Cover Story

Yes, there are people who still believe the world is flat. Yes, their numbers are growing. And yes, they will pray for you.

I Spent a Day at Canada’s Biggest Flat Earth Conference

I was in the parking lot around the West Edmonton Mall, the only place where, under one roof, you can buy your girl Tiffany’s, bungee jump, pop a glock at a gun range, and, on this August morning, attend the Flat Earth International Conference. That’s when I saw him roll up on a motorcycle, a duffel bag and camping gear tied to his backseat.

A curly ponytail tumbled out his helmet as he removed it. He limped toward the mall, 1,250 kilometres of road still vibrating through his body. Cory Millard, I’d soon learn, travelled from Victoria, B.C., during a heatwave and wildfire season. Maybe it was his polarized sunglasses, stubble and ripped shoes — or maybe it was seeing him through a pinkish haze and under a smoky sky — but Millard had a “motherfuck the man” quality I thought was typical of conspiracy theorists.

“Here for the conference?” I asked. He lifted his sunglasses over his hair, looked at me intensely and nodded. I figured I could spot a Flat Earther from a distance.

Inside, we past an advertisement for the Fantasyland Hotel’s newest theme room, Outer Space, a place that for Millard and fellow believers is truly a fantasy. At least, they don’t believe in space the way the majority of the planet has for the minority of time.

The range of theories conventioneers would soon share with me varied. Some thought the sun, moon and stars encircle us from above, hanging like chandeliers from a domed ceiling. Others thought the sun, moon and stars, like satellites, are merely trick photography projected onto the dome by secretive organizations controlling our Truman Show reality. Members of the Flat Earth Society — established in 1956 as successor to the much older Universal Zetetic Society — do believe in a solar system, one that’s accelerating upwards through space at a specific velocity to account for gravity. However, most conventioneers and speakers I met agreed that the Flat Earth Society is full of shit. At best, it’s a disorganized and outdated club that hasn’t kept up on flat-earth research. At worst, a ruse helping disguise the truth on behalf of NASA, the U.N.,
Satanists, and probably the Illuminati.

What they — believers and undercover agents alike — can all agree on is this: The world is flat. A plane, not a sphere. A disc, not a ball. Our planet is like a round tabletop decorated like a diorama and flooded with water held in place by the impenetrable ice walls otherwise known as Antarctica.

Since ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras proposed the global earth around 500 BC, steadfast Flat Earthers have been pushed to the fringes — at first glacially, then swiftly. But 2,515 years later, on February 10, 2015, software consultant Mark Sargent, of South Whidbey Island, Washington, uploaded his first YouTube video, “Flat Earth Clues 1,” and ancient beliefs resurged. Sargent now has 61,000 subscribers and Flat Earthers, though still very fringe, likely number in the hundreds of thousands, counting amongst its proponents rapper B.o.B. and, briefly, Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving.1 It could be more: a flawed but large online survey of Americans by YouGov found two percent of the adult population have always believed the world is flat. Many more, especially amongst Millennials, have recently developed doubts. The largest group of “globists,” as they’re known to Flat Earthers, are those old enough to remember watching the moon landing, which, of course, was a hoax.

And 9/11 was an inside job.

And the CIA killed Kennedy.

And vaccines cause autism.

You don’t really get into flat earth theory until you’ve waded through other popular conspiracies. It’s one of the most extreme beliefs one can hold — “the upper echelon, the cream of the crop, the top conspiracy,” as conference organizer Robbie Davidson put it. Davidson, an author and documentarian on the subject, added, “you can’t get higher than this.”

As we approached registration, Millard, a 43-year-old carpenter, looked momentarily worried. “I didn’t register,” he said, noticing others attendees wore lanyards with printed names. Luckily, a woman in a white lab coat, YouTuber Cami Knodel of the Globebusters, sold him a $199 two-day conference pass. We entered the hall together, passing Davidson, Sargent, and other content producers Millard, by his own estimate, follows for over 10 hours a week. “I’m a little star struck,” he said.

I was also struck by whom I saw: a mass of ordinary, educated people. I met a construction worker who’d driven from Hamilton and a former CBC journalist, bonafide believers. Two physicians and their pharmacist friend, bonafide believers. I met a large family, three generations of bonafide believers, the youngest 14, who drove five hours, bringing along the clan’s lone holdout, Grandpa Larry, a retired physician who, by the end of the conference, was also a bonafide believer. The only tinfoil hat belonged to a dubious 13-year-old, invited by her nonbeliever father, a public health expert interested in the conference from an epistemological perspective — “why people believe what they believe” — and her mother: a bonafide believer.

Some thought the sun, moon and stars encircle us from above, hanging like chandeliers from a domed ceiling. Others thought the sun, moon and stars, like satellites, are merely trick photography projected onto the dome by secretive organizations controlling our Truman Show reality.

These 250 everyday folks varied in ages and ethnic backgrounds. They came to connect offline, expand their research on a passionate subject, and take home a souvenir or two from booths peddling “Space is Fake” bumpers stickers, “accurate” maps of the world, and silver coins commemorating this special occasion. Davidson hosted conferences in Colorado and North Carolina with larger attendances, but chose his hometown for Canada’s first Flat Earth convention.

After the countdown on giant screens hit zero, a dramatic movie trailer built anticipation for the mind-shattering experts about to speak. Davidson took the podium in a navy suit and striped tie. After some words of welcome, he set the agenda for the conference, calling for globists to end the persecution of flat earthers. “There’s a lot of excitement but it comes at a cost,” he said. “People have endured a lot of hardship. Many are suffering in silence.”

Across the hall, heads nodded vigorously.

It was time to stop the bullying, he said. “It’s not a laughing matter because people are hurting, people are losing their jobs, people are being threatened.” It would seem the easiest part of believing in a flat earth was the believing part.

I met Davidson at his suburban house a few weeks prior. He’s a striking figure at six-foot-seven, give or take an inch from his gelled red hair. Looking around his home, decorated with sentimental Christian art, artificial flowers and a tasteful 19th century “Map of the Square and Stationary Earth,” you’d never guess that Davidson, 46, was once a foul-mouthed punk, taking the piss out of the Bible. But 25 years ago, he felt the presence of God lead him to a VHS glowing on a shelf. It was the 1979 epic, Jesus. “I grabbed it, put it in the VCR, watched it, and by the end of it I was on my knees.”

Davidson considered joining the clergy, but he’s more of a businessman. He earned a good living as a Christian FM station’s top salesman and from selling his start-up company, Praize.com, once billed as “Christian Yahoo.” Davidson also saved a nice sum trading cryptocurrency, but he’s put that on hold to turn his most intense passion into a career.

After watching Mark Sargent’s “Flat Earth Clues” series in 2015, Robbie didn’t exactly get on his knees. “I’ve never seen a greater witnessing opportunity in my life and I’ve been involved in prison, youth, and street ministry,” he said, leading me to his office. “The minute people realize they’re not a random accident from a Big Bang created out of nothing, they realize there must be a Creator.”

Cosmologists studying the Big Bang may want to begin with his office — an explosion of paperwork, gadgets and DVDs. Upon a U-shaped desk was a cascade of stationery, photo lenses, a digital camera on tripods ready to vlog, two desktops, a laptop broadcasting a 24-hour feed of flat earth videos to YouTube, multiple copies of his documentary Scientism Exposed, and the trophy it earned at the 2018 Flat Earth Video Awards. It’s a full-time job supporting this movement with conferences, books, and enough video content to satiate 100,000-plus YouTube subscribers. However, it’s not yet an income to support a middle-class family of five.

His wife, Rachel, a stay-at-home mom, isn’t at all worried. “If it was causing problems with my family, I’d be a little bit more concerned,” she said, in between nursing an infant son and entertaining their three-year-old daughter. So far, her husband’s flat earth evangelism has only resulted in her brother unfriending (and later re-friending) Davidson on Facebook.

Robbie and Rachel, Six-Day Literal Creationists, met on a Christian romance site in 2012. She called the moon landing a hoax on their first date — “and I knew right then I was going to marry her,” said Robbie. They’ve seen eye-to-eye on just about everything since: evolution, the earth’s shape, and the need to safeguard their children from “scientism” with homeschooling. But despite their family’s acceptance of their lifestyle, others haven’t been so kind. They’ve lost friends and been pressured out of two evangelical churches for espousing views deemed heretical. One pastor wouldn’t even let Rachel volunteer in the nursery. “What’s she going to do?” asked Robbie. “Whisper ‘the earth is flat’ to babies?”

Are people really so afraid of flat earthers?

I’m not afraid that flat earth theory will become mainstream, but I’m afraid its resurgence is symptomatic of something worse. A doomed civilization, maybe. One in which people aren’t critical of information that bolsters their preconceived notions, and increasingly dismiss undesirable facts in the name of truth, which is whatever they believe. A civilization that seems bent on crippling journalism, academia, all traditional sources of knowledge, at a time when the survival of our planet and democracies need them most. Individually, Flat Earthers I interviewed were gracious and kind, but their politeness evaporated into heckles and boos the moment speakers whipped them up with condemnable mainstream science rhetoric.

The Flat Earth International Conference advertises itself as an “educational endeavour composed of individuals and organizations uniting around the common purpose of the true scientific inquiry of the created earth.” But equal time, maybe more, was dedicated to chipping away at educational institutions. From the outset, the event emcee called upon attendees to vote out unfriendly school trustees who aren’t “teaching the truth,” or else pull their kids out of public schools. Speakers often used air quotes around the word “scientist” and the very mention of Neil deGrasse Tyson incited jeering. The disdain and degradation of “scientism” was even stronger than their flat earth convictions.

The press in Edmonton was mostly local. Few journalists stayed for the full two days. We shared a table with a hardcore conspiracy theorist who took it upon himself to be our assistant, stealthily sliding Post-its across the table with messages like “THE TRUTH SOUNDS LIKE HATE…TO THOSE WHO HATE THE TRUTH!” As we scrambled for interviews during short breaks, I wondered if we were committing journalistic malpractice by giving this movement undue legitimacy or cynically taking field notes on a modern-day freak show.

I asked a physician in attendance, Chris Gordillo, how he felt about the constant undermining of expertise. After all, he’s essentially a practitioner of science, and needs his patients’ trust in his scientific authority to properly treat their minds and bodies. “Believing the earth is flat does not undermine science,” he said. “It is actually proven by science, which I would define as the acquisition of knowledge through observation and experiment.” He listed 12 reasons the earth was flat, mostly as questions, such as, why are railroads created without accounting for curvature? And, if the moon is rotating, why do we always see the same side? “What is required for skeptics, is separating out the true science from the scientism.”

But like most other guests I interviewed, Gordillo had no problem putting faith in the Bible. The gathering was billed as secular, but the people befit the Venn Diagram of conspiracy theorists and creationists. Guests talked about Luciferian agendas and the timeless battle between good and evil. Speakers referred to the “firmament,” a term for the heavens found in Genesis, which they interpreted as proof of the dome. “The bible, if read literally,” explained YouTuber Matt Long, “is a flat-earth book.”

From their perspective, gravity — yes, gravity — remains to be proven, but the existence of angels and demons was inherent fact. For example, the Globebusters panel spent 90 minutes casting doubt upon the accepted distance of the moon, curvature of the horizon, and Earth’s axis, citing incongruencies in temperature, lumens, and photos. Then they projected a picture of the (fake) planet, mirrored it like a Rorschach Test, flipped it, and mirrored it again. The audience gasped. The continents and clouds now formed the uncanny figure of a demon flexing its beefy upside-down, symmetrical Middle East arms. It was some kind of reptilian creature, explained Bob Knodel, tracing the shapes with the cursor. The clouds above its head were a crown and what looked to be the All Seeing Eye.

“This is straight-up Luciferian, guys,” he said. “This is what we’re dealing with and it is an uphill battle. Believe me.”

And let’s say we join that battle. What’s motivating the enemy? Why are we here? It’s a question I asked again and again but never got a straight answer. Best I could decipher it, “They” want us to believe we’re just a speck upon a speck within a speck of the universe, thus shrinking our significance, stealing us from our shepherd, and turning us into scared, obedient consumers. Who They were varied, but They were always in cahoots with Evil itself.

The wildfires intensified overnight, causing the health department to issue a “very high risk” air quality advisory. As I crossed the mall parking lot for day two of the convention, pedestrians covered their faces with shirts and surgical masks. The August fire would soon become B.C.’s worst on record. Whatever the earth’s shape, it’s heating up and increasingly prone to extreme weather. Nobody could deny that.

But that wasn’t top of mind at this planetary conference. Instead, attendees were angered by a “hit job” from a local TV station that Davidson lambasted first thing in the morning. I entered late to a chorus of people blurting “fake news!” while the second speaker set out to expose media lies and greed.

Once things settled down though, the conference returned to being what it was at heart: a niche YouTube convention. Given the subject matter, it was surprisingly dull.

I retired to the coffee station around the moment a “biblical cosmology” lecturer started playing videos of himself giving other lectures elsewhere. I played a quick game of Hand-2-Hand,2 a flat earth-themed board game with the inventor himself (and won) before venturing into the halls. I found Mark Sargent, the so-called Godfather of the movement, sitting alone. Earlier in the conference, he sat onstage like a guru taking audience questions for 50 straight minutes, seldom hesitating to answer. But one-on-one, I sensed genuine concern in his voice as I pressed him on the implications of undermining science when the planet itself is in peril.

“What happens to medicine, what happens to technology?” he asked himself. “Can flat earth actually make it worse? Yes that’s a risk, but there’s also a chance to do good here.” He reached into his satchel and retrieved a gold-rimmed lens — a 3-D map of the flat earth. I peered inside, as God might. “If you know you’re in this, do you still go to war, do you still commit hate crimes and sex crimes, if you know there’s a power watching you?” he asked. “This could potentially be a golden age.”

But the vast majority of humans — 84 per cent, according to Pew Research — do believe in a higher power, and have since time immemorial. Meanwhile, we’re collectively polluting the only habitat our Gods haven given us. Didn’t that concern him? “Pollution is a big deal,” he said. Even worse if you believe in an enclosed pressurized system like the one in his right hand. After all, if the ice walls melt, the oceans might seep off the edges of the earth and take us with them. “The pollution issue will have to be addressed sooner or later.”

“Yeah — with science,” I said, momentarily losing my cool. “With support of scientific research, which is hard to get when people think scientists are at best misled and, at worse, working with the Illuminati and Lucifer.”

“I agree. It’s a bit of a paradox,” he admitted.

Sargent claims he never intended to create a movement. When he made his first YouTube video during a spell of unemployment, it felt “cathartic,” like he was excising a mass from his brain. But it went viral and set off a wave of new content producers. He admits he wasn’t entirely convinced the earth was flat back then, nor is he now. He’s only 100 per cent sure it’s not a globe. I left our conversation sensing that he knew what I knew, that he’s created a religion.

During a panel discussion called Flat Earth and the Bible, I used the Q&A period to poll the audience and confirmed what I’d assumed—that nearly all of them identified as Creationists. I turned my attention to Davidson and his co-panelists, including amateur theologian Emmanuel Lokonga, who claims his videogame console was once possessed by demonic forces. I pointed out our commonalities: journalists and Flat Earthers both doubt authority and ask questions in pursuit of the truth. But, I asked, why don’t you approach your own supernatural experiences with the same scientific rigour you apply to disproving scientific theories?

Their answers were about what I expected: feeling the touch of Christ, or being repeatedly woken up by a glitchy XBox, was “experiential evidence.”

But as I returned to my seat, I felt the air change in the room. The looks people shot me fluctuated between pity and contempt. A senior gentlemen beelined to me and, with a quivering voice, told me he knows a lot of atheists who’ve killed themselves because they couldn’t fill their spiritual voids.

At recess, a woman named Gaetane, the former journalist, implored me to summon Jesus with an open heart. She held my hand for 15 minutes. As she shared her story, about almost getting sucked into a Luciferian cult (via yoga, naturally), another woman, without a word, placed a green apple in my free hand and walked away. I ate the fruit of knowledge, sweet and delicious, but my understanding of good and evil remained minimal.

Shortly after the final panel started, the outdoor air quality got so bad it started setting off hotel smoke alarms. It took half an hour to fix, but the panelists trudged forward, fielding audience questions over the intermittent sirens. “I just want to respond to the reporter over there, who says that they’re always bringing the bible into it,” said one, pointing right at me. “I just want to point out that they’re always bringing Lucifer into it.”

I packed my bag and followed the crowd to the hotel lobby. I was stopped by Gaetane, Lokonga and other friendly conventioneers gathered in the halls. “Do you mind if we pray for you?” she asked.

“Not at all,” I said, smiling.

“Do you want to pray with us?” It took me a moment to realize she meant right here and now. I shrugged and joined hands with the circle of seven, shut my eyes and dropped my head.

“Is there anything specifically that you would like us to pray for?” asked Lokonga.

I thought about it. Nine months prior, my wife and I had a baby, who’s filled me with both inconceivable love and unimaginable guilt when I consider the state of the world she’ll inherit. On the best days, I can convince myself that her generation will be our salvation. Other days, I fear we did something selfish and brutal. So I asked that we pray for her, and in doing so, we prayed for humanity and this planet.

References   [ + ]

1. It’s not the same thing, but at the time of publication Steph Curry doesn’t believe in the moon landing. It’s in the same neighbourhood as flat earthers.
2. If you don’t care to click the link, because you maybe don’t want Google feeding you flat earth products for the next month, the game is like Rock, Paper, Scissors, only with the words Ball, Flat, Liars. Fun for the whole family.