Cover Stories

Flatter Day Saints

Flat Earthers declare new church; scientists stand with the sphere

(Anson Stevens-Bollen)

David Gordon thinks most people are pointing their telescopes in the wrong direction. Instead of aiming for the stars, he says they should try pointing them across the surface of the Earth. The part-time Santa Fean is a full-time Flat Earther, and at the end of 2019 he decided the best way to protect his unconventional beliefs would be to establish a religion. So, he declared the formation of the Church of the Flat Earth and began hosting a monthly local meet-up.

Now, Gordon says anybody who believes the Earth was created by a higher power, and in the form of a flat plane rather than an oblate spheroid, is protected from religious discrimination.

David Gordon is a part-time Santa Fean and full-time Flat Earther. (Loren Bienvenu)

The legality of this type of claim falls into something of a gray area, according to a prominent First Amendment attorney who spoke with SFR.

Gordon tallies current church membership at somewhere approaching 100 people, most of them outside the Santa Fe area. How quickly his nascent flock grows remains to be seen. According to a 2018 YouGov study, 1 in 50 Americans are firmly convinced the Earth is flat, and an additional 14% are undecided or skeptical. The same study shows the majority of Flat Earthers classify themselves as "very religious."

Like many in the movement, Gordon believes the round Earth model is a conspiracy that can be disproved through personal observation. His path to Flat Earth theologian began in the spring of 2015, when he discovered a video series by prominent Flat Earther Mark Sargent outlining various "clues" to the Earth's flatness. Inspired by one of these, Gordon took his telescope to the top of the mesa across from his house in Golden, Colorado, where he lives when not in Santa Fe, and pointed it horizontally to a rocky outcrop 54 miles away. Based on his calculations, there were "2,000 feet of missing curvature."

He recounts this formative moment at the Santa Fe Community College—where SFR invited him to view a large-scale projection of Earth in the round. Lean and windswept, with tousled white hair and faint white stubble on his jaw, he arrives in black cowboy boots, a leather jacket and a black baseball cap bearing a patch that reads: Flat Earth Ranger.

There is something of the cowboy to the man who was born into what he describes as "an aerospace family" in Cape Canaveral in 1959. Indeed, while Gordon now runs a company that sells a high-efficiency outdoor wood stove of his own design, he worked for a while training horses.

"One of the things we'd do to train them, to gentle them, is to put them in a round pen," he says. "When you push the horse around the pen, he is psychologically pushed away from the herd. In the horse's case, they feel this fear because they are outside of the herd and they'll be subject to predation. People are the same."

If Gordon sees himself as circling in an orbit separate from the herd, the force propelling him there would be his strong sense of doubt. Describing himself as a "former NASA fanboy," he was curious to visit and comment on the projection at the college. Science on a Sphere (SOS) is an initiative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In a dedicated classroom on the SFCC campus, four projectors illuminate a 6-foot diameter globe with NASA satellite imagery and other programming.

Edwin Barker is chair of the local SOS program. A retired planetary astronomer who worked for NASA, Barker tells SFR that he and other facilitators can project real-time images of weather patterns, shifting tectonic plates and the migratory movements of GPS-tracked whales and sharks, as well as the surfaces of other planets.

"We even have an image that we can display of a flat Earth on the sphere," Barker says. "But I can't see how [people] can believe in a flat Earth with all the scientific knowledge we have. In particular the astronauts that have gone around and around the world. We have firsthand knowledge that it's round and not flat."

Barker has staged programs for groups spanning from elementary school students to retirement homes.

"Something that happens when I have, say, fourth graders come in, is they say, 'Wow! Wow! Wow! I didn't know the Earth looked like that!'," Barker says. "There is a wow factor."

For Gordon, too.

"Wow, that's pretty impressive there, I've got to say," he says upon beholding the luminescent globe in room 803. The room is darkened and otherwise empty. He stands in front of the giant orb facing one of the projectors, with cloud patterns and the lower portion of Australia slowly traveling across his face.

His appreciation for the technological aspects of the projection does not translate to an acceptance of the veracity of what he is viewing.

"It's just perpetuating a massive fraud, and there's reasons for it," Gordon says flatly. "They don't want people to think independently."

Posing for a photo, he assumes an incredulous expression, holding one arm sideways across his body. "Mark Sargent and I invented it," he says of the hand signal. "It's called the flatty."

After the viewing, Gordon explains how his personal revelation that curvature was a myth led to a greater unraveling. Now he considers everything from gravity and evolution, to the existence of dinosaurs and the occurrence of the Dark Ages, to fall into the category of hoax.

"It all came together with the Flat Earth thing," he says. "We're told to deny our senses. Science—or as we term it, scientism—is its own religion in which you must believe, period. You must believe the Big Bang, everything they tell us. Otherwise, you're a crazy fool."

Like many Flat Earthers, Gordon relies on visual evidence to bolster his theories, and devotes equal energy to challenging the visual evidence provided by the opposition. Pulling out his MacBook, he shows SFR an image of the moon landing. He adjusts the brightness and contrast to show what he claims is a square of acetate pasted in after the fact to falsely depict Earth.

Then he shares video footage of the star Arcturus, shot with a Nikon P900—a camera nicknamed "the globe killer" by some Flat Earthers because its powerful zoom lens can capture distant astronomical objects. His screen displays a colorful, filamented geometric shape.

"Every time I pause it, it maintains a structure, but the color changes," he says. "What the hell is that? It's surely no ball of gas out there a gazillion miles away. You couldn't zoom in if it was so far away."

Gordon continues clicking through the stills intently, as if seeing them for the first time. "Somebody said it looks like a book. But it maintains its structure."

His voice lowers, almost to a whisper: "But why is it flashing?"

Scientist or scientismist?

Meanwhile, across campus, another star observer prepares for her afternoon astronomy class. Amanda Truitt has a PhD in astrophysics and wrote her thesis on "stellar evolution and habitable exoplanets." Her office adjoins the planetarium, which is lined with telescopes of all sizes. Being indoors in storage, their lenses are not angled in any particular direction.

Before SFCC hired her to teach astronomy and revitalize the school's planetarium, she worked at Los Alamos National Lab in the field of planetary defense.

Amanda Truitt says it’s great to question the world, but worries the Flat Earth believers damage “real science.” (Loren Bienvenu)

"You could kind of describe it as the plot of Armageddon…literally gearing up an arsenal of nuclear weapons to shoot at asteroids," she says.

When asked about the Flat Earth community, Truitt comes ready with a zinger: "The only thing they have to fear is sphere itself."

Her full takeaway of the movement is more nuanced. She calls Flat Earthers "free-thinkers," and concedes that it is important to question why we believe something to be true. However, she says, "It's almost like they're so open-minded that everything is equal… At the surface level, that's good, you shouldn't just omit an idea because you don't agree with it for whatever biased reason. But you need a way to systematically rule things out. I think where the Flat Earth movement gets sort of tripped up is that they ignore very good evidence that we've systematically curated over a long time."

Truitt's desk is strewn with a Rubik's cube, magnets, astronomy textbooks and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky. Her dedication to science and education kept her up grading papers until 4:30 am the day before. This passion might explain why she sees "serious harm" in efforts aimed toward undermining science—especially those that purport to follow the scientific method.

"Real science is being defunded every day because more and more people don't see the value in it. And that's when society can start to break down, because we are dependent on science and technology," she says.

Truitt ponders Gordon's accusation that the scientific community would intentionally keep the public in the dark. "It's not like scientists are all in on it, like we need to prove that the Earth is round. Why? Why would we lie and say it's round, if it was flat?"

Moving next door, she fires up the various systems of the planetarium to provide a visual, scientific perspective of the Earth's roundness. The old control board looks to be about the same vintage as the early Apollo missions, with various metal toggle switches and sliders labeled, somewhat modestly, "Earth," "Sun," "Moon."

Much of this equipment is obsolete. Under Truitt's stewardship, the school updated the planetarium to run off a loaded iPad. Now she uses an Xbox controller to give a tour of the solar system. Starting with a simulated view from the planetarium's exact location, Truitt speeds up time to create a "star trail" image of the night sky. The vast, domed screen overhead changes, gradually overtaken in Van Gogh-like swirls of light.

"Photographers can do this with long exposure over the course of the night, a time lapse of the motion of the sky that shows how things are rotating," Truitt says. "It appears like things are rising and setting but you can always find the North Star. It's always stationary in the sky relative to everything else because it's aligned with Earth's North Pole, its rotational axis."

What does this reveal? "We are a big spinning circle."

Next she zooms in on the Galilean moons of Jupiter, explaining that someone does not need a sophisticated telescope, let alone a planetarium operating system, to observe these moons orbiting Jupiter over the course of several days. A simple pair of binoculars will suffice.

Truitt says Galileo's observation of these moons in the 1600s provided some of the first evidence that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system, by showing that other bodies can be observed orbiting in space.

"The same physical principles extend throughout the universe," Truitt concludes. "Why should we be any different, is kind of my thinking. It comes back to wishful thinking that somehow Earth is special or we are special or something. But I don't really subscribe to that idea."

Separation of church and deep state

Bob Knodel does subscribe.

An IT contractor with an engineering background, Knodel is well-known in the Flat Earth community as the co-host of the "Globebusters" YouTube channel, which has garnered some 6 million collective views. He became an early member of the Church of the Flat Earth and is considering joining the board of directors.

"The bottom line is that there is a creator. This place was made for us. We are special," Knodel tells SFR from his home in Denver.

The structure and perfection of nature convinced him that there was a creator, he says, providing the metaphor of someone bombing a Scrabble factory and the pieces landing in the form of a perfectly conceived work by William Shakespeare.

"As an engineer, obviously I've always valued the scientific method," Knodel says. "However, even before I found Flat Earth it was patently obvious to me that this world could not have possibly evolved as a product of random chance."

The theory of intelligent design finds itself ensconced in the preamble of the Church of the Flat Earth's homepage. It calls the Earth "a created realm," but refrains from defining its creator, saying this should be left to the individual. The preamble also makes explicit why Gordon founded the church in the first place: as a means of combating perceived harassment.

Knodel agrees that many Flat Earthers set themselves up for ridicule or worse when sharing their beliefs. Sounding both aggrieved and frustrated, he states, "You could say you believe in little green men from Narnia and people would say, 'Whatever,' and walk away." However, if you tell them the Earth is flat, "That triggers a response in people that's visceral, vitriolic. It's palpable. They absolutely go bananas over it. It's like you shot their dog or something."

According to Knodel, this reaction, as well as the perpetuation of the round Earth mythos, is the result of "a programming mechanism." Who is in charge of the program? "That's pretty easy. The entity and the people behind that are the ones that belong to the secret societies."

His examples: the Freemasons, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Vatican.

Knodel says he has received death threats and lost job contracts due to his beliefs, particularly since appearing in a Netflix-acquired documentary entitled Behind The Curve. In a pivotal sequence, Knodel experiments with a $20,000 fiber optic gyroscope that seems to confirm the Earth's rotation at the scientifically predicted rate of 15 degrees per hour.

"I have the dubious distinction of being the only person in the world that proved the Earth's rotation. Now frankly I think I should get a Nobel for that," Knodel says sardonically.

He claims that the scene was a misrepresentation, and now attributes that rotation to something called "the luminiferous aether," citing as proof an experiment done in the late 1800s by physicist Albert Michelson.

Most of the so-called "aether theories" posit some sort of medium through which light propagates in space. Einstein's special theory of relativity is now conventionally used to challenge these theories by demonstrating that space can exist as a vacuum.

After the movie came out, Knodel says he lost a long-held IT contract with a religious nonprofit called Mission's Door. SFR contacted Rick Miller, president of Mission's Door, to ask why Knodel's contract was not renewed.

"We knew he had some unusual views," Miller says, with a wry laugh. "But it did not seem to impact his IT competency. He's good at what he does, and we liked Bob."

The decision, Miller says, came down to expanding from a one-person company to a larger tech firm, rather than as a result of Knodel's "unusual views." (Two other such views that came up in the SFR conversation with Knodel were the "9/11 Truth movement" and a belief the ancient Egyptians had access to modern technologies like helicopters.)

Gordon throws “the flatty” hand sign he thought up with a fellow believer. (Loren Bienvenu)

When Gordon declared that there was a Church of the Flat Earth, Knodel was intrigued by the possibility of claiming religious protections for perceived discrimination.

"I started looking at it from a legal standpoint and saying, 'Oh, wow, there we go,'" he recalls. "Now you have some sort of legal recourse where you can go back and sue on a constitutional type of basis. It's for that reason that I support this idea."

The Church is not a 501(c)(3), nor does Gordon intend to seek that status. There is no physical building, no rites of worship. "The church is a piece of paper in my file at home. That's all it has to be," Gordon says.

To probe whether any person with strongly held opinions can simply write them out as religious doctrine and declare them to be protected under the Constitution, SFR contacted Martin Esquivel, an Albuquerque-based attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues.

"I don't know the answer to that question," Esquivel says. "I think the law protects not only people who belong to traditional organized religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, but also others that have sincerely held religious and ethical beliefs."

Emphasizing that he's speaking generally and not to the specifics of the Church of the Flat Earth, he adds, "That line of demarcation is not clear, but I think federal law realizes that the more traditional organized religions are not exclusive when it comes to the issue of religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act."

In addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Esquivel references the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, which read, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Both of these items are quoted in the Church of the Flat Earth's foundational document, in which Gordon declares the creation of an unincorporated, organized, self-supported church ministry. To his surprise, this declaration was not met with universal enthusiasm within the Flat Earth community.

"Here's the funny thing," Gordon says. "I'm kind of ostracized from the ostracized Flat Earth group for having done this. Nobody wants to talk to me just lately. It makes them uncomfortable, even within our ostracized movement of people who are tricked out of the norm."

He understands their skepticism—after all, that is the primary quality uniting the Flat Earth movement. "All of us have seen the worst of hierarchical church religious organization. Obviously there's a tremendous amount of damage that has been done in the name of religion, so everyone's gun shy about that. I had a lot of folks say, we don't want to make Flat Earth a religion. Well, I didn't. I made belief in Flat Earth a religion, if you wish. Nobody has to join."

His comment found an unlikely echo in Truitt's approach to sharing her scientific convictions. She too wants to open people's minds, but without proselytizing.

"I wish I could show the Flat Earth movement the planetarium," she says, wondering whether its members would benefit simply from being exposed to a rigorous science lesson. "Maybe having that opportunity would be really cool. But we'll never know if we can't talk to each other."

SFCC Planetarium: Cosmic Castaways   7 pm Thursday, March 12; 2 pm & 5 pm Saturday, March 14. $5-$8. Santa Fe Community College, 6401 Richards Ave, Room 215, 428-1721.

Science on a Sphere   12 pm Wednesday, March 11; 4 pm Thursday, March 12; 12 pm Monday, March 16. Free. Santa Fe Community College, 6401 Richards Ave, Room 803, 428-1000.

Santa FE [Flat Earth] Monthly Meet-up:   3pm Sunday, April 12. Cowgirl, 319 S Guadalupe St., 629-0005.


Old Bedford River Inset: Samuel Rowbotham

It began with a pamphlet: "Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not A Globe." Published in 1849 under the pseudonym "Parallax," its author was British inventor, utopian socialist, and public rabble-rouser Samuel Rowbotham, who today remains best known as the progenitor of modern Flat Earth societies.

The pamphlet outlines the Bedford Level Experiment. To test the curvature of the Earth, Rowbotham sent a rowboat down the gradually sloped and very straight Bedford canal. He used a telescope to observe the change in height of a white flag on the boat's mast. As the boat traveled a stretch of 6 miles between two bridges, the flag appeared to recede with distance, rather than dropping at the predicted rate of 8 inches per mile squared.

Over the following decades, Rowbotham continued expanding on his theory of a Flat Earth. His brief pamphlet eventually grew into a 430-page book that included a map of the Earth as a flat disc, with the North Pole at its center and an Antarctic "ice wall" ringing its circumference. Rowbotham's beliefs gained a following with time. In 1870, one of his most ardent supporters, John Hampden, issued a wager of 500 pounds to the scientific community at large. He claimed he could replicate the Bedford Level Experiment to prove once and for all that curvature was a sham.

Alfred Russell Wallace accepted the challenge. Wallace was a prominent scientist who contributed to many fields, including the theory of natural selection, but his career began as a surveyor's apprentice. His terms for replicating the experiment involved two additions. First, he placed a marked pole midway between the surveyor and the boat at its farthest point. With the telescope, the mark, and the mast all at the same height, he predicted that if the Earth was flat, all three objects would fall in a straight line; whereas, if it was round, the distant flag would be shown to have dropped below the midpoint marker. Second, he said the estimate of the drop should account for the atmospheric refraction of light. This is the principle that light curves as it travels through different densities of the atmosphere, which creates an effect where distant objects like the setting sun appear to be visible even when they have dropped below the horizon.

After the experiment, a judge declared Wallace the winner. Hampden, however, never conceded defeat and the two became bitter enemies. Hampden went so far as to write a letter to Wallace’s wife that read: “Madam–if your infernal thief of a husband is brought home some day on a hurdle, with every bone in his head smashed to pulp, you will know the reason.” He did not make good on this threat, but it stands as one of the first salvos in the enduring schism between the Flat Earth and scientific communities.

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