Charles K Johnson relentlessly argued that the Earth was flat


Charles K Johnson believed until the day he died that the Earth was flat. "Reasonable, intelligent people have always recognised that the Earth is flat," he argued relentlessly. The Texan, who was president of the International Flat Earth Research Society from 1972 until his death earlier this year, was not alone in his beliefs. Membership peaked at 3,500 in the mid-1990s (perhaps due to pre-millennial angst).

For a fee of $25, members got the society's newsletter and a map displaying a patently flat world.

Sadly, most of the society's records were destroyed in a fire at Johnson's home in 1995.

Johnson insisted that the Earth was a disc with the North Pole at the centre.

He also argued that the sun and moon, each 32 miles in diameter, circled Earth from a distance of just 3,000 miles. He was not a great believer in the South Pole.

"The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it's queerer than we can imagine," the esteemed British scientist JBS Haldane once wrote.

But Johnson did not think so, even if what he thought about the world would seem very queer indeed to most people.

Johnson did not have a very high opinion of scientists anyway, regarding them as "witch doctors" attempting to replace religion with science.

"Scientists consist of the same old gang of witch doctors, sorcerers, tellers of tales, the priest-entertainers for the common people," he preached to converted readers in his own publication, Flat Earth News.

"Science consists of a weird, way-out occult concoction of gibberish theory-theology unrelated to the real world of facts, technology and inventions, tall buildings, fast cars, aeroplanes and other real and good things in life," he said.

His beliefs were based on Old Testament references to a flat Earth and to writings in the New Testament about Jesus ascending into heaven.

"If Earth were a ball spinning in space, there would be no up or down," he told Newsweek in 1984.

Johnson's wife, Marjory, who died five years before he did, stood by her man.

She told anyone who would listen that she believed in a flat Earth because she had not hung upside-down by her toes in her native Australia.

Few scientific facts went unexplained, even if Johnson's reasoning was nebulous at times. Sunrises and sunsets were merely an optical illusion, he believed.

Asked by the New York Times in 1979 about eclipses of the sun he said: "We really don't have to go into all of that. The Bible tells us the heavens are a mystery."

He believed the moon landing was a sophisticated hoax which was filmed at Meteor Crater, Arizona, and was scripted by science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke.

In this, if nothing else, he was far from alone.

A 1994 Washington Post survey found that 9 per cent of Americans thought the moon landings were faked.

Johnson did not have much time for Copernicus, the 16th century astronomer who first demonstrated that Earth orbits the sun. He referred to him as "copernicious". He did, however, find fellow flat earthers in the oddest places.

He maintained Moses was one. The Flat Earth Society was founded in 1492 BC when Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt and gave them the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, he said.

The year AD 1492 was important to Johnson. Talking about Christopher Columbus's voyage of discovery, he said: "He had enough sense to know that if the world was a ball, he would have fallen off."

The modern society grew out of an older body, the Universal Zetetic Society, founded in England in 1832 by Sir Birley Rowbotham who wrote a book about it all, Earth Not a Globe.

Johnson found friends in the 20th century .

He maintained the foundation of the UN confirmed his beliefs because the body took the flat Earth map as its symbol.

Johnson referred to himself as the last iconoclast, but was well aware of the ridicule heaped upon his ideas.

"It makes you kind of a loner . . . They don't want anything to do with a controversial idea," he told documentary filmmaker, Robert Abel, in 1992.

Charles K Johnson died on March 19th at the age of 76 at his home in Lancaster, California.

Padraig Collins is a journalist with The Irish Times New Media Division