Rebecca here. Get ready to take a ride to the flat side of town.
Day one: When I first arrived at the Flat Earth International Conference (FEIC19) I felt like I was ready for what I would hear. I had already spent weeks studying the beliefs, the physics of how the theories work, and they spread the word, but I quickly realized that I was not nearly as ready as I hoped.
I walked into a nearly full conference room of 300+ and was immediately struck by the crowd- they were completely and utterly… normal. No foil hats or strange costumes (save for the the gentleman with the exquisite top hat), just moms with strollers, college students, sweet-looking elderly couples- including a grandmother with cookies in her purse. There were no “weirdos” or anyone who “must be an idiot” (common comments when discussing flat earthers.)
I settled in to listen to the first speaker of the day, Mark Sargent, a charismatic speaker who talked about the specifics of the movement. I tried to listen with an open mind- to just bring facts to this article and understood when they called Neil DeGrasse Tyson “he who must not be named” but fell off the nonbiased wagon when the room booed Buzz Aldrin. I didn’t understand why they would dislike this hero and genuine national treasure. That answer would come later.
There is a short break and I check out the merch booths in the main hall. Lined up against the walls are tables laden with all types of goods but i am most struck by the amount of religious-inspired items- from hats to sweatshirts to books. Finding these is unsurprising (the tag line for the conference is Finding the Creator through Creation) but the realization that most of the attendees are evangelical Christian is hitting me hard. After picking up a joke shirt for my husband, who is a physics teacher, I head back inside and start talking with the people at the table behind mine.
Some of the souvenirs available at the convention
There are 2 gentlemen- one a firm believer happy to help educate; one still trying to figure out what he believes but wants to be educated to be prepared for online discussions. The woman sitting near them is also a “true believer” and she asks me when I first realized “the truth.” I explain to her that I’m there as a reporter not as a believer and watch and the friendly and open look on her face becomes cold and suspicious. The room is about to experience why…
The second speaker, Nathan Thompson, takes the stage and begins his talk by reminding the media about how incompetent we are and then tells us to “shut up and do [our] jobs.” Most of his talk is spent talking down to the people in the room, believers and skeptics alike. He also spends his time condemning vaccines and claiming that gravity doesn’t exist. The room cheers at both comments and I’m beginning to truly feel out of my depth with this section of humanity.
The third speaker takes the stage- he is Nate Wolfe, a former pastor, fired for attending a flat earth convention. He is telling the audience about how the Bible supports the fact that the earth is flat. There is a lot of Genesis being thrown around followed but more than a few amens and hallelujahs. I find myself trying actively to NOT shake my head. No one in the room is willing to address that different bibles have different wordings and thus different meanings- just the difference between New Revised Standard, and King James (currently the two most popular versions of the text) is wild. But bibles say different things based on the language it is translated from, the translator’s native language, the time period in which it was translated, so taking it as fact is something I have personally always found difficult.
The woman behind me starts talking about how in Hebrew it says that God put candles in the heavens, not lights. I politely let her know that in a Bible originally written in Hebrew candles wouldn’t have yet existed so it was more likely talking about oil lamps. The look on her face tells me all I need to know about her being told she is incorrect. The good pastor slips in an Epstein didn’t kill himself joke- the laughter of the “Christian” crowd makes me highly uncomfortable.
Fortunately for me, moments later Nate says he knows just how long the days of creation were to god. I bring up 1 Corinthians 2:11 “For who knows a person’s thoughts except for their own spirit within them? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” and find once again that I am in the wrong crowd for my rational arguments.
During the lunch, I begin talking with the people behind me again and ask about the booing of Buzz Aldrin. I’m told that he is the major face of the moon landing conspiracy and as most flat earthers don’t believe in outer space. To say that I am flabbergasted at this proclamation is a massive understatement. I am floored. I stare at the people around me, trying to view them like they don’t have lobsters coming out of their ears. The group begins to describe more of the more widely held flat earther beliefs. They believe we live in a bubble. A literal, atmospheric bubble. There is no outer space, just lights inside the bubble. There are no distant planets (they are smaller and much closer), the moon is not big enough to walk on, and the sun revolves around the earth. The outside edge of our frisbee shaped planet is completely made of ice because obviously that is how you keep the water from running off the edge.
I take my leave for the day, needing to be with my family and mentally prepare myself for day two.
Day Two: is much less crowded, but I still decide to sit near the back of the room- I feel my safe space is closer to the exits. The second day is more of the same but somehow even more so. The first speaker tells the room that the images from the Hubble are manufactured, the earth can’t be a globe because fish eye lenses for cameras exist, PhDs are an intellectual disadvantage, the Gemini 5 spacewalk footage was faked- it is obviously stop motion… I wonder if they think Ray Harryhausen is in on the conspiracy.
I hear about how the CIA dictates the news so no one should trust the media, that the American government has sent high altitude bombs to test the firmament of heaven, there is no vacuum of space because obviously the air would be sucked off of the planet, the evolution story is told by people who hate God in order to lie to children. My favorite quote of the day is that “the entire space program is entertainment meant for the animals on the animal farm.” He’s talking about me. I listen to conspiracy theories about vaccines, 9/11, gravity, Area 51, the FreeMasons, scientists, that the moon has its own light source, mind control, satellites, the atmosphere, and how Kubrick’s version of The Shining is him telling the world that the moon landing was faked.
By the time I leave on day two I have decided to drink a liquor store when I get home.
Even after spending so much time talking over the belief that science is a lie, I still cannot fathom truly believing this theory. I begin to wonder if the believers are mostly Christians (as this con was aimed at them), mostly whites (I saw less than a dozen people of color over the 2 days), mostly men (the conference was probably 80% men with only 3 of them over 30 speakers were women), but I’m not sure these are questions I will ever really get answered.
What is obvious to me is that the belief that science is lying to the people is spreading. People no longer accept scientific advancement, preferring to create their own theories on how the earthworks and hoping others will accept these theories as facts. I’m not sure how we help people from moving backward but my hope is that we will be as willing to spread our knowledge about the globe as the people I met over the weekend are to spread their thoughts on… well basically everything.
Per request, I have included my Facebook posts from my live coverage of the convention.
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