Conspiracy Theories

On my last post an old friend asked why people were so susceptible to conspiracy theories. I have been thinking about it some more, and I have to admit that I do not have a clear answer, but I thought I would share my observations.

We humans understand the world around us by making stories about it. We can give the stories fancy titles like “interpretations”, “narratives”, “theories” or “hermneutics”, but stories they remain. That does not mean that we cannot know the world as it is, but that we know it in a human way; a way which is indirect and susceptible to error. A good story should include as much data about the world as possible, and act as a guide to discover more about the world. A bad story will get increasingly complicated, and lead us down dead ends or around in circles. One of the main difficulties with our stories is that too often the story determines the facts, rather than the other way around.

A conspiracy theory is just another story that attempts to give explanations to events. It will often be quite logical, which is why it is so frustrating to argue with conspiracy theorists. The problem is that the conspiracy theory is too narrow. It leaves out vast swaths of information, is blind to nuance, brooks no subtlety, admits of no ambiguity. The conspiracy theorist is incapable of acknowledging any fact that lies outside his theory.

Since I was a kid I’ve always been disgusted with conspiracy theories, but for some reason I feel like I have encountered more than my fair share of conspiracy theorists over the years. I find they break down into a few types:

1) The clinically insane: People suffering from serious mental disorders will sometimes elaborate conspiracy theories out of a kind of free association. I am not a psychologist so I can’t break down their symptoms, but you do see people who suffer from paranoia or schizophrenia get caught up into these thought patterns. Maybe someone out there who knows more than I do about this sort of thing can give an opinion on this.

2) Sociopaths: Some people really do spend a great deal of their time scheming about how to screw others over, or how to live a double life, and they will tend to project their own behavior onto the world at large.

3) Bigots: I once had a conversation with an anti-Semite that went something like this:

Anti-Semite: You know, in Israel they draft all the kids into the army and brainwash them into thinking there is a conflict with the Palestinians.

Me: And if the brainwashing doesn’t convince them, the suicide bombers usually do the trick.

Anti-Semite: But you Americans never hear about the brainwashing because all the newspapers there are owned by Jews.

Me: Well, by Episcopalians mostly, not quite the same.

And so forth. Not so much a conversation as parallel monologues.  As George Orwell said, facts are to an anti-Semite’s brain as peas are to a steel helmet. Tragically, were this acquaintance not a shit-for-brains Jew hater, he might have been a decent guy.

4) The smart but lazy: Some people are very clever but have not been exposed to much hard mental work, their knowledge of history or politics consists mostly of pop culture reference, and they enjoy the titillation and easy thrill of conspiracy theories. Hence, the moon landings were faked (ooohhh!) Nixon shot Kennedy (ahhhh!) and the Holocaust? Never happened (OMG!).

5) The disenfranchised: People who are down on their luck will often try to assign blame to shadowy individuals rather than impersonal market forces, widespread cultural trends, or (God forbid) themselves. Sometimes victimhood is real, but too often victimhood is a comfortable lie we tell ourselves to escape responsibility. Conspiracies can also explain decline from greatness: the Arabs were once at the top of the world, now they are near the bottom, so the easiest thing is to blame the Jews. In the 13th century the Catholic Church was the pillar of Western Civilization, in the 19th and early 20th it was considered an embarrassment to Europe, so Church leaders saw Masons lurking behind every corner.

6) Ideologues: Sometimes the facts refuse to fit the story, so we choose to ignore them. If you examine his record as Senator and President, you will notice that JFK was an anti-Communist cold-warrior. Lee Harvey Oswald was a home-grown communist with violent tendencies who was enraged by Kennedy’s treatment of Cuba, so there should be nothing surprising about the fact that Oswald shot Kennedy. The problem is that many of Kennedy’s supporters were not interested the Cold War, but in things like civil-rights (which JFK paid lip-service to, but did little about). For them it would have made sense if JFK had been shot by a white supremacist, not (in the words of his First Lady) “a silly little communist.” The fact of the Kennedy assassination did not  match the Camelot story-line, so many people chose to believe in convoluted conspiracies rather than the simplest explanation.

 

To sum up: we buy into conspiracy theories either because we are sick or because we find them pleasurable. The first cannot be helped, but the second can. Just because an idea is titillating, comforting, ego-stroking, or reassuring, does not mean we should accept it as true.

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12 comments

  1. Bit like believing in the bible, I guess. 😉

    1. Yes, if you take a fundamentalist approach to the Bible divorced from any textual criticism or historical context.

  2. So which parts of the bible do believe are factual?

    1. Those parts that claim to be factual. You have such an array of literary genera in the Bible, each with its own register of truth: poetic, historical, fictional, mythological, allegorical, etc. And historical in the ancient sense is different from ours: ancient histories were more about interpretation of events than getting an exact factual record of them.

      1. Pretty much the whole Bible could be seen as factual.
        The story of Moses and the Exodus was purported to be factual. Archaeology has demonstrated this is patently not so.

        The conquest of Canaan, another fictional story.
        The Flood, yet anther.
        The New Testament is riddled with error, not least the virgin birth, the nativity, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight to Egypt, the census,
        The nonsense surrounding John the Baptist and of course the Resurrection, which was not a feature of the earliest MS of Mark.which was the likely source of the other synoptics, yes?
        So which factual parts do you refer to?

      2. Factual in our sense is not the same as historical to the ancient mind. The story of Exodus and the conquest of Canaan are a national foundation myth, I take them as literally as national foundation myths are meant to be taken. I suspect there is historical basis, the Hebrews were not spontaneously generated, but whatever grain of truth there is to the stories becomes elaborated into a story that suits the community at the time it is written, and gets amplified as the community encounters new experiences.
        As for the New Testament being riddled with error: again, the Gospels were not modern biographies. A large part of their purpose is to confront the reader with the claims of Christ, and elicit a response. (That said, they do give a striking portrait of 1st century Palestine, so they have historical value to us moderns.)
        The Resurrection is ground zero for the Christian message. As attractive as the two source theory of the synoptics is, contemporary scholars are not very excited about it since it tends to break down in the details. There is little clarity today on the order of writing of the gospels.
        But that is a moot point since 1) Mark is not the oldest book in the New Testament, predated by the writings of Paul by at least a decade, probably two, and 2) all the NT authors are working with oral and written traditions from the first two decades after Christ. This whole material is predicated on the phenomena of the empty tomb, and the claim of the Apostles to have witnessed the Resurrection.
        The basic structure of the earliest Christian message can be found in Peter’s three speeches in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke was probably adapting them from an earlier written source. All three speeches are structured like so: we met Jesus back in the days of John the Baptist; we hung out with him as he went around preaching and doing miracles; he was executed, but rose from the dead, and he sent us out to tell you about it. That, incidentally, is the structure of all four Gospels. That is the apostolic preaching. Whether you believe it is a personal matter.

  3. ‘’Factual in our sense is not the same as historical to the ancient mind. The story of Exodus and the conquest of Canaan are a national foundation myth, I take them as literally as national foundation myths are meant to be taken. I suspect there is historical basis, the Hebrews were not spontaneously generated, but whatever grain of truth there is to the stories becomes elaborated into a story that suits the community at the time it is written, and gets amplified as the community encounters new experiences.’’
    So basically, it is an acknowledged fiction as all the world’s top archaeologists, Rabbis, and Egyptologists state, and has as much bearing on truth as say, Harry Potter.

    ‘’As for the New Testament being riddled with error: again, the Gospels were not modern biographies. A large part of their purpose is to confront the reader with the claims of Christ, and elicit a response. (That said, they do give a striking portrait of 1st century Palestine, so they have historical value to us moderns.)’’
    Yes, but the foundation of what your faith is built upon is lies, no matter which way you cut it or dress it up in nice sounding platitudes. By glossing over the text in general to arrive at the point where you can feel comfortable about the whole is, I venture, somewhat disingenuous. If you were to tackle each part of the story on an individual basis and work through the gospels it would quickly become glaringly apparent how irreconcilable the gospels truly are, individually and collectively.
    If a Christian claims to base his or hr belief on faith AND evidence, why do you then give the gospels the time of day when they are plainly nothing but lies?

    ‘’The Resurrection is ground zero for the Christian message. As attractive as the two source theory of the synoptics is, contemporary scholars are not very excited about it since it tends to break down in the details. There is little clarity today on the order of writing of the gospels.’’
    The consensus is that Mark is the first. Even a biblical numbskull such as me can see that just by knowing a little history and a general understanding of scripture. Based on available evidence, for anyone to state that Mark was NOT the first gospel to be composed would appear to be disingenuous which might suggest such a person had ulterior motives.

    ‘’But that is a moot point since 1) Mark is not the oldest book in the New Testament, predated by the writings of Paul by at least a decade, probably two, and 2) all the NT authors are working with oral and written traditions from the first two decades after Christ. This whole material is predicated on the phenomena of the empty tomb, and the claim of the Apostles to have witnessed the Resurrection.’’
    ‘…and the claim of the Apostles.’’
    Again, hearsay.
    What relevance is the date of Paul’s writings (everyone should know they precede the gospels) other than to highlight that the ground is even shakier for the gospels? Paul never references them or even show awareness. Neither did Justin Martyr for that Matter, did he? Always odd as they are considered the greater authority.

    ‘’The basic structure of the earliest Christian message can be found in Peter’s three speeches in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke was probably adapting them from an earlier written source. All three speeches are structured like so: we met Jesus back in the days of John the Baptist; we hung out with him as he went around preaching and doing miracles; he was executed, but rose from the dead, and he sent us out to tell you about it. That, incidentally, is the structure of all four Gospels. That is the apostolic preaching. Whether you believe it is.’’
    Luke trawled Josephus, (and his knowledge of geography leaves a lot to be desired)the inclusion of John the Baptist and the Baptism of Yashu’a etc is pure bunkum, ( or the account of when he was in prison) and as one degreed in theology you know the texts well enough to know why, yes?
    So what is there, truthfully, other than faith to base Christianity upon?
    Furthermore, as Moses and the Exodus have been clearly shown to be fiction and Yashu’a mentions Moses what does this say about the Christian god? Was he delusional or unaware of his own people’s history?

    1. There is nothing disingenuous about applying historical-critical analysis to ancient texts. Asking what the genera of the text is, how it developed, and what purpose it played in an historical context is plain common sense. Your “literalism or lies” approach is a fundamentalist one. Most people don’t read books that way: they instinctively understand that poetry is poetry, fiction is fiction, and national foundation myths are national foundation myths, each with their own kind of truth.
      Personally I accept Markan priority because there is nothing better out there. But it has its problems and who knows what the consensus will be in a century. But I probably should not have even brought this up because it distracts from the main point: that all the NT materials are derived from the apostolic preaching.
      To this end I brought up Paul: you suggested that the Resurrection was a late invention because Mark ends so abruptly, so the later Gospels (assuming Mark’s priority) must have invented it out of whole cloth. But the writings of Paul assume the Resurrection, as do all fragments of older texts, preaching, and hymns and creeds found throughout the NT. Without the Apostles’ claim that Jesus rose from the dead, there is no New Testament. In fact, there is not even a Christianity.
      If you do not believe the Apostles’ claim, fine; no one is asking you to. But if you suggest they never made the claim, you are going to have to come up with theories to explain the NT. All theories I have ever seen attempting that are… Conspiracy Theories! We have come full circle!
      The apostolic preaching gives material. The Gospel authors arrange it and change it based on their theological motives. The Apostles say Jesus and some of the core disciples had been disciples of John, which means they had been Baptized by him. It is probably reasonable to assume that Jesus had some kind of personal epiphany at that moment. After that, each author gives his theological interpretation in response to problems: why should the Son of God be Baptized? What was the relationship between Jesus and John? What relationship should there be between the disciples of John and Christians? “Aha!” you say with literalist zeal, “lies!” Meh. These are theological meditations, the truth is in the lessons learned, not the details.
      The claim that Moses did not exist is an overstatement. The most reasonable thing you can say is: given the evidence at hand, Moses did not exist as the Pentateuch describes him. As for what Jesus knew and did not know, dogmatic Christology is a completely different field.
      And didn’t Justin Martyr comment on “the prophets and the memoirs of the apostles” being read at Sunday Mass in some letter to an Emperor? (Hadrian?) Maybe I am wrong. Patristics seems so long ago.

  4. One of the funniest exercises I have found is discussing Christianity, or any religion for that matter, with a Christian.
    Being schooled in the art of apologetics is almost as crucial a part of the faith as believing that a human being rose from the dead.
    And I have always felt this was quite sad, to tell the truth, as any god, be it benign or a genocidal maniac like Yahweh would surely have made damn sure his message was clearly understood. Well, maybe NOT Yahweh?
    It never struck me as very sporting to blame humans for God’s cock up.
    I am sure we could find a hunting analogy here if we looked, what do you think?

    Although Christians so often claim that their belief is based on evidence, that evidence, were it not inculcated from almost the beginning would seem so ridiculous even to them as to be laughable, This is clearly evidenced by the fact that of the 7 billion or so humans that live on this planet only 2 billion or so are believed to be Christian, and of these there is no accurate figure as to how many actually believe .
    Also, that there are around 40,000 different denominations, cults or whatever you wish to label them clearly demonstrates that there is no definitive doctrine, other than the claim that Yashu’a was a god. One could almost say you are just a bunch of sects maniacs, if you will excuse the pun.

    Even if one were to go through the bible, verse by verse and demonstrate the fallacious nature of each one – which wouldn’t be that difficult if one had the time, the Christian would use some form of apologetic argument to justify his or her faith, as you have done regarding the complete lack of evidence for Moses and the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan.
    Christians love to cite consensus for something like the historicity of Yashua, even invoking such notables as Bart Ehrman (who they will drop like a hot cake when the question of divinity is introduced) yet where an expert consensus conflicts with their faith, it will be dismissed.
    Maybe when Finkelstein and Herzog persuade the Israeli Government to publicly admit the truth it might have a greater impact on even intractable people such as you?

    ‘The Four Gospels were unknown to the early Christian Fathers. Justin Martyr, the most eminent of the early Fathers, wrote about the middle of the second century. His writings in proof of the divinity of Christ demanded the use of these Gospels had they existed in his time. He makes more than three hundred quotations from the books of the Old Testament, and nearly one hundred from the Apocryphal books of the New Testament; but none from the Four Gospels. The Rev. Dr. Giles says: “The very names of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are never mentioned by him [Justin] — do not occur once in all his writings” (Christian Records, p. 71).’
    http://www.thenazareneway.com/gospels_second_century_writings.htm

    If Paul was aware of the gospels he never mentioned them or quoted from them or acceded to the authority of the Apostles.

    I think maybe you may have missed the point of John the Baptist.
    He was said to have baptized Yashu’a and acknowledged he was the Son of God. However, when he was chucked in the nick he sent one of his disciples to ask Yashua if he was the one?
    Someone made a cock up of the narrative, or John had lost the plot.

    As I said, one could go through almost every verse and make a similar case.
    Everyone is perfectly entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

    There are no grounds to accept the Resurrection story, none whatsoever. The bible is at best hearsay. At worst, simply fiction.
    What you, and every other Christian, believes is as a result of inculcation and cultural mores.
    As global trends reflect, people are moving away from Christianity toward secularism. Eventually it is likely to become little more than a novelty. Once can only hope this does not eventually bring us all into conflict with Islam.
    It will take quite some time yet, but, Christianity’s days are numbered.
    And thank God(sic) for that.

    1. I actually do not enjoy apologetics, which is why there is no apologetics in this blog. But if someone asks me a question, I try to give an answer for the sake of intellectual honesty. Converting people is the Holy Spirit’s job, not mine.
      Some people expect that if God were God he would lay everything out like Euclid’s Geometry. I’m not sure if that is adequate to either God, or the human heart. I don’t live on binary logic, do you?
      I get your John the Baptist thing now. Didn’t we agree that John serves a theological function?.
      The quote on Justin is interesting, but I’m not sure what you are driving at with it.
      And didn’t we agree that the Gospels were written after Paul’s letters?
      Am I forcing you to believe the Apostles’ claims about the Resurrection? Believe it or don’t, and just move on.
      Of course upbringing and culture impact my faith but, having lived with myself for some years now, I don’t agree with your assertion that my faith (let alone the faith of every other Christian believer) is reducible to that.
      What is it like to think that everyone who disagrees with you is stupid or evil (or in my case both, since I’m not a vegetarian). You must feel a great burden of responsibility.

  5. Lol..
    Responsibility. Yes. Quite.
    ”What is it like to think that everyone who disagrees with you is stupid or evil (or in my case both,”

    I don’t think I have said either?
    Although I will state that based on the total lack of verifiable evidence to support your beliefs that you demonstrate a typical unwillingness to recognise the untenable position of religion in general and Christianity as it relates to your own beliefs.
    Without trawling all my posts I think I used the intransigent rather than stupid and certainly did not use or imply the word evil.
    However , as someone used the terms co-dependent and something about battered wife syndrome, maybe you are feeling a tad stupid & evil? How should I know? Shrugs.

    ”Of course upbringing and culture impact my faith but, having lived with myself for some years now, I don’t agree with your assertion that my faith (let alone the faith of every other Christian believer) is reducible to that.”

    Ah…the old personal relationship thing, I’m guessing.

    We’ll leave it at that I think. You’ve clarified enough, thanks.

    1. I would let you have the last word, but:
      I apologize if you took my comments on the other thread personally. I was joking. I certainly did not hold the sociopath remark against you.
      As I indicated above, it is not just personal experience; there are lots of elements. Faith (why some have, and others don’t) is a mystery to me.
      In this thread, I felt you crossed the personal line first by guessing at my motives and suggesting I was arguing in bad faith, and was trying to push back ironically without being insulting, guess that did not work out so well.

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