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Religion and conspiracy theories

This entry was posted in Religion on 2 June 2013 by

I suggested in my last entry that there was a link between religion and conspiracy theories, and this is something I want to explore a little further here. My original thought had concerned the psychological make-up of people who believe conspiracy theories, namely that those who see the world in broad black-and-white categories – ‘good and evil’ for instance – are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. It is as if believing conspiracy theories is a way of intellectually controlling the world around you by being able to explain it to yourself in a certain manner. Thus you are more likely to link up events and ideas so that they may fall into one side of your dichotomy than those who believe history is just a haphazard series of messy, contingent and arbitrary events. In the latter case you are less likely to try to link things up mentally, seeing them rather as unconnected dots.

This provokes a further thought, which is whether conspiracy theories today play the role that religion may have played in past societies, namely as a way of exonerating the government/state of the time for certain things it cannot control – famine being the paradigm case here – by blaming it on religion instead (there is a famine because God is angry with us). There may be a special premium on contemporary democratic regimes to formulate some type of explanation because of the fact that in democracies the people are meant to hold power, so that when their desires are not granted, some type of account must be given. In more authoritarian regimes this is less likely to be the case, as people are not involved in the decision-making process in the first place, and often don’t know what the government is up to anyway, so there is no gap that needs explaining.

If religion no longer plays the role it played in past societies, then perhaps those who were liable to think in those ways have moved on to conspiracy theories as a way of making sense of the world. This may explain why ‘New World Order’ is such a popular conspiracy theory – that an international elite is trying to establish an authoritarian world-state – because it goes against the national setting democracies are located in.

We tend to think that conspiracy theories undermine democracies because they undermine our trust in government. But the line of thinking I have been exploring here suggests that conspiracy theories may in fact have a positive role to play, in that they provide outlets for those frustrated with how the popular democratic will fails to be realised. (There are only marginal and extreme – though spectacular – cases of people acting upon their belief in conspiracy theories, but not in a way that would undermine the system itself). So they provide a sort of emotional and psychological comfort blanket – a palliative, if you will. And God do our democracies need palliatives.