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.