The precise equivalent of religious heresy in today’s secular scientific culture, the field of rejected knowledge consists of all those beliefs, ideas, and systems of thought about nature, history, and the universe that have been condemned by accepted scientific authorities. While many of the elements of today’s rejected-knowledge scene date back centuries, or even millennia, a hard and fast distinction between accepted ideas and rejected ones did not begin to take shape until the second half of the nineteenth century, when scientists won the struggle with Christian religious authorities over the age of the earth and the origins of humanity.
The aftermath of the struggle saw the scientific worldview take on many of the dogmatic features of the religious worldview it had conquered. By the early twentieth century, ferocious disputes within the scientific community itself over psychic phenomena and similar subjects gave way to a consensus that ruled such fields off limits to serious research. Even inoffensive proposals such as Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift were consigned to the dustbin by a scientific orthodoxy convinced of its own correct understanding of the world. In this climate the rise of an alternative community for rejected ideas was all but guaranteed.
The inventor of rejected knowledge as a distinct cultural phenomenon was the American politician and writer Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901). In the later years of a long and contentious career, Donnelly wrote a series of books that launched several of the enduring themes of the rejected-knowledge scene into popular culture. His Atlantis, The Antediluvian World (1882) put the idea of Atlantis back on the map; his Ragnarok, The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883), which argued that the earth had been hit by a giant comet at the beginning of the Ice Age, reintroduced the concept of catastrophic earth changes to popular culture; and his The Great Cryptogram (1888) played a crucial role in bringing the Shakespeare authorship controversy to public attention. See Atlantis; earth changes; Shakespeare controversies.
All these themes and more were taken up by Russian mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91), the founder of the Theosophical Society. Her first book, Isis Unveiled (1877), launched an all-out assault on the scientific and religious orthodoxies of her time in an effort to demonstrate the superiority of mystical and occult ideas. Many of the standard features of rejected knowledge in the following century, from lost continents and forgotten planetary catastrophes to suppressed technologies and the superior knowledge of ancient cultures, play central roles in Isis Unveiled and its sprawling sequel, The Secret Doctrine (1888). The enormous popular success of Theosophy ensured a wide distribution for these ideas and inspired many other intellectual dissidents to challenge the scientific mainstream with heresies of their own. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Theosophical Society.
Another central figure in the emergence of rejected knowledge was American writer and researcher Charles Hoy Fort (1874–1932). Fort made it his life’s work to collect facts that refused to fit accepted scientific theories. Combing through stacks of scientific journals in the reading rooms of the New York Public Library, he compiled the raw material for his four famous books, The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932). Unlike Blavatsky, who used flaws in the scientific consensus to argue for the value of her own system of mystical thought, Fort rejected all attempts at universal explanation, arguing that the universe was too bizarre for any human theory to adequately explain.
A fourth figure, American science fiction writer and editor Raymond Palmer (1910–77), fused Blavatsky’s and Fort’s contributions to launch rejected knowledge once and for all into popular culture. In the late 1930s, as managing editor of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, Palmer started running articles on rejected knowledge themes to fill out monthly issues when the supply of science fiction ran short. The response from the readership was so positive that more and more of the magazine came to be devoted to rejected ideas of all kinds. In 1945 he rewrote and published “I Remember Lemuria!”, the first of Richard Shaver’s bizarre accounts of sinister “detrimental robots” or “deros” tormenting surface dwellers with forgotten Lemurian technology from a network of abandoned tunnels far underground, and more than doubled Amazing Stories circulation. The UFO phenomenon that burst into popular culture two years later was more grist for Palmer’s mill, and he played a crucial part in popularizing UFO lore among the general public. By 1948 Palmer was publishing and editing Fate, America’s first monthly magazine devoted to rejected knowledge. In Fate’s pages, Fort’s scientific skepticism and Blavatsky’s mystical ideologies blended seamlessly to create the modern field of rejected knowledge. See Lemuria; Palmer, Raymond; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).
The items that ended up becoming part of this field were, to some extent, a grab bag of half-forgotten traditions, anomalous experiences, and new belief systems, united mostly by the fact that scientific orthodoxy rejected them and despised their adherents. Nearly all the core elements of Blavatsky’s Theosophy – lost continents, forgotten civilizations, reincarnation, disembodied masters, Asian spiritual disciplines, and unrecognized powers hidden away within the human body and mind – flowed into late twentieth-century rejected knowledge. Traditional western occultism had a much smaller role, though astrology found a place. Unexplained phenomena of every kind, from ESP and dowsing to UFOs and cattle mutilations, had a major part in defining the field.
An even larger role, though, went to alternative visions of history. Anyone who claimed to disprove the officially accepted version of history in favor of some alternative was guaranteed a hearing, and a following, among fans of rejected knowledge. From disputes about the real author of the Shakespeare poems and plays to arguments that the early history of humanity had been shaped by encounters with alien space travelers, alternative history became the backbone of the rejected-knowledge industry. Speculations about the origins of Freemasonry and Christianity became particularly popular, especially when the Priory of Sion hoax linked the two together in an appealing though completely fictional narrative. See Christian origins; Freemasonry, origins of; Priory of Sion.
The widespread loss of faith in the western world’s institutions during and after the cultural revolutions of the late 1960s made all these ideas increasingly believable in the last quarter of the twentieth century. As evidence surfaced that government officials had lied to the public about CIA activities and that two generations of geologists had been completely wrong in dismissing continental drift, it became easy to believe that government officials were also lying about UFOs and that scientists were equally wrong in rejecting the historical reality of Atlantis. The ham-fisted efforts of self-described “skeptics” to discredit honest accounts of unexplained phenomena, and to dismiss proven but scientifically unpopular practices such as acupuncture, also helped convince millions of people that the voices of scientific authority could not be trusted. As a result, many aspects of rejected knowledge became widely accepted by the general public across most of the world, and a thriving publishing and media industry sprang up to fill the demand for new books, videos, and television programs about rejected knowledge.
The downside of this process was a complete breakdown in critical thinking on the part of many believers in rejected knowledge. Increasingly, in the last decades of the twentieth century, the only evidence that was needed to prove the reality of some piece of rejected knowledge to many people was the sheer fact that someone in science or government had dismissed it. Real anomalies and traditional systems of alternative thought and practice were shoved aside in order to make room for new and more colorful theories, many of which rested on foundations of pure fantasy and some of which had been invented from whole cloth to cash in on a lucrative market. A current of paranoia flowed into the movement as conspiracy theories gained widespread acceptance. The same period also saw alternative circles around the world embrace a “machismo of credulity,” an attitude that treated a willingness to believe the most extravagant and unsupported claims as proof of one’s intellectual liberation or spiritual insight.
A crucial role in this transition was played by the systematic misuse of hypnosis in several different areas of rejected knowledge. UFO researchers were first off the mark here, relying on hypnotic regression from the 1970s onward in an attempt to recover suppressed memories in people who believed that they had been abducted by aliens. Similar practices came into use after 1980 among therapists claiming to treat Satanic ritual abuse, and at about the same time hypnotherapists started recovering material from people who claimed to be unwilling experimental guinea pigs in secret government mind control projects. Despite drastic problems with therapeutic standards, objectivity, and supporting evidence, evidence from hypnosis came to be accepted without question through much of the rejected-knowledge community in the 1980s and 1990s. See Satanism.
By the last years of the century these trends set the stage for the emergence of theories that attempted to unite all rejected knowledge into a single coherent ideology. No two of these theories covered exactly the same ground, but the same themes did recur in them: alien astronauts who reached earth in the prehistoric past, lost civilizations and the catastrophes that overwhelmed them, sinister figures ruling the world in secret, and secret societies passing on a hidden heritage from ancient times all featured over and over again in a kaleidoscope of combinations. Some theorists, such as English ex-football commentator and Green Party candidate David Icke, offer readers a paranoid mysticism in which all the evil in the world is caused by bloodthirsty, shape-shifting extraterrestrial reptiles who, disguised as human beings, make up the ruling class of all human societies and maintain their power through a network of diabolical secret societies practicing ritual sacrifice. Others, such as English author Graham Hancock, take the opposite viewpoint and claim that secret societies such as Freemasonry preserve valuable spiritual teachings from an ancient Martian civilization destroyed by asteroids in the distant past, and now offer timely warnings to Earth’s people as they blunder toward a similar fate. These and many other writers offer powerful mythic visions of history whose emotional force too easily obscures the weaknesses in the evidence supporting them. See lost civilizations; Reptilians.
These grand narratives and unified field theories of rejected knowledge make it very difficult to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and very easy to fall into the trap of either rejecting or uncritically accepting all rejected knowledge in a lump. Just as continental drift was dismissed as a crackpot theory for most of the twentieth century, until sea floor evidence proved unequivocally that Wegener’s theory was right, some elements of today’s rejected knowledge have value despite the denials of contemporary authority figures: among many other points, esoteric traditions such as Hermeticism and Freemasonry offer teachings that can transform human life for the better, alternative healing methods such as acupuncture and homeopathy yield effective treatments for human illness with fewer side effects than conventional medicine, and secret societies have arguably had more impact on the history of the last four centuries or so than most mainstream historians are willing to admit. Still, none of this makes it reasonable to insist without good evidence that Queen Elizabeth II is actually a shape-shifting lizard who runs the world drug trade, or that a middle-aged American couple have attained immortality in a Martian city of giant plastic blocks near the South Pole – both claims that have been made by more than one figure in the rejected-knowledge scene in recent years.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006