The Church of Graham Hancock
Something strange is happening to Graham Hancock. Not so long ago, the writer and fringe theorist seemed content to play make-believe with ancient civilisations, recycling tall tales about the age of the Sphinx, the fate of Atlantis and other non-mysteries. His ability to combine wild conjecture with engaging writing, coupled with a calm, reasonable exterior, quickly made him the darling of pseudoarchaeology. Not to mention a best-selling writer: his 1995 book Fingerprints of the Gods has so far sold over nine million copies, a figure most sceptical authors can only dream of .
Tune in to Hancock today, however, and you could be forgiven for wondering if it’s the same person. He has, to put it mildly, gone off the deep end. The pseudoarchaeology is still there, but mixed in with a bewildering array of spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo, religious apologism, moralistic preaching and sinister prophecy. Through his study of ancient cultures, Hancock claims to have unlocked some of the universe’s deeper secrets – and he’s more than willing to share them with the world. Welcome to the Church of Graham Hancock.
"Appeals to ancient knowledge? Check. Belief in an antediluvian golden age? Check."
The Gospel of Graham is, in a way, a remarkable achievement. His world view approaches something like a grand unified theory of the fringe, incorporating everything from fairies to Atlantis to UFO abductions, all bundled up in a vaguely New Age cosmology. And though it may be young, Hancockism already has many of the trappings of more established faiths. Appeals to ancient knowledge? Check. Belief in an antediluvian golden age? Check. Karma, reincarnation and cosmic ordering all make an appearance as well. It even has its own deity, a ‘mother goddess’ who acts as a moral teacher and custodian of planet earth .
And how does the prophet Graham know all this? Through revelation, of course. Hancock tells us that we can only achieve enlightenment by entering into an ‘altered state of consciousness,’ whereby we may receive wisdom from the mother goddess (I promise I’m not making this up). Hancock’s preferred celestial hotline is ayahuasca, a potent hallucinogenic brew from South America and current enlightenment fad of choice for wannabe hippies rich enough to afford it (a seven-day break at one ayahuasca ‘life advancement centre’ endorsed by Hancock costs upwards of $3500) .
Incidentally, his enthusiastic endorsement of ayahuasca has led Hancock to adopt another religious trope: the quack cure. ‘Ayahuasca … is probably the most effective and most powerful anti-addiction agent in the world,’ he boldly declared in 2012, insisting that it cured him of a decades-long marijuana habit . Maybe it did, but it remains completely irresponsible of Hancock to advocate a potentially fatal drug that is only beginning to be studied by medicine .
Having inducted himself into the psychotropic mysteries of the ancients, Hancock is now setting out to convert the masses. You can find him expounding his creed of ‘love and light’ to the faithful, denouncing false prophets and heathen gods (following a loosely Gnostic line, he considers the Yahweh of Abrahamic religion an ‘imposter’ and ‘demon’ who spreads ‘hatred and cruelty and violence’), or embracing the rich religious tradition of predicting the apocalypse .
"Like any self-respecting prophet, our sage takes of dim view of humanity and its hubristic excesses."
The last of these has become a particular favourite of Hancock. Like any self-respecting prophet, our sage takes of dim view of humanity and its hubristic excesses . Having forsaken the wisdom of the ancients, he tells us, we’ve become arrogant and greedy, wallowing in a ‘hedonistic binge’ of consumerism and narcissism [6,7]. ‘We have fallen out of harmony with the universe,’ he warned in 2015. ‘In mythological terms, we tick all the boxes for the next lost civilisation’ . And although he seems unsure as to what exactly will punish humanity – prophecies have ranged from global war to environmental destruction to, most recently, a karmic comet set to slam into the earth in the year 2030 – Hancock is certain that if humanity doesn’t change its ways (or buy his books) then cosmic retribution is just around the corner [2,8].
I should be clear that Hancock is of course absolutely free to believe whatever he wants. He’s also free to tell us about his beliefs, except when – as with his endorsement of ayahuasca – it may pose a danger to his followers. I should also be clear that Hancock has, to the best of my knowledge, never once called himself the head of a church. He would probably laugh at the idea. But given our species’ propensity for religious bandwagoneering, and given that Hancock has already assumed guru status among the more mystical branches of conspiracy theorists, and I’m willing to bet that it’s only a matter of time before Hancockism joins the pantheon of established faiths. One day there may be gatherings, traditions, temples, clergy, even schisms. Who knows, I may even be immortalised as a sneering unbeliever who tried and failed to tempt the faithful.
It may come as little surprise to know that I don’t subscribe to Hancock’s views, as colourful as they may be. Nevertheless, I do think the Church of Graham Hancock has something to teach us. Not about secret knowledge and lost civilisations, you’ll be pleased to hear, but about the very nature of pseudoscience.
Fringe theorists have always liked to cloak their musings in the language of scientific enquiry, and will gleefully appropriate scientific and archaeological discoveries when it suits their hypotheses. Hancock is no exception, having pounced on the remarkable Stone Age site of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey as vindication of his belief that an advanced civilisation lived during the Ice Age [9,10]. And yet when the facts don’t fit – such as the knowledge that the supposedly advanced people of Gobekli Tepe lacked writing, metals and even pottery – Hancock and his fellow conspirators remain just as sure of their convictions . The desire to believe has always been more important for fringe theorists than a willingness to face facts.
It’s for this reason that pseudoscience, like religion, is fundamentally unscientific – if not antiscientific – in its outlook. Science has theories, not beliefs, and when the evidence contradicts the theory it’s the duty of the scientists to abandon it, no matter how venerable or attractive the theory might be, and search for a more accurate way to explain the world around us. Even Isaac Newton’s revered law of universal gravitation had to go when Einstein’s theory of relativity showed it to be false.
"By developing his alternative archaeology into a full-blown religion, Hancock has simply taken pseudoscience to its logical conclusion: a belief system utterly independent of science, grounded in revelation and faith rather than reason and facts."
Hancock, by developing his alternative archaeology into a full-blown religion, has simply taken pseudoscience to its logical conclusion: a belief system utterly independent of science, grounded in revelation and faith rather than reason and facts. It’s probably no coincidence that Hancock’s retreat into mysticism is coupled with an increasing hostility to what he dismissively calls ‘material science,’ which he regards as merely ‘a view’ of the world, and one no more plausible than his own ‘equally possible’ views [2,5]. He even takes regular jabs at Richard Dawkins, the faithful’s favourite punchbag, for no other reason it seems than Dawkins prefers to base his beliefs on evidence.
Once again, Hancock is perfectly entitled to believe what he wants. But he should at least have the honesty to admit that his opinions have no basis in science, and to stop hiding his religious beliefs behind a façade of scientific respectability. Ultimately, I think it’s a shame that someone as talented as Hancock should try to make the world a better place through shamanistic magic and religious prophecy rather than scientific enquiry. As the philosopher Karl Popper once wrote: ‘we may become the makers of our fate when we have ceased to pose as its prophets’ .
Hawksely, R. 2015. “Does this discovery of ancient stone carvings prove that conspiracy theorist Graham Hancock was right all along?” The Telegraph, online: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/graham-hancock-interview/ [accessed 19/08/18]
Gough, A. 2012. “Interview with Graham Hancock: Ancient Civilisations & Altered States of Consciousness.” New Dawn, online: https://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/interview-with-graham-hancock-ancient-civilisations-altered-states-of-consciousness [accessed 19/08/18]
Anon. 2018. Rhythmia, online: https://www.rythmia.com/ [accessed 15/08/18]
Thelwell, E. 2014. “Why do people take ayahuasca?” BBC News, online: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27203322 [accessed 15/08/18]
Anon. 2013. “Graham Hancock on Good and Evil.” GrahamHancockDotCom, online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktsA9BHImns [accessed 18/08/18]
Anon. 2016. “How the powerful control us – Graham Hancock on London Live.” London Live, online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_G-Bc2IC08 [accessed 20/08/18]
Anon. 2016. “Graham Hancock’s Magicians of the Gods & Elitist Academia.” Russia Today, online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyYKUJx8_sw [accessed 20/08/18]
Austin, J. 2017. “Apocalypse warning: Comet ‘bigger than dinosaur killer could destroy Earth by 2030’.” The Express, online: https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/798221/Comet-Graham-Hancock-hit-Earth-2030-Gobekli-Tepe-Magicians-of-the-Gods [accessed 20/08/18]
Curry, A. 2008. “Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple?” Smithsonian Magazine, online: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/gobekli-tepe-the-worlds-first-temple-83613665/ [accessed 19/08/18]
Anon. 2016. “The Mystery of Gobekli Tepe – Graham Hancock on London Real.” London Real, online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6K5NvCiYGEI [accessed 20/08/18]
Defant, M. 2017. “Conjuring up a Lost Civilisation: An Analysis of the Claims Made by Graham Hancock in Magicians of the Gods.” Skeptic, online: https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/defant-analysis-of-hancock-claims-in-magicians-of-the-gods/ [accessed 18/08/18].
Popper, K. 1952. The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. I. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.