On September 15, 2009, THE LOST SYMBOL came off press. Fans of THE DA VINCI CODE, with more than 80 million copies in print perhaps the bestselling novel of all time, were thrilled--they had been waiting for Dan Brown to write another book for six years. Random House, B&N, and Amazon were delighted; they moved more than a million copies in twenty four hours and another million copies by the end of the week; two months later, it still sits high atop the bestseller lists.
The Masons breathed a sigh of relief, because, even if Brown had sensationalized their secret rites and made them look a little silly (drinking wine out of skulls and all that--which come to think of it, is a lot less demeaning than donning fezzes and driving miniature cars in parades, which members of the Masonic fraternity called the Ancient Arab Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, better known as the Shriners, do right out in public), he portrayed them as men of reason, and implied that their ranks are still as crowded with the powerful and the wealthy -- Cabinet secretaries, plutocrats, Senators, Museum directors -- as they were two centuries ago, when they could count Goethe, Mozart, George Washington, Lafayette and Paul Revere among their members.
I was guardedly hopeful myself. With all those Masonic symbols on its cover, I figured that CULTS, CONSPIRACIES AND SECRET SOCIETIES stood a small chance of being captured by THE LOST SYMBOL's commercial gravity, much as a tiny planetesimal can get pulled into a gas giant's orbit. But happiest of all was Lynne McTaggart, the real-life author of THE FIELD and THE INTENTION EXPERIMENT, whose books and research in the field of Noetic Science are specifically cited in THE LOST SYMBOL's pages.
No one has ever accused Dan Brown of being a literary stylist; he's too easy to parody. His narrators natter on like chatty tour guides, bludgeoning us with trivia and heavy-handed exposition. His hero Robert Langdon seems to suffer from a testosterone deficiency; his celibate bad guys, with their bulging muscles and self-mortified flesh, are creepily fetishized. But ANGELS AND DEMONS, THE DA VINCI CODE, and now THE LOST SYMBOL do more than merely lead their legions of readers on merry chases; they exhort them to reconsider their world view. Though the answers he provides may be trivial and sometimes historically inaccurate, the questions Brown asks us to consider are worth pondering. Does the church misrepresent Christianity? Is history filled with mysteries and intrigues that mainstream chronicles elide? Are science and religion converging?
Brown earnestly wants us to expand our view of human potential, to open ourselves up to a whole new paradigm--one that is more capacious and filled with possibilities than either secular scientism or the traditional Judeo-Christian world view. In a very broad sense, that was the Masons' philosophical program as well. Stripped of all its pageantry and mumbo jumbo, Freemasonry (which, despite its claims of ancient provenance, can't be dated back any further than the early 18th century) celebrates the rational, non-dogmatic, individualistic values of the Enlightenment. God-the-Architect is a Deist idea. The Masonic openness to Rosicrucian arcana, alchemy, and Kabbalah is an attribute of the same unfettered, non-judgmental curiosity that led to the scientific and technological breakthroughs of the early industrial era--and for that matter to the rise of the bourgeois merchant class and the overthrow of entrenched Aristocracy. Masons did play the outsized role in the French Revolution that their enemies accused them of; Adam Weishaupt's Bavarian Illuminati envisioned an age in which Kings and Catholicism would no longer hold sway. Augustin Barruel and John Robison's 1798 exposes of the Illuminati conspiracies sparked a transient panic in the United States that anticipated 1950s-style McCarthyism; a second wave of anti-Masonic paranoia swept the country in the late 1820s. It's ironic that the prospect of world revolution so frightened the post-colonial Americans, since they were revolutionaries themselves. Not only had they thrown off the shackles of king and church, they had thrived because they did so.
Benjamin Franklin -- a reluctant but eventually an ardent revolutionist -- is the very type of the American Freemason. Inventor, scientist, and entrepreneur, he was a mass of contradictions: a sententious moralizer and codifier of bourgeois virtues, he attended séances at the hedonistic Hellfire Club in England; homespun and self-educated, he was a familiar in the royal courts and academies of Europe. He was our Leonardo Da Vinci, except he couldn't paint or sculpt. And like most of our founding fathers, he had a healthy skepticism of democracy.
Just as we worry about what less advanced nations will do with nuclear technology today, the men of the Enlightenment worried about what the ignorant masses would do with the incredible powers -- philosophic, economic, political, technological and scientific -- that they were unlocking. Their fears were not misplaced... we are living with some of the consequences of their discoveries today. Much of our planet is poisoned; its climate is changing; we live under the shadow of weapons of mass destruction.
Esoteric Masonry acknowledges -- as do all the mystery religions and philosophies, going back to Egyptian Hermeticism and Pythagoreanism--that some things are best kept within a select circle. That doesn't mean the Masons were secret aristocrats or magi; only that they knew how dangerous it could be when complex ideas were trivialized, debased, and distorted by people who didn't understand them. Back in the eighteenth century, the boundaries between science and magic were still porous; chemists were still trying to turn lead into gold; physicians were practicing medicine without the benefit of germ theory; physicists were only just beginning to move away from Aristotle's world view towards one that we would now call Newtonian (Newton himself -- a devout, mystically-inclined Christian and a practicing alchemist -- lived into the 1720s).
The fact that the early Masons were as intrigued by ancient esoterica as they were doesn't mean that they were Gnostics or Zoroastrians or Rosicrucians, any more than their knowledge of Latin and Greek classics made them pagans. One legacy of the Enlightenment is our ability to unravel science and superstition, to draw distinctions between theology and natural science, and between ancient wisdom and ancient ignorance. Those boundaries are so clearly demarcated today that many people have come to believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive.
Dan Brown's THE LOST SYMBOL mixes them up again. In its telling, the Freemasons were the keepers of the embers that cutting edge Noetic scientists are fanning into flame--a philosophic technology that will bring us wonders like ESP and teleportation, and that one day might even conquer death. Noetic science takes some of the spookier discoveries of quantum physics--that particles can remain "entangled," even when they are separated by vast distances--and extends it to the "big, visible" world.
There really is an Institute of Noetic Sciences, in Petaluma, California (Obama's much-reviled ex-Green Jobs czar Van Jones is a member of its board; other famous names are Desmond Tutu, Dean Ornish, and Deepak Chopra). And as I noted, there really is a Lynne McTaggart. "All matter in the universe exists in a web of connection and constant influence," she writes, "Which often overrides many of the laws of the universe that we used to believe held ultimate sovereignty....The significance of these findings extends far beyond a validation of extrasensory power or parapsychology. They threaten to demolish the entire edifice of present-day science." McTaggart's Intention Experiment is a web-based project that recruits volunteers to beam thought energy at objects and people and measure the results. Click here for the protocols of some of the early experiments.
For all of her references to quantum physics and her nods to falsifiability and the scientific method, McTaggart mostly hearkens back to nineteenth century New Thought--Phineas Parkhurst Quimby's "mind cure" movement that inspired Christian Science, the Power of Positive Thinking, and the "Think and Grow Rich" philosophy of Napoleon Hill. In 1888, in a biographical sketch of his father that he published in the New England Magazine, Quimby's son George summarized the essential tenets of New Thought: "That 'mind' was spiritual matter and could be changed'; that we were made up of 'truth and error'; that 'disease was an error, or belief, and that the Truth was the cure.'"
Rhonda Byrne's bestselling THE SECRET is infused with New Thought and Noetic Science; one of its "stars" is James Arthur Ray, whose self-improvement empire is teetering on the brink in the wake of the sweat lodge disaster that took three lives in Sedona, Arizona last month.
The crown jewel of the experiments that the Noetic Scientist heroine of the THE LOST SYMBOL had secretly carried out was one in which she weighed a dying man immediately before and after his death, proving that his departed soul had physical mass. This same experiment was really carried out by a Dr. Duncan MacDougal in 1907 (he determined that it weighed 21 grams). MacDougal also killed a bunch of dogs and concluded, with equal scientific authority, that they didn't have souls. As it happens, I also believe that human beings have souls (dogs too), but I don't think they can be weighed and measured. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the soul is precisely that part of us that can't be dissected or quantified.
Like Brown and his Masons, I agree that we have much to learn from the ancients: from esoterica like Hermeticism, Gnosticism, and the Kabbalah, from canonical authors like Plato and Aristotle, and mainstreatm religious scriptures like THE BOOK OF THE DEAD, the Bible, and THE UPANISHADS. Shamans and herbalists know things that scientists are only now acknowledging; we are only just beginning to appreciate Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. But I somehow doubt that the materialized spirituality of Noetic Science is the bridge to the future that Brown makes it out to be; one can be open-minded without embracing pseudoscience.
Historically, the Masons have stood for the spirit of free inquiry and, setting aside their heartily reciprocated detestation of Roman Catholicism aside among some American Masons at various periods in American history -- particularly the era of the second Ku Klux Klan, in the teens and '20s -- religious tolerance. It's nice for a change to see them portrayed as idealistic good guys instead of sinister oligarchs presiding over a malign New World Order. But the Masons aren't New Agers. For all of Dan Brown's earnest talk of a new paradigm, I feel like he's urging us -- and them -- to take a giant step backwards. Discuss