A phantom is roaming the planet
Is the Earth flat? Was Darwin a mere trickster…?
We’re experiencing an organized assault on reason
that is virtually a return to the Middle Ages.
It includes a war on the secular State,
and on human rights and minority rights.
This religious counter-Reformation
is a very serious danger that’s moving like a
phantom from the past against democracy.
Jaime Ordóñez Chacón
Many of us were hoping the 21st century would be a leap toward something new, toward a certain universal consciousness that would lead the planet beyond the ideologies, dogmas and nationalisms that produced two world wars in the 20th century and in fact nearly all conflicts from the beginning of civilization. But what is now happening is altogether different. This century is showing itself to be taking an astounding leap backward. Far from bringing us closer to modernity and tolerance, the most obscurantist phantoms of the past are reemerging.
A revolt based on irrational thought
Some of the most serious and obvious symptoms are Brexit, the far Right’s ascendency in Europe (as I write these lines it has formed a coalition and risen to power in Austria with the new Chancellor Sebastian Kurz); nationalist attacks and revolts against the European Union from both left and right, including staunch Catalonian separatists and Italy’s Northern League; and on the other side of the Atlantic the White House’s populist plutocracy, which threatens to unhinge the planet.
The matter actually goes much further: it is a full-bore revolt against the Enlightenment. This irrational and ultramontane way of thinking is leading organized groups of people in the United States, Latin America and elsewhere not only to defend the fundamentalist conviction that Darwin’s theory of evolution is false and deny both global warming and the incontrovertible evidence of the mounting damage it is doing to the planet, but also such craziness as insisting the Earth is flat despite all scientific, aerospace, photographic and digital evidence.
The Flat Earth movement: Back to pre-Eratosthenes times?
This movement has followers in the United States, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, New Zealand and even highbrow France. It also extends throughout Latin America, with some promoters of this foolishness in Central America beginning to write in the social media. All kinds of people are Flat Earthers, including professionals, business people, doctors and educators, 72% of them men.
A semiotic analysis of their rhetoric shows the expected signs. The majority are dogmatic followers of Christian religious groups, and the key words in their conceptual map are tradition / antiquity / religion / truth, with a curious systematic rejection of the word science, all combined with notions that go back to pre-Renaissance thinking.
This contemporary belief in the idea that the Earth is flat can be traced back to the Flat Earth Society created in England in 1959. After a waning period toward the end of the century, it was officially relaunched in 2004 with a web site featuring a collection of its literature. As of November 2017, a breakaway Facebook group calling itself “Flat Earth - No Trolls” boasted over 37,000 members with an apparently impressive growth tendency, as it claims to be increasing at the rate of 364 new affiliates per day in different countries.
They also deny global warming
Defending the Earth’s “flatness” in the 21st century—even the orthodox Saint Augustine accepted its roundness as early as the 4th century—could seem anecdotal and fringe if it weren’t connected to other tendencies. The last few years have also seen a growth in the number of those who still steadfastly reject Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many are members of the US Tea Party, and a percentage of ultra-Republican US voters have revived movements for elementary and high schools to go back to teaching Biblical Creationism and the story of Adam, Eve and the rib.
But far more serious than all this is that powerful people from the petroleum and industrial sector who systematically reject global warming and emissions controls are heavily represented in the White House and in other countries’ governments. They argue that the greenhouse effect is a hoax and even deny the melting of the polar icecaps, despite its documentation by NASA and other entities. Motivated by economic greed, they have intelligently pushed this narrative with naïve or ignorant sectors of the population to make the conservative ascent that led to the White House’s break with the Paris Accords. And this can definitely have a direct impact on the rest of the planet.
The war against the secular State, human rights and minorities
But the problem doesn’t even end there for Latin America. Their views are echoed by public opinion sounding boards in many Latin American countries while the ultra-fundamentalist purveyors of this dogmatic tidal wave have not limited themselves to preaching in church services; they have gone out into the streets and are vying directly for political power. In Costa Rica, Peru, Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras and less extensively in Colombia and Panama, Evangelical and other diversely affiliated churches have morphed into political parties that are starting to change the map of power in the region. This contagious disease can soon be expected to spread to the remaining countries.
In those where the ideological bipartisanship of the 20th century began to splinter, producing the implosion of the old Social Democratic, Christian Democratic or Liberal groups, the vacated spaces have been filled by pastors who mix their pulpits, hymns and litanies with legislative seats. Their voter bases are composed of their own church members, who, in the case of Evangelicals, neo-Christians and others, set aside 10% of their salaries (the biblical tithe) not only for their churches, but also for these new political adventures. Enormous amounts of “religious money” are entering politics and their agendas.
The “phantom” in Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, for example, 5 of the 57 legislators for the 2014-2018 term were directly elected by churches turned political parties. And a much greater number, between 21 and 30 legislators—a third or half of Parliament—have voted their faith on various occasions on issues where their religious agendas combine with public policy problems. Among them are representatives of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), the Libertarian Movement (ML) and even the Social Christian National Liberation Party (PLN), founded in 1950 by José Figueres, Rodrigo Facio and other well-known agnostic secularists.
The religious neo-conservatism of Costa Rica’s political class has led them to oppose in vitro fertilization despite a resolution from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights obligating the country to approve legislation regulating this practice. The opposition’s argument was essentially religious.
The new counter-Reformation
This new, multi-denominational Counter-Reformation—the best term that occurs to me against this broadside of attacks by various churches and sects has put in check the liberal State semi-established in Latin America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its aim is to undermine the notion of a secular State and its processes, as well as to curb advances in human rights and recognition of minorities.
Costa Rica—where statistics indicate nearly 50% of adolescent pregnancies occur in the home or related areas—is now seeing a crusade against sex education in its elementary and high schools under the slogans “I educate my children,” “Family first” and similar arguments. This has been accompanied by a visceral reaction against any progress in recognizing the civil rights of same-sex couples, not to mention acceptance of their civil marriage. This violent campaign against sexual minorities and different types of diversity violates human rights and all the progress in this subject over the last four decades.
One sees similar problems in Peru. The constant clash between progress in civil rights and faith-based thinking, not just from Catholicism but also from other Christian and Evangelical churches, forced the minister of education to resign.
According to the United Nations, a third of the planet’s countries criminalize sexual orientation and attack minorities. Latin America ranks very poorly on this list, not very far from Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Mauritania.
A dangerous retreat
This is the new phantom that is roaming Latin America and the planet. It is a dogma that promotes intolerance and takes us back to a time way before the Enlightenment, even before the Renaissance, all the way back to an aggressive and coarse Middle Ages that even justifies itself by saying, “We are the majority.” It is a serious danger because it is the rule of those who shout loudest.
The only tonic is a return to Locke, Mill, the tradition of Voltaire and the principles of the liberal State. A return to recognition of the majority as well as the minority, to tolerance and diversity of opinion, to the modernity we believed we had already reached. It seems we’re not there yet.
Jaime Ordóñez Chacón is director of the Central American Institute for Governability (ICG), professor of State Theory at the University of Costa Rica, and coordinator of the Democracy in Central America Observatory. He has been published in Costa Rica’s newspaper Extra.