Are religion and conspiracism two words for the same thing?

An old friend, an ordained minister, sent me an e mail about my Chicago Tribune piece.

As a Christian I find that I do “maintain that a single vast conspiracy suffices to explain the better part of human affairs.”….Do you suggest that any vast explanation of evil in the better part of human affairs is a delusion?….Somehow, I would expect that a definition of a conspiracy theorist would exclude those who believe in a transcendent reality, that we are all spiritual beings affected by the spiritual realm that includes good and evil. It is the influence of this good and evil, God and Satan, that brings understanding to the awful truth of things gone so awry.

My response is complicated. Unlike many skeptics, I am not reflexively opposed to religion. Though not exactly a believer, I am not a principled disbeliever either. I look askance on any and all totalizing systems, supernaturalistic and naturalistic alike. Economic determinism, natural depravity, Satanic malice, imperialism, Illuminism, Manifest Destiny are all heuristics, some more useful than others.

I’m not anti-religion, but I wouldn’t hire a faith-based architect to build my house. Not that I wouldn’t hire a Christian architect…. but I’d expect him to use the practical side of his brain when he’s on the clock. If he feels compelled to tell me that he believes that it’s morally wrong to build an energy inefficient house that blocks its neighbors light, that’s perfectly reasonable. But if he says that he doesn’t have to set it on a strong foundation because a voice told him that angels would hold it up with their hands, then I would have to fire him.

I regard conspiracy theory as a misbegotten, debased form of theology–one that begins with a set of often hateful and vindictive first principles and then reverse engineers a fantastical version of reality that comports with them. If my first principles don’t include the possibility of a black man being president, for example, then I might conjure up a set of circumstances in which he’s isn’t, even if he got elected and lives in the White House. No, being religious doesn’t automatically make you a conspiracist, nor does the belief that we are part of a larger spiritual realm that includes good and evil. But if your first principles posit a world that’s neatly divided between Satan and God, in which all of us belong to one camp or the other, and in which everything and everyone is part of the war, then it wouldn’t be surprising if you were.

4 thoughts on “Are religion and conspiracism two words for the same thing?

  1. I would have to agree. On big hard questions I like to think back on human behavior, way back. To try and root in the human condition. Conspiracy is a mode of mysticism. It is also a way of simplifying the actions of an idividual to coordinate a group. Pack hunt mentality. Group identity. Caste. Nationalism. There is early childhood psych involved too. Each child is a blank slate. The mind takes shortcuts to develop facts quiker(survival technique with language). A parent answers all those why questions. Thunder gods chasing away demons. No need to fear. Always hunt with a white stone. A pocket of posies keeps you from plague. Wear garlic. Those people are bad. These are good. Check, check, check!
    As you said, it is when those things don’t work when the mind looks for an explaination in panic mode. The mind will connect dots that may or may not be related, but in a way logical to the base software. This is excellent in planning crops, understanding prey behavior. Imagination, filled with it’s powerful imagery, comes into play. Nullifies instinct, sharpens cunning. But it has a downside. How many tons of food were wasted trying to appease spirits that were not there? Human sacrifice for rain. Suicide missions.
    Little story…about Jack and Diane…Kidding!
    Claw enters the cave and slams down a carcass dripping blood and fat. Gur walks up to him and surveys the carnage of a feast to begin. The first after days of scrounging roots and bugs. The fat ensures that the toothless elders(35-40yrs) can live.
    “Claw, how’d you do that! I’ve not found anything.” says Gur.
    “Well,” Claw boasts and holds up a white stone, “I found this. When I looked at it I had the image of a stag in my mind. Then I found one with a broken leg.”
    Mysticism is born.
    Months later. Gur returns after not finding any tracks after three days. His woman shuns him upon seeing his empty arms. She has been watching their cholicy newborn instead of gathering. Her milk is drying while he experiences the freedom of hunting…and returns with nothing. Again. Chop motions Gur over. They sit with Smash and Bash.
    “Anything?” They all shake their heads. Minutes later Claw waltzes in and slams down a half of beef. Its tongue still steaming from cooling body heat. The elders praise the formidable 20 year old. His wives, 13 and 14, fondle his blood slicked shoulders.
    Gur looks to the trio and they huddle. “How does he do it? I have a white stone!”
    “So do I.”
    “Me too.”
    “Maybe” says Bash, “we don’t. Maybe he has a stag stone and we don’t!”
    “He looked at mine and approved” says Smash.
    “Oh, he knew. Just look at him” says Chop. “He cares only to feed himself.”
    Gur grins. “You help me with this. I say we punish his liar tongue. My child suffers from him. Then we will all eat well.”
    Conspiracy theory/mysticism.
    Three days after Claw has an “accident”.
    Gur runs into the cave half-winded. “Everyone! Everyone! I have seen them! I was following a trail and came upon them. There are others in this valley. They are killing our game!”
    “What!” Smash leaps up, “Is this why we have found little all this time?”
    “We worship the stag stone and still, we have little for it,” growls Bash. “They must steal what the stone is giving us!”
    “They are evil!” croans Claw’s mother, “They must have been the ones to kill my son. He was too great a hunter to merely fall to his death!”
    A silent second of hesitation flickers between Bash, Smash and Gur.
    “Yes, yes, that must be it!” yells Gur, “We will attack the heretics and avenge Claw!”
    Racial consiracy is born…the beat goes on. But we are still human…

  2. One more thought. Passively conspiracy is a survival mode. If you are this, don’t go there. Example: If you are chinese don’t go to this neighborhood. Don’t go to this park after dark if you are a woman.
    But in reality, our most succesful predators, serial killers use our prejudice against use time after time. We are killed by those we know. Well dressed, articulate, of matching ethnicity or religion. The police use conspiracy theory in a way to plot points of data during investigation. Like Clue, you make guesses. I think, as a mode of thought, it is fascinating.

    1. Human beings are consummate pattern seekers and pattern makers. We respond to the patterns that we think we see in nature with religion; when we set conditions on our perceptions and demand corroboration, we are beginning to think scientifically. When we create patterns of our own, we are writing poetry. Science isn’t the only possible truth system–the emotional truths of poetry and mysticism have their own unique purposes and powers–but it’s important that we know how to distinguish them.

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