Beware the modern-day Gnostics

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Most people know what an agnostic is, but fewer know much about the people at the root of that word, the Gnostics (without the ‘a’). Gnostics caused one of the first great doctrinal splits in early Christianity, but their intellectual descendants remain today, not just in churches, but also throughout the business and political worlds. And they want to sell you stuff.

I have written before how the last four years have brought about a crisis in epistemology, the human understanding of what “knowledge” consists of and what can be deemed “true.” Modern-day Gnostics continue to corrupt that public dialogue in very destructive ways.

An agnostic is one who is neither a religious believer nor an atheist. This position may be as simple as “I don’t think much about God” or as nuanced as “Humans are incapable of really knowing about the existence or non-existence of God or gods.” [1] Both words are rooted in the Greek word for “knowledge” with, in typical Greek form, the preceding letter “a” indicating the negative: agnostic = “no knowledge,” i.e., no knowledge of whether God exists or not.

In the second century, the emerging Christian church was struggling with the beliefs of a faction called the “Gnostics” who were deemed heretical in the writings of the Greek bishop Irenaeus (130–c. 202 CE). This sect combined Christianity with other mystical philosophies and mythologies to create a very complex theology of the nature of the universe. The Earth is an evil place in Gnostic thought, and an understanding of their complex “secret knowledge” (gnosis) was central to escaping the evil Earth for eternal salvation. To possess this secret knowledge was to have the power to save and to be saved. The early Christian church fathers had evolved their own orthodoxy (“right thinking”), which was itself a mash-up of Jewish, Greek, and Roman religious traditions (and its own share of secrets). They saw this movement as threat to their own power, and thus most Gnostic writings were lost or destroyed during anti-Gnostic purges. [2]

Modern-day Gnostics

I thought of the Gnostics the other day when I heard a pitch on my car radio for a stock market advisory newsletter that promised “special insight” into certain investments with big market returns in return for my credit card information. Who are these “stock market Gnostics,” I thought, who have secret information that the larger market does not have? And more curiously, why would they share that secret knowledge with me?

No offense, but if I had secret knowledge about a stock that would bring me big profits, why would I share it with you, a stranger? While there is always debate about how “efficient” the financial markets are in instantaneously altering bids based on new information, the evidence that the market is “efficient enough” to cover market dabblers like you and me is overwhelming. Thousands of analysts, and many more thousands of computers, are scanning the markets every second, tweaking billions of dollars of bids up and down by pennies to adjust for new information. What is often presented as “above average return” is more likely a subtle upshift in portfolio risk or diversifiable risk, which may pay off – until it doesn’t.

I have done graduate study in finance at a decent school, developed textbooks with professors, and taught the subject for quite a few years. But I have to admit that most of these investment newsletters read to me like horoscopes, filled with the “secret knowledge” similar to effect of the alignment of planets on my love life. That guy pitching some investment letter I never heard of on my radio is going to give me a leg up? What a nice guy!

The answer is, of course, that there is likely more money in pitching that newsletter than in capitalizing on any “insider tips” contained therein. [3]

Political Gnostics

This past year has brought out a host of pseudoscience “Covid Gnostics” pushing the latest preventatives and cures based on their “secret knowledge,” even getting White House support in the previous administration. Conventional science certainly made some bad calls early in the pandemic, but like the financial markets that will swing more widely after a shock and then calm down into a general direction, additional public information in the messaging from the science community usually brings more certainty, not less.

In an open information-sharing environment, science becomes self-correcting, while pseudoscience is more apt to “double down” on their positions. Toward this end, there has been positive movement not only in being more open about scientific research results, but to go to “Open Data” as well, where the underlying data for published studies, and sometimes for “failed experiments” as well, becomes publicly available for verification or challenge.

That said, I will acknowledge that I have met some scientists and economists whom I would kindly call “nut cases,” as well some more I would deem intentionally dishonest. However, they eventually “out themselves,” and the broader scientific consensus soldiers on toward a more demonstrable “truth,” developing new health modalities and other innovations despite the hurdles.

What has long been odd to me is that the political party that pushed the launch of the first U.S. space vehicles, picked the Mercury Seven, those first American astronauts, and launched the Environmental Protection Agency turned into an anti-science party. The reasons are complex, no doubt due in part to a party-loyal segment of Christians whose followers cling to whatever science was known at the time of those first century church fathers, and have consistently pushed back against Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Fauci along the way.

Science is not an obstacle to millions of religion-leaning people, yet few in the media ask, “Why not?” Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek writes:

“I like to state it this way: In studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is. In that spirit, we can interpret the search for knowledge as a form of worship, and our discoveries as revelations.” [4]

The QAnon con

And now a new variant of “secret knowledge” Gnosticism called QAnon has invaded that political party, and even that Trump-loyal part of the Christian church, much to the chagrin of many pastors. A poll by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that “more than a quarter of white evangelicals believe the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that a cabal of powerful politicians run a global child sex trafficking ring.”

The key antiseptic to Gnostic thinking is hinted in the “secret” part. One reason I started this blog was for my own discipline in establishing an argument. In forcing me to source my views, I am claiming no secret knowledge that is unavailable to anyone else. However, that places the burden on the strength of the links and notes references themselves, upon my accurate interpretation of them, and upon their references, and so on down the line.

QAnon followers and Covid anti-vaxxers also often link their sources; that is very easy on the internet. The test is where the chain of sources lead. Do they stand up to scientific testing, to debunking sites, to the peer review of fellow professionals in the field? Or do they devolve into magical thinking and claims of conspiracy? If my references lead to any of those darker places, I either need to find better references or even re-think my position, which I have done on multiple occasions.

The authoritarian danger of political Gnosticism

Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who spent many years living and working in Eastern Europe, wrote an excellent book recently called Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. In a new article in The Atlantic, she details how the subtle technique of luring the gullible with “secret information” gives rise to the destabilization of small-d democratic norms:

“The Russian security services have now studied us and worked out (it probably wasn’t very hard) that large numbers of Americans—not only Fox News pundits and OANN broadcasters but also members of Congress—are very happy to accept sensational information, however tainted, from any source that happens to provide it.”

Rudy Giuliani and Devin Nunes claimed to have “secret information” regarding Hunter Biden and 2020 election “fraud” that was sourced to the Russian government in exactly this type of disinformation campaign.

As I have written in the past, education is free, but credentials are not. I have found, however, that you need some reliable mentors to help light the better paths for you. Credentials help here but are not a guarantee. However, they are a better bet than following the Gnostics. And epistemology is always a bet. Weeding your mind to remove unconscious biases and erroneous information is a lifetime pursuit.


Notes:

  1. As I have observed before, we arrogantly capitalize “our God” but relegate “their god” to lowercase status.
  2. The 2004 book by theologian Elaine Pagels, called The Gnostic Gospels, is one of the best-known, and sometimes controversial, books on this subject.
  3. Of course, there is such a thing as true “inside information,” but unless you are a congressman who can get a pardon for your inside trades, this kind of “secret knowledge” is dangerous to possess.
  4. Wilczek, Frank. Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality. Penguin Press, 2021, p. xiii.

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