Finding hope on a flat Earth

Flat Earthers endure scorn, ridicule in service of what they call a godly worldview

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You can’t debunk Flat Earth.

You might think you can. You might think it would be easy to shoot down a theory that says Earth is a flat, immobile disc covered by a dome. That space doesn’t exist. That every astronaut is a faker.

But to flat Earthers, a small but growing subculture, you cannot shake their belief.

“People ask the same questions over and over,” said Nathan Thompson, a leading figure in the movement, who heads Official Flat Earth & Globe Discussion, a Facebook group with more than 128,000 members that serves as the largest online meeting space for flat-Earth believers.

“They say we’re a cult, but the globe is the biggest cult of all,” Thompson said.

Thompson was one of many speakers at the Flat Earth International Conference, held Nov. 15 and 16 at the Crowne Plaza Denver Airport Convention Center. The event was the second major conference for the movement, selling 650 tickets — far more than last year’s 200.

Nonbelievers’ questions have easy answers, Thompson told attendees. What about the moon landing? It was staged in a movie studio. What about pictures of Earth from space? Photoshopped. What about footage from the space station? Actors hanging from wires.

Many flat Earthers belive they have been lied to by the establishment. The reason: to lead mankind astray from the almighty.

“If we’re a speck floating in an endless void, then we don’t mean that much,” said Michael Renfro, 44, who lives in Colorado Springs. “But if you read any ancient text, that’s the opposite of what God says we are. We’re special, and we bring something to the world that’s unique. Under the dome of the flat Earth, I know God cares about us. About me.”

Over conversations with numerous attendees of the conference, some trends became clear: many flat Earthers are devout Christians, who see the flat Earth as irrefutable evidence of their special place in God’s creation. Many attendees started believing the Earth was flat only in the last three years, as a slew of YouTube “documentaries” swept through social media.

Many already believed many other conspiracy theories, and started with the belief that 9/11 was an inside job. Their antiestablishment beliefs stretch far beyond the shape of the Earth, into a disbelief in vaccines, mass shootings and more.

Many said their belief has cost them friendships, romantic relationships, and even jobs.

But in other ways, flat Earthers seem to defy easy definition. Attendees at the conference were diverse: young and old, black and white, men and women. They come from a variety of backgrounds: social work, nursing, manual labor and at least one mechanical engineer. Their political beliefs are wide ranging as well: some voted for Clinton, others for Trump, though many said voting is a useless enterprise — part of a mass deception.

Ask flat Earthers who’s behind the deception, and you’ll get a variety of answers. Freemasons, Rockefellers, the Catholic church, “globalists” — though many agree there’s one puppetmaster: Satan.

“Satan is behind everything,” said Allan Spencer, a public school music teacher from California. “He’s in media, government and the education system.”

“It’s so much easier for Satan to rule if we believe we’re worthless,” said Taumi Hardersen, 35, who started a Colorado Springs-area meetup group for flat Earthers. “Flat Earth has woken me up to so many lies.”

Like many flat Earthers, Hardersen has suffered backlash for her beliefs.

“My best friend from childhood disowned me,” Hardersen said. “It was refreshing, in a weird way. It brings out people’s true nature. Somebody who has that much hate toward different beliefs, I don’t need them in my life. I’ve made so many new friends in the movement anyway.”

Hardersen said she’s raising her two daughters, ages 5 and 8, in her beliefs, though she worries about the influence of public school.

“People are downright mean,” said Cindy Gruender, of Windsor, who wore a sash reading “Miss Flat Earth” — an appellation she took as a point of pride after it was jeeringly given to her at a church she no longer attends.

“I’ve been called an idiot, stupid, a heretic,” Gruender said. She stays steadfast, though, because “the scripture says you must stand for the truth. I don’t back down.”

Flat Earth is a fascinating phenomenon, said Jean-Francois Mayer, an internationally renowned researcher of new religious movements, who flew from Switzerland in part to attend the conference.

“This is not a cult,” Mayer said. “This is a network of like-minded people, who have come together with the zeal of new converts to enjoy a place where they don’t feel ostracized. They want to be seen as people with inquisitive minds who are interested in scientific truth.”

Coming to the conference was a thrilling experience for most attendees, especially those who face disdain at home.

“It’s been so hurtful to endure the gossip and insults from my classmates and family,” said Summer Loewen, 14, who came to the conference from Alberta, Canada, with her sister. Loewen’s immediate family members are flat Earthers.

“Here, I feel safe to open up, to have discussions, and to learn,” Loewen said. “It’s deepening my relationship with God. I’m really growing here.”

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