Conspiracy theories always have been around. But they've proliferated, in the United States, at least, in recent years.
Donald Trump deserves much of the credit, better termed blame.
Trump never saw a fact that he didn't like to denigrate, calling every media story which irritated him "fake news."
Of course, almost always there wasn't anything fake about the news. However, Trump's devotees came to feel like they were in a special club of People in the Know.
Meaning, people who think they know what is really going on in the world. Which is much different from actually knowing.
At the moment, QAnon is the craziest conspiracy theory, though it has lots of competition.
What gives QAnon its special wacko flavor is that supposedly there's someone who goes by "Q" who's privy to deep dark astounding secrets, such as that Democratic politicians and other liberals are part of a pedophile ring.
More specifically, a ring "devoted to the abduction, trafficking, torture, sexual abuse and cannibalization of children, all with the purpose of fulfilling the rituals of their Satanic faith."
That's absurd. No one should believe it. But a great many people do.
Likewise, every world religion makes other sorts of absurd claims. And billions of people believe those claims -- such as that Jesus was born of a virgin birth and Muhammed had the Koran dictated to him by an angel.
Recently I came across two stories in The Atlantic about conspiracy theories that got me thinking about their relation to religious belief.
"What Conspiracy Theorists Don't Believe" starts out this way.
Some people believe the most extraordinary things. Earth is flat, and airplane GPS is rigged to fool pilots into thinking otherwise. COVID-19 vaccines are a pretext to inject thought-controlling microchips into us all. The true president of the United States is Donald Trump; his inauguration will happen on January 20, make that March 4, make that a date to be arranged very soon.
The question “How could anybody believe this stuff?” comes naturally enough. That may not be the most helpful question, however. Conspiracy theorists believe strange ideas, yes. But these outlandish beliefs rest on a solid foundation of disbelief.
To think that Trump is actually still the president, as some in the QAnon movement do, you first have to doubt.
You have to doubt the journalism practiced by any mainstream media outlet of any political persuasion; you have to doubt all the experts and the political elites; you have to doubt the judiciary, the military, and every other American institution. Once you have thoroughly disbelieved all of them, only then can you start to believe in Trump’s ascension being just around the corner—or in lizard overlords or alien prophets.
Religious fundamentalists also doubt. Notably, they doubt science and the scientists who produce scientific research.
Without doubting evolution, for example, it is much more difficult to embrace Godly creation stories. Yet it doesn't really work to make believers in something unbelievable accept evident facts. Typically that just makes them harden their stance in favor of what they already believe.
Instead, says the story:
When someone has dismissed the obvious facts, repeating them will not persuade him to see sense. But when people are given time and space to explain themselves, they may start to spot the gaps in their own knowledge or arguments. The psychologists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil coined the phrase “the illusion of explanatory depth” to refer to the way our self-assurance crumples when we are invited to explain apparently simple ideas.
I like to do this when someone asserts that human consciousness isn't produced by the brain.
OK, then explain why anesthesia makes people lose consciousness? Or being hit in the head with a baseball bat? If consciousness isn't physical, why does Alzheimers change consciousness so much? Or a brain tumor?
The other story is "The Truth Seekers Are Coming." It talks about the people who claim to be devoted to truth, yet what they consider to be true is decidedly weird -- just like religious truth seekers.
Sometime in the middle of the pandemic year, and sometime in the middle of a prolonged and compulsive scroll through Instagram, the “truth seekers” came into my life. The term was showing up over and over in the bios and captions of the women I followed, so often that I was starting to feel as if I were seeing things.
The lockdowns seemed to have inspired a new kind of internet identity: There were truth-seeking fashion bloggers, truth-seeking travel influencers, and truth-seeking expectant moms who prayed that their daughters would be truth seekers too.
Some would even seek the truth across platforms, beckoning their followers to new podcasts about the truth, new Telegram group chats in which the truth was up for discussion, or new lines of truth-related merchandise.
“If Jesus were walking the Earth today, do you think you’d see him for his miracles?” a QAnon-obsessed fashion blogger and “relentless truth seeker” asked several weeks ago. “Or would you label him a conspiracy theorist?” I knew why she was asking, and it was not because she was leading Bible study.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the “truths” these women had in mind were highly suspect and disturbing ones.
They wanted all the facts about the Democrats’ scheme to harvest the blood of children, and all the evidence proving that the COVID-19 vaccines have microchips in them. The stress of that pursuit frequently culminated in angry speeches, delivered to a front-facing camera, about how Instagram was trying to silence their unpopular opinions and original perspectives.
Like-minded Instagrammers may refer to themselves as “critical thinkers” or “true journalists,” among other coded phrases, but the term I saw most often—the succinct and pretty hook that has pulled so many women down the rabbit hole—was truth seeker.