Delusions of Cosmic Destiny

Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-Religions
, Ronald H. Fritze (304pp, 19.95, Reaktion Books)

In a note author Ronald H Fritze says this book is an 'exploration', it is a foray into a 'wilderness' of the mind, a wilderness of ideas and books: 'I was,' he writes, 'exploring the wilderness of pseudoscience and pseudohistory...'

A sceptical polemic, Invented Knowledge
is a partial survey of the 'cultic milieu' of these wilderness topics, related fringe phenomena and the compulsive attraction of such speculations for both the academic and occult communities, not to mention the reading public and fans of 'quirky' literature.

The book opens a window onto various bizarre facets of the contemporary zeitgeist
, charting the shadowy borders between respectable academia and the extremist worldview of the fanatic on the one hand, and popular culture on the other. In his introduction Fritze asserts that pseudohistory and pseudoscience are a modern phenomenon with a tendency to overshadow the prosaic interpretations of solid research. This tendency, he says sadly, is amplified by a 'charlatan's playground' of modern mass media 'delivery systems' such as film, broadcasting, magazines, the internet, and, one might add, video games like the Tomb Raider (1996) series.

Prolific encycolpaedist and editor, author Ronald H Fritze is Dean of Arts and Sciences and Professor of History at Athens State University, Alabama among various other roles and university posts. His previous books include Legend and Lore of the Americas Before 1492
(1996), Travellers Legends and Lore (1999) and New Worlds: The Great Voyages of Discovery 1400-1600 (2003)

Invented Knowledge
comprises six chapters dealing with aspects of the pseudohistorical milieu, preceded by an Introduction. The first chapter deals with the theme or myth of Atlantis ('the mother of pseudohistory'). The second chapter surveys various theories concerning the discovery and settlement of ancient America. Chapters three and four are thematically linked being Parts I and II of an analysis of two racist cosmogonies, one Christian, (Christian Identity), the other Islamic (NOI or Nation of Islam). Chapter five deals with some controversial theories concerning ancient chronology and past geological catastrophes, including the popular notion of 'ancient astronauts'. The sixth and final chapter covers a recent controversy surrounding Black Athena, an academic work using pseudohistory to assert the Afrocentric origins of Western Classical civilisation, a trendy toxic cocktail of race, 'culture' and Occidentalist propaganda.

In the acknowledgements Fritze recognises the access to literary resources provided by the University libraries at the University of Central Arkansas and Athens State. The fruits of his study are manifest in the Select Bibliography, which lists many of the key source works of our subject, from The God Kings and the Titans
by James Bailey to Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision. For the curious reader this detailed information, which includes various learned articles, provides a useful starting point for further explorations of this 'wilderness of the mind, ideas and books'. All the notes are organised by chapter and contain extra information and some further clarifications. There are, however books mentioned in the main body of the text, such as the writings of Rand and Rose Flem-Ath, that do not appear in the bibliography. 

As one might expect from research of this provenance the scope of Invented Knowledge
is broadly Transatlantic. Apart from a brief discussion of Holocaust Denial the inclusion of European cases (those seminal occult movements, Theosophy and Anthroposphy) is confined to providing extensive detail on the 'back story' of pseudohistorical and pseudo-pre-historical thinking from the nineteenth century to the mid nineteen eighties, culminating in the Black Athena affair. Indeed one is tempted to consider the possibility that Fritze has written this volume to bolster criticism of Bernal and the Afrocentrists, by showing the pseudohistorical context of this academic debate. His discussion of the Atlantis of Plato leads inevitably to an exposition of the various pre-1492 theories of discovery and settlement in ancient America. The two sections on racist cosmogonies are confined to a discussion of two home grown American ideologies, presumably the 'pseudo-religions' of the book's subtitle, namely Christian Identity ('to a large degree the Ku Klux Klan at prayer') and the NOI. Here Fritze makes a diplomatic distinction between these clearly nefarious movements and mainstream religions which, he assures us with disarming naivete, are not in the least bit racist because God is equally concerned with the 'ultimate welfare of all humans, or at least all believers' (so that's all right, then).

The next section, Pseudohistoria Epidemica
deals with the famous controversy of the nineteen fifties sparked by the works of Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) and the legacy use of catastrophism as a flawed historical proposition in the works of other authors. These include Charles H. Hapgood (1904-1982) and the widely discredited Erich Von Daniken, one of the chief exponents of the 'alien astronauts' concept. Von Daniken's famous book Chariots of the Gods was published in 1968, but was part of a vogue for crypto-archaeological mysteries that was really started by The Morning of the Magicians (1960) by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. Influential in the counterculture, Magicians stimulated a fascination for lost civilisations, the Nasca Lines, super-human evolution (mutants) and occult aspects of the Third Reich. A similar book by Robert Charroux (1909-1978) One Hundred Thousand Years of Man's Unknown History (1963) claimed that humanity was the product of migration from the planet Venus.

This notion of planetary migration and 'deep time' may be traced back to the science fiction novels of Olaf Stapleton, who published Last and First Men
in 1931. There is no clear dividing line between fantastic fiction and pseudohistorical doctrine. Exponents often claim that works of fiction are really cryptic allegories or that writing a novel is a strategy for dealing with 'forbidden' subjects in a respectable way. There are various occult groups of ritual magicians who regard the cosmic horror fiction of H P Lovecraft, like At the Mountains of Madness (1931) which also deals with 'deep time', ancient star gods and lost civilisations, as literal fact. Lovecraft himself was a sceptic and 'no believer' in Atlantis. The metaphysical doctrines of the Nation of Islam, formulated in the 1930s, are among those most obviously based on the world of popular culture and science fiction. NOI mythology includes such motifs as the mad scientist who perpetrates heinous genetic experiments (origin of the evil white races) and an apocalyptic saucer-shaped Mother Plane that will destroy the evil regime of the USA fulfilling the cosmic destiny of the Shabazz, the true rulers of the world.

The final chapter, as noted, deals at some length with the Black Athena
controversy that erupted in 1987 and, in passing, contains an admonition of the 'post-modernist climate of contemporary academics' which, according to Fritze, provides a 'protective environment' for dubious cultural radicalism and tendentious research. The cultic milieu has continued to evolve since the nineteen eighties, when Spielberg's successful movie blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) did much to rekindle public interest in the character of the adventurer-archaeologist and the ubiquitous thematic link with scriptural mysteries and legends.

Almost simultaneously a similar quasi-controversy was launched with the publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail
(1982) by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln which provided most of the crypto-historic background for Dan Brown's later fictional bestseller The Da Vinci Code (2003). Among recent, more hardcore, works of this genre, derisively referred to as 'junk history' by some, Fritze considers those of Gavin Menzies (1937-) and Graham Hancock (1950-). But like the Atlantologists Rand and Rose Flem-Ath, these authors are not in the business of developing new categories of pseudo-history so much as revisiting the perennial topics of lost civilisations, ancient mysteries, devious Nazi conspiracies, vanished or alien super-races and pre-Columbian discovery voyages. President Hu Jintao mentioned Menzies hypothesis that the Chinese 'discovered' Australia, as well as America, to the Australian parliament in 2003, causing another minor furore. All of which demonstrates the infectious attraction of these sagas, mysteries and cosmic conspiracy theories.

Fritze takes trouble to explain 'pseudoscience' (of which 'pseudohistory' is a branch) in support of his basic claim that the trend he is debunking is a modern phenomenon, 'largely the products of the last quarter of the nineteenth century'. The main, historical point of reference being Atlantis The Antedeluvian World
(1882) by Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901) which stands as 'the first great work of pseudohistory'. Donnelly was a contemporary of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) the founder of Theosophy whose books Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888) provide the basis for an occult/spiritualist vision of Atlantis that 'has influenced other occult and spiritualist groups ever since'. Rudolf Steiner's theories of 'cosmic memory' and similar doctrines expounded by Dion Fortune (not discussed here) built on Blavatsky's ideas and helped establish 'cosmic history' (and racial destiny) as an almost self-contained branch of the occult sciences that has spilled over into many spheres of popular culture. Fritze observes that the connections between Donnelly and Blavatsky are unclear, but the cultural synchronicity of their contemporaneity is nonetheless significant. The difference between the two being that Blavatsky claimed to be an 'initiate' whose access to hidden knowledge (the Book of Dzyan) derived from supernatural sources, whereas, for the most part, Donnelly exploited 'respectable sources' to provide the background for speculations. Even though his theory has since been scientifically disproved, at the time there was a 'marginally plausible possibility' that his theory might be correct.

Insofar as it goes his approach is straightforward and pragmatic. Fritze makes it clear that it is necessary to distinguish between the 'discarded scholarship' of obsolete science and fake science. For example, in pre-scientific eras it was common to maintain that the Earth was flat or that geo-centrism was valid, even self-evident. In the distant past no one would be considered eccentric for holding such opinions.

In the age of modern science, however, someone who seriously argued that the Sun was not the centre of a solar system with orbiting planets, one of which is the Earth, would be regarded as a crank, badly educated, a teller of tall tales - or a purveyor of fake science. It is possible that a 'mystic' might develop a kind of 'spiritual geo-centrism' that managed to assimilate various ideas and jargon from modern astronomy interpreted symbolically, in which case it is but a short step from telling tall tales to preaching scriptural fantasies and promoting pseudo-religion. Preconceptions rather than objective evidence drive pseudoscientists and pseudohistorians, claims Fritze; they ignore facts or findings that contradict their personal, commercial or political, agendas. Furthermore, as modern science evolves, it rejects its own theories and replaces them with more effective ones, a process that creates an ever increasing store of 'discarded scholarship' providing the basis for further pseudohistorical speculations. One might think for example, of the famous Martian Canals or alternatively Margaret Murray's theory of witchcraft as an 'underground' pagan religious survival, which permeates Wicca and other modern 'urban witchcraft' movements.

Another significant theme of Invented Knowledge
is the idea of the 'cultic milieu', a quasi-technical term borrowed from sociologist Colin Campbell's paper 'The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularisation' (1972). Fritze subscribes to the description of cults as 'ephemeral, loosely structured and rather individualistic organisations that follow a belief system'. Clearly the jargon of the 'cultic milieu' forms the basis of the principle of the 'pseudo-religion' which, in its in 'hardcore' manifestation takes the form of movements like Theosophy, Christian Identity, The Nation of Islam and the UFO religion Heaven's Gate. The 'softcore' manifestations of the milieu are taken to encompass the entire field of pseudohistory, including the species of post-colonialist, post-modernist scholarship purveyed by academic insiders, exemplified by Bernal's Black Athena or, alternatively, purveyed by the works of Gavin Menzies which are essentially opportunistic publishing escapades. All of these phenomena operate as cultural microenvironments with permeable borders, constantly feeding from each other, constantly evolving in a protean manner. Cults, says Fritze, 'are in a constant process of beginning, thriving and dying out, so do pseudohistorical ideas arise, reach a level of popular acceptance and fade away.' Ominously, he adds, 'there are always cults around'. It is not made explicit, but one is aware that the word 'cult' has sinister and pejorative overtones and is being used here to differentiate the inferior 'pseudo-religion' from the genuine article. No one refers to a major religion as a 'cult' despite the possibility that established religions may themselves have started as cults, or the further possibility that within the orbits of their faiths, established religions contain numerous sects and loose, ephemeral sub-cults that conform to the Fritze-Campbell description. All of this is ignored here and the negative status of 'pseudo-religion' is taken for granted. Fritze does not make any kind of historical, scientific or sociological case that establishes, say, the Book of Genesis as a more authentic document than the Book of Dzyan. His assertion that the cultic milieu of pseudohistory is a largely modern phenomenon helps deflect attention from these more basic questions.

Another key theme of Invented Knowledge
is the detrimental impact of pseudohistory on politics. Or, to be more precise, the overlap between pseudohistorical theories of human development on the ideologies of reactionary cultural formations and organisations. The buzzwords here are 'extremism' and 'fanaticism'. 'Pseudohistory often lends itself as a tool of racism, religious fanaticism and nationalistic extremism...' observes Fritze. In his illuminating discussion of Christian Identity he notes that pro-slavery Southerners 'generally preferred the biblical story of Noah's curse on Ham as a religious justification for slavery'. But as, according to his own editorial policy, the Old Testament does not in itself amount to a pseudo-history (although providing much of the raw material from the Ten Lost Tribes to the Alien Astronauts via geological catastrophes) his exposition concentrates on the bizarre ideas of pre-Adamism and polygenesis instead.

Even though Plato's original Atlantis story may have incorporated some folk memory of the now famous Thera (Santorini) event in Minoan times as described by Fritze at the beginning of the book it is clear that Plato's 'Atlantis' tale is political fable - an exercise in cultural politics. Indeed, elsewhere he notes that most modern scholars agree with the thesis that the Atlantis story was 'a myth invented by Plato'. In nearly all the Atlantis narratives there is a common thread, namely that the inhabitants of the island, usually the dominant power of a huge expansionist ('decadent') empire, were in some respect morally deficient, or became so over time. Despite their divine ancestry (the Olympian god Poseidon, usually) the Atlanteans became 'materialistic' and 'abandoned their traditional moderation for greed and uninhibited ambition...' they intermarried with 'mere mortals' thus diluting their supra-human lineage and so suffered a catastrophic collective disaster - retribution from the Gods.

Here we find a basic tenet of the racist cosmogonies outlined in Invented Knowledge
, the 'original sin' of race-mixing or miscegenation. This horror of miscegenation is almost as intense as the horror of incest described by Freud in his analysis of the psychology of religiosity. In the Atlantis cultic milieu we find a cautionary tale (like the Biblical stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and Noah's Flood) suitable for a moral authoritarian elite caste of patriarchs for whom desire is thoughtcrime and the only function of 'history' is to point out moral lessons. We also find the notion that a 'lost' ancient race existed many millennia ago and that this race was not only an advanced civilisation descended from the gods, but was in some form or other the progenitor of present day humanity. This megalomaniac idea has great appeal, especially when combined with racist theories based on off beat theological dogmas like Christian polygenesis.

In more recent times another factor has been added to the narrative, the notion of a cosmic conflict, a version of the archetypal theme of The War in Heaven, an early form of which can be found in the Greek myth of the Titans. This same theme has also been present in the Judaeo-Christian mythos for centuries and in part derives from the story of Satan's rebellion and fall. As Fritze points out when discussing the Anti-Semitic aspect of recent Christian Identity thinking, believers in these doctrines imagine themselves as participants in some vast cosmic drama, all the events of history are part of this drama - elite believers are agents of cosmic destiny. Inferior elements (non-believers, subhuman races of 'mud people') are, on the other hand, tools of the enemy 'agents of a gigantic, cosmic conspiracy'. Articles of faith such as these are driven by paranoid feelings of inferiority (the world is against us, the world is evil), and megalomania (our leader is The One, we are descended from super-intelligent aliens or 'chosen' by God). That these emotionally charged psychic factors constantly refuel an insatiable need to re-interpret history is self-evident. Events must be made to conform to a continually mutating apocalyptic scenario, which is why the findings of real-world science serve no purpose but to provide the ideologues of cosmic destiny with more raw material for fantasies of supremacy, much to frustration of bona-fide workers in the field.

In summary, Fritze identifies two main, but closely linked causes for the mass acceptance of pseudoscience. Both these causes are based on his jaundiced view of educational practice, which encourages either a dumbed-down anti-intellectualism or a hypertrophied pseudo-sophistication.

Even though, according to his view, 'advances is science, history and archaeology since 1960' have rendered hypotheses about catastrophism or ancient super-civilisations utterly implausible, it has not prevented their assimilation by Native American activists, Afrocentrists, and White Supremacists, or by the likes of Von Daniken, the Flem-Aths, or Colin Wilson.

How can this be?

For Fritze the fault lies in an education system which, over the years (since WW II) has consistently 'slighted' the development of critical thinking. There are even social circumstances in which it has become 'dangerous' to teach a critical approach, creating a popular culture that cannot distinguish between good and bad evidence, nor differentiate empirical argument from 'seemingly impressive rhetoric'. The mass audience for pseudo-history consists of 'the gullible, the ill-informed' and of those who like Fox Mulder in the X-Files
just 'want to believe' regardless.

This reprehensible state of affairs is compounded by the fads and fancies, the higher superstitions, of the academic establishment which, since the nineteen seventies if not earlier, has lost its way in a fog of 'postmodernist obfuscation, political correctness and the raging culture wars of the 1980s and 90s'. This obfuscation usually involves a multi-culturalist mode of epistemological relativism underpinning a 'constructionist' view of knowledge as invented 'truth'. This means that almost any interpretation of history can gain an aura of credibility, especially if, like the theory of Bernal's Black Athena
, it involves a de-centering attack on Eurocentric 'arrogance' confronting the classical traditions of Western cultural supremacy with some kind of 'radical' alternative. Discussing Martin Bernal (1937-), Fritze returns to a point made earlier in his consideration of racist cosmogonies, namely that behind the cultic milieu of the pseudohistorical edifice is a set of psychological problems associated with the idea of identity. He notes that one of Bernal's opponents, Guy McLean Rogers, proposed that the author's own personal identity crisis was the inspiration for his interpretation of ancient history. Needless to say Bernal has never responded to this particular line attack, although he has been vociferous in reactions to other criticisms.

The idea is not developed in Invented Knowledge
, and perhaps it is unfair to expect a detailed exposition of such questions of personal and group psychology in what is, after all, a relatively uncluttered survey of the field.

Humans, says Fritze, are 'concerned with knowing who they are... we all want an identity...'.

A compulsive fascination for 'origins' is a partial driver of the cultic doctrines described here, but, as in the case of Wallace D Fard, the founder of NOI, this identity principle is closely linked to the notion of destiny. Humans not only like to base their 'identity' in a quest for 'roots'; they also need to feel special. It was Fard's father (in his own autobiographical myth) who, through a prophetic faculty noticed that little Wallace was 'someone with a cosmic destiny'. Amplified through the prism of collective identity politics and mind-blowing historico-theological speculation legitimised by moral authority this need to feel exceptional is satisfied by collective myths reinforcing usually dualistic dramas of cosmic conflict - a 'war in heaven' displaced to Earth. Lost tribes and ancient civilisations conceal the secrets of satanic conspiracies or the keys to collective salvation, while the revelations of prophets transmit scriptural codes intelligible only to initiates or cult leaders like Blavatsky and Fard.

In a different context, Mervyn Peake once asked; 'what should we hope for as the curtain rises and lays bare the gratuitous stage where, unhindered a man may cry his ghostly manifesto...?'

But, as Spinoza said, prophecies and revelations are the workings of the imagination. In this book we find an overview of a contemporary phenomenon amplified and promoted by the 'charlatan's playground' of the modern mass media, yet it is actually a phenomenon rooted in primordial fears and anxieties. For it is the interior theatre of the human imagination, that 'gratuitous stage' of our inner life, where these myths and psychodramas of cosmic destiny, our ghostly manifestos of spiritual redemption, are formulated and portrayed.

And it is a function of the human psyche that, for good or ill, such bizarre scenarios are projected into the chaos of the void.

What else can we hope for as we traverse this wilderness of the mind?

         A.C. Evans 2009