Gnosticism, creationism and conspiracy

Over on Forth magazine I argue that creationists and conspiracy theorists have more in common than they think:

THE GNOSTIC heresy was one of the earliest threats to the philosophical unity of the Christian Church. The Gnostics believed that the universe is inherently flawed, and that only those select few with the Gnosis, or spiritual knowledge, could see through the illusion to the perfect reality beyond. Some branches of Gnosticism went further, holding that this imperfection was intentional on the part of the Creator, and that Earthly existence is therefore a prison with God as humanity’s jailer.

Unsurprisingly, the Church fought hard to extinguish such ideas, but the basic beliefs of Gnosticism are surprisingly resilient. Time and again Gnostic memes reappear in different guises, but with the same underlying
themes of paranoia and denial.

One such guise is in the counter-arguments of the creationist (or intelligent design) movement. In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence in favour of a 13-billion year old universe and evolution by natural selection, creationists often respond that God, being all-powerful, could easily have designed the universe so that it appears to be older than it is, that fossils could have been deliberately planted, and that physical and genetic similarities in related species are merely God playing variations on a theme with his work.

Leaving aside the glaring logical failures of a hypothesis that can magically explain away anything you like, there are serious metaphysical implications inherent in taking such a position. Modern creationism (such a juicy oxymoron) is a largely Christian or Islamic phenomenon, yet the God that devotes so much care to planting false evidence to fool his creations into straying from the ‘True Path’ can hardly be reconciled with the God of the Abrahamic tradition who may test his people but does not lie to them. And if we accept the concept of a universe with billions of years of fabricated history, how can we then be sure that the universe isn’t just ten seconds old, with our own memories yet another fabrication? That way lies the paranoid world of Philip K. Dick.

The same basic premise of a malevolently constructed false reality, with signs planted in obscure places that only those with the Gnosis can interpret, is a key component of many conspiracy theories, particularly those which concentrate on the arcanae of symbolism, such as the Gold Fringed Flag theory.

It is also a recurrent meme in popular fiction, from The Matrix and The Da Vinci Code to the aforementioned Philip K. Dick. Like it or not, Gnosticism sells. It speaks to an instinctual part of the brain in much the same way as ghost stories or slasher movies. Deep down, a part of us wants to believe that the world is not as mundane as it appears, that there is someone or something manipulating events from behind the scenes, that we are all being lied to. Much in the same way as pareidolia makes us see faces in random patterns, our hard-wired Gnosticism makes us see conspiracies where none exist.

From this viewpoint, creationism and anti-scientific sentiment are not modern phenomena at all, but just the latest incarnation of our latent Gnosticism in 21st century clothing. Before scientists were trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public it was witches, demons or even God. Rational argument is powerless against the subconscious desire to see malevolent agencies at work. The roots of Gnosticism predate science, religion and probably history itself. Denial is here to stay.


7 thoughts on “Gnosticism, creationism and conspiracy”

  1. Ah but take a telephone apart and do you expect to find Alexander Graham Bell? There’s a difference in arguing biblical creation in seven days (impossible if the sun and moon were only created on day four- how can you have three ‘days’ before one night?) and intelligent design. Andrew, I don’t think any amount of natural selection could create in me the soul that still makes my eyes well up when I think about your father.

    1. Jeremy, I’ll take your point about creationism and intelligent design not being the same thing, but I don’t see that intelligent design is either much of an improvement or necessitated by Christian faith. Is it beyond the ability of an omnipotent Creator to design the laws of the universe so that natural selection really does work? Saying that God couldn’t possibly have created evolution strikes me as a failure of imagination.

      As for the personal stuff, not fair my friend. Not fair.

  2. Absolutely agree that God could have “created” evolution, hence my telelphone analogy. I was trying to say that just because we now understand the process of evolution it doesn’t mean a creator didn’t put the pieces together. I find it a shame when Christians start fighting over the genesis story, large chunks of the bible are visionary and obvioulsy meant to be read as such. Man’s fall (woman’s fault of course :) )is much more interesting and the creation of an animal in the image of God (i.e. WITH A SPIRIT / TRUE UNDERSTANDING : hence my personal comment Andrew, sorry) is what I think should be taken from reading Genesis.

    Just because evolution is fact, doesn’t mean God isn’t.

    p.s. still looking forward to having you round for tea sometime. Hopefully a diffrent topic of conversation though, you can fill us in on the last 3 series of lost: we gave up when Jack was living in a fish tank and was about to operate on the annoying guy who ran the other side of the island.

  3. Just because evolution is fact, doesn’t mean God isn’t.

    Wise words, and some that should be repeated often amongst those who think that religion and science are somehow enemies.

    As for Lost, you gave up around the time that the producers realised it was going badly wrong. In fairness to them, it improved spectacularly in seasons four and five (although I’m still ambivalent about the ending…)

  4. Science is just another false, linear philosophy. It’s beneficial in many ways & it’s also very dangerous. There is a standard of pure, clear, repeatable results that have kind of gotten in the way of thinking about how bad things happen out in nature & religion even warns against this. I think it’s quite naive to reject religion, as it has shaped our ethics & humanity in such a massive way, but the problem with it, is that people fall into the ego traps of religion. They neglect to see the pure message of love, tolerance & acceptance (even if those ideals are hard to live up to), in favour of adopting superiority complexes like; “God loves the Jews the most”, when we’re all suppose to be brothers & sisters. If it was worked out mathematically at this stage of our existence, then we’re all probably descended from Abraham by now. God also promised him that his descendent’s would cover the Earth like grains of sand on a beach. I think it’s quite sensational of you to use propaganda techniques to belittle faith & faith is another thing that Science inadvertently denies people of, when Science has even ironically proved that some things are simply not known yet. Also, no one ever seems to acknowledge that aspects as well as traps of the Bible might be analogies – figurative & not supposed to be taken quite so literally. There are two forms of early humans, which assimilated & the oldest walled city in the World is Jericho, which is 11,000 years old, so really, we don’t have all the answers yet… I think atheist’s can make good Christians sometimes – when they reject the ego traps of an infiltrated religion, but they shouldn’t throw out God, love & forgiveness with it, because essentially, that is what religion is all about, isn’t it? There is wisdom in everything & there is a lot of old wisdom in the Bible, based on the mistakes of many, which many take for granted.

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