"As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities."
"Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true."
A long, long, long time ago, many people believed the Earth was flat, but for more than the last 2,000 years few educated people have subscribed to this delusion. The story (included in some textbooks used in American schools) that Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage was the first proof that the Earth is round and not flat is deceitful historical revisionism, nothing more. For (literally) thousands of years, people who have paid attention to the world as it is have known that the world is round. It never was or will be flat, a point to keep in mind.
Still, even today there are those who believe in a flat Earth and, more to the point of this column, equally absurd fantasies. Until 2001, when he died at the age of 76, Charles Johnson was president of the International Flat Earth Research Society near Lancaster, Calif. He believed that the space orbits of Earth never happened (after all, how can a flat plane be orbited?), the photographs from space showing the circular Earth were fakes and that the televised moon landings actually took place in a Hollywood studio according to a script written by the famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Flat-Earthers set the standard for fabulists, but they are certainly not alone in their ability and, more importantly, desire to believe the unbelievable and, in some but thankfully not all cases, to act aggressively, destructively, violently, even murderously toward unbelievers.
The Earth is not flat, but flat-Earthers have clearly evolved into many other fields, an amusing concept when one considers the flat-Earth thinking of those creationists who do not believe evolution exists. Creation science, like flat Earth, is an oxymoron. The Earth is round, not flat, and science is concerned with the investigation of empirical evidence, not with trying to squeeze reality into the tiny, narrow, inflexible, dark confines of a supernatural belief system predicated on faith, not knowledge. And there is always an agenda, sometimes obvious and often much less so, behind the absurdities of fabulist thinking. If you can make a person believe the Earth is flat, what can you not make him believe or do? For one thing, you can make him fear, disbelieve, distrust and view as the enemy anyone and everyone who sees the Earth as round. And that's power.
There is always power and control in the hands of the authorities of belief systems, whether religious or political, economic or even philosophical. This is as true of small, relatively harmless fringe group true believers like Charles Johnson's as it is of any number of more mainstream or at least better known and even generally accepted ones. Everyone will have their own preferred list of the evolutionary descendants of the flat-Earthers, and one man's flat-Earther is another man's avatar. And, of course, everyone has been a flat-Earther at some time in life, but some people learn, grow and evolve beyond Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, virgin birth, the bogeyman and a flat Earth. Others prefer the easier route of what Demosthenes termed "self-deceit."
In addition to the already mentioned creation science, here are a few recent examples of the evolution of flat-Earth belief systems in modern times, some more dangerous than others:
· Global warming deniers: Led by head political cheerleader Sen. James Mountain Inhofe of Oklahoma, who regularly quotes the Bible to justify his political decisions, deniers are like creationists in that they confuse and/or conflate science with their beliefs, in this case economic beliefs.
· The Obama birthers: This conservative movement continues to maintain that Barack Obama is ineligible to be president of the United States because he wasn't born in the United States, despite the fact and the documentation that he was. The Earth has always been round and Obama was always born in Hawaii.
· Obama-as-Muslim believers: This group is almost indistinguishable from the birthers and like them and the flat-Earthers ignores the evidence. The Earth has never been flat and Obama has never been a Muslim. (A pertinent aside: It is neither dishonorable nor dangerous to America to be a Muslim.) If it weren't for the dangerous ugliness of the racism and fear of Islam that fuels these two groups, their deceits would be a joke. But, though their flat-Earth thinking is laughable, they are not.
And then there is Afghanistan.