Written: September 22, 1999
How does our world operate? Is anyone really in control? Does anyone know just what is going on? These and similar questions animate a lively industry which has been active for thousands of years and which is commonly known as "Conspiracy Theories." Although ideas of world-wide conspiracies are nothing new, the approach of the new millennium may cause those ideas to become even more popular. I think that over the course of the coming months, we will hear more and more about how this or that group threatens our freedoms and even our lives. For that and similar reasons, it is important to know not only a bit about conspiracies in general, but some of the more popula
As a rule, people like to think that there is a semblance of order and especially control operating behind our political and economic systems - but for some, this order takes on sinister connotations. The order they see is not the organic sort which can arise piecemeal out of the nature of complex systems, as with the example of large cities. Instead, the order which exists is created by vast, shadowy forces seeking world domination.
Such an attitude is not confined to any particular religious or political persuasion - it is easy to find conspiracy theories among leftists and even atheists. However, it is currently easier to find conspiracy theories among members of America's religious right - in fact, for some of them, their political and social agendas appear to be based as much upon the conspiracies they see as upon the religion they follow. Too often, conspiracies and religion intermingle, each serving to reinforce the other.
Why are conspiracy theories dangerous? The most obvious reason is that they can and often do create large-scale scapegoating. The conspiracies we will be examining describe attempts to control the entire world. It is rare not to find this idea mated with the belief that some particular group is acting to accomplish this - after all, you need a lot of people to control the whole world. Popular choices for scapegoating include Jews, Freemasons and even Catholics (although, to be fair, the Vatican has indeed attempted to exert political and economic control over vast portions of the planet at various times in the past). No matter what group is chosen, they are ultimately made the source of all the world's problems.
Why are conspiracy theories appealing? There are any number of factors which can play a role - and the appeal will surely vary in nature from person to person. But one thing which is common among most conspiracy theories is that they offer easy answers to otherwise intractable questions. It is very difficult to understand why economies act the way they do or why international politics takes one path instead of another. It is scary to see weather changing in unusual ways or the comfortable status quo alter unpredictably. Indeed, those issues may be too complex to ever fully understand.
But people don't like mysteries and are rarely satisfied with an "I don't know." Instead of random events and unexpected results, some are determined to place blame in someone's lap for all the misfortunes they perceive as having afflicted them or their nation. A conspiracy provides us with a script being followed, players in a grand drama whom we can blame, and a role for us as opponents of evil. In fact, a paranoid conspiracy can appear more logical than real life. In the real world, mistakes happen, people screw up and ambiguities abound. In the real world, some things happen for no particular purpose or reason at all. But in a conspiracy, nothing actually happens by accident and all events can be logically related to each other. By finding order even where there is none, a person can actually find some comfort and satisfaction. It seems that there is more psychological satisfaction in seeing even Satan in control of events rather than no one at all.
Indeed, the nature of their struggle against conspiratorial forces commonly takes the form of one between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. The True Believer is not opposing impersonal forces of history or nature, but instead a history-spanning program directed at oppressing, if not killing, people just like him. This offers a good deal more excitement and gratification. With the world divided into Black and White, judgments about whom to trust and whom to hate are made much easier. In the modern world where people have become alienated from tradition, family, and even themselves, it serves the ego to find a worldview which allows for simpler decision making.
Conspiracy & Christianity
It isn't too surprising to find conspiratorial beliefs among American Christians. Christianity itself is a religion predicated largely upon the belief in a cosmic struggle between the forces of Good (God, Jesus) and the forces of evil (Satan, demons). Conspiracies of world domination by sinister forces mesh quite nicely with the theology that Satan is trying to undermine goodness and Christianity. Thus, the conspiratorial powers - Jews, Masons, even Catholics - also end up as servants of Satan, thus allowing for even greater scapegoating and demonizing. This is not to say that all Christians are also conspiracy believers, merely that Christian theology is a much more fertile ground for conspiracies to develop and co-exist than, say, Jewish theology or Buddhist philosophy. And this is the case despite the fact that the Jews actually have had to contend with vast, sinister forces attempting to destroy them.
Conspiracy theories among Christians are commonly tied to millennialist thinking. Postmillennialism (after the millennium), is the position that our world is getting better and better through human efforts as the Kingdom of God is gradually realized. Eventually, things are supposed to become so good that a thousand years of peace and prosperity will result, after which Christ will finally return and bring in a new heaven and a new earth. Postmillennialism used to be more common in the 19th century, but due to the events following the Civil War it has given way to premillennialism.
Premillennialism (before the millennium), asserts that our world is just getting worse and worse. Evil is gradually gaining control of the earth and humanity - eventually it will overwhelm us all. Christ will then return, bind the devil in hell, and establish a thousand years of peace and prosperity. Thereafter Satan will be let loose for one last chance to tempt humanity, after which he and his followers will be thrown forever into torment. Only then will Christ bring about a new heaven and earth. This is the position which appears to be most common today, especially among fundamentalists - and it should be obvious how easily it would fit in with ideas that some secret cabal is attempting to gain dominance over the world. Conspiratorial paranoia is encouraged not by postmillennialism but intead by premillennialism.
It is perhaps ironic that Christians who fervently believe in world-wide conspiracies are as a consequence giving a second-class status to the all-powerful God they are also supposed to believe just as fervently in. In their world, their God has apparently lost control of events on earth, or at the very least won't act to stop Satan's plans. If you read the writings of such people, you may find Satan mentioned at least as often, if not more so, then God. By all appearances, Satan is a more important cosmic player than God. As Eric Hoffer wrote, the ideal devil has to be both omnipotent and omnipresent. It might be worth asking such people why they worry about Satan so much instead of concentrating on their god and helping other humans.
Just as with a True Believer in religion, the True Believer in a conspiracy can be notoriously difficult to reason with and convince that there exists even the possibility that they might be mistaken. Those who raise skeptical questions are quickly labeled as "uninformed," "lacking insight" or worse still, actually aiding the forces of darkness. Faith is a virtue, skepticism a sin. Those who see the truth of the conspiracy come to believe that they alone bear the true light of history - and religion. The value of such attitudes for the ego are clear, but it is also just as clear that these same attitudes alienate a person from others who might be able to provide a moderating influence. Isolation unfortunately has a habit of slowing reinforcing radical and paranoid ideologies.
|Quote of the week:
The fundamental defect of Christian ethics consists in the fact that it labels certain classes of acts 'sins' and others 'virtue' on grounds that have nothing to do with their social consequences.
Bertrand Russell, The Quotable Bertrand Russell (ed. Lee Eisler, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1993), p. 118.
Before we look at some of the specifics which circulate among conspiracy advocates, it's a good idea to first understand some of what tends to be common. The first premise which often appears is that there is an organization of people possessing immense wealth who are using their resources to consolidate as much power as possible in their hands. This organization has typically existed for perhaps centuries, and much of world history is explained as the machinations of this group - sometimes successful, sometimes not.
It isn't so difficult to imagine a large computer company engaging in price fixing for its own benefit and to the detriment of consumers, so the above premise is perhaps not entirely outside the bounds of realism. But the obstacles facing a world-wide cabal are incredibly huge, even in comparison to those facing a computer company - and price fixing is typically caught and brought out into the open eventually. But this doesn't even begin to deter the True Believer who may tend to compensate by attributing near omnipotence to the conspiracy. The reason that they haven't been caught yet just proves how powerful they are and, hence, why they must be opposed.
A second premise which has been increasing in popularity is an allegiance between the worldly conspiracy and supernatural forces of evil, typically directed by Satan. The earthly cabal might consider itself as seeking power, but it really just a pawn in a cosmic game of chess - sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. This aids in giving the conspiracy a long life since Satan is not supposed to be recent player in human affairs. If he is directing the conspiracy, then of course it has probably been operating for centuries, if not millennia. In some ways this addition can make the conspiracy theory more dangerous. It's one thing to simply oppose greedy humans, because they remain human. But servants of Satan are much more easily demonized, and such demonization allows for dehumanization, and hence also tragedy. Christian Identity goes even further and claims that the Jews are the actual children - physically and spiritually - of Satan and have been working to undermine God ever since the Garden of Eden.
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