Every friday, I publish The Week in Conspiracy, a roundup of news stories and the best articles from across the web, news and academia, over at Paper.li.
Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University | Co-founding Editor of the Religious Studies Project | Editor, Implicit Religion | Bulletin Editor of the British Association for the Study of Religion.
This site is where I promote my books and collect all the little bits of writing I do in other places. On the right you’ll find my most popular posts, and at the top my major publications. You can email me at david.robertson [at] open.ac.uk.
I haven’t been posting much recently because during term-time, I have a lot of teaching. But I have been busy, and a couple of my recent interviews have been published over at the Religious Studies Project. (Please note that the wesite is being upgraded, so is prone to downtime and broken links atm, so I have posted the YouTube versions here.)
First up is a conversation between Richard Irvine, Theodoros Kyriakides and myself, concerning magical thinking in the modern world. We tend perhaps to think that such ideas are confined to the fringes in the secular, post-Enlightenment world, but this is not necessarily the case. We talk about Weber’s rationalisation and James Frazer’s evolutionary model of modernity, and how they relate to ideas of belief, and magic. We then look at examples from Orkney and Cyprus to show these ideas in play. I recorded this at the Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference back in February.
Also published recently was this panel I took part in, presented as part of the University of Edinburgh’s Religious Studies seminar series. The Committee of the BASR discuss the public impact of Religious Studies – is RS a “muted voice” in public discourse? Who are the new audiences for RS? My section on “Who are we speaking to?” comes last.
Cosmic Awakening, an annual gather of spiritual seekers, takes place in Sedona, Arizona, next month – 20-22nd April, 2018. Sedona is of course famous as a New Age hub, kind of like Glastonbury or Findhorn in the UK, but with more cactuses. Jose Arguilles held the Harmonic Convergence there in 1987, a highly significant event that demonstrated that the millennial ideas of the New Age sensu stricto were still popular, but had largely abandoned “New Age” as an identifier, instead adopting “Ascension”.
Striking here is the mixture of speakers from the New Age milieu and Indigenous religious groups, particularly Native American. While there are many examples of New Age taking up elements of various traditions (often described by “appropriation”, although I have problems with that), and even of representatives of those traditions endorsing them, what is striking here is that UFOs are once again the common ground (or discursive unit), as I argued in my book. This example from an email sent by the organisers:
This year We have invited Native American, Lakota Elder -Golden Light Eagle And Zuni Elder Clifford Mahooty from Gaia TV, The History Channel – Ancient Aliens Series. They will be speaking about the star people / our star family. PLUS our 12 TEAM LIGHT speakers, Our Contactee’s/Experiencer will be giving you Updated information from many Benevolent Star Beings.
Many of the speakers use “Ascension” in their descriptions: Sandra Walker, for example, aims to “connect us with the Cosmic Stargates assisting our Ascension”. Interestingly, four of the speakers also identify as Starseeds – that is, although their bodies are humans, their souls are extraterrestrials who have incarnated on the Earth in order to assist with the planet’s development.
This millennial undercurrent does not prevent the presence of more traditional UFOlogy, however. One of the speakers is Travis Walton, whose 1975 abduction was made into the film Fire in the Sky. The email from the organisers called for “DISCLOSURE NOW!”, although this admonition seems to have been dropped from the website. This term, largely promoted by Steven Greer and in the more New Age milieu by David Wilcock, is based upon the idea that government do not only know about UFOs and ETs, but are about to make this knowledge known to the world. This is the contemporary version of the UFO conspiracism that emerged in the 1980s with Bill Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse and burst into the mainstream with Men in Black and The X-Files.
If you want to hear me talking about my work in podcasting, I took part in the AAR and Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute’s Public Scholars Project back in December. You can watch the video at the link:
Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been up to over the last week or so.
First, and as always, check out my news roundup of The Week in Conspiracy – published every Friday.
I published a post over at CenSAMM, the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements, on the function of conspiracy narratives in Heaven’s Gate. Check it out here.
One function of conspiracy theories is to deal with uncertainty, which includes theological uncertainty, particularly failed prophecy. These challenges to the truth-claims of such groups can be sidestepped by positing a conspiracy against them, which shifts the blame from the group itself to an external force. In effect, it would explain that Nettle’s death did not lead immediately to TELAH not because it was wrong, but because it was prevented from happening by these “negative forces”. Such a move can even make a potentially divisive ideological issue into a source of group cohesion, by heightening the impression of an existential threat against them.
I also have a chapter in Fabricating Identities, edited by Russell McCutcheon. The book’s a spin-off from the Culture on the Edge blog, and explores identity not as a thing we possess, but as a thing we enact. My chapter is about academic identities, and how in becoming specialists (in my case, a religious studies scholar), we actually help maintain and reify those categories. The book is an entertaining collection of short, accessible essays, and because it’s Equinox, it’s cheap too. Have a look here.
In Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (2007), Timothy Fitzgerald argues that the modern category of religion emerged in the meeting between (Christian) colonial powers and the subjugated Other:
far from being a kind of thing or an objective and observable domain around which an industry of scholarship can flourish, religion is a modern invention which authorises and naturalises a form of Euro-American secular rationality. In turn, this supposed position of secular rationality constructs and authorises its ‘other’, religion and religions” (Fitzgerald 2008: 6)
Significantly, Fitzgerald points to the power relations that define one or another way of thinking about the world as “religious” or “non-religious”:
from our own postcolonial standpoint, it should be easier for us to question the idea that, whereas other, less-advanced peoples are permeated with ritualism and therefore with a ‘religious’ world view, we in Anglophone cultures do not ‘do’ ritual, except minimally in church. I ask, rhetorically but with serious theoretical intent, why should the legal procedures and taboos surrounding our courts and ideals of justice, our separation of the branches of government, our concept of private property, the practices of the stock exchange and the capital markets, the traditions of the civil services, be considered ‘nonreligious’, but the practices of divination, or the Islamic sharia, or the generic potlatch of various indigenous American peoples, or Buddhist meditation be assigned to the ‘religion’ basket? … Is the queen of England, who is supposedly head of a secular state, but who is also head of a national religion, to be treated as a religious or a secular functionary? (ibid, 38)
Conspiracy theories remain “stigmatised knowledge” in scholarship. This is illustrated perfectly by the observation that there is no scholar of conspiracism who is openly a subscriber of conspiracy theories as many religious studies scholars are of their religious backgrounds are, or queer studies of their sexuality, etc.
A critical turn in the study of conspiracy theories would require us to examine why certain versions of rationality are set apart and denied further investigation by scholars, but not others. If we challenge some non-scientific worldviews, but not others, in whose interests are we acting? We must question why some epistemological positions get a ‘free pass’—like Christianity—but others do not—like conspiracy theories. In terms of sheer numbers, such popular views may have more support than the ‘real religions’; for example, a little over 1% of the US population are Muslim, whereas according to a 2013 Pew survey, 4% believe in Reptilians. Only one of these is considered worthy of serious consideration, however.
The category ‘conspiracy theory’ can be seen as part of this same discourse on civility and barbarity. It emerged at a time where consensus was the prime concern in political discourse, and the parties moved increasingly towards the centre, and each other. Perhaps the clearest example of this rhetoric at work is George Bush’s statement following 9-11; “Let us not tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories…” Why not? Why should we not want to hear from those who disagree? The reason is that conspiracy theories are that which we are not permitted to think—because We, by implication, are the civilised, rational ones. Yet other non-scientific ideas go unchallenged, even constitutionally defended, such as the notion that a deity incarnated part of itself in order to be killed and thereby remove “sin”, or that the constitution of a particular country is inviolable, or that all humans have a universal set of rights, etc.
When scholars look at conspiracy theories without a critical lens (here or here, for two examples just from this week), in many respects we are doing what Tylor, Muller, Frazer and the other armchair anthropologists did in the 19th century when they encountered the Other—romanticising themselves against colonial rationality. We strive to explain why they think differently from us. We seek to explain their ideas symbolically, or explain them away as a result of deprivation, lack of critical ability, lack of cognitive faculty, etc. Above all, we stress that they ‘believe’, while we ‘know’—beliefs being knowledge we don’t approve of. We describe the primitive minds of the periphery back to the sophisticated, discerning minds of the colonial centre. Perhaps all that has changed is that in the globalised world, the primitive periphery and the sophisticated centre co-exist in the same physical space.
As social scientists, should we continue to uncritically position white, Western, male rationality as intrinsically superior to other epistemologies? A truly critical turn in the study of conspiracy theories would mean us moving away from studying the content of conspiracy theories and instead examine the context in which such claims are being made, and by whom. It would mean that rather than examine why some people hold unusual views, we would need to ask for whom are such views unusual or extreme. Why these views only, and not other such illogical or unfalsifiable views? If we cannot do that, then we are not disinterested scholars, but are taking a side in the modern discourse on civility and barbarity.