Monday, August 12, 2019

Evangelism in a Flat Earth

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Last year, Netflix released a documentary called "Behind the Curve" about US Americans who believe that the earth is flat. The documentary generated some discussion at the time it came out, much of it about what the documentary and its subjects say about the state of science, especially in a culture where many disbelieve in human-caused climate change, despite overwhelming scientific consensus on this point.

As I watched the movie, though, I was struck not by the parallels with science, but with the parallels with religion.

This started during a section of the movie that discusses factions within the group of people who believe the earth is flat. It turns out that there are different interpretations of what is at the edge of the earth (and whether there even is an edge). However, these are not just differences of theory, but different communities that have formed around the theories and their leading proponents, who hurl anathemas at one another.

The documentary suggests that these divisions are similar to sects within a religion, and the suggestion seemed a plausible one to me, based not just on Christian comparisons, but also what I know about Islam, Buddhism, and other religions.

What really drove home for me the sense that what I was watching was more akin to a religious community than a scientific community, though, was the convention that is documented near the film's end. Participants spoke of how much they appreciated the experience of community at the convention, and how the community and the enthusiasm evident at the convention affirmed their commitment to flat earthism, not just as a belief system, but as a movement, an identity, and a way of orienting oneself to the world.

The convention wasn't about knowledge as the secular Western scientific structure would define it. It was about the relationships and emotions that support shared identity, beliefs, practices, and motivations, which is the realm of religion.

Thus, following the movie, my question was not, "How can we get people to believe in science when this is the alternative?" It was, "How can we get people to believe in Christianity when this is the alternative?"

What does evangelism look like when the alternatives to Christianity are not just other religions and secularism, but a whole host of quasi-religious interest groups that arise through and are nourished by the Internet? Flat Earthers are not the only such group. Many other interest groups have generated a set of orienting beliefs and/or mythos, a sense of distinct identity, and a sense of group belonging, in large part through the skillful use of technology. These groups might be fandoms. They might be devotees of a particular health regimen. They might be conspiracy theorists.

To be clear, I am talking about interests that go beyond mere hobbies for those deeply involved to instead provide an orienting way of being in the world. These are interests and associated communities that provide the "system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men [sic] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic" that Clifford Geertz defined as religion.

One of the challenges of the pluralistic, individualistic, postmodern world of the West is not that people no longer have a yearning for the type of good news that Christianity provides. It's that there so many plausible alternatives to "fill the God-shaped hole in their hearts," and people can choose the one that most caters to their particular interests, personality, and proclivities. The West isn't irreligious. It's abounding in simulacra of religion.

It seems that two responses on the part of Christian evangelism are in order.

First, Christianity has to be willing to critique a system of individualism and consumer capitalist thinking. If one adopts a framework of the individual as the supreme arbiter of good and consumer capitalism as the paramount methodology by which to achieve that good, it is difficult to critique the notion that people should be able to choose whatever religious or quasi-religious group and devotion seem to best suit them.

Yet, instead of critiquing such an approach to religion, Western Christians, and especially white American Christians, are often captive to such thinking, as Soong-Chan Rah and others have shown. Effective evangelism needs to raise questions about such assumptions, both among others and within the church, even though doing so is counter-cultural.

Second, Christianity has to recover the way in which it is not just about individual beliefs but about communities of practice. This is one of the things that the Flat Earthers intuitively understand and one of the keys to their success. Flat Earthism thrives not because its tenets are particularly compelling. It proceeds because the Internet has allowed people to create communities that support such beliefs, turning them from mere opinions to central components of identity, which seems to be the real sell for many involved.

Certainly, belief is important for Christianity. But when Christianity focuses solely on belief, it is easy for others to simply dismiss its conclusions, as Flat Earthers dismiss the truth claims of modern astronomy. Yet when truth claims are embedded within communities of belief and practice, they take on additional plausibility, even easily-disproved truth claims about the earth being flat.

For most of Christian history, this understanding of Christian belief as embedded within Christian community and strengthened by a sense of Christian identity was a given. That changed under the effects of the Enlightenment and modernity. Christians must therefore reclaim the communal sense to our religion, and to do so, they must be willing to push back on some of the individualism that so pervades Western culture.

In the end, the question is not really, "How can Christian evangelism defeat Flat Earthers?" The question should be, "What can we learn (or re-learn) from this growing social movement?" While the beliefs behind the Flat Earth movement may seem silly, the "Behind the Curve" documentary does raise important questions about how humans fill their basic needs for belief, identity, and community.

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