One person believes that Jesus was resurrected after dying on the cross. Another person believes that the Bush administration was behind the 9/11 attacks.
Each belief lacks a foundation of demonstrable evidence. Each belief almost certainly is untrue. Each belief has many adherents who vehemently hold to it, despite how bizarre their blind faith is.
I'm a religious skeptic. I'm also a conspiracy theory skeptic. What seems strange to me is how people who decry fundamentalist religion often cling to fundamentalist conspiracy theories.
But after reading Michael Shermer's new book, "The Believing Brain," I'm better able to see the connections between religiosity and conspiracy theory'osity. Shermer has a chapter, Belief in Conspiracies, which lists some of the active conspiracy theories:
Conspiracy theories are a different breed of animal than conspiracies themselves.
Whether there was or was not a conspiracy behind the assassination of JFK (I contend that there was not), theories of JFK conspiracies abound, as they do for the assassinations of RFK, MLK Jr., and Malcolm X; the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa; and the deaths of Princess Diana and assorted rock stars, not to mention conspiracy theories behind the fluoridation of water supplies, jet contrails depositing chemical and biological agents in the atmosphere (chemtrails), the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases, the dispersal of cocaine and guns to inner cities, peak oil and related oil company suppression of alternative energy technologies, the moon landing that never happened, UFO landings that did happen, and the nefarious goings-on of the Federal Reserve, the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Committee of 300, Skull and Bones, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the BIlderberg Group, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, the Learned Elders of Zion and the Zionist Occupation Government, satanists and satanic ritual cults, and the like.
The list is seemingly endless.
I'd add "global warming is a hoax," because this conspiracy theory shares one of the characteristics that makes such wild-eyed hypotheses so unlikely to be true: a belief that humans are capable of pulling off a highly complex, wide-ranging fraud which escapes detection even though hundreds or thousands of people are involved with it.
As Shermer puts it:
The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy are elevated to near superhuman power to pull it off. We must always remember how flawed human behavior is, and the natural tendency we all have to make mistakes. Most of the time in most circumstances most people are not nearly as powerful as we think they are.
The more complex the conspiracy, and the more elements involved for it to unfold successfully, the less likely it is to be true.
The more people involved in the conspiracy, the less likely they will all be able to keep silent about their secret goings-on.
So conspiracy theorists have to believe that those responsible for a nefarious act, like faking the moon landing or detonating explosives in the Twin Towers on 9/11, have almost divine powers.
Otherwise, how could they successfully plan, carry out, and keep secret their activities without a single shred of solid evidence leaking out that would unquestionably confirm the conspiracy theory which purports to know the truth about some event?
After discussing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which helped trigger the First World War, Shermer writes:
This is how conspiracies really work -- as messy events that unfold according to real-time contingencies. They often turn on the minutiae of chance and the reality of human error. Our propensity is to think otherwise -- to believe that conspiracies are well-oiled machines of Machiavellian manipulations -- is to fall into the trap of conspirational patternicity and agenticitiy, where the patterns are too well delineated and the agents superhuman in knowledge and power.
Early on in the chapter Shermer talks about how transcendentalism isn't only a factor in religious belief; it also lies at the root of secular conspiracy theories.
Why do people believe in conspiracies? A useful distinction here is between transcendentalists and empiricists.
Transcendentalists tend to believe that everything is interconnected and all events happen for a reason. Empiricists tend to think that randomness and coincidence interact with the causal net of our world and that belief should depend on evidence for each individual claim.
The problem for skepticism is that transcendentalism is intutive; empiricism is not. Our propensity for patternicity and agenticity leads us naturally into the transcendental camp of seeing events in the world as unfolding according to a preplanned logic, whereas the empirical method of being skeptical until a claim is made otherwise requires concerted effort that most of us do not make.
Thus, the psychology of belief first and evidence second is once again borne out. Or as Buffalo Springfield once intoned: Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep...
Over on my other blog I shared an example of how jumping to conclusions often leads to getting mired in unreality. Check out "What I learned from a cut phone line."
Here's one where our opinions overlap (somewhat), Churchless. Another fine book on the subject is "Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground". The Amazon rating is dinged fairly well by True Believers, some of whom have also posted overly longish book review-rebuttal polemics (rather entertaining in and of itself). However, only the publishers might explain why they chose to diminish what is otherwise a fairly serious critique with such a childish cartoon book cover.
Regardless, a clear connection is drawn therein between conspiratorial systems and traditional religious belief - often framed in the very words of the believers themselves!
I must say though, it's interesting that you'd be willing to acknowledge the secular-religious parallels in this realm, but be reluctant to concede the same with respect to other ideological domains to which so many cling with equally fervent devotion.
Posted by: Brian from Colorado | September 15, 2011 at 06:46 PM
Well, I am an atheist and very much believe
many of the PROVEN conspiracies. In fact I have spent years studying them. Anyone whom has spent even a few hours of study would be overwhelmed with proof.
The nefarious goings-on of the Federal Reserve, the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, Skull and Bones, the Freemasons, the Bilderberg Group, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, Masonic satanists and the like. Also, the Bohemian Grove.
All this is TRUE. There are tons of hard documented facts for anyone whom
wishes to spend the time. Hard undisputed evidence.
Even Ron Paul is shouting bloody murder,
I would classify Shermer as a lunatic.
In fact, I would call him an idiot.
He needs to get off his butt and do the research.
People want hard facts. Not opinions.
Oh, by the way, presidential candidate
Rick Perry attended a Bilderberg meeting.
So did Hillary and Obama attend Bilderberg
meeting on the same day while running for president against each other.
"No matter whom you vote for, you vote for one of us."
The largest campaign contributor to Obama
was Goldman Sachs followed by J. P. Morgan Bank. Owners of the USA Federal Reserve Bank.
The Bilderbergs members own every major
TV station and newspaper in the USA.
Ron Paul subpoenaed the Federal Reserve Bank
and found out they sent 17 trillion dollars
to foreign and USA banks without knowledge of American citizens. An amount larger than the entire disclosed national debt of the USA.
Posted by: Mike Williams | September 15, 2011 at 10:56 PM
Posted by: Brian from Colorado | September 16, 2011 at 07:03 AM
Good parody of a nutjob, Mike.
Posted by: cc | September 16, 2011 at 09:08 AM
The trouble with conspiracy theories, in general, is that they are all concerned with either 1) events which have already happened, or 2) realities about which we can do nothing.
Finally, it does not matter what a person believes about any particular subject, because nothing will change on the basis of that belief.
Posted by: Willie R | September 16, 2011 at 09:43 AM
Now CC, name-calling is not very productive. I admit, I remain a bit unsure whether Mike is deadly serious or just a brilliant satirist intent on reinforcing the message of this blog post. I suspect the former, but one can't always be certain about these things on the internet. As it is, I'm pretty sure CC's actually some kind of intelligent canine with a keyboard adapter - possibly a malamut, but who can say for sure?
Although I personally find Mike's opinions unnecessarily elaborated, I can actually agree with some things. As far as I can tell, Goldman Sachs really is one of the closest things to a diabolical cabal we're likely to find on this planet. It's just that there's no need to invoke a shadowy global star chamber organization to account for them or all the other pillage, corruption and nasty events of human affairs. But I personally find it more parsimonious to believe that they've simply evolved over time into a ruthless and highly effective institution that knows how to get and hold on to vast amounts of wealth an power. The nature of things is that this kind of system tends to naturally filter for, and select, the kind of remorseless sociopaths that are good at these kinds of deeds, just as our decaying political system naturally selects for classic narcissistic personality disorder types such as our current president. And the former are wickedly brilliant enough to know how to manipulate the latter to the proverbial "T".
Anyway, to varying degrees, I think we all have a deep desire to see the world ordered in a manner that suits our personal predilections; and by way of consolation, we tend to comfort ourselves by developing extended explanatory systems to account for the way things are, so we can then exhort others to see the light as a first step in redressing those wrongs.
BTW, Willie R - not sure whether your position reflect serene equanimity or despairing passivity. There's a difference, I think.
Finally, my apologies, CC, if you took offense to my calling you a malamut. After all, you could be a golden lab.
Posted by: Brian from Colorado | September 16, 2011 at 11:22 AM
Dang, screwed up the italics tag!
Posted by: Brian from Colorado | September 16, 2011 at 11:23 AM
The entire fiat currency system of the world may crash in the next few years.
In fact, they are not able to stop it.
Only our Federal reserve can print money out
of thin air to save Europe.
The whole thing is so far out of control now
only God knows what will happen.
The USA now owes 100 trillion dollars when
social security and Medicare are added.
There are at least 700 trillion dollars of
The smartest people in the world are warning
us the end game is near.
I am an accountant whom has worked at the
highest levels. I used to do the financial statements for Union Oil and Coca Cola.
I used to sell my stock and commodity trading systems in full page adds in Futures Magaine and Stocks and Commodites
My degree is Bachelor Science in Accounting.
The former Controller General of the United States, David Walker has
warned what will happen is worse than atomic bombs going off.
My first conspiracy theory was
Now even Gurinder admits the facts are correct. I am used to dealing with
people in denial. Even so called experts.
If anyone wants to debate the conspiracy theories I elaborated on in
my last post above, be my guest.
Posted by: Mike Williams | September 16, 2011 at 01:35 PM