"Anybody who reads this book is going to know exactly how I feel," says Brown, 53, on the phone from his home in New Hampshire. He describes the novel as "quite aggressive" and "very frank and candid. There aren't a lot of holds that are barred. It points fingers and names names."
The first name the reader encounters belongs to that of American inventor and futurist Edmond Kirsch – think Elon Musk meets Ray Kurzweil – who, at the novel's outset is meeting with leaders from three of the world's major religions at a mountaintop sanctuary in Catalonia.
He has called them all together to inform them of a discovery he's planning to announce in the coming days – one that, in his words, "will affect the world's faithful in a profound way."
He's underselling the discovery, of course; this isn't a sneak preview but an advance warning. He has found the answers to two questions that humans have spent centuries pondering: Where do we come from, and where are we going? What he has uncovered, he thinks, will "shatter" the foundations of modern religion, and possibly bring about its end.
Of course, this can't be allowed to happen. And so, just as Kirsch is on the verge of making this announcement – at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, no less, where he has gathered a group of the world's elite together, and is broadcasting his presentation to millions around the world – he is assassinated by a lone gunman.
Among those in the audience is Kirsch's former professor and old friend, Robert Langdon who, aided by the Guggenheim's director, Ambra Vidal (who, as it happens, is engaged to the future king of Spain), spends the novel attempting to uncover, and then share, Kirsch's grand discovery, a quest that takes readers from the crypt of Barcelona's Sagrada Familia to the inner-chambers of Spain's royal palaces. The pair are hunted and hindered by foils ranging from an elderly bishop in cahoots with Spain's royal family, to a shadowy figure named "The Regent," to emissaries from the Palmarian Catholic Church, to an assassin haunted by the murder of his pregnant wife and son years earlier.
While Origin is the fifth Robert Langdon novel (the first, Angels & Demons, was actually published in 2000; after The Da Vinci Code came 2009's The Lost Symbol and 2013's Inferno), in some ways it resembles one of Brown's standalone novels, 2001's Deception Point, which concerns another potentially earth-shaking revelation that will have serious political and religious ramifications – the (possible) discovery of extraterresterial life. In Origin, however, it's the creation story – a bedrock of organized religion – that Kirsch (and Brown) has in his sights.
"Every single religion has a creation story," Brown says. For him, "one of the big struggles of my childhood was over Adam and Eve and evolution. I went to Sunday school and learned about Adam and Eve, and then went to the Boston Museum of Science and learned about evolution." Brown's own origin story has been repeated countless times over the years: his mother was a devout Christian, playing organ in her church, while his father was a math teacher; the tension between these two worlds has coloured much of his life's work. "I grew up with two different stories, so at the fundamental level this is something I've been trying to figure out for a long time."
In the end, there's little doubt which story he ended up believing.
"I can say Adam and Eve is a morality tale," he says. "It's a myth, and it's a beautiful story that I can learn from. But the fact that, in my country, we have congressmen who will stand up and say the Earth is 6,000 years old, and the fossil record was put there to test our faith and, by the way, Adam and Eve really did populate the entire planet." He breaks into a laugh. "That's where I think religion doesn't do itself any favours. Because a religion that proclaims that fable as absolute fact alienates anybody who wants to embrace the powers of science.
"There will come a day when the Bible is read much like those ancient fables," he continues, though he isn't prepared to say when that day will come. "I'll just say this: Futurists are divided on what tomorrow will look like, but they all agree that tomorrow will be here much faster than we think. That the power of technological advance is exponential, especially now with burgeoning artificial intelligence. We are evolving, intellectually, at a very, very fast rate."
It's this rapid technological advancement, and its effect on our lives, that provides another thread with which Brown weaves the novel together. For there are two questions that Kirsch asks; not just where do we come from, but where we are going. And where we are going is a world that will make the present-day look like the Stone Age. Langdon and Vidal are assisted, for instance, by one of Kirsch's many inventions – a hyper-intelligent AI named Winston (imagine J.A.R.V.I.S. from Iron Man, complete with a chipper British accent). In Origin, the dangers of technology run amok is just as worrisome as religion is problematic.
"Clearly there are enormous dangers," Brown says. "Humankind has never created a technology that it has not weaponized. You can't find one. The wheel is on a fighter jet. Fire – we realized it cooked our food, but we also realized we could burn down the neighbouring village with it. … No technology will be different. Look at computing technology – we have very quickly learned how to use it to kill each other. That's a given, that these new technologies will have a dark side."
That said, he is far from pessimistic when it comes to tomorrow.
"I'm very optimistic about the future," he says, before adding an addendum: "Which I realize sounds naive in the current climate."